Friday, April 18, 2008

Benedict's Visit: Drawing Lines or Opening Arms?

This has been a week of travel, in which it has not been easy to be online frequently. Given this, and since I’ve fulfilled my major task for the week—to send an open letter to Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker of the United Methodist Church’s Florida Conference—I want to end this work week with a brief reflection on some news stories that have caught my attention this week.

I’m, of course, following the news of Pope Benedict’s trip to the U.S., to the extent that I can do so without easy internet access. I am heartened that Benedict has met with survivors of clerical sexual abuse. I’m reading Bishop Geoffrey Robinson’s Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church (Dublin: Columba, 2007) now, and am persuaded by his argument that the abuse crisis is the most serious challenge the Catholic church has faced since the Reformation. I’m also persuaded by his contention that, had the pope addressed this crisis forthrightly, with transparency, from the time it broke as an international news story in 2002, we would be much further down the road of healing than we are now.
That being the case, Benedict’s meeting with survivors is a symbolic gesture of great importance—about which, more in a moment. If reports are correct which say that Benedict has also distinguished between pedophilia as the problem to be addressed, and homosexuality in the priesthood, then I am further heartened by what Benedict is accomplishing on this pastoral visit.
There have been strong forces within the church that wished to use gay priests as a scapegoat in ugly image-management attempts to sweep the abuse crisis under the rug. Archbishop Wilton Gregory has made that argument explicit, claiming that the church doesn’t have a pedophilia crisis but a homosexuality crisis in its priesthood. If Benedict has, indeed identified pedophilia as the problem to be addressed, and has distinguished between pedophilia and homosexuality, then he has made a valuable contribution. The crisis will not be resolved by scapegoating gay priests. It is a crisis of abuse of power first and foremost, and must be resolved at that level—not at the level of sexual orientation, which has nothing at all to do with its genesis or prevalence.
My posting yesterday reflects on Hilary Rosen’s recent comparison between Benedict and Desmond Tutu in a Huffington Post article. As I state in that reflection, in my view, if the churches truly want to reach the minds and hearts of people in the 21st century with the gospel and to address social needs around the world, they cannot continue to attack gay and lesbian human beings.
The attack on a group of human beings already subject to social stigmas in many places in the world undercuts the churches’ proclamation of the good news. It undermines the churches’ attempt to be a beacon of hope for justice everywhere in the world. The church cannot participate in injustice and at the same time convince people—thinking people—that it stands unambiguously and everywhere on the side of justice.
Benedict himself has called for investigation of seminaries in the U.S., to weed out gay candidates for the priesthood. Not only will such a witch-hunt not “solve” the abuse crisis (which is about abuse of power first and foremost): this is a radically unjust attempt to manage the crisis and the public image of the church by scapegoating gay priests.
Impression management will not resolve the problem of abuse. Scapegoating a marginalized group of human beings will not resolve the problem. The problem has everything to do with misuse of clerical power, with a system of clericalism that accords a vastly disproportionate share of power and privilege to clergy rather than laity in the Catholic church.
Until that problem is addressed honestly, forthrightly, with transparency and full accountability, the abuse crisis will not go away. Though Benedict’s symbolic measures this week have been for the good, in my view, they are only a first step: as Geoffrey Robinson argues so cogently, dealing with the crisis before us now will require radical re-thinking of the role of the papacy, of clericalism, and of how power is used (and misused) in the Catholic church. It will require dialogue that permits the laity to have a voice, and, in particular, that brings to the table groups that have been rudely shoved away, including gay and lesbian believers as well as theologians silenced by Benedict himself when he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Acting as head of that Congregation, Benedict unleashed a monster, and he must now confront that monster if he wishes to bring healing to the church at this moment of crisis. Some of the most talented and forward-thinking minds in the church—including Charles Curran—were silenced by Ratzinger at a point in the history of the church when we most need their contributions to move beyond the abuse crisis.
In addition, under the papacy of John Paul II, both John Paul and Cardinal Ratzinger allowed some groups of Catholics in the United States to present themselves as the sole “orthodox” voice of Catholicism. These Catholics want the church to speak with a unitary voice on their “non-negotiable” issues. They want the church to read all dissenters out. They prefer a church of the holy few rather than the unwashed many—a Donatist church rather than a truly catholic one. They want the church to speak with their unitary voice, and to be their church.
They also wish to see the Catholic church explicitly aligned with one political party, the Republican party. To a great extent, they have turned the church in the U.S.—or tried to do so—into a political machine to serve the needs of the Republican party.
As E.J. Dionne says in his superb new book Souled Out, which I cited in a previous blog posting, this alliance of right-wing interest groups in U.S. Catholicism with the Republican party reached its nadir in the 2004 elections, when some bishops did all but stand on their heads to coerce Catholics to vote “right”—that is, to vote Republican. Some bishops were willing to take the entirely untraditional and theologically insupportable route of using the Eucharist as a political weapon in the 2004 elections. These bishops threatened to deny communion to Catholics who did not endorse their list of “non-negotiable” issues.
And, though these bishops hotly insisted that voting Republican was voting for life, they were conspicuously silent when the administration they told Catholics to elect betrayed all Catholic pro-life values in its response to Hurricane Katrina. They have been much more muted in their criticism of the tremendous assault on pro-life values in the Iraq War than they have ever been about abortion.
The recent Pew study shows about a third of American Catholics having walked away. Many of us have done so, I would submit, because we can no longer stomach the politicization of a tradition that has a much richer perspective on the interface of religion and politics. It is our very commitment to Catholic values—the broad range of values that vastly exceed the tight little list of “non-negotiable” issues—which causes us to distance ourselves from the church insofar as it is the Republican party at prayer.
Until the church deals with the monster it has unleashed by politicizing Catholic faith at this point in history, by allying Catholicism with a narrow political option in the Western world—until it deals with the connection between that attempt to bully all believers into lockstep thinking and voting, and the system of clericalism, it will continue to bleed members. And those who walk away will include individuals and groups whose contributions are crucially needed if the church is to be truly catholic, as well as to meet the significant challenges of transmitting its fundamental beliefs and values to the postmodernist culture of the 21st century.
If Benedict really wants to begin dealing with the deep roots of the abuse crisis, he needs to begin making clear distinctions between the endorsement of a single political option, which betrays the richness of the church’s tradition, and an approach that recognizes that the church brings a wide range of values to political life, which need to be applied in diverse ways in different cultures. Benedict needs to stand against the misrepresentation of “the” Catholic position in the American political sphere by some groups of American Catholics who want to use their “non-negotiables” as a litmus test to rule the rest of us out of their church. Only then will many of us take seriously what he has said and done this week about the abuse crisis.
A case in point: in my travels this week in the American heartland, I have found that many Catholic homes have gotten a recent mailing from Karl Keating of Catholic Answers. The mailing has to do with the upcoming World Youth Day in Sydney. In flaming bold red letters, it opens by announcing to Catholic families that their young people will be preyed on by homosexual activists at this international Catholic event. It calls on those receiving the flyer to donate so that they can keep Catholic youth safe in Sydney.
Mr. Keating’s letter characterizes gay and lesbian persons as “sinister.” He says that gay and lesbian persons are intent on “recruiting” Catholic youth. Mr. Keating waves the battle flag of intrinsic disorder. He states, “These people [sic] practice what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls ‘acts of grave depravity’ that are ‘intrinsically disordered’.” “These people” have chosen an immoral “lifestyle” and are not entitled to “special civil rights.”
These people? These human beings? These brothers and sisters in Christ? These people?! What Catholic values does that phrase represent, I wonder?
What to make of such a letter? Many of us might shake our heads and dismiss it as just another example of the ugly propaganda of the religious right.
I think letters like this deserve more attention, however. In the first place, this is a vile political screed masquerading as a religious statement. It is a screed that employs hate speech. It fuels social violence against a group of people identified as the sinister Other. It trades blatantly on ugly insupportable stereotypes of gay and lesbian human beings as sexual predators targeting the young.
The letter deserves attention as well because its mailing coincides with the visit of Benedict to the U.S. The timing of this letter can hardly be coincidental. In the same week that heartland Catholic families are glued to their t.v. sets watching Benedict, hearing news of his attempt to address the abuse crisis, they are reading a foul missive from a right-wing Republican activist group purporting to speak on behalf of “the” Catholic church, attacking a group of stigmatized individuals.
E.J. Dionne’s Souled Out notes the mysterious way in which Keating’s Catholic Answers group suddenly found funding to create a Catholic voter guide in 2004—a voter guide calling itself the Catholic voter guide, which overtly endorsed the Republican candidate. Attempts to track the money funding this politico-religious venture have not been successful, though Dionne notes that there are strong indicators that the funds came directly from the Republican party.
In the week that Benedict comes to try to bring healing to the U.S. church, one Catholic group in the U.S. sends out a hate-filled screed blanketing the American heartland, seeking to use gay and lesbian human beings as objects in a political game designed to bring Catholic votes, once again, to the Republican party. Pope Benedict, if I may be so bold as to address you, you have work to do: the healing we need is much deeper than symbolic gestures, however noble and good those gestures are as a first step.
To find healing that goes beyond the symbolic level, we need a church in which people of good will are once again free to speak their minds, to follow their informed consciences, to talk and pray together about very serious issues that cannot be resolved by top-down coercion, by crozier-shaking and excommunications, by threats of hell and damnation, or by allying the church with a single political option. To deal with the wounds of our church today, you must deal with some of what you yourself set in motion in the period in which you headed the CDC.
Even if you yourself have broken with that crozier-shaking style now that you have become pope, there are powerful groups within the Catholic church, as well as bishops, who continue to try to bully and coerce rather than to persuade and love. Thank you for giving signals, in your meeting with survivors of clerical abuse, that a much more pastoral, more thoughtful, more nuanced, and above all, more loving response is required on the part of a church that truly wishes to retain the loyalty of those targeted by the attack dogs that have been unleashed in the church in recent years.
We must move beyond the insider-outsider lines that try to create a church of the pure and washed, of true believers who happen to be all Republicans. I find the contention of Cardinal John P. Foley that “good morals, like good art, begin by drawing a line” absurd both on the face of it, and as a theological proposition (see Ian Fisher and Laurie Goodstein, “Hard-Liner with Soft Touch Reaches Out to U.S. Flock,” NY Times, 13 April 2008, Foley uses this analogy to characterize the approach of Pope Benedict, the drawer of lines that define what is and is not Catholic, who is or is not inside the church.
I can think of all kinds of good art that is non-linear, that does not require drawing a line. And in my reading of the gospels, Jesus was all about transgressing social and religious lines that made some people insiders and others outsiders, some folks more human than other folks. The life and ministry of Jesus was about abolishing the lines that suggest that God loves some people more than others—or does not love some people at all.
The central Christian symbol is a set of lines that undercut and transgress a unitary line—a cross. If one wishes to meditate on the role of lines in Christianity, and if one takes this symbol as his or her starting point, then one might arrive at the conclusion that, in its core significance and at a fundamental level, Christianity challenges the drawing of any line that makes one group the inside group and other groups outsiders. The vertical line is cut across by the horizontal one, at the very heart of Christianity.
Rather than being about a single line that shows who is in and who is out, Christianity is about two lines that stretch the single line to its limits—about one line that crosses over the other, so that there is never a single, excluding line, but a pair of lines representing the open arms of a God who embraces every single human being. An effective papacy would take this symbol as its starting point . . . .


colkoch said...

Bill, it really is amazing how we seem to dovetail with our blogs at times. I guess I don't find it surprising that the Keating group mailed out their hateful drivel any more than I did the hateful drivel posted about Benedict's Mass in Washington. The thing that struck me about your post is the incredible juxtaposition of what and how you write vs the language of the flyer sent by Keating. The contrast is so stark.
Benedict really did make a point to differentiate between pedophelia and homosexuality. He did it when he answered John Allen's question about the abuse scandal when on the plane coming over here. It was, for me, the first sign that this might indeed be a different Ratzinger. I thought his speech to the UN today was really brilliant and will be seen as another sign by the neo cons and the uber right that he has become Hypocrite numero uno. I kind of wonder what's going on with him and how much of the CDF Rotweiller was John Paul's creation. It may be that Secretary of State Bertone is the real measure of Benedict, much the way it's beginning to look that CDF Cardinal Ratzinger was the real John Paul. In that case it's interesting that Benedict chooses his Secretary of State to be his right hand man, and JPII chose the head of the CDF. This would seem to indicate different agendas.

William D. Lindsey said...

Colleen, it certainly is amazing how frequently our blogs dovetail, though we aren't collaborating.

It's going to be interesting to track what happens with Catholics and the public sphere following Benedict's visit. I read today that Catholics United for the Common Good protested the Catholic prayer breakfast at which the church of the holy and washed (i.e., the Republican party at prayer) met this week. Catholics United held up posters thanking Benedict for opposing the war in Iraq.

It's possible that a lot of what is going on now is impression management. It will have to be matched by real action for Benedict's meeting with survivors to be effective.

And much depends on the kind of action. If he's engaged in impression management, then I fear we will see a purge of gays in seminaries as a way of pretending to deal with the problem.

If he really intends to address the roots of the problem, then we will see at least the beginnings of some structural changes designed to deal with the abuse of clerical power, especially by some powerful prelates in the U.S. (and the Vatican).

e+ said...

Well, for many of us looking from 'beyond the fringe' of either denominational &/or ideological boundary lines, the Vatican hoopla seems at least opportunistic, poltically.

If only Boston had been an included venue ...

Bill, I like your serious and intelligent musing on the method & manner of genuine Christian healing. It's so much like the conversion pedagogy that Jesus always teaches; and, yes, desmond Tutu really does understand the reconciliation component of that particular miracle.

All God's peace to you.

William D. Lindsey said...

Elaine, I agree with you that there are quite a few political ramifications to this symbolic gesture of Benedict's. I want to reflect on some of these in postings this coming week. I've just now finished Geoffrey Robinson's new book, and it sharpens for me even more some of the questions that need to be asked as a follow-up to the symbolic gesture of meeting with survivors.

Reading Robinson continues to convince me that the Roman church is facing the need for reformation at this moment in history more than at any time in its past up to the last Reformation. Even if Benedict's words and gestures have been impression management (and, to an extent, they have been), I still hold some hope in the fact that he has at least broached a subject that many Catholics have grown weary of discussing.

And yet we can't leave that discussion behind, nor can gestures of healing and reform really do the job that is needed. The real proof of an intent to heal is going to require some substantial systemic changes in the church, all of which (to my mind) center on a willingness of the clerical system to give up its top-down power over the rest of the people of God.

Lots of work to do. I appreciate your response and hope my subsequent postings will sharpen my own reflections on these themes.