Thursday, February 10, 2011

Readers Write: Peter Seewald and Theologians' "Rebellion in a Nursing Home"--Really?!

Some of the discussion that developed in response to my posting yesterday about further commentary on the recent petition of German theologians to the Vatican notes that Peter Seewald's dismissive reduction of the theologians' call for reform to a "rebellion in a nursing home" significantly distorts key facts about the damage the restorationist project has inflicted on the Catholic church.  As some readers noted, Seewald is pushing a meme that has become standard among reactionary Catholics today: Vatican II eroded faith and practice among Catholics, and the restorationist project of the last two popes have made the church flourish again.  Young people are rejecting the liberal ideas of the Vatican II generation, who are now outmoded hippies ridiculously rocking in their nursing homes and trying to foment ineffectual rebellion as they rock away.

Unfortunately for Seewald and other right-wing Catholics, the facts don't support this analysis in the least.  Rather than introduce a new period of flourishing faith and practice, the restorationist project of John Paul II and Benedict has caused the Catholic church to implode.  And the implosion is happening more and more rapidly every day, in many parts of the world.

As Paul Hockenos reported a few weeks ago in National Catholic Reporter, an "unprecedented number" of German Catholics officially resigned from the Catholic church in the past year.  The German theologians' call for reform explicitly frames their petition as a response to "deep crisis" in the Catholic church in Germany precipitated by new revelations of clerical sexual abuse in the past year (and revelations about the cover-up of that abuse), which in turn led to the mass exodus of an unprecedented number of Catholics from the church in Germany.  As the theologians note, unless pastoral officials address this deep crisis immediately, honestly, and with pastoral intent, it may soon be too late to retrieve any kind of viable Catholic church in Germany.

Far from making the Catholic church thrive, the restorationist project is causing it quickly to tumble to ruins throughout the  developed areas of the world.  What has happened in Ireland in the past year parallels what has been happening in Germany.  This weekend, the New York Times will publish an essay by Russell Shorto which sounds the same note as the German theologians' petition for reform does: the Catholic church in Ireland is in "deep trouble."  As in Germany, record numbers of Irish Catholics are rapidly abandoning the church following last year's wave of revelations about the abuse crisis and its cover-up in the Irish church.

As I noted recently, the numbers of those officially leaving the Catholic church in the Netherlands in the last year are equally dismal.  And these numbers are paralleled in Belgium, Austria, and elsewhere--including the United States, where, as I have noted repeatedly, a Pew Forum study in February 2008 found one in three American adults who have been raised Catholic having left the Catholic church.  One in ten American adults was, per data gathered in 2008, a former Catholic.

These data make mincemeat of the claim of right-wing Catholics that the last two papacies have returned the church to its foundations and made the church flourish by relegating the ideas of Vatican II and those who promoted those ideas to nursing homes.  They also call into question the current Vatican push to canonize John Paul II as quickly as possible.  

At the heart of the rapid exodus of many Catholics from the Catholic church today--at the heart of the abuse story, which is the dark heart of the narrative of massive disaffection of Catholics from their church today--is the abdication of pastoral responsibility of bishop after bishop and Vatican official after Vatican official, during the reign of John Paul II.  What those leaving the Catholic church in droves are reacting to is the failure of the large majority of pastoral leaders of the Catholic church, at this point in history, to behave as pastoral leaders--as good shepherds of their flock, who put the needs of the faithful above the prestige of the institution and the security of its wealth.

Again and again, as revelations about situations of abuse and its cover-up break in the media, the shocking, disheartening discovery that faithful Catholics make about how our church has been governed in recent years is this: confronted with the needs of children being sexually molested by priests, with the needs of the families of those children for pastoral reassurance and healing, with the requests of adult survivors of such abuse simply to be heard and to receive justice, the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church have predictably put the image of the institution and its coffers above pastoral need.  And in doing so, they have been instructed by the Vatican itself to behave this way.

As the beatification of John Paul II nears, this narrative--a narrative of shocking, indefensible abdication of pastoral responsibility by Catholic leaders, resulting in the mass exodus of Catholics from the church--is going to be told and retold by those who find the beatification of the pope who presided over the church as the narrative developed astonishing.  And beating up on the secular media or "disobedient" theologians rocking madly in nursing homes is not going to make this story go away.

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