Thursday, January 27, 2011

Nicholas Kristof on "Tussling Over Jesus": The Two Faces of Contemporary Catholicism

Nicholas Kristof's op-ed piece, "Tussling Over Jesus," in today's New York Times continues a theme he began developing last April in an op-ed piece about the two Catholic churches he encounters as he travels around the world.  One is the church of a self-absorbed, self-protective patriarchal old boys' club that puts its own power and privilege above the needs of the church as a whole.  A self-absorbed, self-protective old boy's club that puts the continuation of its power and privilege above the future of the church itself.  And above the gospels.

The other is the church of the grassroots, of priests, nuns, and layfolks struggling to live the gospel wherever they find themselves, and wherever they find the challenge to feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit the prisoner, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, etc.  In Kristof's view, the magnificence of members of this grassroots church "lies not in their vestments, but in their selflessness."

Kristof continues this narrative framework today in his "Tussling Over Jesus" piece, which focuses on the draconian measures that Phoenix Catholic bishop Thomas Olmsted has taken to try to force a Catholic hospital in his diocese into subjection to his will.  I've recounted that story on this blog: as I noted in a posting last May, Olmsted excommunicated Mercy Sister  Margaret McBride after she participated in a decision of the ethics committee of St. Joseph's hospital to abort the 11-week old fetus of a woman suffering from pulmonary hypertension that, left untreated, would almost certainly have resulted in her death and that of the fetus.  Olmsted later went on to remove the designation "Catholic" from St. Joseph's hospital.

And so, Kristof proposes, Catholics today are tussling over Jesus--over where Jesus is to be found, over what fidelity to Jesus demands in contemporary culture.  Over who controls the central symbols of Catholic faith, who defines the meanings of those symbols.  Whose word and experience counts, as we read the gospels and apply them to our lives.  Who owns Jesus.

As Catholic bishops grow more conservative, Kristof notes, we are likely to see more of these power struggles at Catholic hospitals, which provide some 15% of hospital services to the nation at large.  Already, a report issued by the National Women's Law Center notes that doctors working in some Catholic hospitals say they're being pressured to give substandard care to women suffering miscarriages of ectopic pregnancies, substandard care that can leave them pregnant or even endanger their lives.

Kristof sees hope in the fact that St. Joseph's hospital has continued to insist, in the face of Olmsted's penalties, that it is doing and will keep doing the work of Jesus in its healing ministry.  He cites Anne Rice, who sees the response of St. Joseph's to Olmsted as a potential turning point in the American Catholic church:  

Anne Rice, the author and a commentator on Catholicism, sees a potential turning point. “St. Joseph’s refusal to knuckle under to the bishop is huge,” she told me, adding: “Maybe rank-and-file Catholics are finally talking back to a hierarchy that long ago deserted them.”

And I would like to share Kristof and Rice's hope here.  But I'm not sure I can.  I'm not sure I'm there yet, at the place of hope where it's possible to see a turning point in American Catholicism.  From the marginal place in which I find myself--from the margins to which the current regime in the church has pushed me and many others--what I see is this: the U.S. bishops are not merely growing more conservative. 

They are overtly and unapologetically aligning their church with a single political party--the Republican party--and are overtly and unapologetically making common cause with the most rabid sectors of the American religious right.  The bishops are completely blind to the considerable shortcomings of the party to which they have pledged their loyalty, while they focus with laserlike intensity on the shortcomings, real and imagined, of the other party.

They, and a wealthy elite of right-wing political and corporate business leaders who now have disproportionate influence over the thinking of the Catholic bishops of the U.S., are determined to turn the American Catholic church into a propaganda machine for the Republican party.  And an official level.

It is, of course, evident to me that a large number of American Catholics do not buy into this realignment of the bishops of the American Catholic church with the Republican party and the religious right.  But here's where I struggle to see hope: even when those American Catholics represent the majority, and a large majority, in their church, they do not own the official voice of the church.  They do not control the definition of the central symbols of the church.

That official voice, and the right to define the central symbols, belongs exclusively and unilaterally to the bishops.  Who guard their power and privilege jealously, and who intend to be utterly ruthless about safeguarding their right to speak exclusively for the church and to define what our central symbols mean for all the rest of us.  And in asserting this unilateral right to control the official voice of the church (and align it with a single political party), the bishops have the powerful backing--the powerful financial backing--of wealthy elites whose interests that political party serves.

And this will not change until members of the church--until members of Kristof's grassroots church, until the rank and file of the church--stop permitting their bishops to behave this way.  It will not change until rank-and-file Catholics stop allowing their bishops to sell their church and to sell out the gospels in the process.  This week, Tom Fox reminds us that the apostolic visitation of American nuns is still underway.  At a point in Catholic history in which one bishop after another has been revealed to have shielded priests abusing minors, Rome is investigating religious women--not bishops.  

And as Tom Fox notes, this bizarre, unjust investigation of American nuns is costing more than a million dollars.  But church officials aren't revealing who's paying for this investigation--who wanted it in the first place, who is footing the bill for the investigation.  Just as with those videos attacking gay marriage that the Catholic bishops of Minnesota produced in the last election cycle and mailed to all Catholic households in their state, where a similar sum of money was spent while Catholic dioceses in the state were closing churches and consolidating parishes, church authorities have refused to disclose the source of the the funds they use to play partisan politics.

Who is buying and selling American Catholicism today?  Who's buying and selling the American Catholic bishops and the official voice of the American Catholic church?  And why is this being done?  Whose interests are being served by the sale of the official voice of American Catholicism to one political party and its backers?  How can the gospel be proclaimed effectively by an organization whose leaders are for sale, and who have subjugated the voice of the faith community they serve to the interests of a wealthy elite?

These are perhaps the most pertinent questions of all for grassroots Catholics to ask today.  And, frankly, until I hear many more rank-and-file American Catholics asking these questions--asking where their donations to the church go and how they're used--I don't hold much hope for the American Catholic church.  Until I see the grassroots church holding its leaders accountable and demanding transparency re: the use of money given by lay Catholics to the church, money that oils the machinery of the church and keeps it running as bishops continue turning the church into a Republican political machine, I don't see a lot of hope.

As one of my nephews, who is now teaching political science courses at a local community college, told me a day ago after he and his mother heard our local bishop preach last Sunday at the cathedral, "All he talked about was abortion.  And he said that he is non-partisan, but everything he said was a Republican talking point--as if the Catholic church is an organ of the Republican party.  And so I stopped listening when I saw where he was headed."

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