Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Supreme Court Opens Bridgeport Catholic Abuse Files: Putting Broken Hearts Back Together

The U.S. Supreme Court this week turned down the appeal of the Connecticut Catholic diocese of Bridgeport to keep its clergy personnel files dealing with priests who have abused minors sealed. As I have noted previously on this blog (and see postings linked to the “Connecticut” label), the Connecticut Supreme Court had already ruled that the files must be opened.

The diocese responded to that ruling by appealing to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the U.S. Supreme Court. When she turned the appeal down, the diocese handed it to Justice Scalia, who presented it to the whole court.

The official statement of the Bridgeport diocese in response to the Supreme Court action is to claim that its first amendment rights are being violated. But the first amendment does not provide churches with the right to hide the identity of criminals, and to suppress information about churches’ complicity in shielding and promoting criminals.

The diocese also claims, “The content of the sealed documents soon to be released has already been extensively reported on.” But that’s obviously not true, and one wonders why a Catholic diocese would even seek to make such a false claim in the face of abundant evidence to the contrary. Why would the diocese have spent untold thousands, perhaps millions, of dollars over several years to fight a bitter, losing legal battle to keep files sealed, if the content of those files is already known to the public?

Several points strike me as I think about the Bridgeport situation. First, I remember John McNeill’s prophetic insight that the churches are passing through a moment of profound cultural crisis and transformation at this point in history. In McNeill’s view, that transformation has everything to do with patriarchy and the way in which the churches have cast their lot with that mutable social arrangement.

To the extent that the churches have inextricably bound up their fate with patriarchy and its top-down, hierarchical, male-dominant model of allocating power, the churches will become not centers of transformative energy in a process of global cultural transformation, but focal points for bitter resistance. They will defend outmoded, and increasingly toxic, patterns of social organization and of allocating power, in the face of necessary cultural developments that challenge those patterns.

There is great tragedy—and great evil—in the church’s rear-battle approach to a process of global cultural development that is all about the liberation of human beings from historic oppression. To say that the churches’ defense of patriarchy (and of misogyny and homophobia, as well as of the manifold forms of economic and social injustice interwoven with patriarchy) is short-sighted would be a ludicrous understatement. The choice of many churches to cast their lot with patriarchy at this moment in history is, frankly, a choice for death rather than life. This choice assures that the churches will increasingly have little effectively to do with the primary process of cultural transformation affecting global cultures—little, that is, except to resist. And to do everything in their power to abort necessary processes of cultural transformation pointing to human liberation.

This choice on the part of many churches confronts their adherents with a choice, in turn—and that’s the second thing that occurs to me as I think about the Bridgeport situation. John McNeill has argued (and a number of other openly gay theologians echo him here) that at this point in history, those of us who believe that the churches can and should respond to the demise of patriarchy creatively rather than mournfully need to distance ourselves from the power centers of the churches. We need to do so, McNeill thinks, because those power centers are involved in death throes that will pull us into those throes, if we do not find ways to move away from the power centers of the churches.

I am increasingly coming to think of this dynamic of center and margins in the churches as a dynamic that is more about energy than about power—or, perhaps more precisely, about the kind of power that is based in transformative spiritual energy rather than in domination. There is energy on the margins. The centers are bound up by moribund dominative power, and are incapable of generating spiritual energy—or even of permitting that spiritual energy inside the center in a way that transforms it.

At this point in history, the Catholic church is spending huge sums of money on two projects that are all about maintaining a dying dominative power at the center, rather than welcoming the transformative spiritual energy at the margins. In both cases, the church is concealing from the public the true amounts it is spending, as well as the sources of its funding.

Those two projects are the continued cover-up of the true history of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic church, and the ongoing battle of the Catholic church against gay human beings and our human rights. These are interconnected projects. They are interconnected because neither has any legitimate foundation in the gospels. They are interconnected as well because both involve the abuse of huge sums of money—money that appears in many cases to be flowing into church coffers from the same sources—that an authentically spiritual religious organization would spend for other purposes.

And, finally, they are connected in that both battles are part of the overall rear-battle the Catholic church insists on fighting at this point in history to maintain its investment in patriarchy, with patriarchy’s top-down, hierarchical, male-exclusive, and dominative approach to allocating and using power. The Catholic church’s bitter fight to conceal the real history of the clerical sexual abuse of minors, its exceedingly ugly assault on gay human beings, and its attack on womens rights and women religious, are perhaps the primary manifestations at this point in history of the institutional church’s investment in a model of power that must and will eventually change, in response to liberating global social transformations.

Meanwhile (my third point), as things fall apart and those on the margins distance themselves from the process of decay in order to fashion authentic spiritual lives, creative and transformative energy seems to be manifesting itself everywhere. I’m struck today by testimonies of spiritual transformation amidst struggle on a number of blogs: Jayden Cameron’s Gay Mystic, with its Emmaus Walk posting; Terry Weldon’s Queering the Church, with its statement on the abuse situation to which Jayden is responding; Colleen Kochivar-Baker’s Enlightened Catholicism, with its two recent discussions (here and here) of her experiences at native American holy places in New Mexico; and Geoff Farrow’s blog, with its recent painful but extraordinarily liberating meditation on all that has happened to him in the year after he spoke against prop 8 in California.

Following the story of the Bridgeport Catholic diocese and reading its mendacious statement about the recent Supreme Court decision tears my heart to pieces, as does the ongoing attack of the Portland, Maine, Catholic diocese on the gay citizens of Maine. Reading these powerful blog testimonies to the spiritual energy of lives lived on the margins, by contrast, puts my heart back together and gives me hope.