Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Another Rotten Bishop Story Breaks in Kansas City: All about Power, All about Control

This is a pitiful story.  A hair-tearing one.  And yet, an entirely predictable one--it's one whose contours American Catholics have now come to know with wearying familiarity:

Bishop (in this case, Robert W. Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph) learns that priest's computer has "many images of female children" on it, including a nude girl.  Bishop does not inform the public or his diocesan review board.  Bishop yanks priest from his current assignment and sends him to a home for nuns (who are, it appears, never informed of the reason for moving the priest about).  In his new assignment, priest continues to have a Facebook account and posts on it using his cell phone.

Bishop does not report the priest's criminal activities to legal or criminal authorities.

Priest gets arrested and story becomes public.  Story of bishop's pastoral malfeasance becomes public.

Bishop issues mendacious apology: "I should have done differently in this regard and I'm sorry."  And: "Don't trust me. Trust our Lord Jesus Christ, trust his church."

And no, none of this happened in 1965 or 1995 or 2002.  It happened this year, years down the road from the initial round of revelations about the abuse crisis, when we American Catholics were promised by our bishops that they intended to get everything under control, intended to clean house, would finally grow a spine and become the pastoral leaders they claim they're called to be.

Far from being a story from the distant past, one we American Catholics can gladly put behind us as we breathe a sigh of relief that the abuse crisis is over and done with, the Kansas City story breaks in the news one day after Karen Terry, the hired gun of the bishops' new John Jay study, informs the public,

"The peak of this abuse crisis is historical. That peak is over."

And so, why?  Why do these events keep happening and happening again?  In my view, any member of the general public or any Catholic concerned to obtain an accurate fix on what's wrong with the Catholic church--on what has led and will continue to lead the pastoral officials of the Catholic church to collude in criminal activity as bishops hide priests sexually abusing minors--need only take a close look at the recent Vatican guidelines for dealing with abuse cases.

Those guidelines shift the burden of resolving the crisis to individual bishops--bishops who, we're asked to believe, function as independent agents in a totally hierarchical, completely top-down system of control that that affords bishops no independence of judgment at all regarding any matters of significance at all.  Bishops whose criminal malfeasance doesn't implicate the Vatican in any shape, form, or fashion, since the bishops act independently of the pope.  So we're asked to believe.

But, as numerous commentators have already noted, buried right in the center of those new Vatican guidelines is the ominous statement,

[C]onsultative bodies of review and discernment concerning individual cases, foreseen in some places, cannot substitute for the discernment and potestas regiminis of individual bishops . . . .

Consultative bodies of review--i.e., the review boards set up by the U.S. bishops in 2002 in dioceses across the U.S.--cannot substitute for the potestas regiminis of bishops.  Lay bodies cannot, will not--not ever--substitute for, trump, interfere with the ruling power of bishops.

Cannot interfere with power.  Cannot interfere with royal prerogative and royal privilege.  The word regiminis is rooted in the word rex, "king."  The bishop enjoys royal, kingly power within the Catholic system of governance.

And lay Catholics had best not forget this.  Because this is, the new Vatican guidelines remind us, ultimately what is all about: it's about power.  It's about our power over you and vs. you.  It's about our power to rule and your obligation to obey.  

It's about our regal status and your non-regal status.  Your non-regal status beneath us.

This kind of thinking has been going on in the Catholic church ever since Constantine made the fateful decision to combine church and state, and ever since (following on the heels of that fateful decision) popes of the post-Constantinean era began jealously to accrue to themselves all the power, glory, and titles of the Roman Emperor, as the empire began to crumble in the early Middle Ages.

Read the work of the fifth-century pope Leo the Great, and you'll encounter the term potestas over and over again.  It's the centerpiece of Leo's thinking about the papacy.  It was the centerpiece of his papal politics, which did everything possible to subjugate the powerful prelatures of Alexandria and Constantinople to Roman authority--to the authority of the new emperor sitting on the papal throne, who had begun to claim the very same power and authority previously claimed by the Roman emperor.  Using the very same terminology--potestas, potestas regiminis--once used by the emperor to describe his unchecked power and his right to subjugate and rule by divine authority.

And so here's the thing about the abuse crisis: all the while, as lay Catholics and the general public have imagined it's about children, about innocent minors susceptible to heinous abuse by adults--as we've assumed it's all about protecting those innocent minors from abuse--Rome and the bishops it delegates to rule the church with royal authority have been thinking along entirely other lines.

Tracks not meeting, tracks that never will meet: as lay Catholics wonder why the pastoral leaders of the church display such shocking insensitivity to the question of how to keep children safe and heal the wounds of abused members of the flock, Rome and the bishops have been thinking only about power.  Solely and exclusively about power.

About their power.  About their potestas regiminis.  About their royal privilege to rule the church.

Which is threatened, they imagine, by the demand of lay Catholics that children be kept safe, and that lay review boards be set into place to assure oversight of priests in order to keep children safe.  It's all a power game in the mind of the rulers of the church, a game that's about someone somewhere trying to snatch some power away from the royal rulers of the church.

Bishop Finn knew perfectly well he was doing wrong all along, in hiding the crimes of Fr. Shawn Ratigan.  And he intended to keep defying the review system he and the other bishops set up in 2002.  As long as he could get away with it.

His insincere apology, now that he's been caught red-handed, is worth less than the price of the paper it's being printed on.  It means nothing.

What means everything to Bishop Finn, to the Vatican, and to every other bishop in the world who buys into the current system of thinking by which the Catholic church is governed, is power.  Raw power.  Power pure and simple.

Unchecked power.  Royal power and privilege akin to--and derived from--the imperial elite of the Roman empire that transmuted itself into the papal and episcopal structures of Catholicism as the empire fell apart.

Until lay Catholics and secular power figures begin to contest and call the power system of the leaders of the Catholic church into question--until those concerned about the ongoing maleficent effects of this power system on innocent, vulnerable children demand transparency and accountability on the part of a system of power that is utterly opaque and answerable to no one--nothing is going to change, with the current abuse situation.  Nothing effective.

Because this is power that does not intend to relinquish its prerogative to absolute control.  And those with absolute, unchecked power over others never have intended and never will intend to relinquish that absolute power and absolute control, without a fight. 

Because that's how absolute power and control work.  And always have worked, over the course of history.  As Colleen Baker wisely asks at the end of her analysis of the story of Bishop Finn, "How much longer will we need to really get this lesson?"

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