Friday, December 4, 2009

Bearing Witness: The Catholic Bishops and Their Stepped-Up Political Activism

What happened in the New York Senate this week drives to the heart of the primary reason that I feel stuck with this blog. (One reason I feel stuck is that I continue to try to recover from bronchitis, and feel weak and a bit despondent as a result—and I am aware that these feelings color what I write here, and that I need to be careful not to write what tears down the hope of others as they struggle to build a more humane world.)

I have committed my life, it seems to me, to the belief that moral witness ought to count for something in the political and cultural arenas. I believe, fundamentally, in a politics of giving witness. I believe that when people pour out their hearts in witness to moral values, as a number of senators in New York did this week when the New York Senate considered same-sex marriage, something ought to happen. We ought not to receive such witness in dead silence.

When we do greet such moral witness with silence, what we are really indicating about ourselves is that we have become so dehumanized, so debased, that not even the testimony of those who have walked through fire and shadow to be faithful to important moral values counts for us.

It is one thing to disagree with the conclusions some people reach, as they try to be faithful to their core moral convictions. It is another thing altogether to receive the testimony of those speaking from profound moral conviction in total silence. The latter response is cynical in the extreme. It suggests that nothing else counts, in the final analysis, except power and political calculation.

I do not know how to function in such a world, frankly—in a world in which nothing counts except power (and power plays) and political calculation (and being on the winning side). I do not know how to speak, to write, to live, to bear witness to my inmost convictions, in a world in which nothing counts except power and political calculation.

This is, ultimately, why I am resolute in my determination to place myself at a critical distance from the Catholic church and those who now hold sway in my church and who are charting its course for the future. It is not primarily that I disagree with some of the teachings of the magisterium at present, or that I dissent from the political decisions guiding the church now.

It is that I refuse to let myself be enmeshed in a system so morally corrupt that to lend support to it in any way at all is to extend that corruption, deepen it, and make credible its corrosive effects on the totality of what the church teaches and stands for. I feel compelled to stand against the moral corruption now pervading the entire life of the Catholic church—and its teaching—precisely because I value the church and its teaching.

To accept, to live with, to regard as thinkable what the leaders of the Catholic church have done and continue to do with the situation of clerical abuse of minors is to say, in some profound way, that nothing the church teaches really matters very much. Not when all is said and done.

To keep talking about love, forgiveness, redemption, God’s impassioned embrace of every person in the world, living in communion—to keep talking about any of these fundamental themes of Catholic belief in the face of the abuse crisis, without interruption and as if the anguished witness of thousands of victims of childhood clerical sexual abuse does not count—is to debase anything and everything we might say about those fundamental themes. It is impossible for the church to continue talking now about those themes, as if the crisis of clerical sexual abuse has not totally undermined the claims the church wishes to make about these beliefs.

It is impossible to go on talking now without interruption. It is impossible to do so unless we really intend to say that the anguished witness of our brothers and sisters who have experienced abuse does not matter to us. Unless we really intend to say that the lives of those brothers and sisters, their humanity, does not matter . . . .

Unless we really intend to say that God does not matter, since it is God who created these brothers and sisters to pursue hope, love, and happiness in communion with God through their experience of the world.

That we continue to carry on, to talk about love, forgiveness, redemption, God’s impassioned embrace of every person in the world, living in communion, as if none of this has happened—as if our brothers and sisters have not had their lives shattered, have not given testimony about what has been done to them—says a great deal about who we have become, as a people. That we can continue to put up with and even defend the leaders of our church, who are responsible for the suffering of our brothers and sisters, and who have immeasurably increased that suffering by their callow refusal to admit their responsibility for the suffering, says much about what it means to be a Catholic in the world today.

And in the United States, where the Catholic bishops have chosen to go on the attack against their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters at the precise moment in which their credibility as moral agents and moral teachers is at its nadir, the bishops cynically count on our willingness to continue to collude with them. To go along with them. To participate in the pretense that, because might is on their side, they have right on their side as well.

The bishops cynically calculate that most of us will remain willingly ill-informed about what they have done to those who have been sexually abused by priests. They count on our having short attention spans, on our ability to be distracted, on our lack of political will to change a system capable of such evil. They count on our worst instincts, our basest behavior in the face of moral challenges.

They count on us to be silent as they work day and night to create a cultural situation in which the moral witness of their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters counts for nothing in political and cultural debates. As they themselves have been silent in the face of the anguished witness of their brothers and sisters who endured sexual abuse by priests when they were children.

The bishops’ wheeling and dealing re: the Stupak amendment is of a piece with their diversionary tactic of scapegoating gays and lesbians now, and of a piece with their cover-up of the crisis of sexual abuse in the church. What they cannot achieve by permitting open public discussion of controversial moral issues like abortion, they hope to achieve through cynical deal-making and behind-the-scenes arm-twisting.

What they cannot achieve by their own moral authority as teachers they intend to achieve by corrupt political means—by coercion, by a coercion that forces their particular religious values and ideological perspectives on the American public at large, as if the wall separating church and state simply does not exist. And they know that as they engage in such tactics, we will permit them to continue to identify themselves as moral teachers and moral exemplars, because they have money and political power on their side. They have the ability to buy media coverage that distorts what they have done in the abuse crisis.

The bishops want the kind of silence that occurred when powerful witnesses spoke with incontrovertible truth about the immorality of homophobic injustice in the New York Senate this week. They have worked very hard to create the situation in which we now find ourselves, in which cogent, well-reasoned, and impassioned moral testimony counts for nothing at all in public debates about the morality of homosexuality. In which money, might, and political clout count more than moral reason or moral engagement, for those with the ultimate power to determine right and wrong.

The corruption that the bishops (and the Vatican) have fostered in the church itself in the abuse crisis is now being extended to the culture at large and the political process, through the stepped-up, coercive, and utterly cynical campaigns the bishops are mounting around select “moral” issues in the United States right now. Rather than build a more humane society, the leaders of the Catholic church are working very hard at present to create a more draconian one, one with a particularly savage face for women and LGBT persons.

I do not understand how anyone of conscience remains silent in the face of what the bishops are doing today. I do not understand at all Catholics who continue to defend behavior that, as it claims to be defending Catholic teaching and values, actually eviscerates everything the church claims most to cherish. The continued collaboration of centrist Catholics with a regime whose corruption is undeniable baffles me.

I do not understand stony silence in the face of compelling moral witness. I cannot accept the pretense of those who receive such moral witness in silence to be admirable representatives of authentic religious values.

I do not understand how anyone can believe that religious leaders who have systematically ignored and covered up widespread sexual abuse of children are credible witnesses to the value of life. Child abusers and those who protect and promote child abusers do not value human life.

If I fall silent on this blog at times like this, it is because I truly don't know what to say anymore, in the face of what seems to be massive, systemic evil, fostered by an institution that claims to be about love, healing, and redemption. Or about the silence of the complicit center in the face of this massive and systemic evil.