Monday, July 21, 2008

A Letter to Pope Benedict XVI, After World Youth Day

Dear Brother Benedict,

I hope you will not object if I address you as a brother in Christ. That is, after all, what we are, in the final analysis, beyond titles and roles in the body of Christ. And we will both one day stand before the Lord beyond all titles and roles, so that it may do us good to practice now for that day and to prescind from labels that may blind us to the real nature of our relationship in the body of Christ.

I write you as one tiny voice in a church far larger than I can see, full of many voices, all of which deserve your attention. Though I am not of momentous importance to the church, I am choosing to write in this fraternal way, however, because the issues confronting the church today seem so significant, and I am not confident that the pastoral leaders of the church can ever see their full ramifications if many voices do not speak out, to describe the experience of the church from many different social locations.

I write after your appearance at World Youth Day. All that I know of what took place there, I know from newspaper accounts, websites, videos. It encourages me that, as you did when you recently visited the United States, in Australia you chose to apologize for the church’s lack of an authentic pastoral response to survivors of clerical sexual abuse. I am also encouraged that you met face to face with some of these children of God.

But I must tell you frankly, Brother Benedict, I am deeply dismayed by the media accounts that relayed your analysis of the roots of the crisis of clerical sexual abuse of minors. If those accounts are correct, you are now pinning this crisis on the theology of proportionalism, which was taught in moral theology classes in seminaries in the 1970s.

I am not certain whether you are being advised to say this, Brother Benedict, or whether you yourself actually believe that the moral theology which began to be taught in seminaries after Vatican II truly led to the abuse crisis. If the former, I must tell you, Brother Benedict, that in my humble opinion, your advisors are seriously misleading you.

If the latter, Brother Benedict, then I must confess my surprise that your theological training has not led you to a more careful analysis of the roots of the clerical abuse crisis. That crisis predates Vatican II. It has been going on for some decades now. It cannot be attributed to the moral theology of proportionalism, when it was alive and well in the pre-Vatican II period in which priests were formed in a very strict manual theology—the kind of moral theology you are seeking to return to our seminaries.

I must confess, Brother Benedict, that I am often perplexed by your tendency to attack secular currents and theological movements that have long since crested and disappeared. As we enter the period of postmodernity, you write frequently about the threat of modernity. You speak about the relativism of modernity as if that phenomenon has just appeared on the scenes.

As a theologian, you must know that these battles were fought through at the start of the 20th century during the modernist period. The battles about Vatican II and proportionalism that you are now asking us to fight are themselves half a century old.

Meanwhile, the church has moved on, and I must tell you, if you are not receiving word of this in Rome, Brother Benedict: the church is in a fine mess. The young people you saw in Rome are like hand-picked actors on a stage, playing a role designed to make clerics happy. They do not represent the vast majority of Catholic youth in the world.

For most Catholic youth in the world, it is a question of no importance at all whether Cardinal Pell wears a scarlet cappa magna trailing ten yards of moiré silk, or whether the altar is backwards or forwards during the celebration of the Eucharist. In the global North, many Catholic youth could not be less interested in these matters, since they are not in church regularly to see the ten yards of scarlet silk billowing behind the good Cardinal, or the direction the altar is facing.

In the global South, many Catholic youth are preoccupied with whether there will be rain for crops, potable water to drink, enough grain to go around the table. Red silk cappa magnas are not in the forefront of the consciousness of these Catholic youth.

Brother Benedict, I wonder: can you hear what I am saying? The church is dying, and you have just helped stage a play that represents it as alive and well. The church is dying, and your cardinals are trailing red silk and expecting us to be awed by their sartorial splendor. The church is not reaching millions of people hungry for the bread of life, and you yourself, if I may be so bold, are preaching against consumerism while wearing red Prada loafers and Gucci sunglasses.

And about proportionalism and its shortcomings. What has caused the crisis of clerical sexual abuse, Brother Benedict, is not that theological movement. It is the deep-seated belief of one group in the church—ordained males—that they represent a class apart from (and superior to) all other groups in the church, that is at the root of the crisis of clerical sexual abuse of minors.

The clerical system that now controls the church, and to which the future of the church is being sacrificed, is not immutable. It does not come from the Lord. It developed in the church over time. Just as it developed in the past, it can change—and even be eradicated—now.

The vision of the reign of God that is at the heart of the church does not make one group of brothers and sisters in Christ superior to and set apart from others. Jesus preached about a world in which the normal ways of doing business—where some dominate others, where some control others, where some use others as objects, where some have privilege simply because of gender, skin color, economic privilege, etc.—are turned on their head.

The last are first in the reign of God. Those called to lead are called to serve. The shepherd is called to give his or her life for the flock. Not to batten and feed on the flock.

Something is very, very wrong today, at the very heart of the church, Brother Benedict. And that something begins with the assumption that clerics deserve power and privilege from which others are excluded. From there to the assumption that the laity are simply objects to be used as the cleric wishes, is but a short step.

Your attempt to lay the crisis of clerical sexual abuse of children at the feet of moral theologians is not merely ignoble, Brother Benedict. It is deceptive. It absolves you and your brother clerics—above all, your brother bishops—of responsibility for the crisis through which we are still living. It is every bit as immoral as the attempt you have also tried—again, I do not know if you are badly advised, or if you truly believe this—to place blame for the crisis of clerical sexual abuse on gay seminarians and gay priests.

Until you and your brother clerics and brother bishops examine the system of clericalism in light of Jesus’s proclamation of the reign of God, and begin to dismantle that outmoded and now evil ecclesial polity, the crisis through which we are now living will grow ever deeper. We may stage many large parties. We may adopt outmoded lacy or ermine-trimmed liturgical garments. We may develop ever more intellectually barren question-and-answer catechisms and manuals of moral theology. We may extend the red silk until it billows the size of football fields.

But none of this will change anything at all. The abuse crisis will end only when the abuse itself ends. It is abusive for one group of believers to lord it over others. It is abusive to exclude from full membership in the body of Christ—from all positions of power and privilege in the body of Christ—a whole group of people on the basis of gender. It is abusive to demean one group of Christians because of an innate trait such as sexual orientation.

We all stand, at the end of our lives, Brother Benedict, before the same Lord, stripped of all titles, power, and pelf. The church should be a preparation for that event. We should begin living now as we expect to live in the reign of God—cherishing each other beyond all artificial boundaries that divide us from each other; loving authentically and refraining from sham, distortions, deceptions that protect the unwarranted power and privilege some of us have, from which others are automatically excluded.

Please listen. I am surely not the only Christian thinking these thoughts today. And I am surely not the only member of the body of Christ who is deeply wounded by the pretense, sham, deceptions, and abuse that continue to go on, and which actually seem to be increasing under your pontificate.


Dad said...

Bravo, Bill. You very tellingly speak truth to power.
My prayer tonight is that Brother Benedict will become an avid subscriber to your blog.
Best wishes,

Der Herr Alipius said...

This is very sad.

From the sleazy ("Brother Benedikt") and pseudo-humble beginning which turns into an all out judge-fest and the populistic ad-hominem attitude ("We may adopt outmoded lacy or ermine-trimmed liturgical garments etc...") to the lack of information ("your cardinals are trailing red silk" - three or four have done so in the last years and only on occasions where the traditional mass made it seem appropriate. This hardly justifies the underlying claim to universality of your statement; "while wearing red Prada loafers" - by now pretty much everybody knows that the Pope's red shoes aren't Prada but are made by Adriano Stefanelli) this is just another example of hippie-hugfest-theology that actually thinks it can change the world by creating further dissent within the Church. Unless, of course, the Catholic youth in the global South are filling their tummies with your article right now. If so, I stand corrected.

The Church is dying? Of course, she's not. But even if she were: Do you think it is a coincidence that the seminaries of the more conservative bishops are fuller than others? Do you think it is a miracle that people prefer identity over blah-blah? Hardly.

William D. Lindsey said...

Thanks, Dad. I appreciate your continued interest in the blog, and your vote of confidence. With your encouragement, I will keep committing myself to tell those truths that need a hearing, but don't get told.

William D. Lindsey said...

Alipius, I apologize for the tardy reply. I was traveling yesterday, and had no opportunity to think about or compose a reply adequate to your comment, until I returned home today.

In my view, your response perfectly illustrates the dynamic I am trying to address--the dynamic of clericalism that is causing intense suffering to many of the people of God.

I do not know you personally, and would never dream of calling you sleazy or pseudo-humble. I can, however, read your profile on blogspot.

From it, I learn you are a cleric studying for the priesthood in Rome.

I, by contrast, am a layperson living far from the "center" of the church and its structures of power.

It seems self-evident to me that you have far more invested than I do in the clerical system that finds it center in Rome. For that reason, I can understand your defensive and ungracious response to what I wrote.

What I do not understand is the inability of those occupying the center--the throne; the halls of power--to see the damage being done to the church today, by our continued investment in clericalism.

From where many of us live on the margins, far from the centers of power, with no real institutional power to change anything, the church definitely is dying. It is suffering tremendously from the clerical sexual abuse crisis, and what that shows us regarding the rottenness of the system of clericalism.

Perhaps you are correct when you say that the church is not dying--but only if "the church" means YOUR church. The church in which the rest of us live, those of us far from the centers of power and privilege, with little ability to effect change, is in serious trouble.

And as that trouble continues to unfold, we find it absolutely incredible that those occupying the centers of power quibble over lace, ermine, and red silk trains--or that those occupying the centers of power would imagine that adopting higher miters and longer trains would presume that these vain shows might distract us from the reality we see plainly in front of us.

It is, after all, our church, too, though we have been reduced to powerlessness by the clerical system. And we speak critically out of love for the church that is being stolen from us, right before our eyes. Longer scarlet trains simply will not do what needs to be done to make the church an effective sacramental presence in the 21st century.

What might help is if those in the center--in Rome, in the clerical state--would listen carefully to the voices from the margins, and would refrain from name-calling when we seek to speak the truth that we see from where we have been placed. Thank you for listening, and for your interest in this blog.