Thursday, April 22, 2010

Catholic Church's Present Crisis: The Shock Waves Continue Globally

And, of course (you didn’t expect me to give this story up yet, did you?), as Andrew Sullivan observed on his Dish blog two days ago, the abuse crisis in the Catholic church continues to go global.   Though, as I’ve noted here, I expect the coverage of the crisis in its global dimensions to diminish now in the mainstream media in the U.S., anyone who thinks this crisis is over and done with in the wider context of the church universal is, I believe, deluding himself or herself.

It is being reported today that Bishop Walter Mixa of Augsburg, a staunch supporter of the restorationist regime of John Paul II and Benedict, has now offered the pope his resignation after reports of his violent behavior towards children in a Bavarian orphanage before he became bishop.  Questions are also being raised about his use of orphanage funds for lavish items including top-end religious art, an engraving that turns out to be a counterfeit, a gold bishop’s ring, and cases of wine.  As Mixa offers his resignation, there are more reports coming out of Germany of a significant exodus of German Catholics from the church in recent weeks.

The Vatican has also just accepted the resignation of Irish bishop James Moriarty, who has been accused of mishandling abuse cases in the diocese of Kildare and Leighlin. 

And today victims of Fr. Lawrence Murphy, the Wisconsin priest accused of molesting as many as 200 deaf boys in his years as a priest, filed a federal suit in Milwaukee against various Vatican officials, including Pope Benedict. (Update, later in the day: it appears to be one plaintiff, identified as John Doe, filing this suit.)

Meanwhile police in Australia are expressing frustration that the Catholic church there appears to be receiving numerous reports of abuse under its 1996 “Melbourne Response” policy, but is apparently not moving forward to discipline priests credibly reported to have abused minors.

As Andrew Sullivan notes in his blog entry to which I link at the beginning of this posting, a new wave of allegations about clerical abuse of minors is just beginning to hit countries in the developing areas of the world, including Latin America and Africa.  In my view, this is where we will next begin to hear news of the abuse crisis, and the reports we will be hearing from these countries will be sensational.  And they’ll center far more on priests’ abuse of female minors and women than the reports from Europe and North America have done.

And here’s what I think will happen in the Catholic church in the U.S., as the crisis continues to play out at a global level: we’ll see diminished coverage of the abuse crisis in its global dimensions.  And we’ll find more and more rank-and-file Catholics, particularly those inclined in a neoconservative political direction, pushing back hard against coverage of the abuse crisis.  These apologists will tell us that the crisis is over and done with—solved and laid to rest—and that Benedict is responsible for the resolution of the crisis.  Talking points to that effect are already circulating among neocon Catholics in the U.S., and we’ll see them imposed on any and every forthcoming news article in the mainstream media that these apologists can manage to skew in their apologetic direction.

There will also be a concerted effort of neocon Catholics in the U.S. to shout down their brother and sister Catholics who do not toe their line, with a continuation of rhetoric about “authentic” Catholicism that has dominated the thinking of Catholics of the right for some time.  (They’re the authentic ones, doncha know.)  And we’ll continue to see Catholic apologists of the right suggesting that survivors of clerical abuse do not deserve a hearing, that they are mainly out to embarrass and ruin the church financially, that many of them are lying and that they seduced their attackers, and that they are being aided and abetted in their evil crusade by the mainstream media and other enemies of the church. 

We’ll also continue to hear some Catholic journalists of the center, who have lost all credibility now after their immediate, knee-jerk defense of Benedict in the crisis, discounting and attacking Hans Küng’s flat—and persuasive—claim that Benedict is at the center of the cover-up.  We’ll hear more and more magical, mystical talk from the liberal center (these journalists are, after all, paid to write this stuff—paid by neocons with deep pockets) about how Benedict is the sole answer to the abuse crisis.  About how he’s determined to reform the Curia, about how he’s God’s answer to the church’s needs at this point in history, even about how he has corrected the laxity that good-hearted but non-vigilant John Paul II allowed to continue in the priesthood.

From Rome, I think we’ll hear talk—emphasis on talk—about a tightening of policies and a determination to weed out abusive clergy.   But as Barbara Blaine observes incisively at SNAP yesterday, “When the Pope promises ‘action,’ what he means are ‘policy tweaks.’”

In Blaine’s view (and I am convinced she is right in this assessment),

The Pope should push hard for . . . legislative reforms and independent investigations. But he won't. He'll insist on doing what Catholic officials have always insisted on: trying to handle horrific crimes internally, which is inherently problematic.

He'll announce a “zero tolerance” policy which will sound reassuring but change little. But he either won't spell out penalties for violators or won't actually impose those penalties, and the long-standing, deeply-rooted culture of child endangerment and self-serving secrecy will remain intact.

As I read wise comments like this from folks who have been fighting for years now to call the church to accountability and to make a dent in the ecclesial culture responsible for horrific abuse of children, I think of something a priest-theologian friend of mine said to me several years ago, after Steve and I had our careers as theologians robbed from us by a Benedictine college in North Carolina.  This friend had spent time at another Benedictine university in the U.S., and lamented our experience in North Carolina, because he looked back on his sojourn with the Benedictines as “magical.”

As I told this friend about our experience at the college in North Carolina, I mentioned that I was shocked by the way we had been treated, because I had expected those owning and running this particular Catholic college to be, at the least, moral.  And to act like the gentlemen they claimed to be.

They weren’t.  And they didn’t.

My friend’s response: “That’s where you made your big mistake—expecting moral and civil behavior from many clergy and most bishops today.”  And then he went on to say, “I think we’ve all been naïve to expect that an institution so entrenched in some kinds of behavior would change quickly and substantively merely because an ecumenical council mandated quick and substantive reform.  That expectation does not make sociological sense.”

My friend was right, I think.  In some respects, Vatican II did a disservice to many of us who hoped for reform in the Catholic church, because while it mandated reform, it did not create a process for assuring that what it mandated would actually take effect.

And as a result, many of us forged ahead with hope and joy, assuming that we had received a mandate to do so, only to find that a brick wall lay right around the next corner of the road we were traveling with such hope and joy. 

As an example, following Vatican II, many layfolks flocked to graduate programs in theology, hearing a call to serve the church in a ministry that had long been more or less the exclusive domain of priests, and to a far lesser extent, of religious women.  We who heard this call to be lay theologians often did so with great hope and real joy, and in many cases, we sacrificed much to obtain our educations, while we attended classes with priests, nuns, and brothers whose dioceses and communities were footing the bills as they studied.  And who had secure jobs waiting for them in colleges run by their communities or dioceses when they graduated . . . .

For lay theologians, there were no structures in place—none at all—either to support our study or to assure a place for us to teach and do research, when we had graduated, during the period after Vatican II in which many laypersons sought graduate degrees in theology.  To a certain extent, at least in the initial wave of this movement to lay theology, Catholic institutions were, in fact, impervious and hostile to lay theologians.  We were a threat to the control of a discipline that had long been securely in the hands of clerics and bishops.

This threat was part of what led, I am convinced, to the movement in the final decade of the 20th century to require all theologians to obtain a mandatum giving the local bishop direct control over their hiring and firing, and what they taught.  Soon after I was booted from my position as chair of the theology department of the Benedictine college where I met my Waterloo, the abbot of the monastery that owns the college took over the presidency of the college, and reinstituted policies that had been changed following Vatican II, which reasserted the direct control of the college by the monks who owned it.

As he did this, he told the media that these steps were necessary, because the increasing presence of laypersons on faculties of Catholic colleges and universities was a threat to the Catholicity of these colleges and universities.  Catholicity is, it seems, equivalent to clerical control . . . . (I was, hardly coincidentally, the first layperson to head the theology department of this college.)

My point: Vatican II pointed the Catholic church to reform, and admirably so.  But at the same time, it did not set into place the procedural reforms that would assure that a resistant, intractable institution dominated by a powerful governing center and a privileged elite with all the power in its hands could actually reform itself in the way the council expected.

What we have seen in the period of John Paul II and Benedict is precisely the opposite impulse: while claiming to be faithful to the council, these restorationist popes set in motion a powerful current of retrenchment that reclericalized the church—a powerful movement that hinged the church’s future even more forcefully than ever on the continuation of the clerical system, with all its powers and privileges.

This movement is the epicenter of the problems the Catholic church faces now.  And the kind of substantive reform that Vatican II envisaged and which the church absolutely has to undergo if it is to have a vital future is not going to happen until the retrenchment, with its attendant reclericalization of the church, is halted. 

That is not going to happen anytime soon.  And it will happen only when or if those at the center are brought kicking and screaming into the circle of reform through resolute pressure by the media and secular institutions that will no longer tolerate the covering up of criminal activity by religious institutions. 

The graphic shows survivors John Pilmaier and Peter Isely of SNAP protesting in front of the Vatican in March 2010, holding pictures of Pope Benedict and his second-in-command Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.