Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Benedict's Visit: Unfinished Work

Still traveling, without easy access to the Internet. For those who read yesterday’s posting, please note that I uploaded a hastily written copy early in the day and proofed it later. The later copy corrects quite a few errors in the previous one.

I continue to think about Pope Benedict’s recent visit to the U.S. As my previous posting notes, his unexpected decision to meet with some survivors of clerical sexual abuse was a gesture in the right direction. Up to now, no pope had chosen to make such a gesture, and it has been lamentably all too common for bishops to refuse to meet with survivors, except when forced to do so in the courtroom.
It is impossible to see bishops as what they claim to be about—good shepherds walking in the footsteps of Jesus—when they will not walk among their flock. Jesus rubbed shoulders with the hurting, the humble, the unclean, with everyone. Bishops who expect to proclaim the gospel effectively must behave similarly. Locking themselves in pastoral palaces and refusing to meet with those in their flock who are hurting because of the abuse of ministers hardly embodies the gospel.
I give Benedict credit, therefore, for setting an example for bishops, by his symbolic gesture of meeting with and listening to these wounded members of the church, whose voices absolutely have to be heard and whose pain must be acknowledged and healed. As Bishop Geoffrey Robinson points out in his new book about sex and power in the Catholic church, it would have made a world of difference in how the abuse crisis had been handled, had any pope up to now have taken the simple, but powerful, step of meeting with survivors.
It also strikes me as worth noting that Benedict did not come among us wagging his finger at us for our shortcomings. Benedict’s irenicism will outrage members of the American church who had hoped that this pope would drive all except the faithful few from the church—from their church. On right-wing Catholic blogs, there already are cries of dismay that, at the papal Masses, noted pro-choice political figures were given communion.
For these brothers and sisters in Christ, the Eucharistic Christ must be protected from sacrilege. Their bizarre theology holds that God is grieved when sinners receive communion. Their pious task is to protect the defenseless Divine from affront at the communion rail of churches.
This theology appalls me. What kind of deity is worth worshiping, who is affronted when a sinner receives communion, a sacrament that the church has always defined as medicine for sinners? Who among us is not a sinner? Who has appointed any brother or sister in Christ to be a watchdog to separate the sheep from the goats at the communion rail?
If we are going to mount a campaign to drive sinners from the Eucharist, where will we stop? Will married couples practicing artificial contraception (that is, over 90% of married Catholics in western nations) be told they are unwelcome at the communion rail? What of the racists, the exploitative capitalists, the war-mongers, the homophobes? In seeking to drive away pro-choice politicians and gays, while remaining silent about these other sinners, what are we really saying?
This is all clearly political. This reprehensible attempt to use the Eucharist as a political weapon is all about politics. It is all about positioning the Catholic church as an ally of “the” pro-life party, the Republican party.
To a great extent, Benedict’s avoidance of the hot-button issues of those on the religious right has to be read as an attempt to offset the effects of the damaging alliance some Catholic groups and bishops in the U.S. have made with the Republican party for several decades now. This attempt to play overt politics and turn the American Catholic church into the Republican party at prayer reached its nadir in 2004, with a number of bishops announcing that they would not give communion to pro-choice (read: Democratic) political candidates.
This alliance has gotten American Catholics precisely nowhere. The promises of Republican political leaders to end abortion have always been faint and insincere. In many other respects, those we have elected because bishops told us to vote pro-life have betrayed pro-life Catholic teachings egregiously. How, precisely, does the lack of response to citizens of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina represent a pro-life position? Or the war in Iraq?
This is not to argue that the Democratic platform represents the Kingdom of God. It is to argue that no political platform deserves the kind of allegiance some bishops have urged American Catholics to give to the Republican platform in recent years. This is a form of idolatry.
And it is one of the primary reasons American Catholicism is bleeding members at an alarming rate. The recent Pew report shows one in three American Catholics having left the church. Despite news reports that take their soundbytes from right-wing think tanks, a large percentage of those walking away are the young. The future of the American Catholic church is shrugging its shoulders and distancing itself from a church that proclaims values it fails to embody in its playing politics and its treatment of survivors of clerical sexual abuse. The young who remain are of the pure-and-washed variety, card-carrying neocons who want to identify the church with a very particular political position. Benedict came to the U.S. clearly concerned to bring healing, not further division, and those on the right who expected him to drive deeper wedges of division around their “non-negotiable” issues are now dismayed.
Nonetheless, though I applaud Benedict’s symbolic gesture of meeting with survivors and his irenicism around the non-negotiable issues of right-wing Catholics, I believe that significant work remains to be done after his visit. Symbolic gestures and silence about hot-button issues are far from enough. These will hardly heal the self-inflicted wounds of the American Catholic church. And some of those wounds begin with Benedict himself, and demand his further response, if they are to be healed.
As Mark Kowalewski’s book on the Catholic church’s response to the AIDS crisis, All Things to All People, argues, the Catholic church is adroit at using image-management techniques to mute hard-line top-down teachings and thus seeking to retain the affiliation of those hoping for a more thorough-going pastoral response from the church. Kowalewski notes that during the AIDS crisis, the church adopted the triangulating techniques of the corporate management sector, to control discontent with its hard line about sexual orientation.
At the top, the church firmly resolutely held to its position that homosexual acts are always morally wrong, because they are incapable of fulfilling the procreative intent of human sexuality. Indeed, in recent years, under the influence of the current pope when he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine for the Faith, the top levels of the church made this teaching even more adamant by innovating the use of a tag never before used in Catholic teaching, to characterize gay human beings. The church began to speak of gay persons as “intrinsically disordered.”
As Kowalewski notes, even as top levels of church leadership held this unrelentingly anti-gay position throughout the years of the AIDS crisis, at the level of individual pastors and their parishes the hard stance was often softened through pastoral outreach that implicitly departed from the hard line of the magisterium. Kowalewski proposes that this distinction between the top-level hard line and the parish-level soft line is an intentional political strategy of the contemporary church: it allows the church to maintain its base of conservative members and allies, while reaching out to those alienated or hurt by that unyielding stance. It allows the church to try to be all things to all people, though one of the prices the church pays by behaving so equivocally is the loss of some of its most talented and dedicated members, who cannot live with the pastoral equivocation.
Kowalewski concludes that this corporate image-management triangulation technique is ineffective, in the final analysis, as a pastoral strategy. The strategy results in inconsistency regarding the Catholic approach to gay and lesbian persons. When the top-level pastors shake the crozier while parish priests try to conceal it, people are confused about just where the church really stands. For many Catholics, and, in particular gay Catholics, it has become clear that the church “really” stands on the side of homophobia, and not of healing.
Triangulation is ultimately all about stasis. It is about those on top maintaining their power—their top-down power over the rest of us.
And power is precisely the problem. Power is the elephant in the living room for Catholic sexual ethics, the one reality we have to address if we hope to have effective pastoral response to the many Catholics who are no longer persuaded by magisterial teaching. And yet it is also the reality we do not talk about.
The problem of sexual ethics in the Christian churches is first and foremost about power—who has it, how it is used, who defines whom through sexual teachings, who claims to articulate the “divine order” for everyone else, who claims to interpret the bible, the Christian tradition, and the transcultural and transhistorical consensus of Christian people for all other members of the church. In the Roman Catholic church, the impasse in sexual ethics has everything to do with the church's inability or unwillingness to admit that it can be wrong. Ever since Humanae vitae reaffirmed the traditional taboo against use of artificial contraception, though a majority of theological advisors urged Paul VI to abolish this taboo, the church has locked itself into a position of top-down power over a laity increasingly unwilling to have our experience of sexuality defined in a top-down way by celibate, all-male pastors.
In the final analysis, Benedict’s recent symbolic gesture and his silence about the non-negotiable issues of the American Catholic right won’t mean much at all unless some actual shifts take place in how the church does business. These shifts have to be in the arena of power, of pastoral power. The abuse crisis is first and foremost a crisis of abuse of power. It is a crisis of abuse of pastoral power.
It will be resolved only if and when this abuse of power discontinues. To discontinue the abuse of pastoral power will require that the leaders of the Catholic church—in the U.S., its bishops—relinquish unilateral, top-down power over others.
If Benedict’s visit and what he signaled by his meeting with survivors are to bear fruit in the American Catholic church, the following steps are urgently important:
  1. At its top levels, the Catholic church must adopt a dialogic approach to teaching, in which pronouncements that involve the lives of the faithful (and this comprises all magisterial pronouncements) begin with consultation of the faithful.
  2. In fidelity to the Catholic tradition at its best (in fidelity to what the adjective “catholic” means), those consulted in official teaching must be precisely everyone.
  3. The dialogic consultation process by which everyone is consulted must give a preferential voice to those who are most often shoved from the table—to the marginal, to those without a voice in social arrangements of power.
  4. Authentic catholic consultation would expand the definition of “everyone” to include those who are not part of the Catholic tradition in the dialogic consultation process by which church teaching is formulated.
  5. To accomplish the preceding, it is imperative that church pastors relinquish coercive power over the people of God, in emulation of the gospel, which sees power as service to all, and in particular to the least among us.
  6. We cannot arrive at this relinquishment without a deliberate critique of and abandonment of patriarchal models of power, with their misogynist assumptions.
  7. If the church is to be healed following the abuse crisis and is to negotiate the significant challenges of the postmodern era, it must rehabilitate the ancient image of itself as the people of God, following the lead of the second Vatican Council.
  8. An effective postmodern church will emphasize a sacramentality embodied in the life of the church first and foremost, as the wellspring from which all sacramental life in the church flows. This sacramentality will hold together justice and mercy in the life of the church itself, so that the church will speak its message of redemption to the world primarily by living that message in its internal life.
A big order? Indeed. The work has hardly begun.

No comments: