Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Canonization of John Paul II: I Dissent

Vatican journalist Andrea Torniello has recently reported that the cause for the beatification of John Paul II has advanced. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints has cleared the way for the previous pope to be declared “blessed,” the initial step on the path to sainthood.

Since reading this announcement, I’ve been giving thought to my reaction, which is, on the whole, strongly negative. As I think about it, I’m opposed to the canonization of John Paul II, and I’d like to think out loud here about my reasons for this opposition.

First, some provisos. I take it that Catholics may validly criticize popes. In fact, I take it that Catholics may have a strong obligation at certain points in history to stand against the actions, example, or even teachings of a given pope at a given time. Those of us who believe that this is the case have historical warrant for such actions: exemplary Catholics, including Catherine of Siena, a saint, have spoken out to call the pope to fidelity to the gospel, and to express concern when a pope seemed to be leading the church in a direction contrary to the gospel. And Paul stood in opposition to Peter when Peter wanted to make the gospel hinge on the purity laws of Judaism.

I also believe in the value of and right to dissent. This past Saturday, the current pope, Benedict XVI, told a group of Brazilian bishops that the uncritical absorption of elements of Marxist ideology in liberation theology has led some liberation theologians to encourage “rebellion, division, dissent, offenses, [and] anarchy” in the church.

What Benedict regards in entirely negative terms I see as often healthy. A church that wishes to be viable, to have a secure future, and to be faithful to the gospel needs dissenters in its midst. The church needs those who point to the gospel, and then to the current practice of the church, and who refuse to accept glaring discrepancies between what the gospel calls us to, and how the church and its leaders are behaving.

And this tradition of faithful dissent is hardly confined to Catholics who accept elements of Marxism. It is part and parcel of the Catholic tradition itself. When the Austrian Catholic layman Franz Jäggerstätter refused to serve in the Nazi army in World War II, he did not point to Marxist influence to justify his conscientious objection. He pointed to the gospels and the example of Jesus.

And in doing so, he chose to dissent in a courageous, public way from the priests who came to him and told him that faithful Catholics do what the church tells them to do, even when their conscience tells them to do otherwise. Franz Jäggerstätter rejected even the insistence of his bishop that good Catholics do not dissent from the judgment of the hierarchy. He chose to give witness to gospel values in a courageous, exemplary way at a time and place in which large numbers of Austrian bishops welcomed and blessed the Nazis.

The Catholic tradition is full of examples of such holy dissent. In American culture, we honor this tradition of conscientious objection in our political and intellectual life. It is woven into our cultural history through the writings and example of Henry David Thoreau, who went to jail to protest the use of his tax money to support the system of slavery, and of Martin Luther King Jr., who went to jail to protest the savage treatment of people of color in many parts of this nation under the system of segregation that prevailed until the latter half of the 20th century.

I might add one more proviso: I take for granted that popes can not only be poor shepherds of the flock of Christ, against whose example, actions, and even teachings we may be required by conscience to speak out. I take for granted that popes can even be evil. Being elected to the papacy is not in and of itself a sign of virtue, nor should a papal election be an automatic open door to subsequent canonization.

When the current pope was elected, I shocked a former seminarian whom I know—a person of strong faith, who lives a life of exemplary holiness as an openly gay man—by telling him that I view the election of popes from an historical standpoint, and I remember that the church has had evil popes and has somehow survived the reign of such popes. I am not making the judgment that Cardinal Ratzinger/Benedict XVI is an evil pope. I am stating that I know there is historical precedent for popes doing evil even before and also often after they are elected to the papacy. I also make no secret of the fact that I question and dissent from some of the decisions made by the current pope during his years as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

I object to Ratzinger’s violation of basic canons of justice in his treatment of numerous theologians, when he headed the CDF. I regard his teaching that gay and lesbian persons are “intrinsically disordered” as malicious and as the source of violence towards LGBT people. I object to his stance on the role of women in the church and on women’s ordination. In my view, the church radically diminishes its effectiveness as a voice for human rights and justice when, in its own institutional life, it behaves unjustly—as the church does, conspicuously so, in refusing to ordain women and married men. And in its deplorable, abusive treatment of its LGBT members.

Above all, I hold both Cardinal Ratzinger and John Paul II responsible for engineering a vast, systemic institutional cover-up of the abuse crisis in the Catholic church. Rather than respond to that crisis transparently, with the intent to repent and to amend the behavior of the church’s clerical elite, both the current pope and the previous pope chose the path of secrecy. Of denial. Of red herrings that are lies—e.g., the red herring/lie that the abuse crisis is entirely due to the presence of gay men in the priesthood.

Both the current pope and his predecessor, John Paul II, who placed Ratzinger at the center of the church and is responsible for his ascent to the papacy, chose to wager the future of Catholicism on the continued maintenance of the clerical, patriarchal system of governance now dominant in the church. Both popes chose to make what is an historically conditioned, mutable polity into something sacrosanct and beyond question.

In doing so, both the last pope and the current pope have significantly undermined the effectiveness of the church as a voice for justice and mercy in the developed sectors of the world. Both popes have made a Faustian bargain to write off Catholics in the developed parts of the globe, in order to maintain the allegiance of Catholics in the developing sectors of the world, where Catholicism is growing demographically.

The price of this Faustian bargain is, in my view, that increasing numbers of both Catholics and of people of good will in much of the developed world write off the Catholic church as irrelevant to the process by which a postmodern global culture is coming into being. And even worse, increasing numbers of Catholics and people of good will see the Catholic church in its institutional life today as a countersign to the gospel, to the core values the church itself seeks to proclaim in the face of its own unjust behavior towards women, survivors of childhood sexual abuse by priests, and gay and lesbian human beings.

I’ve noted before that one of the strengths of the Catholic understanding of the communion of the saints is, in my view, its broadness. Catholics in any walk of life can turn to the rich list of canonized saints for models of virtue. There’s somebody for everybody in the list of saints.

And so I can understand—I can even appreciate—that there are many Catholics in various parts of the world who see the life and legacy of John Paul II as a life and legacy of courageous virtue. I am one small voice among millions of Catholics whose sensus fidelium is, presumably, incorporated into decisions to canonize this particular person and not that one.

I am not a significant voice. And I am not a person of conspicuous virtue. John Paul II’s act of mercy in forgiving the man who tried to assassinate him puts into the shadows anything I might have done to forgive my own enemies, in my own tiny life.

Even so, I claim my right to make my voice heard, as the cause of John Paul II advances. I claim my right to speak out about what the choice to elevate this particular member of the body of Christ to the ranks of the saints will communicate to many of those who look to the church as a sacramental sign of God’s universal love in the world.

John Paul II’s treatment of women in the church was deplorable, and nothing can redeem that treatment for anyone committed to the full equality of women in church and society. Likewise, the silencing of theologians and the dismantling of groups working for humane treatment of gay and lesbian persons during John Paul II’s papacy was an act of great inhumanity—an anti-gospel actthat has had strongly pernicious pastoral effects as the church deals with its LGBT members.

After Ratzinger issued his 1986 pastoral letter calling gay people intrinsically disordered—during John Paul II’s papacy, with his blessing—the ministerial group Dignity was dismantled, its meetings were shut out of Catholic institutions, and its leaders were silenced. There is a direct genetic line between these draconian decisions of church leaders to turn their back on their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, and the current stepped-up campaign of church leaders to stigmatize gays and lesbians around the world. There is a direct line between Ratzinger’s 1986 pastoral letter and the current legislation facing the Ugandan legislature, which will make being gay or lesbian a capital crime.

People who not merely participate in, but who actively engineer, such anti-gospel events in history, ought not to be canonized. The canonization of John Paul II will drive the knife deeper, for many Catholics who stand in solidarity with women, with LGBT persons, and with survivors of childhood sexual abuse by Catholic authority figures. This canonization will continue to communicate to these groups that the pastoral leaders of the church have set their face against these members of the body of Christ. The canonization of John Paul II will not heal, but will deepen, wounds that a truly redemptive church ought to be all about healing.

I dissent from the decision to canonize Pope John Paul II.