Friday, February 18, 2011

The Father Euteneuer Story and the Charge of Schadenfreude: Misplaced Attempts to Shut Down Conversation

When I began blogging about the story (and here and here) of Human Life International's former director Father Thomas Euteneuer early in the month, I suggested that this story was not going to go away anytime soon, though there would be predictable attempts from predictable quarters to shut the conversation down.  As I wrote in one of my postings about this story,

And I predict that this story isn't going to go away simply because the usual folks shout the usual slogans to try to stop the conversation.  The goal of church officials and church organizations will, of course, be to keep the lid on the discussion and hope people will simply stop discussing this story when another case du jour comes along.

And if we've learned anything about the Catholic church in recent years, it's that another case is drearily predictable down the road.  Meanwhile, there are aspects to this story--the extensive influence of Euteneuer and HLI, the high profile Euteneuer has had in the American Catholic church in recent years, the truly bizarre fixation on the demonic and exorcism, and the fact that revelations offered by Euteneuer's former friends and fellow travelers are driving the story--that make me think it will continue to be discussed for some time.  No matter how much the apologists try to shut down the discussion.

In the last several days, both America's "In All Things" blog  and Commonweal's blog have had lively discussions of the Euteneuer story.  Among several fascinating aspects of both discussions has been this: in both discussions, Catholics with strong sympathies for the conservative political agenda Euteneuer promoted have tried to shut conversation down by claiming that those who want to talk about the Euteneuer case are engaging in Schadenfreude.

And here's what one contributor to the America thread, Bob Nunz, says about that charge:

Scadenfraude has bewcome a new mantra of the right, including the usual suspects here, who want to minimize the damage done by one of theirs.  I heard it parroted about the Philadelphia "bloodbath" to use Rocco's phrase.  I think it's really tedious that  we continue posts from  the same ideologues who don't want to deal with the issue here, viz. a criminal action  by a highly ranked clergy member taking advantage of his position.

The right-wing approach to Schadenfreude evidently runs something like the following: it's not shameful joy when we spend millions of taxpayer dollars to fund an investigation of a Democratic president's affair with an intern; but it is Schadenfreude when you want to talk about the betrayal of our most loudly proclaimed convictions by one of our own.  By a religious leader on our side who has made a cottage industry out of attacking liberals and touting chastity.

As I said when one respondent to my own postings about Euteneuer kept accusing me of Schadenfreude in talking about the Euteneuer story, the shameful joy charge is misplaced when folks committed to the moral values of a religious tradition insist, as our religious values require us to do, on talking about cases in which someone with a high public profile has conspicuously betrayed those values.  While loudly proclaiming them and bashing others who are said to fall short of the ideal.

Stories like this have all the elements of what Aristotle outlines as the very core of dramatic narrative.  Aristotle noted that dramas which engage our attention and allow us willingly to suspend disbelief commonly include the following elements: a powerful man treads the weak down as he wields power; he behaves arrogantly while ignoring his own shortcomings; those shortcomings, and the people he has trodden down as he wields power, then prove his downfall.

And we watch such dramas--we willingly enter on the narrative journey to which they invite us--not because we are joyful that the powerful man receives his just reward.  We watch in horror, seeing with our spectators' eyes what those blinded by power and arrogance are not able to see, precisely because their power and the arrogant way in which they use it blinds them to the downfall they are creating for themselves.  We watch with fascination to see the arrogant and unjust man brought down, because we want to have our moral view of the universe reaffirmed.  Our horror stems from the fact that the overweening powerful one cannot see that he is setting the conditions for his own takedown, while we can see clearly in the audience.

We are not joyful about seeing someone's downfall.  We are relieved to see that there is, indeed, a moral order in the world, which assures that no tyrant goes unpunished, no hypocrite goes unexposed--particularly when tyrannical hypocrites have done repeated harm to others too weak to defend themselves against the overweening tyrant.

There is an Aristotelian line to the story of Father Thomas Euteneuer, and that is what keeps this story alive.  There is an Aristotelian line to the story of priests who have abused minors, in general.  This is what keeps these stories alive.  At the heart of the story of the abuse of minors by Catholic priests is a narrative about power: about power that resides unilaterally in the hands of a privileged set of people--priests--within the structures of the Catholic church.  And about how some of those to whom this unilateral power is given have grossly abused it, repeatedly, and with seeming impunity.  For far too long.

We keep talking about these stories, we the people of God, because we hope to see what we pray for as we read the psalms and sing the Magnificat take place in our world: we hope to see the downtrodden vindicated.  We hope to see the poor lifted up from their powerless condition.  And we hope to see those who misuse power to hurt others, to abuse the weak, brought to justice.

We hope for this outcome--we pray for it--precisely because we believe in God.  We believe in a God who, in the words of the old African-American hymn,  may "sit high, but looks low."  We believe in a God who is on the side of the downtrodden and the poor, of the abused--not on the side of those doing the abuse.

Cries of Schadenfreude aren't going to shut down conversations among the people of God about the misallocation and abuse of power within the structures of our Catholic church, because our faith in a God who works justice in the world and who stands with the marginalized demands that we keep talking.  And pushing back.  And calling for reform.

And the stories just keep pouring fourth, demanding yet more conversation: the media are reporting today that a St. Paul, Minnesota, priest Father Christopher Wenthe has been arrested and charged with felony sexual misconduct following charges from a young woman to whom he ministered that he abused his pastoral relationship with her and repeatedly coerced her into sexual activity.  Though officials of the archdiocese have apparently known of these charges for some years now, and had sent Father Wenthe for treatment, he has remained in active ministry.

This story has important elements in common with the Euteneuer story.  In both cases (if the allegations about Father Wenthe are correct), there is an abuse of pastoral trust with a vulnerable adult woman to whom a priest is ministering.  As I've pointed out, the deep-rooted heterosexism running through much of Catholic culture predisposes some Catholics to view this kind of clerical misconduct as somehow more justifiable than other forms of clerical abuse.

But our legal system is not so easily persuaded by arguments that priests taking advantage of their role as pastors and counselors to coerce women in a pastoral counseling relationship into sexual activity is a matter to be taken lightly.  And so we Catholics need to continue to talk--about why we are inclined to give adult heterosexual men so many free passes, while we don't give those free passes to women or gay folks, for instance.

Lots to talk about.  As Phyllis Zagano wisely says in her recent NCR article about our broken church, the stories aren't going away, and so we have no choice except to keep talking, if we care about the broken church.  Continuing problems.  Continuing gross abuse of power, and continuing lies on the part of church officials who keep informing us that they have all of these matters under control and priests with a proven history of abuse are no longer in parishes or schools.

This--and our deep-rooted faith in a God who works justice in the world, particularly for the downtrodden--will assure that we keep talking.  Even when those who do not intend for these conversations to continue keep shouting about Schadenfreude

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