Tuesday, August 11, 2009

No Drift in the Categories: Cardinal George on Obedience to Pastors as the Foundation of Catholic Unity

Drop into American Catholic blogsites nowadays, and you’ll quickly learn it’s all about obedience. As Catholic Mom in Minnesota, a self-styled “ultra conservative Catholic” married to her love and best friend, who “happily” follows “the church and all her teachings,” tells us:

I am convinced that we will only have a Catholic renewal in this country if clergy and laity, including the bishops, wholeheartedly accept obedience to the fullness of doctrinal, moral and liturgical truth as entrusted to, and protected by, the Successor of St. Peter (original is all in caps).

Only obey. It’s so simple, so stark. So true. If everyone and his sister would just buckle down and obey all church teachings—doctrinal, moral, and liturgical—we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re now in. We’d all happily think, believe, and act the same, under the firm guiding hand of the pastors of the church which hands down all that truth to us.

And it’s not just in fringe right-wing Catholic circles that one encounters this attitude. Advocates of obedience are everywhere on Catholic blogs these days, spreading the gospel of happy obedience to the truth, to all the truths the church teaches and safeguards through Peter.

When Catholic theologian Fr. Richard McBrien of Notre Dame dared, a few weeks ago, to report favorably on Catholic theologian Terrence Tilley’s recent presidential address to Catholic Theological Society of America, McBrien got an earful. All about obedience.

Tilley observed that the attempt of the pastors of the church and “vigilantes” of the right to suppress theological conversation in the church has been toxic, and is driving many thoughtful Catholics away from the institution. He stated,

Stopping the dialogue by silencing theologians [such as Jesuits Roger Haight in our time and Teilhard de Chardin back in the 1950s] does not resolve impasse. You can kill theologians, but you cannot silence them–short of gagging their mouths and tying their hands behind them. Theologians keep writing and keep talking. The habitus of their vocation is too strong to be stopped by human authorities.

And then the mantra began: bloggers wrote in to lecture McBrien and Tilley about obedience, holy obedience: “Obedience is the cornerstone,” they pontificated. “Obedience of Faith is the first requirement which pleases God and which also Justify [sic] the Sinner.” Jesus was all about obedience. He became a slave to model the humble obedience that is at the heart of it all.

And Truth, truth in all its shapes, forms, and fashions, provided, of course, that these shapes, forms, and fashions are handed down by the magisterium. Which we’re to obey unquestioningly. Theology is all about obeying humbly and transmitting to others the truths handed down to theologians by the pastors of the church.

It’s a kind of divine dictation service for the good of the church: the pope listens to the Spirit, writes down what he hears, and hands it on to bishops, who in turn transmit the text to theologians. Who, in humble obedience, must take the very same text in the very same words and hand it over to the faithful.

Where’s the problem, the need for dialogue? It’s all about truth, obedience, authority. The only problem is the failure of some folks in the church to do what they’ve been told to do: obey! Obey happily. All the teachings of the church. Doctrinal, moral, liturgical. What a force we could be in the world, if we could command such conformity among all Catholics.

No less than Francis Cardinal George, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, appears to share this analysis of the current situation of American Catholicism. In a recent posting praising Cardinal George’s 5 August address to the Knights of Columbus, America blogger Michael Sean Winters notes that Cardinal George told the Knights,

A Catholic way of life is based on assent to revealed truth and obedience to appointed pastors, both of which create the unity Christ wishes us to enjoy.

In Winters’s view, George “hit the nail on the head” with this analysis of how we should go about “binding up the unity of the faithful.”

As I’ve noted in a number of postings about his political-theological commentary (e.g., here),* I find Winters’s insistence that he speaks for all Catholics when he defines “the” Catholic position on issues baffling. This insistence ignores the wide range of legitimately different viewpoints among American Catholics on political, moral, and theological issues.

I also find Winters’s willingness to cede the task of defining Catholic identity to the bishops—to the bishops aloneequally baffling. Prior to the annual meeting of the U.S. bishops this year, Winters wrote on the America blog,

Others [i.e., some bishops] will follow James Joyce’s view: "Here comes everybody!" But, as [Archbishop Donald] Wuerl said, at the end of the day, in a hierarchical church, it’s the bishop’s call.

But at the end of the day, in a church that’s all about communion and which speaks of itself as the people of God, it’s everybody’s call. In my view, Winters’s persistent insistence that it’s the bishop’s call in a hierarchical church overlooks other significant, and indeed more fundamental, aspects of Catholic ecclesiology which insist that everyone be given a voice in defining the church’s central teachings and values.

In a more balanced ecclesiology that respects the right of the people of God to be involved in the conversation through which the teachings of the faith are established, the bishop listens carefully to the voice of the Spirit among the faithful, and then seeks to articulate what the Spirit is saying to the community in teachings that codify the sensus fidelium. It is in this sense that the bishop functions as a sign of unity within the community.

I understand why Winters insists on the role of the bishop to establish “the” Catholic position on various issues. He’s preoccupied with questions of identity politics. He worries about the tendency of the Democratic party to write off Catholic voters, and about the lack of sensitivity to “the” Catholic position on issues displayed by liberal political groups.

He fears that, if the liberal wing of the Democratic party does not listen to “the” Catholic position (and the bishops who articulate it), they will drive more Catholic voters into the hands of the Republican party. Reducing everything to the bishops’s word, and making the church the bishops’s church, facilitates this politically driven politics of identity.

But as Mary Hunt has noted, what’s lost sight of in the process is the legitimate—and the actual—diversity of American Catholic views on any number of issues. “The” Catholic position is far more complex than Winters’s “we Catholics” stance implies.

And any Catholic identity bought at the price of repressing legitimate theological discussion and legitimate differences of viewpoint about theological, moral, and political issues is bought at a price that is far too steep. Centrist Catholics like Winters end up effectively doing the dirty work of the fringe right, when they collaborate with those trying to enforce conformity to a narrow range of theological, moral, and political views in the name of Catholic identity. As a result, the rich diversity of Catholic thought finds no voice in a public square that desperately needs to hear religious voices other than those of the far right, which continue to dominate media representations of “the” religious position about political issues.

To make my point clearer, note precisely what Cardinal George says in the passage that, in Winters’s view, hits the nail on the head and binds up Catholic unity: he says that the Catholic way of life itself is based on assent to revealed truth and obedience to appointed pastors. And it’s that assent to truth and obedience to pastors that create the unity Christ wills for the church.

These are huge claims. And they’re exceedingly problematic ones. To claim that the unity of the church (and Catholic identity itself—“the Catholic way of life”) hinges on obedience to pastors vastly overstates the claim for obedience in Catholic life. And it vastly expands the power of pastors—at all levels, from the diaconate to the papacy—to try to command the obedience of the faithful regarding any issue whatsoever. After all, in such obedience the very unity and identity of the church are at stake, if we follow Cardinal George’s analysis.

Something has gone very wrong with American Catholicism at this point in its history, and Cardinal George’s statement is a provocative entry point into understanding precisely what has gone wrong. When people—religious people—begin to natter on more and more about obedience (and less and less about love), something has gone wrong with their self understanding and with their sense of what is at the very center of life.

In the Christian tradition, obedience is not the primary virtue. Love is.

Read the Jewish and Christian scriptures carefully, with an eye to what is central in these interlocking religious traditions, and you definitely won’t come away with the impression that obedience is what it’s all about, that obedience is the “cornerstone,” that “obedience of faith is the first requirement which pleases God and which also justifies the sinner.”

If you read carefully and with open eyes, you’ll come away, instead, with the clear impression that love is what it’s all about, that love is the very summation of the law, that if we claim to love God when we do not love others we delude ourselves, because in the other, we encounter God. If you read carefully, you’ll come away with the impression that love is central to everything because God is love.

Obedience is certainly there, in the scriptures. It’s just not the overweening moral obligation, the leitmotiv of religious life, that many Catholics today wish to make it out to be. And when it does appear in the scriptures as a significant religious obligation, it’s not by any means what Cardinal George wants to turn it into: obedience to religious authority figures and assent to religious truth.

In the biblical sense, the call to obey is not about giving ourselves to any other human being or to any human formulation of “the” truth. It’s about giving ourselves to God—who alone deserves our utter trust. In fact, the scriptures consistently decry giving oneself to other persons with the blind trust that those persons somehow represent God. The scriptures decry such “obedience” as a form of idolatry.

The obediential reading of Jesus’s life that dominates American Catholic discourse today is flatly wrong. Certainly Jesus obeyed God by submitting himself totally to the will of God, and in that sense, his obedience (which was grounded in the more fundamental virtue of love of God and others) became the ground of faith for all those who follow Jesus. We are called to do as he did: to give ourselves without reservation to God and others, in love.

But nowhere in the scriptures is this act of total self-gift equated with obedience to “truths” and to pastors. As a wandering rabbi, Jesus kept a constant distance between himself and the authority figures of his religious community. He never defined himself as a priest. He deliberately avoided such cultic definitions of his life and mission.

The religious authority figures of his contemporary Jewish culture receive rather short shrift in Jesus’s parables, in fact. Remember the story of the Good Samaritan? Does it strike you that Jesus may have been making a significant point about the claims of those authority figures, when he has the ritually and racially impure Samaritan—and not the priest and not the lawyer—shine in that story as a model of neighborly love? Remember that the priest passes by the man left for dead in the road, whose blood would have made the priest ritually impure, had he touched the man who appeared to be dead.

It was the Samaritan who picked up the wounded man and bound his wounds—the impure Samaritan whose people did not even worship in the temple in Jerusalem, to the consternation of “pure” Jews, but on the mountaintops. No, Jesus is hardly a model of obedience to pastors. If anything, it was his acts of deliberate defiance of the religious authority figures of his time and place that led some of them to collaborate with the Roman authorities in having him put to death.

What we meet in Cardinal George’s definition of the Catholic way of life (“obedience to appointed pastors”) and all over the place in American Catholicism today is a reductionistic, ideological, scripturally and theologically unsound notion of obedience that takes a powerful religious concept and turns it into what it was never intended to be in the Catholic tradition—that is, in the Catholic tradition at its best. The history of the church is replete with “appointed pastors” who have seriously betrayed the best of the tradition, in their lives and the decisions they have made.

I’m surprised that Cardinal George doesn’t seem aware of that possibility in a period of Catholic history in which, on a weekly basis, we who are Catholic are bombarded with what seems to be an endless supply of new stories about priests who have sexually abused minors, and bishops and religious superiors (and Vatican officials) who have known this was going on and who covered it up. The actual history of the church in our very own period of history is hardly a strong argument for obeying pastors as the central virtue that defines Catholic identity.

Pastors are sometimes spectacularly wrong. And when they are wrong—when they betray the tradition, and all that is best about it—they not only deserve to be disobeyed. They deserve to be challenged and corrected as well by those faithful who care about their church and its future.

No, obedience to appointed pastors appears to be a very thin, and exceedingly shaky, foundation on which to place the church’s unity. It’s important not to lose sight of what Cardinal George is arguing in his address to the Knights of Columbus: namely, that the unity of the church (and its Catholic identity) is grounded in obedience to pastors.

This formulation of the church’s unity allows a formal obedience to pastors (at every level: George’s statement is unqualified except by the adjective “appointed”) to eclipse what actually is central to the church’s unity: that is the lived experience of love that unites all believers within the body of Christ. The sacramental unity of the church—its communion—is grounded not in assent to statements of dogmatic truth and obedience to pastors. It’s grounded in an experience of communion at the bottom of which has to be love, if the church is what it says it is.

Cardinal George’s attempt to ground Catholic unity in obedience to appointed pastors is actually a tacit admission that Catholicism has a big problem to deal with today. When coercion replaces the experience of love as the foundation and center of the Christian life, then something has gone radically wrong. And no amount of coercion is going to solve the problem, since the pastors doing the coercing are the ones who have led the church to precisely the impasse it’s now facing, through their attempts to replace love and communion with obedience and coercion.

If obedience is the best we’ve got to offer, we’re really admitting that we’ve simply failed to build communion by living communion. And so we need to use the cudgel of obedience, as we make ludicrous claims about its centrality to the Christian tradition and about what it means, to enforce a formal “unity” that is not really there in the life of the community, as the lived experience of love within a communion bound together in love.

Note where that cudgel is especially active today, and I think you’ll see the depths of the problem. It is no accident that Rome and the Catholic right in the U.S. (who have long egged Rome on with false apocalyptic claims about the situation of American Catholicism) are now targeting American religious women. Disobedient women. Nothing enrages the right more than women out of control.

And nothing exercises the apocalyptic imagination of right-wing American Catholics more than the thought of disobedient nuns. Because they are women, women thought to be out of control. As Elizabeth Kaeton’s wonderful Telling Secrets blog has recently noted, powerful forces are at work in right-wing political and religious circles in the United States to redefine women’s role in the world as one of constant obedience. To men. Always to men.

A whole new gospel is being created in our day, centered around the need of Christians of the right to absolutize gender roles, with God as the authority figure imagined to command that absolutization. Men are to be men and women are to be women, or the world will cease to exist. Everything depends on holding fast to the distinction between male and female, and to the gender roles that flow from that distinction, in the mind of the political and religious right.

The current Roman investigation of American women religious, egged on by powerful right-wing groups in American Catholicism for whom the “disobedience” of religious women represents the end of everything, is part and parcel of this wider attempt to use God and religion to shore up patriarchy and male domination of the feminine, everywhere in the world. As Laura Miller notes at Salon today, commenting on the AMC television series “Mad Men,” gender is everything for men of late modernity. That is, gender roles as taken-for-granted prisms through which everything is to be viewed, and without which nothing makes sense, are everything for men in the late modern period.

To question gender roles is to call everything into question. To question women’s obligation to obey men is to call the entire cosmos and everything in it into question. As Miller notes, for the men of “Mad Men” (who do still live and breathe and walk among us everywhere), “Any drift in the categories [by which women are classified and controlled] freaks them out.”

The call for obedience to appointed pastors in American Catholicism today presupposes a sociological context, then. It is a call of those on the right to stand firm against “any drift in the categories.” Let the categories drift, let people question them, above all, let women get out of hand, and everything will fall down.