Saturday, September 18, 2010

Benedict Sets the World Straight Again, Nobody Listens: Ecclesiological Reflections on the Failure of the Pope's Message

It’s interesting that though the usual hired guns are doing their usual shameless shilling for the Vatican as Benedict visits the British Isles, few Catholics except those of the extreme political and religious right seem to be nibbling at the alluring bait.  Hardly anyone seems interested in snapping up the bait that the spin-for-pay journalists are putting out now, as they breathlessly describe how the Holy Father takes “secularist” godless Britain, with its amorphous Anglicanism and softness on gay rights, to task.   

(Count the number of times that, in his day-by-day reporting this week, John Allen refers to “secular” gay rights activists protesting the pope in Britain —as if no Catholics anywhere support gay rights, as if there are no gay Catholics—and you’ll begin to recognize some of the preoccupations masquerading behind this rhetoric of morally stalwart Catholicism confronting morally confused Western secularism.  At least one of those preoccupations is a strong intent to keep the gays out, to keep the gays on the other side of lines marked Catholic and secular, or moral and immoral.  

On whose behalf is Allen spinning this narrative, I wonder?)

It’s interesting, as I say, to note how relatively silent most Catholics in the U.S. are, as the pages and pages of gushing prose pour forth at the websites of some of our mainstream Catholic publications—Benedict’s punches for the day, Benedict’s rebukes du jour, Benedict setting the godless right in this address and holding up side in that one, and, most unseemly of all, Benedict drawing us into a transformative signature Catholic religious experience through his gestures here and his moving actions there.

Whatever the pope is offering on this trip, it seems to me, not many of us want to buy.  And I wonder why that might be the case.

There’s the ongoing spate of revelations about the abuse crisis, of course, which have completely undermined the confidence of many Catholics in this pope and his pastoral leadership of the church.  There’s the relentless drip of stories about how, during the period in which Joseph Ratzinger was the right hand man of John Paul II and right into Benedict’s papacy, one highly placed prelate after another has not only ignored, but actually combated, survivors of childhood sexual abuse by priests.

And as Bishop Harpigny of Belgium told us this week, our pastoral leaders were treating survivors of childhood sexual abuse by priests in this shocking way because of money, because they feared the financial claims that those who had endured such abuse might make on the church.

All of this makes anything the pope now says about these matters appear as too little, too late—as a belated rhetorical flourish on a barbarism that ought never to have been seated in the heart of the church, in its episcopal palaces and curial halls.  A barbarism that many of us suspect is still firmly seated in those places, despite the rhetorical flourishes and the big papal blow-out on full display in Britain now . . . .

But I think there’s more to the silence than revulsion at the revelations of the abuse crisis.  Many of us simply do not buy—we have never bought—the fundamental assertions of Benedict’s restorationist Catholicism, which he’s now trotting out all over again in the British Isles as “the” Catholic answer to modernity.  

Many of us don’t buy the ecclesiology that tries, as Colleen Kochivar-Baker noted in a posting yesterday on Benedict’s revisionist history of the relationship between Catholicism and Nazism, to retrieve the Tridentine notion of the Catholic church as the perfect society.  Though Ratzinger was a peritus at Vatican II and was actively involved in developing its ecclesiology centered on the notion that the church is the pilgrim people of God, at some point following the council, he began to opt for the ecclesiology of Bellarmine—the church as the perfect society—which the conciliar definition of the church had sought to correct.

He began to opt for the perfect society ecclesiology of Bellarmine that the pope who placed him in power—John Paul II—had supported during the conciliar deliberations.  Against the ecclesiology that finally won the day at the council, the notion of the church as the pilgrim people of God moving through history towards the reign of God proclaimed by Jesus as the culmination of history.  The reign of God  that no church or no human society ever has perfectly realized, or ever will perfectly realize.

The image of the church as a perfect society stresses the “order” necessary to maintain the church as a perfect society—a perfect society that offers a model to the world, where all secular societies are imperfect.  As a perfectly ordered society, the church has a head, and underneath that head are many smaller heads, all answering to (and in perfect harmony with, spouting the very words of) the head at the top.  From the pope through the cardinals down to the bishops and the priests, the church is perfectly arranged, perfectly in tune with itself, functioning as a seamless society in which bottom echoes the sentiments of top.

In which the laity passively receive the sentiments of the top, as these are transmitted mouth to mouth down the chain of heads, big head to lesser head, until we arrive at the level of the parish priest, who transmits the sentiments of the big head at the top in daily homilies to his parish.  (It’s perhaps not beside the point that all the heads and mouths also happen to be males—just like the journalists writing the glowing reports about the punches the big holy head is now pulling in secularized England—and that they’re males by design, since the big head on top has transmitted through the chain of heads and mouths the notion that we cannot be a perfect society if the chain comprises female heads and female mouths.)

The notion of the church as the people of God on pilgrimage throughout history is a messier notion, ecclesiologically speaking.  It does not have the neatness, the elegance, the potential for top-down control of the perfect society, with its male heads topping other male heads in a perfect, unbroken chain of command.  It sees the Spirit residing in the base, rather than in the big head at the top of the pyramid and all the lesser heads in the chain of command.

It trusts the Spirit’s guidance from the bottom, as that guidance bubbles among the people of God who encounter God in their day-to-day activities, in their daily pursuit of God through the lives they live in the world of work, family, and secular activities.  The ecclesiology of the church as the pilgrim people of God does not see the sharp division that Benedict sees so clearly between the secular and the sacred.

It tends to imagine the secular as, in fact, the theater in which the sacred displays itself—the world of work and human love and day-to-day activities as the arena in which we encounter God.  Not a secular world devoid of God, as Benedict and his apologists (those secularist gay activists in their skimpy shorts nagging away at the Holy Father, on whom some of his journalistic apologists are so fixated) like to assume.  But the place in which our lives and the divine intersect.

And so, adding to the mess of the ecclesiology of Vatican II: if God is in the everyday world in which we lay folks live and move and have our being, then it’s possible that we can hear the voice of God even in the world.  Even in “secular” currents of thought—say, the current of thought that seeks to view women and gay and lesbian persons as full human persons—that do not have their origin in the perfect society of the Catholic church.

In “secular” currents of thought whose ethical presuppositions and goals strike many of us as more perfect by far—more attuned to the vision of the reign of God at the end of history towards which we are moving as people of faith—than the ethical presuppositions and goals of the perfect society of the Catholic church.  With its male heads topping male heads and transmitting the perfect, unquestionable, holy message from top to bottom of the church.  A message we’re to receive with humility and obedience, since it comes from the top.

Where God lives.  Or so we’re asked to believe.

Why aren’t most Catholics listening now, as Benedict pulls his punches and lets secular society have it again (interesting, isn’t it, how frequently those macho pugilistic metaphors crop up in the purple prose of the male talking heads  who shill for the Vatican)?  It’s because we no longer buy what he’s selling, I’d propose.

It’s because our understanding of what we are about as a church runs in a very different direction than the direction the big male head at the top wants to set for the church.  Vatican II spurred us on to listen carefully to what the Spirit is saying in the world around us, in the world as a whole—not just in the mouth-to-mouth chain of command of male heads in our church.

And what we hear the Spirit saying to us in “secular” movements like the movement for women’s rights or gay rights often inspires us far more profoundly than the pomp and splendor of empty shows like the medieval show now taking place in England do.  In fact, because our understanding of the world and of the church is normed by the vision of the reign of God to arrive at the end of history—in which the first will be last and the poor will have a privileged seat at the table while the rich are sent empty away—many of us find far more inspiration in some “secular” movements for peace, justice, and human rights than we find in our own church right now.

At least, than we find in the talking heads of our own church.  And in the talking hired media heads defending those holy talking Vatican heads as the ones who have the last word on where God lives in the world.  And on who counts and who doesn’t count, when God has the final say.  And on whether the rude “secular” gay rights activists in the gold shorts shouting at the Holy Father have as much of a chance of belonging to the City of God as Benedict does.

No comments: