Thursday, December 31, 2009

2010: The Continued Challenge of Making Catholicism catholic

A decade ends, and I’m fascinated by the number of articles and blog entries this week reflecting on the role played by religion in the decade. In what follows, I want to offer a somewhat disconnected selection of links to these discussions, knowing as I do so that many readers will be occupied with new year’s eve plans today, and may not be able to read anything substantive. And so this selection will be a new year’s offering to those who want to tackle these articles and blog postings when the new year is underway.

First, I recommend Louis A. Ruprecht’s essay today at Religion Dispatches, which notes the continuing dominance of religious themes and religious influence in cultures globally, as 2010 arrives. Ruprecht notes that this influence is often embedded in non-traditional venues where we might overlook its presence, if we don’t look carefully:

One decade into the twenty-first century, then, religion is quite literally everywhere. It is not all Christian, it is not all monotheistic, and it is not even necessarily theistic at all. As scholars of religion have ventured, if we turn the kaleidoscope on our perceptions of “religion,” and replace the [religious?] with the rhetoric of sacrality, then we will notice a great deal of rather clearly religious activity that is not located in traditionally “religious” venues at all—venues housing cultural matters like sport, and music, and film.

Wars in the Mideast; bomb threats on airplanes to the U.S.; turmoil in Uganda; huge “pro-family” rallies in Spain; battles about same-sex marriage in Latin America; the health care debate and the question of abortion; the Manhattan Declaration and the attempt of neocon political groups to keep the culture wars alive*: whether we like it or not, whether we ourselves have any personal investment in religion or not, it’s impossible to understand the world in which we live and to make informed choices about it without seeking to cope with the presence of religious ideas and religious influences everywhere in our world.

At the same time, as the recent National Catholic Reporter editorial on Uganda to which I linked yesterday notes (and Ruprecht’s statement above notes this, too), there’s a discernible shift underway in the social locus of conversations about religion—a discernible shift in who gets to talk about religious issues and whose voice gets to make a difference. There’s a shift in our understanding of how theology is done and whose voice counts when theology is done—though some of our venerable institutions, notably churches and the academy, are slow to acknowledge this shift. NCR states,

In both church and state, it seems, the old centers of U.S. power and influence are giving way to new places relatively unencumbered by the protocols of previous eras.

American Catholic theologian Tom Beaudoin makes a similar point in a posting at the America blog yesterday. Beaudoin notes the continuing disconnect between academic theology and the place in which real people do their real-life living, moving, and being. His analysis of this disconnect focuses on a song by rock group Wilco, “Theologians.”

Beaudoin notes,

I cannot help but hear this song as a rebuke to the great mass of academic and churchy theologizing that fails not only to reach contemporary Christians and those curious about Christianities, but that fails to risk inhabiting the lifeworlds of such people, ostensibly a crucial source for theologians (insofar as faith is practiced by humans) and audience for theologians (insofar as theology is meant to be taken in by humans).

I’m taken by Beaudoin’s recognition that the disconnect between academic theology and the “lifeworlds” of real people not only thwarts the ability of theology to “reach” people where they live and move and have their being, but impoverishes theology. As he notes, the “lifeworlds” of real people are ostensibly a crucial source for theological reflection. How do we continue doing theology in isolation from all that is going on around us—in isolation from the experiences and first-hand testimony of real human beings all around us?

As this year ends, I continue to be appalled—a theme I’ve often repeated on this blog—by the deafening, supercilious, seemingly crafted and conspiratorial silence of the intellectual elite of American Catholicism about 1) the first-hand testimony of survivors of childhood sexual abuse by priests, and what that testimony portends for our ability to continue talking about God, church, salvation, communion, etc.; and 2) the first-hand testimony of gay and lesbian Catholics and gay and lesbian human beings in general, and what that portends for our ability to continue talking about God, church, salvation, communion, etc.

I lurk (for the most part) on the major liberal Catholic blogs of the U.S.—the places where many academic theologians and influential Catholic journalists go to talk about theology in a public setting—and I’m baffled by the insularity of the conversation. By its lack of any reference to the experience of real people who don’t inhabit the elite academic (and political and economic) circles in which those doing theology move.

I’m baffled, in particular, by the ability of my liberal Catholic brothers and sisters to walk through the last several months on these blogs and never mention—not once, on some of the blogs—what is taking place in Uganda. And Benedict’s silence about what is taking place in Uganda.

It’s as if I’m in Germany during the period in which the Nazis rise to power, and listening to my fellow theologians talking about everything in the world except the one thing that most acutely demands attention. Or in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s and listening to theological conversations about the meaning of love in which no one ever once talks about racial issues—or opens the conversation to the voices of those struggling for racial justice in the U.S.

Tom Beaudoin’s posting at America connects to a a synopsis of a journal article on the same topic, on which he is working now. As this article notes, we absolutely have to shift how we do theology, if we expect theology to matter any longer. To be specific, we have to open the conversation to many new voices that we who are academic theologians have ignored—voices that are the church, and that theologize powerfully in accents we continue to disdain:

To my mind, a lot of the Catholic theology being done today in the United States overestimates or almost willfully misreads what Catholics are willing to care about, consent to, find useful, helpful or interesting. It is not enough to claim that the academic theological vocation is a “prophetic” one — the usual backstop erected just in time — as an excuse for this disconnection from the lived Catholicisms before us. I see that part of what needs to happen, is happening and will happen among Catholic theologians in the United States is a profound rethinking of what it means to be a theologian in relation to an institutional church that is collapsing quickly. More people are walking out than walking in, and without recent immigrants, the decline would be even more evident. At best, the near-inevitable can only temporarily be forestalled. This is a genuinely “new situation” here in the States, one hardly admitted — much less negotiated or integrated — in polite theological circles.

My colleague Colleen Kochivar-Baker captures these insights brilliantly in the latest posting at her Enlightened Catholicism blog, which discusses John Allen’s recent ruminations on the import for American Catholicism of the Murphy Report in Ireland. As Colleen notes, the important—the powerful—theologizing that emerged when John Allen published his ruminations is not in Allen’s article itself, but in the thread of comments that followed when he posted his ruminations.

Theology done by real people, by people whom important American Catholic journalists and theologians persist in ignoring, because they are only “little people” whose voices don’t count. As one contributor, Greg Bullough, tells Mr. Allen on Christmas eve in the thread following Allen’s article, it would be wonderful if John Allen listened to and took seriously the comments about his article. In Greg Bullough’s estimation, these comments are “remarkably thoughtful, articulate, and incisive.”

I think I wouldn’t be stretching things if I assumed that Greg Bullough is echoing here a previous conversation he had with John Allen at NCR’s blogsite, about the role of bloggers in Catholic theological conversations today. In his 30 October blog posting about the next generation of Catholic leaders, John Allen says,

By the way, hitting the road is really the only way to gauge that [i.e., what real people are thinking], as opposed to trawling through the blogosphere. At least in my experience, blogs call to mind what Homer Simpson once said about who watches cable access TV at three in the morning: "Alcoholics, the unemployed, angry loners …" The vox populi, in other words, it ain't.

To which Greg Bullough replies (I’ve removed paragraph formatting in the reply),

Allen's cheap shot at some very sincere, thoughtful, individuals puts the spotlight on his own journalistic credibility, and how it may in fact be compromised. . . . True, these folks don't have the luxury of hobnobbing with the ruling elite of the Church. But for the richly expense-accounted Mr. Allen to cast aspersions on his fellow journalists is elitist at best and unprofessional at worst. At least the bloggers' objectivity can't be thought to be compromised by the need to cultivate ongoing relationships with bishops and cardinals--the latter won't give these unvarnished truth-tellers the time of day.

In a later response, Mr. Allen explains that his comment was intended as a joke. And yet the point seems to me to remain—the critical point raised by Greg Bullough’s insightful comment. Many of those professing to speak “objectively” and on behalf of all of us, as high-profile American Catholic journalists and theologians, prescind from the experiences and voices of those on whose behalf they claim to be speaking. And when they’re reminded that we’re out here, thinking on our own, talking among ourselves, though the conversations at the centers of power pretend we’re not here, they often compound the problem by telling us that we are, indeed, little people who deserve to be ignored!

As John Allen has recently stated, vis-à-vis criticisms of his journalism that had emerged at the Commonweal blog site, “I respect those folks [i.e., on the Commonweal blog], and take their criticism seriously.” Whereas his response to Greg Bullough’s (and my) criticisms of his suggestion that many bloggers are disreputable characters spinning angry, delusional narratives out of nothing refers to these critics as “that crowd.”

I am belaboring this in-house discussion on Catholic blogs in the final months of 2009 because I think it is more significant than might appear at first glance. It says something about a struggle going on in the heart of American Catholicism today, about whose voice counts—about who gets to represent himself as “the” voice of American Catholicism. About who is to be ignored, ridiculed, treated as a little person with an ax to grind (unlike the well-connected authority figure whose viewpoints are always judicious, well-informed, and without any prejudice at all).

It’s clear to me that a significant and unfinished task of American Catholicism at this point in its history is the renegotiation of the conversation spaces at the center, to open those spaces to all Catholic (and catholic) voices. The conversation space in which “the” voice of American Catholicism is defined is altogether too constricting, and entirely unrepresentative of the vibrant diversity of American Catholicism. It is not catholic in any meaningful sense.

If the painful, necessary emergence of the voices of survivors of clerical sexual abuse within American Catholicism at this point in its history, coupled with the painful, necessary emergence of the voices of those defined by the magisterium as “objectively disordered,” cannot make a significant difference to discussions of what it means to be Catholic in these United States in the second decade of the 21st century, then I do not foresee a bright future for American Catholicism. As I do not to the extent that the voices of women continued to be excluded from halls of power in the church.

*For a thought-provoking analysis of the Manhattan Declaration and the role that the new Catholic neocon guru Robert P. George played in drafting it, see Frank Cocozzelli’s outstanding discussion at Talk to Action today. I like, in particular, how Frank shows that George’s skewed and highly selective appropriation of natural-law theory misrepresents the central thrust of natural-law philosophy in the Catholic tradition. I also like Frank Cocozzelli’s emphasis on the way in which Catholic neocon ideologues like George deliberately seek to orient the conversation about Catholic ethics in the public sphere to issues like same-sex marriage, abortion, and stem-cell research in order to undercut Catholic teaching about economic issues.