Friday, December 3, 2010

Gustav Niebuhr on Terrible Thorns with Which Bishops Have Surrounded Church's Witness to Justice

Gustav Niebuhr's commentary on the poisonous seeds sowed for years now by many Catholic pastoral leaders in their handling of the abuse crisis, and the "lushly appalling crop" with "terrible thorns" that those seeds have sown, precisely articulates something I've been sensing in recent days.  As I read commemorations on various websites of the courageous Catholic women (religious and lay) who died in El Salvador thirty years ago, I find myself unable to concentrate.  And, God help me, even to celebrate the memory of their witness to justice.

And I wonder what has changed in my life and heart over the years, to produce this malaise of sympathy with and connection to such powerful witness for justice often provided by members of my church.  In all the years I taught theology, I showed the documentary "Roses in December," about the martyrdom of these witnesses to justice and the life of laywoman Jean Donovan, over and over.  And each time I myself watched it again with my students, I was moved, often to tears.

But something has changed.  I feel quite sure that many Catholic leaders and those who continue defending them would tell me my heart has hardened, that I have grown inured to the Spirit's tugs at my heart because I am an open, defiant sinner living a life condemned by the church.  And perhaps they're right.  As the Jewish prophets repeatedly note, the human heart has depths and mystery unknown even to ourselves.  Thinking that we are walking in the way of grace, we may have no inkling that we have blocked our hearts off to the motions of grace.

But I suspect something more is responsible for my lassitude now, as I recall the stories of Dorothy Kazel, Ita Ford, Jean Donovan, and Maura Clarke.  And Niebuhr describes that something more quite accurately for me.  He says,

The negligence of certain bishops, poisonous seeds sowed over the decades, has reaped a lushly appalling crop, whose terrible thorns do much to obscure the church's moral witness. By the latter, I mean the courageous and the committed who have labored (and continue still) to bring to society Christian ideals of aiding the poor, oppressed and persecuted. . . .

At some point, when the church (and the civil courts) have finished dealing with the criminals it long allowed in its midst, then its leaders can get back to lifting up the memories of loyal Catholics who gave their lives for its greatest ideals. If nothing else, a recounting of their stories would make fine telling during some future Advent.

I have a strong sense that, at this point in its history, the church is adrift.  Faced with damning evidence of the disaffection of massive numbers of Catholics, the bishops do not get back to what should be the task at hand, whether lifting up the memories of loyal Catholics who have courageously witnessed to love, justice, and mercy in the world, or staunching the wounds of the many Catholics who are bleeding due to the bishops' handling of the abuse crisis.  Or due to their repeated mean-spirited betrayal of love, justice, and mercy in their dealing with their female and their gay brothers and sisters.

I do not hear the bishops even talking about love.  Or justice.  Or mercy.

Instead, I hear the newly elected leader of the U.S. Catholic bishops Timothy Dolan telling the media that the church just can't change.  Sorry.  Would love to accommodate you.  Just can't do it.  Our hands are tied.

We can't change the abuse we inflict on women because we have no mandate from the Lord to grant women full citizenship among the people of God by ordaining them.  We can't stop beating up our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters because we're only doing what the Lord commands when we attack this select group of sinners.  We cannot behave with even minimal human decency towards those who have survived childhood sexual abuse by priests, because as leaders of the church charged above all to defend it, we must protect the church (and its assets) at all cost.

C-a-n-n-o-t change.  And yet the church desperately does need to change, because the actions of these same leaders who tell us they are guardians of a sacred system that just happens to accord them power and privilege far in excess of the power and privilege enjoyed by lay members of the church have become a well-nigh insuperable obstacle for many of us, as we try to continue to walk with the Lord in the Catholic church.

Or even--and I say this with tremendous sadness--as we try to hear the stories of those courageous women martyred in El Salvador.  The thicket of thorns has become too dense, for many of us--too dense to see justice hidden anywhere inside it anymore.  

And the bishops and Vatican obviously do not intend to take a scythe to that thicket anytime soon, since it grows right out of their own hearts--as the continuing appalling behavior of Archbishop John Nienstedt and the bishop of Winona, Minnesota, John Quinn, says loudly and clearly.  This despite vocal condemnation of these bishops' heartless attack on a survivor of clerical sexual abuse by SNAP, Bishop Accountability, Call to Action, and National Survivor Advocates Coalition (the latter of which has statements by all these organizations and their letters to Nienstedt and Quinn on its homepage today).

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