Friday, September 4, 2009

On Rationality, Coherence, and Education: Reflections on the Roots of Moral Imbecility in Religious Groups

It’s crazy out there. And getting crazier all the time.

I’ve been talking this week about the effects of incoherence, irrationality, and ignorance on some religious bodies as they face complex public issues and make complex moral choices. I’ve focused that discussion on my own Catholic community in the United States, in which, I think it is reasonable to maintain, the politics that leading American Catholic bishops have practiced in recent years, centered on a handful of “non-negotiable” hot-button issues (on this, see Colleen Kochivar-Baker’s outstanding statement about Cardinal O’Malley and the Kennedy funeral here), is creating a situation of moral imbecility.

And to my mind, some of the discussion that ensued on this blog as a response to that thesis perfectly illustrates the points I’ve been making. Here’s an example.

On the thread following my statement about health care mobs, the bishops, and hating on Ted Kennedy, a respondent claimed that there is a “new springtime” in the Catholic church, that “[t]he church is getting stronger with faithful, young people who are studying for the priesthood and there are many young women who prefer wearing habits and have joined orthodox communities.”

In reply, I noted that with one in ten American adults reporting that they’re former Catholics, and with one in three adults raised Catholic saying they have left the Catholic church, it seems curious, indeed, to claim that the church is getting stronger. And every study I’ve seen suggests that the exodus is more pronounced among younger Catholics, and is only going to grow even more pronounced. (And this exodus is happening as well in Catholic countries across Europe).

My reply tries to use reason to counter a statement that is not grounded in solid evidence—in reasonat all. My reply rests on the time-honored Catholic insistence that faith and reason need not be at war with each other, but should work in tandem.

Trying to find where reason lies and trying to live in harmony with reason is what sanity is all about. Holding onto incoherent irrationality in the face of reason is what crazy is all about.

I asked MRose if she can think of any reason to explain the mass exodus of American Catholics from the church now taking place. She hasn’t replied, but two supporters of her thesis have done so.

SteveP chooses to play the tired old—the irrational old—gay-bashing card. He claims people are leaving the church because of “homosexual abuse of adolescents.”

He doesn’t offer a shred of evidence to support that claim, of course. He doesn’t do so because he can’t do so. All evidence I’ve seen indicates that people are leaving primarily because they see the behavior of the bishops in protecting priests who have sexually abused minors as criminal, and because they are tired of trying to live the gospel reasonably and coherently in a church that increasingly calls on its adherents to sacrifice rationality and coherence for irrational, unthinking conformity to ideological norms that have more to do with politics than religion.

Then, strangely enough, SteveP invites me to leave the Catholic church for the Episcopalian “cult.” I say “strangely,” because—remember?—SteveP began his statement to me playing the gay-bashing card, and claiming that Catholics are leaving the church because of “homosexual abuse of adolescents.”

So he now wants to invite me to leave that church, which people are ostensibly fleeing because it protects gay priests for . . . a church that welcomes gay folks and has chosen to ordain openly gay clergy, including those in partnered relationships!

If you think something about this argument doesn’t make sense, you’re not crazy. It’s the argument itself that is irrational in the extreme. It tries to play the gay-bashing card in two different directions that cancel each other out. Both can’t be right—not in the world of reason that sane folks choose to inhabit.

SteveP invites me to leave the Catholic church, in which there is a huge proportion of closeted gay clergy, but which is resolutely anti-gay (and which also happens to have a strong, proven history of protecting priests who have abused both male and female minors), for a church that permits openly gay clergy, including those in partnered relationships, to be ordained. And he wants to blame the crisis of sexual abuse of minors in the church that rejects gay folks and forces gay priests to remain hidden on homosexuality.

So he invites me to join a church that permits gay priest—including open and partnered ones—and in which there is no strong history of abuse of minors. His own final suggestion to me subverts the gay-bashing point he wants to make in his opening suggestion.

And he seems not to recognize or care about the irrationality and incoherence of his argument. One gets the impression that rationality and coherence aren’t what count for him in the final analysis.

Gay-bashing is what counts.

Then along comes a poster called Skip, who tells me that I am “obfuscating” when I note that even survivors of sexual abuse by priests—or I should say especially the community of survivors of sexual abuse by priests represented by the organization SNAP—have stated publicly that there is no credible evidence that the abuse crisis in the Catholic church is caused by gay priests. SNAP leaders have accused the leaders of the Catholic church of playing ugly politics by trying to shift blame for the abuse crisis onto the shoulders of the gay community.

They’ve denounced that attempt to change the subject as a diversionary tactic designed to shift attention away from the real cause of the crisis: the malfeasance of bishops who have hidden and transferred priests known to be abusing minors, and have done so repeatedly for many years.

The sexual abuse crisis in the American Catholic church is a crisis about power and authority, not about sexuality, whether gay or straight. It’s a crisis caused by abuse of power first and foremost. And it will not be solved until that abuse is addressed transparently, with full accountability to the people of God. It will not be addressed effectively until the way in which the clerical system is designed to permit the ordained to lord it over layfolks is addressed honestly and openly.

Note another curious facet of the preceding thread which hasn’t emerged in the thread itself, but needs to be mentioned. Many of those posting to my blog in the past week have connections of one sort or another to the Legionaries of Christ, a far-right Catholic religious group whose founder, Father Marcial Maciel, is now known to have abused seminarians over a period of many years, while church authorities—who knew about this abuse—looked the other way. Maciel is also now known to have fathered a number of children and to have supported them with funds from his community.

And it’s his groupies who want to throw stones about gay priests abusing children? And want folks to take them seriously when they do that? It’s American Catholics who are in bed with a known serial abuser of seminarians—but who has also fathered children while ostensibly living a celibate life—who want to play the gay-bashing card?

We’ve ended up in a strange place in American Catholicism. And to my way of thinking, the name of that place is Crazy. Crazy is where people end up when they dispense from the hard work of thinking and educating themselves, then work themselves into a “religious” lather over irrational hatreds and fears. And claim that they are doing God’s work when they act out of those irrational hatreds and fears, and not out of their core religious values—values they don’t know or understand, because they have allowed themselves to believe that it’s “disobedient” and “proud” to try to use their heads.

Crazy often does carry the day in social and religious movements, unfortunately. And when it does, there’s always a large price to be paid in the end, by all of us who expect better from faith communities. Most (admittedly not all) people expect rationality, coherence, and education from faith communities, along with love, healing, and efforts to build a better society.

We expect sanity and not craziness as a precondition for those communities to participate effectively in important public debates about morality and policy. Unfortunately, the American Catholic bishops seem to be missing that point, and as a result, our church is quickly forfeiting all credibility while moral imbecility and sheer craziness prance around as the signature Catholic act on display for the entertainment of the public sector.