Friday, October 2, 2009

Reforming the Catholic Church from Margins to Center: A Response to Michael Sean Winters

I had not met James Carroll until last night and he is about the nicest man on the planet and he tells a story with grace and flair to which few of us can even aspire. But, I confess I do not recognize the Catholicism he sees, a Catholicism where the hierarchy is, if not insignificant than at least more negligible than our tradition suggests, a Catholicism that is socially engaged but only on issues that concern the Left, and finally a Catholicism where the primacy of conscience and the spirit of the Council are used to justify almost any stance imaginable. I cannot feel any sense of affinity for his vision of Catholicism anymore than I can with the reactionary and nostalgic Catholicism of EWTN. But, Catholicism is a big Church and there is room for Carroll as there is room for Mother Angelica. Still, I could not resist putting in a good word for Humanae Vitae with Mr. Carroll seated just on my left.
(Michael Sean Winters “CACG’s Panel at the Press Club”, America’s “In All Things” blog)

Sometimes it’s the small things that stick with you—the seemingly inferential observation that turns out to illuminate wide swatches of experience, the off-the-cuff remark that results in a life-changing insight. I’ve been meditating all week on a comment Jayden Cameron made during the recent papal visit to the Czech Republic. Jayden maintains the Gay Mystic blog from Prague, and was on the scene during the papal visit, posting brilliant reports about the event on his blog.

On Monday, Jayden published a response by Sri Lankan theologian Fr. Tissa Balasuriya to Benedict’s encyclical, “God Is Love.” Jayden and I exchanged comments about Balasuriya’s reflections, and the exchange ended with Jayden telling me,

Just finished reading a slew of articles posted on Clerical Whispers which left me feeling a bit daunted and depressed, but then for some reason I remembered the time of Francis of Assisi - massive corruption and scandal in the church, and yet there was life on the margins in this extraordinary charismatic man and the movement he started. Today I feel something even more radical is called for.

Massive corruption and scandal in the church, and yet there was life on the margins. I needed to hear that observation this week. It has remained with me, a constant hum in my head as I go about my business each day. It seems significant to me that Jayden formulated this insight right in the midst of the papal visit to his country—and in the same week in which there is widespread discussion of Archbishop Silvano Tomasi’s remarks at the U.N. trying to absolve the Catholic hierarchy of responsibility for the crisis produced by our growing awareness of the problem of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests.

In the midst of such corruption, one needs to hear words of hope. In the midst of death, one seeks for reminders of life.

The essay of Tissa Balasuriya, Companion to the Encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI on ‘God is Love,’ which Jayden excerpts at Gay Mystic, reinforces Jayden’s observation that there is life on the margins—even in the midst of massive corruption and scandal in the church. Fr. Balasuriya calls on the church, and on Pope Benedict, who (as Cardinal Ratzinger) had Fr. Balasuriya silenced and then excommunicated in 1997, to listen to the voices of the margins, as he speaks about love.

Fr. Balasuriya writes,

While acknowledging a variety of viewpoints, the Encyclical remains firmly grounded in a traditional Western context. Adherents among the many strains of contemporary Christian theology may thus find much to take issue with here. Feminist theologians will object to its occasionally sexist language, along with its arguments with respect to reproductive rights. Liberation theology in the Latin American grain receives no acknowledgment of its unique contribution to the development of Christian teaching over the past several decades (e.g, love as it relates to compassionate activism and efforts at constructive social change). Proponents of liberation theology in its Asian and African incarnations will have much to say about their experience of the "Christian love" imposed on them through Western colonialism. Those seeking inter-religious dialogue may wish to remind the Pope that the traditional Christian interpretation of "God is love" seems not to have applied to them throughout much of Catholicism's history. And those concerned with inter-racial justice, global ethics, and ecology may also find fault with Christian theology and spirituality as they experienced it.

It is impossible to talk about love univocally in a global church and a world of many voices and many cultures. It is impossible to talk convincingly and transformatively about love (and reform of the church) from the center.

Reformation will come from the margins, when we finally listen—and listen effectively, in a way that causes us to change our lives—to the voices of those who understand, celebrate, and articulate the experience of love from where they have been placed. On the margins.

As Fr. Balasuriya says, if the church expects to speak convincingly of love at this point in history, it can do so only by giving authentic voice to women, to liberation theologians in Latin American, Asia, and Africa, to those promoting dialogue between world religions, to those working to fashion a global ethic centered on human rights, and to those responding to the global ecological crisis. And I would add that the church must give authentic voice to gay and lesbian people of faith. It is impossible to talk convincingly and transformatively about love (and reform of the church) from the center.

The center cannot and will not be the source of reformation in the Catholic church for the following reasons:

▪ Those at the center do not see fully or clearly. They/we see with the partial and self-interested perspective of those who believe they/we have our fingers on the pulse of power, knowledge, and control in the world.

▪ These are fallacious assumptions, ones rooted in the hybris (and blindness) of power and of one’s position at the center of power. The one residing at the center has to see only what concerns the inner circle of power which intends at all costs to stay in power.

▪ But the one living at the margin has to see everything, how it all fits together, how it interconnects. She has no choice except to see in that global, comprehensive way because, unlike him at the center, she must negotiate all the levels and aspects of power, if she is to find any place at all in the world—as well as protection from the malicious operations of power emanating from the center.

▪ The experience of marginalization produces perspectives that not merely correct the limited, partial perspective of the center, but which eclipse that perspective through their accuracy and comprehensiveness.

▪ Centrists pretend to be disinterested, standing somewhere between right and left, with a superior and objective outlook that sees the faults of both sides.

▪ Centrists inevitably stand, however, with power. The centrist pretense to disinterest and objectivity, the refusal of those at the center to take a stand and engage, has everything to do with the desire to remain in power, with whoever happens to be in power at the moment.

▪ Because they cast their lot with power, centrists inevitably fail to foresee significant cultural and political shifts, and are caught off-guard by these, succumbing to the very shift they believed they could avoid by serving the powerful.

▪ American centrists, including American Catholic centrists, have for some time now been completely at the service of the right, as the center of political and cultural discourse has moved ineluctably to the right in several decades of neoconservative political dominance.

▪ Because Catholic centrists are mesmerized by power, because they speak with the cadences and employ the perspectives of geographic and cultural power centers (e.g., the D.C. beltway), they find unending room for their brothers and sisters of the right (Prince, Gingrich, Brownback, Hudson), but almost no room at all for their brothers and sisters of the left (e.g., James Carroll, Mary Hunt, Frances Kissling, and countless other names that might be listed here).

▪ Effectively, Catholic centrists do the right’s work for it. Blogs and journals serving the Catholic center in the U.S. are so intent on taking seriously, listening to, and analyzing the discourse from the right—including the far right—that they effectively serve as tools of legitimation and dissemination of that discourse and analysis, even when they critique it.

▪ Much of what has come to represent itself as the Catholic centrist perspective in the U.S. is all about watchdog work: Catholic centrists do the right’s work by keeping out of the dialogue voices to the left of center, by refusing to listen to or take seriously or engage those voices, while bending over backwards to grant legitimacy to the voices of the right, even when those voices obviously deserve no credibility because they have lost contact with reason and compelling analysis of the world.

▪ Catholic centrists pursue this watchdog work by deciding who will be allowed inside “significant” dialogues—church-shaping dialogues—and who will be excluded, who has the right pedigree and whose pedigree is unworthy, who lives in the right place and speaks with the right accents, and who does not.

▪ One of the primary (and subtle, but highly effective and impossible to challenge, precisely because subtle) ways in which this watchdog work is accomplished is by ruling some forms of discourse and some subjects off-limits through unwritten canons of taste.

▪ Issues like the abuse crisis in the church are routinely relegated to the margins in centrist discussions—including discussions of why people are leaving the church in droves—because those issues are, in the unwritten judgment of centrist Catholics, too “personal,” too rooted in personal narratives and first-person (therefore interested) discourse, rather than in the objective, disinterested discourse of the center.

▪ Ditto for issues like homosexuality, and, increasingly (in contrast to the period immediately after Vatican II), artificial contraception, despite the fact that studies show a huge majority of Catholic adults in the Western world either practicing artificial contraception or approving of this practice.

For me, one of the biggest scandals at this point in the history of the Catholic church is the refusal of my brothers and sisters of the center even to discuss the abuse crisis—openly, honestly, and above all, as a theological datum without which it is impossible to talk about anything meaningful at any theological level today, whether the anything is ecclesiology, soteriology, ecumenism, theodicy, and so forth. It is scandalous enough that my brothers and sisters of the center can respond to the pained voices of their gay brothers and sisters as though our voices mean nothing and come from nowhere—and have no import at all for any of those important theological discussions.

But it is even more scandalous that my brothers and sisters of the center can, for almost a decade now, have heard (or at least had the opportunity to hear) one anguished voice after another of adult survivors of clerical sexual abuse, and can go on talking about the church and its future and mission in the world as if those voices have simply not spoken. As if they are not there. As if they do not count and as if what they say does not matter. Not at the center.

As if they have not completely interrupted the comfortable discussions of the center. As if they have not and should not make talk about God, love, salvation, communion, etc., well-nigh impossible for Catholics today. As if they do not make being Catholic well-nigh impossible today.

Until we do something to listen and respond. And to change the church from the ground up, and radically so.

To return to the epigraph that begins this meditation: I cannot feel any sense of affinity for the vision of Catholicism that my Catholic brothers and sisters of the center promote from their beltway enclaves. That vision of Catholicism seems to me about as adequate to the experience of a global church as the Donatist vision was to the Catholic experience in the time of Augustine. As Augustine wrote, the Donatists liked to sit around their tiny pond croaking that they were the church, never dreaming that their pond was not the wide Mediterranean Ocean that is a more adequate symbol of a church catholic.

I am not merely unmoved by, I am repulsed and scandalized by a vision of Catholicism that equates the hierarchy and its political maneuverings with the substance of Catholic faith, and that is socially engaged but only on issues that concern the right, while it is persistently hostile to issues that concern the left—or even the real center of American Catholicism, for that matter.

Where the overwhelming majority of folks in the pews are not in any shape, form, or fashion governed by the Humanae Vitae encyclical that Mr. Winters was recently so gleeful to recommend to Mr. Carroll. And where they are likely to be unmoved, as well, by accounts of parties at which Catholic movers and shakers share cigars and scotch with Catholic nabobs within the various cultural enclaves of American Catholicism that imagine themselves to be the whole church, while they represent merely the voice and perspective of centers of power.