Tuesday, November 17, 2009

U.S. Catholic Bishops Announce: Love Is What It's All About

It’s a strange world out there, and it’s getting stranger.

Cardinal Francis George gave his presidential address yesterday to the U.S. States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) meeting in Baltimore, and proclaimed that it’s all about love, not control. George noted that the bishops are intently concerned to “strengthen” their relationship to Catholic universities, the media, and Catholic-sponsored organizations.

And then he went on to say,

Relations do not speak first of control but of love. If there is a loosening of relationship between ourselves and those whom Christ has given us to govern in love, it is for us to reach out and re-establish connections necessary for all to remain in communion.

Translation: we want to reach out and pull you in, enfold you in the maternal bosom of the church and our episcopal embrace, because we love love love you. It’s not in the least about control.

If you’ve gotten out of hand, you Catholic universities and Catholic organizations and Catholic media, it’s because we just haven’t loved you enough. We haven’t embraced you as warmly as we might have done. We’re going to ratchet up that warm maternal embrace in coming days because we love you. It has nothing at all to do with our need to control.

Several things are interesting about these claims. The first point to note is that the claim that Catholic universities are getting out of the warm and loving episcopal embrace is nothing new. This claim has been rolling forth from the bishops and their right-wing promoters since the end of the 1980s, as the restorationist agenda of John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, with its assault on Vatican II, moved into full gear. Then, it had everything to do with the diminishing percentage of priests and religious teaching in Catholic universities, and the rising number of layfolks in the faculties of these universities—including, neuralgically, their departments of theology.

The response of the bishops and many right-wing Catholics to that sociological phenomenon was to tighten the screws, in order to assure that, insofar as possible, bishops would have direct control over what was being taught in theology departments of Catholic universities. Along with this screw-tightening (excuse me: enhanced warm and loving embrace) went the entirely bogus claim that Catholic schools were losing their Catholicity, because priests, brothers, and nuns no longer exercised as much direct control over these institutions as they had done in the past.

It was during this period that the new Catechism of the Catholic Church was formulated, in a top-down process that bypassed theologians, and was imposed on Catholic institutions as an unprecedented doctrinal rule of thumb. I say “top-down process that bypassed theologians,” because I know several theologians who were asked to vet drafts of the catechism. They tell me that, invariably, the text they were asked to read and comment on was sent to them with a turnaround time of a day or so. The process was rigged, in other words, to assure that theologians asked to review the text would not have time to do so carefully, but so that claims could still be made that the text had had theological review and input before it was finalized.

I say “unprecedented doctrinal rule of thumb,” because catechisms—which are, after all, culturally conditioned, partial and selective, mutable compendia of a complex, rich, and vast tradition that far surpasses what can be comprised in such a compendium—have never been regarded as the final arbiter in matters of faith and morals in the past. But that is precisely how the CCC is now being treated: as an answer book to which those on the right (who pressed for this text as a weapon they could use against fellow Catholics) can turn to find texts to declare that all and sundry are lacking in orthodoxy. All save themselves, of course.

The consequences of this approach to teaching the Catholic faith and to understanding scripture and tradition are lamentable. They include a significant dumbing down of Catholics that will take generations to correct, if it is ever, indeed, corrected. Catholics whose formation in faith now consists primarily of memorizing a handful of ill-digested texts, imperfectly understood and carefully selected, and then spouting these texts back out as a demonstration that they are formed in the faith. Those claiming to represent orthodoxy in all its fullness and complexity rarely have even a passing acquaintance with the fullness and complexity they claim to represent as they spout out their handsful of ill-digested and imperfectly understood texts.

But I digress. As I say, I’m fascinated with Cardinal George’s offer to American Catholics of a new warm maternal embrace as we, poor things, wander in the wilderness of godless postmodern secularism, not knowing where to turn. Not knowing where to find the authentic Catholic voice and the bona fide Catholic embrace.

I’m fascinated with what this means right now, with why it’s being offered once again at this USCCB meeting. My suspicion is that what is looming larger in the episcopal mind right now than that hoary old charge of waning Catholicity in Catholic universities (where the episcopal embrace is now tight, and effective, and exceedingly smothering) is the concern to rein in (excuse me: embrace with maternal affection) online Catholic discussions. To rein in Catholic newspapers and journals, and, in particular, their online components that permit at least a modicum of open discussion.

This new sociological phenomenon—one that surpasses in its effects what a few mouthy (and always timid) lay theologians seemed to represent in the final decades of the 20th century—is, it appears, exceptionally troubling to Rome and the bishops. With what some Catholic media gurus and power-brokers are now calling its “aggressive” tendency to level the playing field, to democratize the conversation, online discourse about matters Catholic poses a very serious challenge to those intent on controlling everything from the center.

The fact is, Rome and the bishops simply cannot control everything that is now being said by Catholics, about Catholics, on behalf of Catholics, in the name of Catholic identity. The internet allows the plurality of voices that the center has (with the active complicity of centrist Catholic media gurus) done everything in the world to suppress to speak freely in a way unprecedented in Catholic history. To demonstrate to the world what being catholic is all about—to remind the world that being catholic is about embracing the everybody that comes along when we issue a truly catholic invitation to the world.

And the bishops don’t like that one bit. Ironically, the absolute control they believed they had effected over Catholic discourse in the final decades of the 20th century has slipped from their hands at precisely the moment at which it seemed to be reaching its peak.

History has a way of doing that to us, of snatching from our hands what we clutch to ourselves with the absolute certainty that we’ve finally gained total mastery, at precisely the moment when our mastery seems most secure. History has a way of demonstrating to us that we aren't, after all, in control at all.

And Rome and the bishops don't seem to like that recognition. And so the need for a warmer, more effusive, more all-encompassing and all-defining embrace now. And if the enfolding arms feel just a wee bit like the embrace of the iron maiden, well, it's important to keep in mind that love does hurt, after all.

Because the bishops love, above all. That's what they're all about. And they're offering the renewed embrace as a sign of their warm and compassionate love. It's not about control at all.