Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Rod Dreher and Faith in the Church: People Need Church Too Much to Know Full Truth

I’ve been following with interest a thread at Commonweal (here) discussing a recent USA Today article by neocon columnist Rod Dreher (here) explaining why he has chosen to leave the Catholic church. Dreher’s piece is entitled “How Much ‘Truth’ Is Too Much Truth.”

Dreher credits the clerical sexual abuse scandal with shattering his confidence in the Catholic church. As the wide parameters of that scandal became apparent from 2002 forward—and as it also became apparent that the hierarchy, all the way to Rome, had long known about this scandal and had covered it up—Dreher “lost the will to believe and became profoundly spiritually depressed.” And so he and his family made the trek out of the Catholic church and into the Orthodox Church of America—a church whose scandals he does not intend to investigate, for fear of deligitimating the religious authority on which his faith now rests.

Dreher’s analysis pushes an interesting question, one he batted about with Richard John Neuhaus before that leading neoconservative Catholic figure died in January. This is whether people need to know and how much they need to know: hence the title of Dreher’s piece, how much truth is too much?

Neuhaus was unambiguous—unambiguously on the side of suppression of information that (in Neuhaus's judgment: an important qualification) people do not need to know: “There are things (Catholics) really don't want to know about their church," he maintained. Neuhaus censored information about the abuse crisis in the journal First Things, noting that "we thought there were some things people didn't need to know and didn't want to know, and for good reasons."

Dreher, by contrast, is conflicted. His conservative convictions lean in Neuhaus’s direction—that is, in the direction of censorship:

I do not believe Father Neuhaus was a cynic; he really did believe that there were certain things that ought to be concealed from the public for the greater good. And though it might be heresy for a journalist to say, as a matter of general principle, I agree with him.

But on the other hand, as Dreher notes, Jesus informed his followers that they would know the truth, and the truth would set them free. And God knows, if neonconservative Catholics talk about anything at all, it's about truth, and Truth: that rock on which they imagine everything is so solidily founded.

We also live in a culture that values the free exchange of information—an exchange premised on people’s right to know—and, as Dreher notes, institutions that seek to cover up damaging information about themselves court further damage when that information (and their deception) becomes public:

But any institution — sacred or secular — that has to depend on deception, and the willingness of its people to be deceived, to maintain its legitimacy will not get away with it for long. These days, the attempt to withhold or suppress information doesn't work to protect authority, but rather to undermine it.

Even so, Dreher concludes, the claims of authority figures and authoritative institutions (the terms “authority” and “authoritative” loom large in Dreher’s thought: on which, more in a moment) are implicitly undermined when we allow the free exchange of any and all information. The free flow of information is inherently corrosive to authority and “full transparency can harm society — and even, perhaps, our souls”:

Societies cannot survive without authoritative institutions. Societies cannot survive without authoritative institutions. But which authoritative persons or institutions can withstand constant critical scrutiny? In our culture, we are predisposed to see damage done from failing to question authority. We are far less capable of grasping the destruction that can come from delegitimizing authority with corrosive suspicion. How much reality must we choose to ignore for the greater good of our own souls, and society?

In the final analysis, Dreher concludes, “People need the church too much to know the full truth about her.”

I appreciate Dreher’s candor. Conservative (and neoconservative) thinkers do not always admit something that is strongly apparent to their critics: their penchant for censorship, and the authoritarian philosophical claims that underlie that penchant. The desire to suppress information that discloses less than admirable behavior or motives in institutions they admire is woven deeply into conservative ideology and conservative souls. As is the desire to attack and disempower those who promote the free exchange of information that they consider damaging to their authority figures and authoritative institutions . . . .

For a number of reasons, I find Dreher’s argument entirely unconvincing and even dangerous—and for that reason, I’m surprised at the sympathy it appears to receive among those centrist Catholics who form the knowledge class of the American Catholic church. It’s an argument that is all about enshrining authority—that is to say, certain authoritative figures and authoritative institutions—in a cultural location that places them beyond criticism.

And that’s something that Christians cannot and must not do with any person or institution, including the church and its leaders. Constant critique of all social structures and all institutions (and their leaders)—including the church and its leaders—is a fundamental obligation of Christians, an obligation inbuilt in the call to discipleship. It is our obligation and our call because the failure to critique leads to idolatry. What is beyond criticism—beyond the free flow of information, no matter how damaging that information may be to the claims of the institution or person being critiqued—is an idol. And idols exact flesh: we pay a high price for forming them.

If Dreher is correct in his claim that “people need the church too much to know the full truth about her,” then the price we must pay to make the church credible—to enable it fulfill our needs—is a steep price, indeed: it’s the price of turning the church into something fixed and beyond critique, which we end up serving in the end, even as we claim that the church exists to meet our needs and to serve us.

This is one of the theological points I wanted to make in my initial posting about the ecclesiology of Vatican II the other day (here). One of the key implications of the traditional patristic and biblical ecclesiology Vatican II retrieves is that, as the pilgrim people of God within history, the church never finds a permanent place in history. It is always on pilgrimage, always critiquing every social structure in light of the vision of the reign of God that urges the church forward throughout all historical periods.

And applying that vision of the reign of God and its critique of all social structures to itself: as an institution on pilgrimage, which refuses to settle down in history and canonize (and idolize) any particular social or political structure, any particular moment, any particular way of being in the world, the church has a constant obligation to be self-critical. To admit that its present and past ways of being in the world simultaneously move towards and betray the vision of the reign of God that is the engendering center of the church as it moves through history . . . .

As I read Dreher and Neuhaus, I wonder what those who accept these thinkers’ ideological penchant for censorship do with the many “inconveniences” of the history of the church. And I’m afraid I do know very well what their tendency is, as they deal with these “inconveniences”: the principle of censorship is applied not just to troubling information in the present, but to information from the past, as well.

The abuse crisis is horrific. I’m appalled that so many Catholics seem content to live with it—to carry on business as usual, to act as if we can continue being church in the same old untroubled way, without a fundamental analysis of what this crisis means for us as church. Without a revolution. Without, it often seems to me, much awareness at all of the many lives shattered by the leaders of a church with whom many of us are still content to live all too cozily, without demanding more—of them. And of ourselves.

Even so, I’m also painfully aware that this is hardly the first time the church has so betrayed its fundamental mission and identity that it is exceedingly difficult to know how to place one’s faith in the church, because of what it has done. There have been other dark moments, after all—the Inquisition, holy wars, the witch hunts, pogroms and ghettoes, blessing of troops and burning of heretics, slavery, welcome of Nazis, the never-ceasing abuse of women century after century and all the theological arguments developed to legitimate that abuse.

The church’s history is replete with damaging information that undermines its claims—and this is true of all churches, and not merely the Catholic church. Those of us who remain in any way connected to an institution that can behave in such shameful, anti-gospel, anti-Christian ways need to be constantly aware of the propensity of the church to do evil, to trample on people, to turn human lives upside down and harm human beings dreadfully.

We need to be aware of that tendency so that we can struggle to keep the church from doing this again in our day. And to stop ourselves from doing so, with the same unthinking abandon of believers in the past, who often assaulted other human beings because they felt entitled to do so—precisely as believers.

I am surprised, in short, that those who want to shield us from accurate (and damaging) information about the church and its leaders seem to have a strong doctrine of the sanctity of the church while lacking an equally strong doctrine of the sinfulness of the church. History would seem to indicate the need for both doctrines—and for those two doctrines to be held in tension with each other, at every period of the church’s history.

I understand the nostalgia for an institution beyond critique. At the same time, I find that nostalgia ultimate ly childish. Running through so much neoconservative argumentation about the need to preserve cherished institutions in the face of rampant social change and social decline is the belief that there are—or should be—unquestionable “authorities” behind it all. Authorities to whom we should submit, so that we are not engulfed by the changes around us . . . .

Scan Dreher’s writings, and you’ll find the words “authority” and “authoritative” everywhere. A particularly interesting (and, to my mind, revelatory) piece is an essay Dreher published in Dallas Morning News back in January, entitled “What Child-Men Need Is Some Tradition” (here). Dreher characterizes the tradition-denying men of the baby boom generation as “child-men,” men wrapped up in themselves, without traditional norms of manhood to instruct them about how to behave, how to become real men.

And in this cultural abandonment of manhood, authority is everything.

For 40 years now, we have been living through a cultural and psychological revolution that has rendered young men (indeed, most people) incapable of recognizing and submitting to authority . . . .

Which brings us to our latter-day child-men, the wayward sons of a generation that crawled on purple and never got over the experience. Quintillian and his successors through the ages knew that the process of becoming a man requires a juvenile male to subordinate his own desires to an objective code of conduct – which is to say, some sort of higher authority . . . .

They have deprived their sons of authoritative tradition, both in word and example, and with it the ability to transcend the adolescent state . . . .

Sad, isn’t it? Plaintive? Get out the handkerchiefs: the heart-rending cry of a generation of boy-men who feel they have lost their way as men, and who cannot find the trustworthy authority figures to shape them as men that they assume men of the past had. Men hungering for an authority figure to whom to submit. Men looking for an authoritative tradition to assure them that they are real men.

Men looking for a father.

One cannot read Dreher’s analysis of religion and the role that the flow of information plays in religious bodies without hearing that same plaintive cry there: the cry for a father that will not betray our expectations of a bona fide authority. The good father.

Built into the emphasis on authority in neoconservative ideology is patriarchy: a determination to make everyone else submit to the paternal authority figure on whom I have hinged my self-worth and my belief that the world has order, and is not headed to hell in a handbasket. What does not seem to strike Rod Dreher and did not seem to trouble Richard John Neuhaus is the possibility that not everyone in the world may share their psychodrama.

What does not seem to occur to these neoconservative thinkers is that not everyone may be so ravenous for authority—for male authority, for paternal authority—as they are. Or that not everyone in the world and in the churches may think that everything hinges on authority—and male authority in particular. And that not everyone shares their analysis of a world hurtling to destruction through its denial of authority and tradition and its thirst for information.

And to return to a theme I cannot seem to drop on this blog (here): isn’t it interesting that a centrist American Catholic publication like Commonweal and the members of the knowledge class of the center of American Catholicism that maintain the Commonweal blog are so attuned to the plaintive cry of Mr. Dreher as he is dispossessed of his church home—yet seemingly so tone-deaf to the cries of millions of other equally dispossessed brothers and sisters who never seem to have a hearing at the center? Kathleen Caveny characterizes Dreher’s piece about his struggle with the church as “anguished.”

Yes. And so, for years, have been the wonderful cries from the heart of John McNeill. And Andrew Sullivan. And James Alison. (And I have cited the names of gay men here, to make a point about the kind of male pain the center seems to notice, and the kind it refuses to notice, knowing all the while that I could also cite names of woman after woman, both gay and straight, whose story also deserves attention). And millions of other gay and lesbian Catholics to whose suffering at being excluded and having our faith shattered those at the center seem curiously inured.

As if we are not there. Not there at all. While child-men struggling with the loss of the good father—a predictable psychodynamic for those seeking adulthood, and one that is, on the whole, to be welcomed as we come to maturity—occupy center stage . . . .