Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Haight Case and the State of American Catholicism

There has been ongoing discussion of the Roger Haight case at the Commonweal and National Catholic Reporter blog sites lately (, This is in addition to the discussion to which I linked several days ago, when I first noticed the new actions Rome had taken against Haight (

I have become as fascinated with the blog discussions as with the case itself. In my view, they say a great deal about where the American Catholic church has ended up as a new millennium gets underway—about the very unhappy situation in which it finds itself after concerted attack from the center of the Catholic church on the project of Vatican II, and after several decades of close alliance of American Catholicism with neoconservative politics and thought.

The American church is in trouble. That trouble is on display for all the world to see on the fractious, headed-nowhere discussion the Haight case is evoking on various centrist blogs of American Catholicism. The movement of "restoration" spearheaded by Cardinal Ratzinger before he became Benedict XVI, with the blessing of John Paul II, has succeeded not only in dumbing us down, but also in shifting the discussion so far to the right that the position now occupied by the center is pretty much where the right was as Vatican II ended.

I had written several lengthy and perhaps turgid overviews of these discussions in postings I chose not to upload today and yesterday. Perhaps it was providential that I have had to spend both days tied to telephones as tech services seek to deal with bizarre problems that continue to afflict my computer.

The heart of what I’d like to say about the blog discussions I’ve been following re: Roger Haight and Rome’s silencing of him: as I read them, I feel a million miles away. I feel totally removed from the church my co-religionists represent, the co-religionists of both the right and the center.

It’s as if I am dropping in on a discussion taking place in 1950, as though Vatican II has not even happened—and no one has informed the movers and shakers of the American Catholic church that time has marched on and they are living in a little bubble in time, with rarefied air that is rapidly vanishing. The ghetto is a thing of the past. The defensive posture with all its plaintive cries of persecution by the cultural mainstream is no longer necessary. We are the mainstream—and we’re doing no better with the mainstream than other religious groups have done in the past.

I am beyond weary reading postings (not to mention papal statements) that act as if there has been no significant biblical scholarship in a century—scholarship which irrefutably demonstrates that the scriptures (including the gospels) are not eyewitness accounts to events the biblical writers were chronicling, but theological reflections on historic events and mythic stories. I’m flabbergasted that many American Catholics still seem to think that living a life of faith is primarily a matter of ingesting pills of catechetical “truth” and then spitting those pills out when the evil menace of modernity requires a sharp dollop of “the” Truth.

I’m baffled, in fact, that many of us are fighting modernity when modernity is over and done with and postmodernity is in full sway, that many of us (including our pope) continue to natter on about the dictatorship of relativism, when the primary danger churches face today is the dominance of irrelevance—of a self-imposed irrelevance.

And here’s what’s perhaps most shocking of all to me in these discussions: the stolidity, the stupidity—and yes, the mean venality—are on exhibit not only in the postings of the many self-designated saviors of orthodoxy who haunt those blog sites, to set aright posters who have forgotten to ingest their catechetical pill for the day. One expects those qualities in the postings of many of these self-appointed watchdogs. But the stolidity, stupidity, and mean venality are even more strongly in evidence in what many centrist American Catholic thinkers have to say about Haight and the church’s challenges today.

These are, after all, educated Catholics, these movers and shakers. They purport to have theological educations. They have gone, many of them, to the best ivy-league universities. They are journalists and lawyers and political consultants, some of them. They are even, God help us, theologians.

And they are talking on and on about heresy. As if that word has compelling import at the dawn of the 21st century. As if the biggest challenge the Catholic church faces is a threat to its ideas and to the clarity of its "truths," not the self-inflicted wound it insists on re-inflicting every time a church dignitary opens his mouth these days. The wound we inflict when we make bizarre statements about gay people as threats to human ecology. The wound we re-open when we pontificate about how the urine of women who take birth control pills is polluting the environment and causing males to be infertile.* The wound we deepen when we loudly proclaim our commitment to human rights but side with fundamentalist Islamic nations that make homosexuality a capital crime punishable by death, when the U.N. proposes to add sexual orientation to its human rights documents.

Above all, the deep, abiding, festering wound the church refuses to deal with, which it has inflicted on itself from the very center in its atrocious behavior towards those who report sexual abuse by clerics in their childhood. The wound the church keeps inflicting on itself when its dignitaries hide and move abusive clerics, and then refuse to admit any guilt when they are found out. The wound that stinks from the center of the church, through the refusal of bishops who have been exposed as protectors of abusive clergy to resign.

And the wound to the faith of all of us that these actions cause. And the horrible unlanced wound borne by countless numbers of Catholics who were abused by clerics and religious as minors.

I am deeply frustrated—no, even more, I am completely alienated—by centrist Catholics who should know better, who seem to think that the church attracts people more by the clarity of its ideas than by the life it leads. And whose discussion of theological issues totally prescinds from the real lives of real people in real places at real times. I can find nothing in common with my centrist brothers and sisters of faith who talk about doctrine in isolation from people, and how people—real people in real places and real times—embody doctrine. I can find no common ground with my centrist co-religionists who seem to think we can continue doing systematic theology apart from sociological, political, and cultural analysis.

For me, one of the can-never-go-back contributions of Vatican II is its rediscovery of the biblical and patristic notion of the church as a sacramental sign of God’s love and salvation in the world. Once one begins to reappropriate that very traditional theological notion and to talk about the church as the sign of God’s salvation in the world, one has no choice except to look at what the church does, how the church lives, what the church effects in the world, as one talks about what the church holds, teaches, and proclaims.

There is no separating the two, in a sacramental universe. It is impossible to talk about the church’s teachings, about its “truths,” without talking about how the church lives, with how those teachings affect people’s lives. In much centrist discourse in American Catholicism today, there is a hidden presupposition that this kind of analysis—analysis that talks about real people in real places at real times; analysis that adverts at all to people’s lived experiences—is vulgar, analysis that somehow runs beneath the high-order analysis of abstract thought and of philosophy.

There is the assumption that grounding what we say about theology and doctrine in references to real people’s real lives and real experiences is not “objective,” that such analysis opens the door to prejudice—and to lapses of charity.

As a result, a tiny handful of centrist Catholics who inhabit a very particular world, one that they read as the whole world, talk on and on about objectivity and truth and the church’s obligation to safeguard its deposit of faith, as if their viewpoints represent the viewpoints of the entire American Catholic church. A handful of almost exclusively white, middle-class, heterosexual, married Catholics living in major American cities (mostly on the coasts, at that) speak as if their experience reflects the experience of all American Catholics—as if it should be read as experience tout court.

The off-the-wall comments of Catholics on the far right at these centrist blog sites are not really intrusions at all—not, that is, intrusions into the centrist conversation. They are the alternative voice of the same group of people. They are the center speaking out of the other side of its mouth. They are the right-wing flip side of the centrist perspective.

And both voices are as irrelevant to the majority of American Catholics as they possibly could be. Most American Catholics have made the move from modernity to postmodernity with more or less equable grace. Most American Catholics have long since made that move where we live and have our beings. Most American Catholics intuitively get the need to connect analysis of real-life experience with theological analysis.

And more and more of us are alienated not by what the church says, not by lapses from abstruse christological points, but by how the church lives, by what it does, by its lived witness to the gospel. Most of us no longer mull over fine points of what the church teaches, because the disconnect between the teaching and the lived witness has become so unbearably wide. Who can care, really, about relativism and christology when clerics abusing minors are shifted about in our parishes, and when the men doing that shifting not only escape punishment but are even elevated to positions of honor in Rome?

Most American Catholics would immediately experience revulsion at the details of how the Vatican investigates and censures a theologian, if those details were known to them. They would be repulsed by the lack of respect for human rights and human dignity—by the fact that Rome does not even disclose to a theologian charged with error the error or errors that have been reported about that theologian, that a theologian under scrutiny is not permitted to know the identity of her detractors or to answer the possibly false charges of those detractors, and so on. Most American Catholics would question the qualifications of the church to stand for human rights while it egregiously violates human rights, if they knew how Rome deals with theologians.

To their discredit, most of the centrist commentators on the Haight case I’ve been reading recently are so intent on parsing abstract theological concepts that they appear totally unmoved by the question of the violation of theologians’ human rights and human dignity. As are their confreres on the right, who are, for the most part, gleeful to see another theologian go up in flames—who seem eager to renew the actual flames of the Inquisition of the past.

God help us if these folks are the best we have to offer, if the future of the church is in their hands: if our lives are in their hands.

And as the nattering continues, the faith of many of us has been going up in flames long since. As these brothers and sisters of the center and of the right carry on. As they carry on their theological discussions about Love and Truth, as if no questions about actual love and actual truth merit attention. Questions about actual love and actual truth right among us, in the real world in which most of us live, far removed from the grand discussions of airy ideas and the parsings of theological fine points.

*On this story, see the excellent recent summary at Enlightened Catholicism (