Monday, July 19, 2010

Maureen Dowd Dares to Speak, and Michael Sean Winters Goes Ballistic: The Two Futures the Abuse Situation Creates for the Catholic Church

Maureen Dowd addresses the intractable problems the Catholic church now faces—and which its leaders keep creating for the church they lead—and Michael Sean Winters predictably goes ballistic.  As he has done repeatedly this year (and here), when the New York Times publishes a hard-hitting article delving into the depth of the cover-up of abuse cases.

And what I want to do here is not so much seek to refute Winters’sarguments, which are, in my estimation, not worth engaging.  What I want to note is how these two articles—Dowd’s and Winters’—provide a sharp, clear snapshot of where American Catholicism finds itself at this point in its history, and of two very different futures the church may make for itself, depending on which of two paths it chooses now.

On the one side, there’s Dowd’s judgment, delivered in an influential secular publication, about the Vatican document linking clerical pedophilia and the “attempt” to ordain a woman.  Dowd writes,

There is no moral awakening here. The cruelty and indecency of child abuse once more inspires tactical contrition. All the penitence of the church is grudging and reactive. Church leaders are merely as penitent as they need to be to protect the institution.

And then there’s Winters’ blustering critique of Dowd, who has written another “inane screed,” who just doesn’t get all the little niceties of theological discourse reserved to the bishops (and to him) to parse.  Who had better stick to her “glamorous and sharp-witted” gossip columns and leave the theological parsing to the big boys.  Who doesn’t know casuistry from causality, because she’s a “peddler of invective and stupidity.”

Most of that is just in Winters’ first paragraph, in which he’s only warming up for his full-throated assault on Dowd and anyone else who calls into question the Vatican’s recent inane, entirely stupid coupling of clerical pedophilia and women’s ordination in a single document specifying penalties for various crimes against the faith.  (And I’m not the only one calling the recent Vatican decision to couple clerical pedophilia with the “attempt “to ordain a woman inane and stupid: take a look at what *Msgr. Harry J. Byrne, a canon lawyer, says about the document at his Archangel blogsite last Friday—in Byrne’s view, the decision to twin the issues in one document “shows a stupidity and absence of sound moral judgment probably unequaled in church history.”)

Two futures: on one hand, free, open discussion in the secular media by a woman educated in Catholic schools, who has the smarts to understand both the difference between casuistry and causality, let alone the cruelty and indecency of covering up clerical abuse of children and the inane stupidity of coupling that issue with women’s ordination in a single document.  On the other hand, blustering reaction by a defender of the bishops and the Vatican who appears to equate what these gentlemen say on non-infallible issues like gay marriage, abortion laws, and numerous other issues with what “we Catholics believe.” (News flash to Michael: what “we Catholics believe” is spelled out in the creed, not in every word that drops from an episcopal mouth.)

And who goes to bat for the bishops repeatedly, who writes that “as [Archbishop Donald] Wuerl said, at the end of the day, in a hierarchical church, it’s the bishop’s call.” And who applauds Cardinal Francis George and says that George has “hit the nail on the head” when Cardinal George writes,

A Catholic way of life is based on assent to revealed truth and obedience to appointed pastors, both of which create the unity Christ wishes us to enjoy.

News flash to Cardinal George: the judgments of the appointed pastors of the church don't create the unity Christ wishes us to enjoy.  Christ himself does that through our communion in the body of Christ and the eucharist.  The bishops’ judgments reflect and presuppose a unity that is found first and foremost in how we live, as the body of Christ.  The creed gives verbal expression to and presupposes the lived experience of faith.

The juxtaposition of Maureen Dowd’s and Michael Sean Winters’ articles about the recent Vatican document coupling clerical pedophilia and the “attempt” to ordain a woman points dramatically to two distinct paths the church may choose to follow, now that the cover-up of sexual abuse of minors by priests has exploded the pretensions of the bishops and Rome to hold the moral center of the church and to speak for the entire church.

We may go the route Winters proposes: fight tooth and nail against truth-telling coverage of the mess our church is in (the mess the pastoral leaders have created), charge the media with anti-Catholicism, draw our ranks into a tight little defensive circle chanting the “we Catholics believe” mantra and equating every temporal judgment of our pastoral leaders with revealed truth, no matter how inane those judgments are and how scandalously they betray our real tradition.   And no matter how empty the moral authority of those pastoral leaders now appears.

We may continue anointing an elite group of journalists who spend most of their time hobnobbing with the bishops as “the” spokespersons for what “we Catholics believe.”  And we may allow them to continue to attack reporters who—particularly when those reporters are women—purportedly have no real understanding of the intricacies of what “we Catholics believe,” when those reporters point to the glaring inconsistency between what we claim to believe and how we actually act.

Or we may go the route that Maureen Dowd and others open for us, when they put the issues on the table and expect respectful, open discussion—even by women, and by those who do not hobnob with bishops, and those who have no formal theological training.  We may, in other words, begin to honor what the word “catholic” really means, and admit that we’ve done a tremendous disservice to the notion of catholicity and what the church stands for by equating every word that pops out of a bishop’s mouth with what “we Catholics believe.”

And that we, the anointed spokespersons for what “we Catholics believe,” have done a horrible disservice to the church by closing ranks, controlling the conversation, refusing to admit everyone’s voice into it, and dismissing information and viewpoints that don’t come to us from a chancery office, a bishop’s palace, or elite opinion makers whose primary function is to provide a voice for the bishops in the media, when the bishops judge that speaking publicly in their own voices might be risky.  (Make no mistake about it: what Winters writes in his column about Maureen Dowd’s “inane screed” and her “invective and stupidity” is being whispered behind closed doors today in chanceries and episcopal palaces throughout the land.  That and more.  Because Dowd is a woman.)

And if we do go the route that the bishops and Winters (“we Catholics believe”) want, here’s what I predict: all the blustering, all the frothing at the mouth, all the cheap shots at women who open their mouths, all the gathering of the ranks and drawing sharp insider-outsider lines that define what “we Catholics believe” are not going to stop the current of history from flowing right around us on our defensive little island.

And they are not going to stop the tide of public opinion from expressing horror and outrage at the cruelty and indecency of covering up clerical rape of minors, or the inane stupidity of coupling such acts with the “attempt” to ordain a woman.

And as the streams and tides pass us by and leave us content on the tiny island that we’ve proudly named Catholic, catholicity itself will be flowing past us in those streams and tides.  Leaving us with an island that has a name that means nothing at all—nothing that the name itself should denote.  Where the big boys who sit around parsing casuistry and definitively declaring what “we Catholics” believe have not a clue that their little island does not represent the entire world, or anywhere near the entirety of catholic faith and life.

*My gratitude to Jim McCrea for bringing Harry Byrne’s posting to my attention.