Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Bishop Sample of Marquette on Bishops' Teaching Role: Locking Down Discussion

I wrote yesterday that as the Catholic church crafted its institutional strategy of response to abortion in the period following Roe v. Wade, it moved away from the traditional Catholic insistence that moral insights need to be accessible to reason and thus grounded in open discussion, to a top-down, coercive, lockdown approach that brooks no opposition to magisterial positions and permits no discussion.

I stated,

And then all careful, reasoned discussion of the topic of abortion got shut down in Catholic circles, and anyone working in Catholic institutions and asking for further discussion of this topic (as well as of sexual ethics and women’s ordination) was likely to find himself or herself out of a job and/or silenced. After what happened to Charles Curran, Catholic theologians have trodden very gingerly around these questions.
And, in my view, the result has been disastrous, not just for the church, but for the pro-life movement in general, insofar as it seeks to engage the general public and not merely true believers on the political and religious right. That movement has moved more and more away from reasoned discussion as its primary approach to shifting cultural views of life-oriented issues, and more and more towards what I called shouting and shoving in my weekend postings.

If anyone doubts that this lockdown approach still dominates the Catholic church’s official response to discussions of abortion, sexual ethics, and women’s ordination, I’d like to recommend the recent statement of Marquette bishop Alexander K. Sample about why he is refusing to permit Bishop Thomas Gumbleton to speak in the Marquette diocese.

Bishop Gumbleton had been invited by Marquette Citizens for Peace and Justice to deliver a public lecture. Bishop Sample will not permit Bishop Gumbleton to deliver the lecture.

Bishop Sample states:

As the Bishop of the Diocese of Marquette, I am the chief shepherd and teacher of the Catholic faithful of the Upper Peninsula entrusted to my pastoral care. As such I am charged with the grave responsibility to keep clearly before my people the teachings of the Catholic Church on matters of faith and morals. Given Bishop Gumbleton’s very public position on certain important matters of Catholic teaching, specifically with regard to homosexuality and the ordination of women to the priesthood, it was my judgment that his presence in Marquette would not be helpful to me in fulfilling my responsibility.
I realize that these were not the topics upon which Bishop Gumbleton was planning to speak. However, I was concerned about his well-known and public stature and position on these issues and my inability to keep these matters from coming up in discussion.

However, I was concerned about his well-known and public stature and position on these issues and my inability to keep these matters from coming up in discussion. Translation: The Catholic faithful are forbidden to discuss women’s ordination or homosexuality. Ever. Anywhere. Anytime and any place that “the teacher can prevent such discussion.

My job as bishop is “to keep these matters from coming up in discussion.” I am the teacher. Your job is to listen and obey—not to discuss.

Bishop Sample is being frank about the policy that guides the institutional Catholic approach to controversial moral issues including matters of sexual ethics, women’s ordination, and abortion at this point in church history. The approach is, simply and brutally, to outlaw discussion altogether—since only bishops are teachers. Lay Catholics are passive receptacles for official teaching.

As my statement yesterday notes, this policy has had disastrous consequences in the life of the church and for its credibility as a moral teacher. People internalize ethical teachings only when they understand those teachings. And understanding comes through conversation, dialogue, reflection. It cannot be commanded by a top-down authority system in which all power resides in the hands of a solitary “teacher” whose teaching role consists of uttering apodictic statements that are to be received, memorized, parroted, but never discussed.

The lockdown approach emanating from Rome in the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict has reduced the faithful to a moral infantilism that has yielded a generation of moral imbeciles, to the extent that people have bought into and acceded to this approach to moral “teaching.” It has fostered a grotesquely inadequate ecclesiology that turns the church into an overgrown head supporting itself on a tiny appendage of a body—at least, in the ecclesial imagination of the hierarchy.

And meanwhile, as Terry Weldon notes in an inspiring statement at Queering the Church today, people, the people of God, do and will continue to talk among themselves, out of earshot of “the” teacher. We have no choice except to do so. We have no choice because the Spirit moves among the people of God every bit as much as it moves through “the” teacher.

We have no choice because the Spirit teaches all of us. Our connection to God would not be vital or intimate—and therefore it would not be meaningfulif that were not the case. Moral teachings handed down to us like museum artifacts to store away for safe-keeping have no meaning for us, until we teach ourselves and each other to understand and value those teachings—so that we can internalize them and enflesh their meaning in our own particular lives of faith.

As Thomas Moore notes in Care of the Soul (NY: HarperCollins, 1992):

It [the soul] likes persuasion, subtle analysis, an inner logic, and elegance. It enjoys the kind of discussion that is never complete, that ends with a desire for further talk or reading. It is content with uncertainty and wonder. Especially in ethical matters, it probes and questions and continues to reflect even after decisions have been made (p. 246).

What a pity that those chief shepherds and unilateral teacherswhose primary task as good shepherds and faithful teachers is to cultivate soul—don’t understand this fundamental insight of spiritual life. Especially in ethical matters, it [soul] probes and questions and continues to reflect even after decisions have been made. And it has to do so, if behaving ethically is to mean behaving ethically as a human being, as something and someone more than an automaton doing what it is programmed to do.

Meanwhile, let the bishops continue to try “to keep these matters from coming up in discussion.” Let them continue to insult their flocks and the public at large by imagining that they can lock “private matters” like disagreements between two bishops or discussions of key ethical issues behind closed doors. They’ll be as successful in these attempts as they might be if they tried to keep water from running downhill.