Saturday, May 16, 2009

Notre Dame, Anti-Abortion Extremists, and the Pastoral Failure of the U.S. Catholic Bishops

Because the president's appearance at Notre Dame tomorrow is creating a media feeding frenzy this weekend, I want to reissue this 11 May posting today. As FOX news boldly lies to the public about what's taking place at Notre Dame, and as the mainstream media continue their usual shell game of legitimating extreme right-wing voices while disempowering even moderate left-leaning perspectives, it's important that bloggers struggle to put the truth out there:

I read about the activities of the “pro-life” extremists seeking to embarrass Notre Dame University for inviting President Obama to its commencement, and I am more than ever convinced that those staging such protests have little interest in cherishing life at all. That's not their game. That is not what this is about, the baby carriages filled with dolls covered in stage blood delivered to Fr. Jenkins’s door, the life-sized images of twelve-week fetuses placed at strategic locations around campus, the airplanes streaming giant photos of an aborted fetus.

This is about intimidation, about seeking to use fear, awe, shock as a technique to control others. It is about control, about a clearly identifiable sociological group who want to represent themselves as the voice of conscience for everyone, who sense that their control of others is waning, and who are willing to use fear as a way of reasserting their control. It is about a minority seeking to impose their will on the majority. It is about those who have for centuries claimed the right to write scripture and interpret scripture for the rest of us, continuing to assert that right in the face of claims that undermine the right.

It is about the bully’s fist smashing down on the face of the one whose subordination is proof of the bully’s superiority.

It is about men, straight or straight-identified men, out of control. It is about men sensing that the world has spun out of their hands, and determined to retrieve it, at any cost. Track groups organizing events like the Notre Dame protests back to their sources, and you’ll find 99% of the time men—and usually white men, at that—straight or straight-identified men, at the control panel, pushing the buttons, pulling the levers.

Certainly women of a certain sort often support these men and assist in their crusades.
But women are seldom the movers and shakers who set it all into motion, the ones in the control room monitoring the buttons and levers. When women are involved in movements like this, they are far more often the legs of the movement, the ones out carrying signs, the ones being deployed and used by the men sitting at the control panel.

And connected to those straight or straight-identified men in the control room, though sometimes timid about avowing all their connections to these extremists, are many men of the cloth, many Catholic bishops. Bishops will seldom be seen pushing the buggies full of blood-splattered dolls, or hammering the nails to affix the life-sized pictures of aborted fetuses to light-poles. It would be unseemly, after all, to be seen wearing skullcaps and robes, sporting large episcopal rings, while doing such dirty work.

No, bishops do their work otherwise, on behalf of the men who sense that they are losing control and plan to bully us back into submission. They do it, for the most part, behind the scenes, through back-room deals and closed boardroom meetings with the rich and powerful—with the men who think they are losing control and are furious about it.

Admittedly, though, increasing numbers of bishops now believe it is imperative to break silence and speak out. And so we have the Finns and the Burkes, the Chaputs and the Martinos, about which I have written on this blog—men with skullcaps and robes and heavy episcopal rings now shouting out the war cries right alongside those pushing the buggies full of bloody dolls and hammering up the pictures of the fetuses. Demonstrating the battle lines and lines of alliance we have always known about, anyway, no matter how hard the bishops worked to disguise their ties to the men pushing the carriages full of bloody dolls.

Now we see bishops right beside them, as it were, telling us it’s all about life, protecting life, defending defenseless life in a society gone mad with lust for the blood of the unborn.

When we can see with our own eyes that it’s not about life at all: it’s about them, these men, these men who sense that their control is threatened and may be waning, and who are furious about that. And who intend to reassert control, no matter what it takes. Because the illusion of being in control is everything to them. Their self-worth is built around the fantasy that they control others—women, gay people, the wretched of the earth, the entire world. Bishops who have even created a false god in their own image, and who use that false glowering macho god to try to intimidate us into silence and submission.

For some time now, an interesting discussion has been going on at the margins of Christian theology, in which I have taken part as I have been able. This is a discussion about the need to look at what the teachings of religious groups do, as we analyze the truth-claims of those teachings.

In the past, it has been common to dissect teachings of religious groups philosophically, in order to determine if they are true or false: do they hang together; are they logically coherent; are they logical in and of themselves? And it has been common to look at the coherence between a particular teaching and the tradition and scriptures of the religious group: does this teaching faithfully represent what’s stated in the holy books of this religion; does it line up with what has been taught traditionally?

Now, there’s increasing interest in adding the new analytical tools of the social sciences to those used in the past to analyze religious truth, so that sociology, psychology, the human sciences enter the discussion alongside logic, scriptural study, philosophy, and study of the history and tradition of a religious body. The social sciences are, in particular, being used today to look at what a teaching does and not merely what it says.

This is an extremely important move in theology, and it’s one to which I have given my wholehearted support. This way of thinking assumes that part of the truth of any religious teaching lies in those affected by the teaching. How does it embody itself in their lives? What happens when it reaches real human lives? What do they understand the teaching to mean?

From this perspective, it is impossible to call a religious teaching true, when it is either wholeheartedly rejected by those to whom it’s directed, and/or when it has effects in the lives of those who receive it which completely contradict what the teaching is all about. This new sociological analysis of the doctrines of religious groups dovetails with a venerable insight of traditional Catholic theology stressed especially by the 19th-century theologian John Henry Newman, who argued that a doctrinal teaching cannot be true if it is not “received”—if it does not enter into the lives of the faithful in a positive and fruitful way, affecting their lives for good.

What the new sociological turn in systematic theology adds to that insight is this: if those who do “receive” a doctrine turn it into something entirely different than what it claimed to be when it was formulated by a religious group, then something is not right about the doctrine itself. It needs clarification, development, explication in which those who issue doctrines in the religious body continue in dialogue with the faithful, in order to arrive at a clearer understanding of the teaching.

As I use these sociological insights to examine what has happened with the “pro-life” teaching of the Catholic Church in the U.S., I conclude the following: the teaching itself is fundamentally awry, because it finds expression in far too many Catholic lives in a way that completely contradicts what the church claims to stand for, when it talks about the sanctity of life.

It’s simply not about life at all. I am not convinced, and a growing number of my fellow Catholics are not convinced. The public at large is not convinced. The “pro-life” rhetoric and policies of the American Catholic church have been a dismal failure. They may have intended to focus on respect for life. But they have ended up being about men, straight or straight-identified men, pushing baby buggies full of dolls smeared with fake blood.

The pro-life rhetoric and policies of the American Catholic church have ended up being about men. Men who fear the loss of control at all costs. Men for whom the most central reflex reaction that dominates every decision they make and everything they do is to assert control over those they despise—violently, if necessary—because their self-image is built around dominating and controlling others.

Men whose lives in no way convince me or others that they are concerned about life at all. Men who have not cultivated the maternal virtues of nurturing the young and the weak, healing the sick, tending the earth and making it flourish, creating a safe and welcoming space for others, building a community of homes in which everyone has welcome places throughout the land—because all life is sacred and deserves respect. Men who do not listen because listening is a womanly thing.

When I say “men,” I mean to include the American Catholic bishops, on the whole. They, too, have failed to convince me and others that it is life they are about, with their “pro-life” rhetoric. I do not see the concern for life in what they do, how they behave, above all, in how they exercise pastoral ministry in the church. I do not see a strong commitment to nurturing the young and weak, healing the sick, tending the earth and making it flourish. I do not see men who can listen, because they have judged listening to be a womanly thing and they are all about being men, big men, important men.

Above all, I do not see a strong commitment among many bishops to creating a safe and welcoming space for others, or to building a community of homes in which everyone has welcome places throughout the land. I see, instead, bishops who, while proclaiming that all life is sacred and is to be respected, lend their symbolic authority to the completely anti-Christian cause of opposing legislation to stop school bullying. Bullying of young human beings identified as gay by their peers, ignored and even tacitly justified by bishops who want us to imagine that they believe all life is sacred—bishops, who, in some cases, surely have family members who are gay and who must know the pain some of their relatives have lived through as young folks coming to terms with their sexual orientation.

I see bishops now fighting tooth and nail against any and all legislation that will strengthen gay homes and gay families, that will protect young people being raised by gay couples and allow them to lead secure and fulfilled lives—while those same bishops try to convince us that all life is sacred. I see some bishops doing all they can to make churches and even Eucharistic celebrations unwelcoming places for those who are gay or lesbian and for all sorts of other people, including, even, those who voted for Mr. Obama in the last election.

While trying to convince us that all life is sacred, and that we should take Catholic teaching about this seriously and build our lives around it. And that we should pay attention to Catholic teaching about life prior to birth because there is a continuum between fetal life and life after birth—all life being sacred and deserving to be cherished as a result.

The attempt of the American Catholic bishops to convince us to believe these teachings has failed. And it will continue to fail until the alliance with the anti-life extremist thugs is decisively repudiated, and until the bishops begin to engage those being taught in dialogue about what is being taught, and until the bishops themselves begin living the message. And begin helping to build a church that lives that message consistently, not piecemeal.

Otherwise, people will continue to turn away, and will have no choice except to do so, if they themselves really value life.