Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Weeping in Gethsemane: American Catholic Leaders and Obama's Election

Andrea Mantegna, "Agony in the Garden"

Because I’m an historian by training—an historian of Christian theology—I try to imagine some of the reactions of American Catholic pastors to Obama’s election from an historical perspective. How will historians judge the recent outburst of Father Jay Scott Newman in Greenville, South Carolina, I wonder?

He recently sent his parishioners a letter telling them, “Voting for a pro-abortion politician when a plausible pro-life alternative exists constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil . . . ” (www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/?p=2518). Read: voting for Barack Obama was a sin, and I’m furious that he won and will find ways to punish any of my flock who disagree with me.

Father Newman’s pastoral letter goes on to instruct any parishioner who voted “wrong” in the recent election to go to confession before receiving communion. Meaning: I hold the key to the treasury of goodies the church dispenses to good Catholics. You’ll get the goodies only when I tell you you deserve them—after you abase yourself for defying my political dictates dressed up in theological language.

Or what will historians make of Father Sebastian Meyer of Fairfield, California, I wonder? He recently went on a tirade during Mass after he had seen a car with Obama slogans parked outside the church (www.bishop-accountability.org/news2008/11_12/2008_11_17_Garza_PriestApologizes.htm). He threatened to have the car towed away, and, in the view of the car’s owner, publicly humiliated the member of his flock who dared to drive this car to church.

A reporter who sought to interview Father Meyer about the incident has filed a police report stating that Father Meyer physically and verbally assaulted him when he asked for an interview.

Most of all, how will historians view the recent anti-Obama tirade of the highly placed American prelate James Francis Cardinal Stafford, the Major Penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary for the Tribunal of the Holy See? Cardinal Stafford, predecessor of Archbishop Charles J. Chaput as archbishop of Denver (and, if church gossip is to believed, the man responsible for getting Chaput his current position), spoke last Thursday at Catholic University’s Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.

As he did so, the venerable Cardinal used the occasion to attack the new president for the set of his jaw, painting him in lurid terms as extremely anti-life, “aggressive, disruptive and apocalyptic.” Cardinal Stafford’s comments are all over the internet now, for good reason (www.americablog.com/2008/11/catholic-cardinal-of-baltimore-calls.html,
http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2008/11/theocon-watch.html, and
http://whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com). This is a major American Catholic prelate who holds a plum position in the Vatican, weighing in on a president elected with a majority of the Catholic vote as an apocalyptic threat to Catholic values.

Cardinal Stafford sees Gethsemane in the cards for American Catholics in the Obama years: “For the next few years, Gethsemane will not be marginal. We will know that garden. On November 4, 2008, America suffered a cultural earthquake.” Stafford imagines that his fellow American Catholics are now crying “hot, angry tears of betrayal” at the news of Barack Obama’s election.

Well, I have no doubt that Cardinal Stafford is correct about those angry tears. The reports from Greenville and Fairfield appear to substantiate his analysis. But I also wonder if this is all that historians will see happening, when they turn to this period of American history and analyze it dispassionately, objectively, long after the hot tears have ceased to flow.

In my view, historians will see the choice of well over 50% of American Catholics in the recent election to defy the bullying tactics of the Staffords, Meyers, and Newmans (and countless other pastors) as a major turning point in American Catholicism. The good Cardinal is correct: our nation and the American Catholic church have just suffered a cultural earthquake.

And it’s an earthquake that many Catholics have actively sought to produce, have worked to create, even as we have been hounded by pastors who tell us that they unilaterally own the sacramental goody bag and will not scruple to use the goodies as rewards to good Catholics and punishments for bad Catholics. Where Stafford et al. see only room for tears, we see reason to rejoice: at last, a new consensus in American political life that may finally allow us to live out our cherished values in manifold ways that transcend the dead end to which the bishops’ one-issue politics have brought us.

In the final analysis, what historians will see, I have no doubt, in American Catholic history of the latter quarter of the 20th century is a baffling, boneheaded, tragic choice of the leaders of the American Catholic church to join the future of American Catholicism to a single party—the Republican party. Our bishops long since chose to turn the American Catholic church into an organ of the Republican party. And they are now paying the price for that choice.

The price is not pretty. It is the price of having made themselves extrinsic to a political process that they cannot any longer control. It is the price of having made themselves not merely insignificant but actively ridiculous, when they seek to provide moral leadership. The disconnect between Catholic values and the policies of the political leaders they continue to try to force us to elect has become so glaringly obvious that the American Catholic laity will simply no longer permit our church to be driven to oblivion by vacuous, and often immoral, leaders who appear not to have a pastoral bone in their bodies, as they politic and play power games.

We American Catholic laity do not want cultic status. We do not want to become a fringe religious group crying hot tears at our inability to achieve theocratic dominance over American's rich pluralistic society.

Gethsemane? Please. If Cardinal Stafford wants to know what crying in Gethsemane is like, he need only ask the huge number of American Catholics who have been crying with Christ in the garden for some years now—when we learned in 2002 that two-thirds of our bishops had knowingly protected clerical pedophiles; when we saw the copious documentation of episcopal coverup of the abuse scandal, the lavish use of our donated monies to silence and pay off victims, the bare-knuckled attempt of bishops to use legal tactics to harass those who spoke out about their abuse.

Many of us have been crying in Gethsemane for years now, as our best and brightest theologians—the future of a church in effective dialogue with culture—were silenced and driven from the flock. We’ve watched in bafflement, crying with Christ in Gethsemane, as those participating in women’s ordinations have been excommunicated while pedophile priests continue to minister without any threats at all to their pastoral status.

We’ve were in Gethsemane crying when Cardinal Burke excommunicated Sr. Louise Lears for attending a women’s ordination ceremony—his last spiteful act as pastor of the St. Louis archdiocese. We have wept long and hard at the hounding of gay Catholics from the church, the suppression of Dignity, the punishment of those who wanted to reach out to us who are gay, including Sr. Jeannine Gramick and Fr. Bob Nugent of New Ways Ministry.

Gethsemane? We can tell you all about it, Cardinal Stafford. Been there. Been there and done that. For a long time now. Been there and done that—have been crying those hot tears—for years now, while you and your brother bishops actively colluded with political leaders that many of us knew to be horrible representatives of “pro-life” values.

We were in Gethsemane throughout this election, as the Burkes, Chaputs, Finns, Martinos, and many other bishops told us we’d certainly go to hell if we voted for Obama. We were crying in Gethsemane when Archbishop Niederauer abused his pastoral authority to ally the California Catholic church with the Mormons in a mean-spirited crusade to rob a despised minority group of human rights. We wept with Christ at what church leaders did to Father Geoffrey Farrow after he expressed a dissenting position re: proposition 8.

It gives me a little comfort to see that the acting administrator of the Charleston diocese did eventually call Father Newman to accountability, but only after the diocesan media liaison had issued a statement in support of Father Newman (www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/?p=2518). And it’s nice to hear that the authorities of the Sacramento diocese found Father Wagner’s abuse of pastoral authority insupportable.

The thing is, where do these priests get off believing that they can behave this way—bullying, demeaning, politicking—while continuing to believe they’re good pastors? That’s really the heart of the matter, in my view. And it’s a question that must be put to movers and shakers of the American Catholic church like Cardinal Stafford.

Stafford’s remarks about Obama are implicitly a writing off of the views of the majority of American Catholics. His remarks are an implicit repudiation of those Catholics as Catholics—as good, faithful, morally sensitive Catholics—by the pastoral leadership of the American Catholic church.

How and when do good pastoral leaders choose to turn their backs on a huge portion of their flock? How do pastors who believe that they are following in the footsteps of Jesus make such an ugly choice, and believe that they can justify that choice? That, I suspect, will be a question that will puzzle historians for decades, as they try to piece together the story of American Catholicism at the turn of the 21st century, years down the road from the hot, angry tears.