Friday, March 26, 2010

A Response to Michael Sean Winters on Defending His Church: It's My Church, Too

 I’ve spent much of today trying to figure out how to write a response to Michael Sean Winters’ posting at America blog today, taking the New York Times to task for its article yesterday about Pope Benedict’s connections to the story of a Wisconsin priest who evidently sexually abused some 200 deaf boys.

I’ve written postings critical of some of Winters’ positions in the past.  I don’t want to write something now that appears to be a broadside attack on a journalist whose work I often admire, even as I disagree at a fundamental level with some of Winters’ theological starting points.  Michael Sean Winters takes heat from the Catholic right for his attempts to place the best of the Catholic tradition in dialogue with a political sphere that transcends the Republican party. 

I support and want to defend that enterprise—and to defend Winters against such attacks.

At the same time, as I’ve noted in a number of postings on this blog, I find Winters’ view of the American Catholic church anemic, far from adequately appreciative of the rich and legitimate diversity of our church.  Winters tends to identify the church with the bishops, and he cuts the bishops far more slack than they deserve—repeatedly.  Even after their shameful performance in the recent health care debates.

And this is where I part company with Winters yet again, when he attacks the New York Times for its article about Benedict’s connections to the Wisconsin story—without, it seems to me, recognizing that his defense of his church is also implicitly a statement about his and others’ tacit judgment that many members of the church who live outside his definition of authentic Catholicity have no place at all in his church.  In the church of Benedict and the bishops.

And that the cruel exclusion of millions of brothers and sisters who don’t fit a narrow, top-down, episcopally confined definition of Catholicism totally explodes the claims of the church to be catholic today.  And is at the heart of the abuse crisis which is now causing unimaginable grief to the church.

Winters writes, “While I am feeling defensive on behalf of my Church, let me point out one other sentence of the Times’ article that jumped off the page at me . . . .”

And what I’d like to say in response is this: it’s not just your church, Michael.  It’s also the church of those 200 deaf boys abused by Father Murphy for years on end, as one bishop after another enabled the abuse and the man who now sits in the seat of Peter learned of it and did nothing.  Nothing to stop the abuse.

Nothing to stop the abuse, but everything possible to continue shielding the abuser.

It’s their church, too.  And their voices have to count now.  They didn’t in the past.  Not only did no one with power in the church want to hear their voices: those with power in the church worked energetically to silence their voices.

And your ongoing robust defense of the men who have done this over and over to survivors of clerical sexual abuse is also a statement about how totally insignificant the voices—the very lives—of all those abused by priests are, in your church.  You continue to write about the church and catholicity as if those folks just aren’t there—as the bishops and Vatican officials who have made them invisible occupy center stage in everything you write about the church.

And that’s why we are where we are.  If their voices continue not to count now, then the Catholic church is doomed.  It cannot revive itself and its mission if it continues to read out of its membership rolls—both tacitly and overtly—all those who have sought for years to be heard, as they tried to tell their painful stories of abuse by priests.  And women who refuse to be pushed around by men.  And gays and lesbians who claim our nature as God-given and refuse to apologize for it.

Perhaps here’s the heart of the problem, Michael: too much of your time and energy is devoted to talking to bishops and those who talk to bishops.  Which means, to men, though half the world and half the church consists of women.  Which also means, to men living within and infatuated by the inner political circles that represent (and imagine) themselves as the center of political life in the U.S.

There’s something self-deceiving about living within circles that imagine themselves as the inner circles from which power emanates.  Living in such circles constricts the vision and the imagination.  It is blinding.  It results in perspectives and discourse that lack explanatory power for the 99.99% of people in both the world and the church who do not walk the halls of power.

And when our vision and imagination about what it means to be catholic are constricted in that way—when we think that the viewpoints and voices of bishops and Vatican officials count more than anyone else’s—we are in danger of losing sight of the entire meaning of catholicism.

That’s why we’re in the mess we’re in now.  And we won’t begin to put the shards back together in any meaningful pattern that can justifiably call itself catholic until we stop treating millions of people that not only should count, but should count more than the bishops and the papacy, as if they are just not there, when we talk about catholicity and its contributions to public life today.

The graphic for this posting is theologian Cerezo Barredo’s depiction of the eschatological banquet.