Friday, April 8, 2011

Peter Isely and Michael Sean Winters: Competing Perspectives re: the Moral Authority of the Catholic Bishops

I just mentioned the other valuable resources that the Wisconsin SNAP site has now made available, from the recent Marquette Law School conference on the Catholic clerical abuse crisis, whose theme was "Harm, Hope, and Healing."  These include an outstanding presentation by Peter Isely of SNAP's national board, entitled "Saint Jane Doe."  Isely takes the story of Jesus's healing of a woman who touches him in Mark's gospel (Mark 5) and turns it into a parable about the abuse crisis, in which the power of touch either to harm or to heal is displayed in the most dramatic ways possible.

As he notes, the story Mark tells turns on the motif of touching: as Jesus hurries with a father who has sought Jesus to heal his little daughter, an unnamed woman--a Jane Doe--touches Jesus, in the middle of a crowd of people jostling for his attention.  Of all those pushing against him, Jesus feels the touch of Jane Doe in a unique way, and turns to her.

And she finds that by having reached out to touch the cloak of Jesus, she has been healed--precisely the kind of healing touch survivors of clerical sexual abuse have sought repeatedly from Catholic pastors, after having been violated in the grossest ways possible as children by the unwanted sexual touches of other Catholic pastors.  And precisely the kind of healing touch Catholic pastors have all too often--almost unanimously--refused to offer to survivors of the unwanted psyche-scarring touches of priests when they were children.

Jane Doe is, in Peter Isely's reading of this gospel story, a saint for abuse survivors.  We do not know her name.  This unknown woman suffering from an "issue of blood" is a survivor of sexual abuse.

I don't want to say more about this powerful homily, or to summarize it further, since I don't want to deter readers from reading it in its entirety.  What I do want to say about it in conclusion, though, is that I am reading it right now as a counterpoint to a statement Michael Sean Winters makes today at his blog at the National Catholic Reporter site, about the moral and teaching authority of bishops.  In brief, Winters's argument is one he has made in the past, which I've summarized already on this blog: the Catholic system revolves around the teaching authority of bishops as successors of the apostles, and it verges on Donatism to argue that the behavior of the bishops undermines that teaching authority--no matter how heinous that behavior might be.

In my view, this argument from authority, which is still characteristic of the thinking of Catholics who remain affiliated with the church despite the bishops' behavior in the abuse crisis, spectacularly misses the point.  The point is this--the point we face today is this: growing numbers of people aren't concerned any longer to salvage the bishops' teaching authority or their moral authority.

We're concerned to salvage belief, period.  The bishops have, on the whole, so undermined their teaching authority and their moral authority in recent years that they have brought the entire system--all that the church proclaims--into question for many of us.  

For many of us, the problem with which we're now left is finding God anywhere, given what the bishops have been capable of doing in recent years.  Given their constant propensity to refuse even to meet, face to face, adults who were sexually violated by priests as children.  Given their repeated refusals to touch, to enfold in healing embrace, the human flesh of those violated as children by the unwanted touches of pastors they trusted, and whom they were told by the bishops to trust.

The argument from authority does not salvage faith, and won't salvage faith, for increasing numbers of people seeking something real, vital, true, and faithful to the gospels in the Catholic church.  It is a trite, long-since belabored, unconvincing argument that, to many of us, sounds like the special pleading of the very club responsible for the abusive touching, and oblivious to the appeals to engage in healing touching.

It sounds to many of us like the special pleading of heterosexual (or heterosexual-posturing) men in threatened power elites everywhere around the world today, whose ultimate claim to authority rests solely on their unmerited claim to deserve power over others due to their gender and their sexual orientation (whether real or postured), and whose reflex response, as these claims are increasingly challenged, is to repress.  To assert more power and more authority. 

And as they do so, to dispense with the club's own rules (created as p-r smokescreens) about fair play and dialogue, as the club feels under more and more critical scrutiny--as happened recently when the U.S. Catholic bishops condemned a book of Sister Elizabeth Johnson without even involving her in dialogue about the book in question, per their own rules for engaging theologians whose work is being questioned (and here).

Such reflex exercises of authority over others compound, rather than resolve, the problem of teaching authority and moral authority Michael Sean Winters wants to address through his argument for authority.  These muscular, macho exercises in power and authority only illustrate, for many of us, the depths of the problems we now face--rather than resolving those problems.

I can't say that I find Michael Sean Winters' way of dealing with the problem of moral authority with which the actions of the bishops confront us helpful.  Or hopeful.

By contrast, I do find Isely's analysis helpful and hopeful.  Because it tells the truth about what the bishops have done and how they have undermined the credibility of the entire Catholic system through what they have done.

And rather than pointing us to any easy or instant solution to the radical problem of religious authority with which the bishops' actions (and example) have confronted us, it points us--as good theological reflection always should--back to the figure of Jesus and to the gospels.  Where we're confronted with mystery and ambiguity.  And honesty about the baneful power of touch to destroy a world--or the miraculous power of touch to heal a broken person.

And where we're confronted with the struggle to see with new eyes, the eyes of faith, and to act on the basis of what we see in a way that the bishops and cheap appeals to their teaching authority cannot accomplish.  Since their behavior and those appeals point anywhere but to Jesus and the gospels.  And will continue to do so, until the bishops begin to address the abuse crisis and its roots far more transparently and accountably than they have done up to now.

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