Sunday, June 20, 2010

John Allen on Abuse Crisis: Secular Media, Elite Centers of Opinion, Lawyers, and Barbed Catholic Blogs Put Bishops' Backs Up

From John Allen's latest "All Things Catholic" column at National Catholic Reporter:

For the bishops, the defining trauma of the last decade has been the sexual abuse crisis. It would take a particularly out-of-touch prelate not to grasp the massive hit their reputation and moral authority has taken – and if any bishop were ever tempted to forget, newspaper editorial pages, cable TV talk shows, and the blogosphere stand ready to offer barbed reminders.

The fresh eruption of the [sexual abuse] crisis in recent months, this time engulfing the Vatican and the pope himself, has revived a sense of siege. While most bishops in America are painfully aware of the church’s failures, many also feel that the unrelenting criticism of the church and its leaders has been unfair. There’s a spreading sense that the secular media, elite centers of opinion, tort lawyers, and in-house critics within the Catholic fold have exploited the crisis to sour the public image of the bishops, ignoring the massive efforts they’ve undertaken to foster a safe environment for children, to reach out to victims, and to weed predators out of the priesthood.

For the moment, it doesn’t matter how justified those perceptions may be. They’re a reality, and collectively they’ve generated a sort of gut-level, pre-conscious reaction among a growing swath of bishops. The tendency is to begin thinking about any issue in the life of the church by asking: “Are you with us or against us?” 

I've noted before (and here) that John Allen's journalism often employs a prescriptive-as-descriptive framework in which his own theological and political penchants are embedded as pseudo-objective description of a situation.  Under the guise of describing, Allen prescribes.

(My criticism here does not have to do with the fact that journalists inevitably write from a vantage point of interests and commitments.  My critique focuses on the way in which Allen's journalism seeks to posture as disinterested and uncommitted, while it offers strongly prescriptive analysis.)

Even as he claims to be an objective observer of church matters, John Allen consistently bats for the bishops and the Vatican.  The preceding paragraphs from his latest NCR column are yet another reminder of what Allen continues to be about, as a commentator on Catholic issues.

Note the coy disclaimer of the third paragraph: "For the moment, it doesn’t matter how justified those perceptions may be."  But this disclaimer comes after Allen has, in persona episcopi, taken the nasty secular media and refractory Catholic blogosphere to task for their "barbed reminders" of the bishops' malfeasance in the sexual abuse crisis.

What the disclaimer offers with one hand, the prescriptive analysis masquerading as descriptive takes away with the other. The bishops are being treated unfairly by "the secular media, elite centers of opinion, tort lawyers, and in-house critics within the Catholic fold." 

All of whom have sought to provide the unfair perception that the bishops (and Vatican) are somehow responsible for the abuse crisis.

And so what option do the bishops have except to get their back up and adopt a "you're either with us or against us" policy?

What is particularly shameful about John Allen's analysis here (and his continued barbed asides about bloggers) is that it turns on its head the situation in which the American Catholic church now finds itself.  We do not find ourselves in a mess because the secular media, elite centers of opinion, lawyers, and barb-bearing Catholic bloggers have put the bishops' backs up.

The bishops' backs were already up long before the abuse revelations broke.  And that is the source of the mess in which we find ourselves now: the adoption of an either-for-us-or-against-us policy by the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church under Popes John Paul II and Benedict, in which the people of God are pitted--by their own pastoral leaders--against church officials.  The bishops and Vatican have worked long and hard for years now to create an either-with-or-against-us mentality in the church.  

It is that stance, which abrogates Vatican II and violates the gospels, that has produced the abuse crisis in the Catholic church and the current disaffection of many Catholics from pastoral leaders who have failed to be pastoral.  Blaming the media, or purported maleficent elites, or barristers or barbed bloggers, gets us nowhere, if we really want to address the roots of this crisis effectively.

The only productive place we can go if we want healing is for church leaders to admit that they have failed abysmally, on the whole, to be authentic pastoral leaders in recent years.  And then, having made that admission, to begin a necessary and long-deferred rebuilding process.  To put their words into actions.  In collaboration with the people of God.

Including Catholic bloggers bearing barbs.  Which may, when viewed from vantage points other than the  elite vantage point of embattled and self-protective church leaders, be lancets and not barbs at all--tools to heal rather than to destroy.