Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Philadelphia and Ash Wednesday: My Continued Response to Richard Gaillardetz on the State of the American Catholic Church

As I noted in my posting yesterday about Richard Gaillardetz's recent sounding of the current state of American Catholicism, Gaillardetz frames his analysis by noting that the American Catholic church is in a "state of unrest."  Gaillardetz's analysis contains one phrase after another denoting unrest: "something is amiss" in the American church right now; there are "warning signs" everywhere, if we have eyes to see them; thousands of Catholics have left in "a state of resigned disillusionment"; large numbers of Catholics are simply giving up and going elsewhere; the U.S. Catholic church is "in crisis."

In particular, Gaillardetz notes the findings of the Pew Forum in the spring of 2008, that one in three American adults raised Catholic had left the Catholic church by 2008, one in ten American adults is a former Catholic.  A study done by the Center for Applied Research (CARA) at the same time found weekly Mass attendance among Catholics at 23%.  In 2002, when the U.S. Catholic bishops met in Dallas to deal with the first round of revelations about the abuse crisis, a report done by the Dallas Morning News found that roughly two-thirds of U.S. Catholic bishops could be proven to have shielded a known clerical sexual predator.

As Gaillardetz notes, there has been a "mass exodus" of American Catholics from the Catholic church in recent years, and this reality poses a significant pastoral challenge to the entire American Catholic church.  It presents each and every Catholic who remains affiliated with and active in the Catholic church in the U.S. with an absolutely compelling and unavoidable pastoral responsibility--the responsibility of understanding why this mass exodus is occurring and the responsibility of responding, as the gospels command us to do, with healing intent, with the intent to bring back those brothers and sisters who are walking away from the church.

Gaillardetz writes,

The future of American Catholicism will depend in no small measure on our willingness to take seriously this mass exodus from the Church. We need to ask ourselves, what is going on here? 

And then the abuse crisis, which is right in front of us again--all over again!--with the news from Philadelphia yesterday.  News that suggests it has never gone away at all.  That, despite continued reassurances that the bishops have handled all the problems and no known perpetrators are being kept in ministry, significant numbers of priests credibly accused of abusing minors have remained in ministry in Philadelphia--and in other dioceses, as well. 

The ongoing revelations from Philadelphia suggest we've been foolish if we have ever taken our eyes off this crisis and assumed it's over and done with, a thing of the past.  And that the church is back on track, is in capable, ministerially sound hands.  The Philadelphia story (and the Los Angeles one, and countless others) suggest to us that groups like Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) have been right on target as, over and over, they've sounded a warning bell, telling us that credibly accused priests remain in ministry in many places, that pastoral officials are not telling us the truth when they assure us they have conformed to the stipulations of the Dallas Charter and removed all credibly accused priests from ministry.  

SNAP has told us over and over again that significant data about the abuse crisis--including the numbers of credibly accused priests still in ministry and their identities--have been hidden from us, and that such data as we have have been issued to us by the bishops grudgingly and always under legal duress, are partial data, and have been manipulated by the bishops to deflect attention from their astonishing lack of pastoral responsibility in handling priests abusing minors.  And that we may never know anywhere near the full picture of the abuse crisis until some outside governing body like the Philadelphia grand jury becomes serious about prosecuting Catholic pastoral officials who continue to engage in cover-ups and who continue to keep abusive priests in ministry.

And what to do about all of that, in light of what Gaillardetz tells us about our pastoral responsibility, here and now, in a church in crisis?  For what it's worth, on this Ash Wednesday, here's my take on how not to be a pastorally responsible, faithful Catholic as huge numbers of your brother and sister Catholics are walking away, and as yet another ugly story about the abuse crisis breaks wide open in another diocese.

Here are some of the exceedingly shopworn excuses, rationales, diversionary tales, and outright lies that some Catholics who still have anything to do with the church want to tell me and others--still! still, now that we're so far down the road of understanding that only a fool or a moral imbecile would try to tell these lies.  Here are some of the sad old song-and-dance stories I hear "faithful" Catholics still trying to tell on this and other blog sites, even as the news from Philadelphia breaks.  Stories you might as well not try telling me, because I'm not listening any more:

1. We have it under control.  Our bishops have cleaned house.  In fact, the Catholic church is doing a better job than any other group in the world in handling the child-abuse problem.

And my response:  Really?  Philadelphia.  Los Angeles.  And just about any other diocese in the nation.

2. We have never had a problem, really.  The Catholic church is being singled out for unfair, anti-Catholic persecution, when there are problems like this in all other religious communities, in schools, and in other organizations.

And my response: Really?  Matthew 18:6.  You're a church, for God's sake.  Comparing yourself to other organizations, particularly secular ones that don't have your mandate from the Lord to love, heal, protect, nurture, cherish, etc., is unworthy of you.  Can you really not see that it undermines, in the starkest way possible, your claims to be a unique sacramental sign of Christ in the world?

3. Take some pity on these priests accused of abuse.  They were lonely, confused, scarred by their seminary training.  And there's a huge distinction between sexually molesting a child and a teenager, anyway.

And my response: Really?  What does it say about the Catholic community and its moral acumen--its moral standing in society at large--that we've come to this: trying to make deceitful distinctions between whether it's better to molest a child or a teen?  Why are we even having this discussion?  How can it not be perfectly obvious to us now, given all that we've learned in this painful journey, that adults seeking human relationships are well advised to seek relationships with other adults and not with minors?  

Why do you keep trying to change the subject from power to sex and all the gradations of permissible and impermissible sex, in any case?  Do you really think the vast majority of people can't understand that this is all about the absolutely insupportable abuse of power by an adult who considers himself, qua his ordination, entitled in some godlike way, that it's all about power exercised over the vulnerable bodies of minors with no autonomy and few psychological resources?  Find an adult with whom to engage, if you're a priest making these deceitful distinctions-- and preferably not a vulnerable one whom you're exorcising.

4. And, most astonishing of all, priests are being dismissed right and left on the most tenuous of charges by bishops who are throwing priests to the wolves.  And if you look carefully at the cases of Father Shanley and Geoghan in Boston, you don't find any strong evidence at all to support the charges made against them.  And oh, yes: all those poor innocent priests being thrown to the wolves?  Those hounding them are doing so for money (thanks to John Bijarney below, for reminding me of this persistent lie).

And my response: Really?  You really want to put your integrity on the line and tell these lies when anyone able to read can go to the BishopAccountability site and see the caches of abundant documents about Shanley and Geoghan and numerous other priests who have been proven to have abused minors?  And you want to argue that bishops are throwing priests to the wolves right as we discover that a shocking number of priests credibly accused of minors have been kept in ministry in Philadelphia?  You want to argue for a witch hunt in which innocent priests are being thrown out of ministry now, as the Philadelphia story breaks open?

As I say, save your breath for someone who is capable of being duped.  I'm not listening.  Please shop these toxic, game-playing lies someplace else.

But I do have something to say to you, you faithful Catholics who continue to involve yourself in the church and who think that, in some alternate universe apparent to you but invisible to me and others, you're doing the church a favor by spreading these tales.  You can choose to listen to this advice or not, as you wish.  It comes, after all, from the lips of a dirty gay Catholic who has been shoved to the margins of the church and who couldn't get a job in a Catholic institution if his life depended on it.  And who doesn't darken the door of a church after he and his partner have been treated like human garbage by the pastors of the church.

So take this advice for what it's worth, considering its source.

My advice this Ash Wednesday to faithful Catholics who keep engaging in the game-playing represented by the excuses I've just outlined is this: if you really do care about the future of your church, and if you're truly faithful to the mandate of Christ on which the church is founded, stop colluding.  Stop colluding with pastoral officials whose exercise of authority is not pastoral in any shape, form, or fashion.  There is a serious abdication of pastoral responsibility going on among the U.S. Catholic bishops, and that abdication has been going on for some time now.  And anyone with eyes to see can see it.

If we need any evidence for that abdication beyond each new revelation of the abuse crisis, think about this: there has not been a single initiative anywhere in the American Catholic church to respond to, open discussion of, or craft strategies to respond proactively to the Pew Forum data of 2008.  About which we've now known for three years.  Sound empirical data pointing to a mass exodus of Catholics from the church in whose bosom you yourselves remain comfortable, an exodus almost certain to have grown more concerted in the period from 2008.  Empirical data pointing to a mass exodus of a church whose pastors claim to stand in persona Christi--in the person of the Good Shepherd who told his followers to seek even a single sheep straying from the fold.

If you care about the future of your church--since it appears your bishops don't--then you need to do something about this mass exodus.  Because you can't really call yourself a faithful Catholic and a good disciple of Jesus if you stand by in silence as brother after brother and sister after sister walks away.

You're definitely not helping by continuing the excuse-making, because many of those who can't run away fast enough are running away, quite precisely, from the moral imbecility of a community that can not only do what we have done in the abuse crisis, but which can still find excuses for what has been done,  with each new revelation about the depths of the damage done to others.  It's time to put childish things behind you--it's time to put away moral imbecility--and start doing something constructive about the mess in front of you.  You might start by organizing a national dialogue that brings together the thousands on thousands who have walked, and permits those vanished brothers and sisters to tell their stories.

The bishops are certainly not going to organize that dialogue.  Because they don't intend to talk.  Except to God and each other.  And I'm not entirely sure about the God part of that equation.

If you don't start there, you're soon not going to have a church at all to speak of.  Except perhaps a tiny, bitter, claustrophobic little enclave of morally imbecilic like-minded believers who maintain their sectarian comfort by redefining abuse as intimate relationship, injustice as justice, and savage indifference as love.

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