Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Richard Sipe and Tom Rigert Call for Catholic Reformation (Starting with Benedict's Resignation)

When the situation in the Philadelphia archdiocese hit the news recently with a damning grand jury report and the indictment of the archdiocese's secretary for clergy Msgr. William Lynn, a wonderful reader of Bilgrimage, Kathy Hughes, asked if Richard Sipe had written anything about the Philadelphia situation.  I told Kathy I'd be on the lookout for Sipe's response.

And so I'm very interested to see that Richard Sipe and Joe Rigert have just now co-authored an essay for the Catholica site that doesn't specifically address the Philadelphia story, but notes that a "surge" of cases in many places indicates that the problem of sexual abuse of minors by clergy "is far more widespread than originally believed," and it reaches "right into the papacy itself."  Sipe and Rigert say flatly that Benedict has been complicit in covering up cases of clerical sexual abuse of minors.

And so what to do about this serious problem?  We cannot address it effectively, Sipe and Rigert argue, without recognizing that it's "a symptom of a systemic problem rooted in church structure and teaching."  It is, specifically, a symptom of "an outmoded, in some cases ludicrous, teaching on sex and sexuality."
In Sipe and Rigert's view, by adamantly closing off open discussion of various sexual issues about which lay Catholics' and many theologians' moral judgment differs from that of the hierarchy, by making the moral and teaching authority of the bishops rise and fall on their willingness to enforce hierarchical stands on these issues, and by urging bishops to challenge secular government and laws around Catholic hierarchical teaching, Catholic leadership has created a house of cards that will tumble to the ground if any aspect of this strategy is reconsidered.  Allow open discussion of sexual issues re: which a large majority of the faithful ignore magisterial teaching or encourage bishops to stop the obsessive haranguing about these issues and the attempt to coerce secular society to accept peculiar Catholic teachings re: these issues, and things will fall apart.

Because what we'll then see is the disparity between what the bishops and Vatican have been proclaiming, and how they have actually been behaving, vis-a-vis the abuse crisis.  With the diversionary sexuality debate off the table, we'll see, for instance, that as archbishop of Munich, Benedict himself permitted a priest to remain in active ministry after that priest locked an 11-year old boy into a bedroom, plied him with alcohol, and forced him to perform oral sex.

And so, though Sipe and Rigert think that open discussion about birth control, sex outside marriage, women's ordination, and obligatory celibacy for priests has long since been sorely needed if we're to get at the root causes of the abuse crisis, it's not enough.  What is needed now is a  thoroughgoing reformation of the church.  And one of the boldest and most effective steps Benedict might take if he cares about the future of the church is to begin that reformation by resigning.

Benedict should consider this epic gesture, Sipe and Rigert argue, for the following reason: 

Such leadership by example might help break the pattern and practice that holds the church hostage to a past that no longer meets the spiritual needs of the people. As presently constituted, the church structure allows male leaders—no women allowed—to maintain their power and control in an archaic monarchy; to regulate all sexual behavior, and to suppress any "sinful" deviation. A reformed church, open to the involvement of all people, would move from its obsession over sex to a healthy regard for human sexuality. 

It's the only way to deal with the sex problem of the pope and his church (boldface in original).

And so will the pope resign?  I'd be very surprised if that happened.  As far as I can see, the top leaders of the Catholic church remain intransigently committed to the bitterest rear-guard fight against any shift in moral thinking (and consequent shifts in secular law) that, in their view, challenges their teaching authority as moral arbiters.  In every area of sexual morality, but particularly in the area of gay and lesbian rights.

And that bitter intransigence, with its diversionary intent designed to deflect attention from the immoral behavior of the hierarchy in the abuse crisis, does not bode well for reformation.  It does not bode well for any systemic analysis of the real problems of the church that have led to the abuse crisis.

Just yesterday, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican representative to the U.N., reiterated the Vatican's opposition to the Declaration on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity proposed by the U.N. office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to combat discrimination based on sexual orientation--discrimination that in some nations around the world extends to outright violence against those who are gay or lesbian.  85 nations, including the U.S., have signed on to the U.N. statement, whose final official title is "Ending Acts of Violence and Related Human Rights Violations Based On Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity."

The Vatican's reasoning, as it opposes a statement to combat discrimination and violence against gay and lesbian persons?  Tomasi's reasoning, insofar as I can make sense of it, goes something like this:

1. We Catholics deplore discrimination, of course.  We have to do so because that's what followers of Jesus do.

2. But we are opposed to statements that might give anyone a legal basis to challenge our own discrimination--statements that might form a legal basis by which someone could ask us to make our statements about opposing discrimination real in our own practice.

3. And so we are opposed to this statement.

4. And, after all, gays and lesbians don't have any real rights at all to practice being gay or lesbian--and that's what this statement envisages.  There would not be (this latter proviso is not stated, but hovers behind Tomasi's statements, and it's made explicit in the current pope's 1986 letter on the pastoral care of homosexual persons): there would not be any need for any of these statements about discrimination if those who are gay or lesbian simply kept their orientation to themselves.  It's the coming out of the closet thing that courts the violence, which is a deplorable but still understandable reaction to the insistence of gay folks on making their identities public.

Something like that.  The "reasoning" of the magisterium about human rights for gay and lesbian persons and about violence and discrimination against those who are gay and lesbian goes something like that.  Totally insincere.  Bafflingly callous.  And completely unconvincing, to anyone with a head on his or her shoulders or a modicum of moral insight.

And as the Vatican yet again refuses to sign onto an international statement deploring violence and discrimination against those who are gay or lesbian, and as Benedict himself has not uttered a single word to condemn the kill-the-gays bill in heavily Catholic Uganda, the U.S. bishops, ever doughty papal men, announce all over again that one of the most significant Catholic ministries to those who are gay and lesbian--New Ways Ministry--is not really, you know, Catholic.

Sort of like that "Catholic" hospital in Arizona which sought to save the life of a mother who, per strong medical indicators, was almost certain to die (along with her fetus) if she carried her child to term, leaving her children motherless: sort of like how that "Catholic" hospital isn't really Catholic.  And sort of like how Mercy Sister Margaret McBride, who served on the ethics committee at that "Catholic" hospital, which made the final decision to save the mother's life by aborting the fetus, deserved to be excommunicated for embodying the "Catholic" virtue of mercy in this case.

Benedict is made pope after having kept in ministry a priest who locked an 11-year old boy into a bedroom, gave him liquor, and then forced him to perform oral sex.  Sister Margaret McBride is excommunicated after having voted to save a mother's life in an excruciating moral-medical crisis in which the mother would surely have died by carrying her fetus to term.  The hospital that saved this mother's life and refused to leave her children motherless is no longer allowed to call itself Catholic.

And the Catholic church opposes discrimination against those who are gay and lesbian.  But it doesn't.  Not when opposing discrimination means that we ourselves are required to stop discriminating.  The Catholic church defends the human rights of everyone.  But it doesn't.  Not really.  It can't defend the human rights of gay and lesbian persons since those are, after all, only "alleged" rights.

Sipe and Rigert are right.  The Catholic church is direly in need of reformation right now.  If its leaders continue along the path they have committed themselves to in recent years, they will soon end up with a tiny cadre of hardcore true believers whose belief system and practice have little to do with what anyone of sound conscience can regard as morally defensible at this point in history.

And I myself think that's precisely where the current pastoral leaders of the Catholic church intend to go.  Because being little kings of a tiny nation of true believers is better, after all, than being little kings of a large, quarrelsome tribe that persistently challenges one's right to be a king at all.

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