Saturday, December 18, 2010

More on Archbishop Dolan's Defense of Bill Donohue: Who Owns the Cross?

When I posted Thursday about Archbishop Timothy Dolan's defense of Bill Donohue's attack on the Smithsonian for staging the work of AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz, I noted that Our Daily Thread, a new blog of the group Catholics United, had alerted readers to Dolan's defense of Donohue.  

Catholics United has continued to follow this issue, and yesterday, the group put out a press release about its opposition to Dolan's defense of Donohue.  As this press release notes, Catholics United has organized an email petition campaign soliciting signatures for a letter of protest to be sent to Dolan, who is the new president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and whose word therefore carries great weight as "the" Catholic voice in the public sphere.  The petition is here.

Catholics United's Our Daily Thread blog is now carrying a powerful statement about Dolan's defense of Dohonue by a blogger named James. As he notes, many Catholics are perturbed by the U.S. Catholic bishops conference president's defense of Donohue because Donohue's reading of the Catholic tradition misrepresents our tradition and core values of the tradition in the public sphere.

James writes,

In order to understand why Dolan’s comments are so unfortunate, one should consider why Donohue is simply bad for Catholicism.  Donohue personifies that white older male constantly at odds with the changing world around him.  He’s like the Catholic version of Archie Bunker, only with fax machine and a $350,000 salary.  But the worst part of Donohue’s shtick is that his message has no semblance to the teachings of Jesus Christ, who spent his time forgiving sinners and healing lepers, not complaining about art.

This discussion hinges on something about which I blogged several times yesterday: who owns the Catholic tradition and its central symbols?  In Phoenix, Bishop Thomas Olmsted has given a Catholic hospital group an ultimatum: either accede to my definition of what it means to be Catholic, or I'll yank the title Catholic away from you.  In recent years, there has been controversy, as my blast-from-the-past posting yesterday noted, about who owns the ritual symbol of foot-washing on Holy Thursday, with some Catholic bishops refusing to wash women's feet in the Holy Thursday liturgy on the ground that this symbol belongs exclusively to bishops.  And to men.  Not to women.

Some bishops have even treated the Eucharist itself  in recent years as if they own the Eucharist and other sacraments, and as if the sacraments are rewards reserved for the good and the submissive (and for Republicans), and not for "disobedient" Catholics (and Democratic ones).

Bully Bill Donohue and Archbishop Timothy Dolan are asserting that they own the crucifix.  Exclusively.  Unilaterally.  They are protesting against something that has been well-established in the Christian tradition from its very beginning, that is, the right of every believer to read central symbols of the Christian faith like the crucifixion in light of his or her own experience, and to interpret those symbols according to his or her graced experience.

They are protesting against the right of an artist to appropriate a core Christian symbol and use it in a meaningful, moving way in a meditation on what it means to live with a serious (and stigmatized) illness like AIDS.  Ultimately, Donohue and Dolan also appear to be saying that an artist who is openly and apologetically gay has no business claiming a Christian symbol, thinking about that symbol in light of his experience, and finding validation for his experience of God in this symbol.

As I noted in my statement about the foot-washing controversy yesterday, it strikes me as ironic that, at precisely a moment in Catholic history in which bishops' claim to unilateral moral authority among the people of God has been significantly eroded by their handling of the abuse situation, many bishops are asserting that claim more belligerently than ever.  This presents a quandary for an increasing number of Catholics.

Increasingly, many of us do not see in the lived witness provided by our bishops a clear affirmation of the theological and ethical teachings they wish to impose on us.  For many of us, the verbal teachings are belied by the behavior and lives of the bishops.  Cognitive dissonance is the result.  As with anyone faced with teachings that the teacher himself/herself is not living, we recognize that the lived witness to what is being taught is far more important than the words being said, and we feel torn by the disparity.  Our own lived experience of the faith, our lived, graced appropriation of central symbols of our faith like the crucifixion, runs directly counter to the bishops' assertion that they alone own these symbols and they alone will defined the meaning of these symbols for us.

As a result, many of us are walking away from the Catholic church as fast as we can.  To save our faith.  And the behavior of the newly elected president of the U.S. bishops (and of bishops like Olmsted in Phoenix) is not going to reverse the exodus.  To the contrary . . . .

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