Friday, May 6, 2011

Joan Chittister on Expulsion from Family and Minority Wisdom: Critical Questions for the John Paul II Era of Catholic Apologetics

When I posted yesterday about the recent NCR editorial re: the story of Bishop Morris in Australia, I had planned to post a follow-up about Joan Chittister's latest NCR essay, "Expulsions from Religious Orders, Family, and Minority Wisdom."  I thought of posting a comment about Chittister's piece because it's, to my mind, a perfect counterpoint to the discussion of what Benedict is doing to Bishop Morris, and of the inexorable, draconian logic of patriarchal hierarchy that underlies the pope's actions in this case.

And then I thought better of saying the same thing twice--and at length--in two postings in one day.  So I've decided to say the same thing twice in two postings on subsequent days.  Today, I want to pay attention to John Chittister's alternative logic, alternative vision for how the church might be structured and how its leaders might behave, as she articulates these in her latest NCR essay.  Alternative to how the men in charge in Rome now want to do things, that is . . . .

Chittister is commenting on the punishment Benedict is dealing out to Fr. Roy Bourgeois for his defense of women's ordination.  Bourgeois' dissent is not in question.  Nor is the right of the institution's leaders to punish him for dissent in question.  As Chittister points out, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhöffer, Franz Jägerstätter, Edith Stein, Dorothy Day: all contravened the prevailing cultural or religious mores of their time and place, and all paid a price.  All challenged institutions and laws governing the societies in which they lived, and all were subject to reprisal by the lawmakers of those societies.

The fact that institutions like the Vatican punish, and have the right to punish, is undeniable in the case of Fr. Bourgeois.  What's up for discussion, however, Chittister notes, is how Pope Benedict is choosing to punish Fr. Bourgeois for supporting women's ordination.  He is choosing not merely to remove his liturgical faculties or limit his priestly functions.  

He's choosing, instead, to decree that Bourgeois's religious community, Maryknoll--his family of the past 40 years--expel him.  Repudiate him.  Treat him as a non-person.  Take away his pension, access to financial support, and the entire network of sustenance that any good family provides any family member.

As I observed yesterday, according to the inexorable, draconian patriarchal logic that governs the hierarchical system of Roman Catholicism, the penalty for refusing to give unquestioning obedience to any and all orders that come down the chain of command from the top is precisely such expulsion: 

In an absolutist hierarchy whose central virtue is unquestioning obedience, no one in the chain of command dares to make decisions independent of the man above him.  He does not dare to give even the suggestion of asking questions or disobeying, because the reprisal is too great.  It is immediate expulsion from the hierarchical system itself.

The kind of punishment being dished out now to Fr. Bourgeois by Pope Benedict is entirely consistent with the logic of the system of governance on whose maintenance Benedict is banking the future of the church.  In fact, a patriarchal hierarchical system of governance grounded in belief that the man on top has every right in the world to issue orders and demand that they be obeyed with implicit and unthinking obedience: this kind of system has no choice except to expel a dissenter from its ranks.

To treat him or her as a non-person.  As someone who no longer exists for the family.  Someone who is dead to the family.

Whereas (and, again, I noted this in what I wrote yesterday), this kind of system does not regard the infractions of those who contravene many other kinds of moral norms with anywhere near the same severity with which it regards the failure to obey.  One can contravene other central moral norms of the institution--even norms forbidding the adult sexual molestation of children--and still find a home within the institution, provided one remains obedient.  Obedient to the man on top, that is.

One can still be a family member if one abuses children or protects the abusers of children, if one remains obedient to the all-powerful father figure who issues the commands from the top of the hierarchical structure.  And so Chittister points out that though Fr. Bourgeois is being savagely expelled from the family in which he has lived and to which he has contributed for 40 years, because he supports the call of women to be ordained,

After all, the Vatican did not expel pedophile priests or abusing bishops from the secular priesthood for violating children. In some cases, in fact, they protected the perpetrators repeatedly and even refused to defrock them -- civil law or no civil law. And are, apparently, doing it even now. Only behavior related to women’s issues, it seems, qualifies for expulsion.

And for many Catholics and many morally sensitive observers of things Catholic, this is where the severe cognitive dissonance I noted yesterday enters the picture.  By the choices Benedict is making as pope, by his behavior and the priorities for our church to which his behavior points, by the insistence on beatifying John Paul II post-haste: we're being asked to believe that a Catholic leader who has sexually molested a minor or protected a priest who has molested a minor is a better moral exemplar than one who has dared to call for open discussion of the question of women's ordination.

We're being asked by our current religious leader to rank a Cardinal Law or Rigali or an Archbishop Chaput or a John Paul II as higher on the moral scale, more significant in the moral scheme of things, than a Fr. Roy Bourgois.  Or a Sr. Elizabeth Johnson.  Or a Bishop William Morris.

And to many of us, something seems radically awry in the moral calibration on which this picture depends.  Something seems very wrong with this picture--and with the institutional logic (driven by patriarchial presuppositions rather than gospel mandates) that paints this picture for us.

As Joan Chittister points out, there are other ways to see things, and other ways to do things, than how Rome now sees and does things.  She points to the Talmudic tradition, in which minority wisdom (i.e., the viewpoints of dissenters) is carefully recorded and preserved.  Preserved because, in the course of historical development, it often happens that the viewpoint of the embattled dissenter turns out to be the one viewpoint that an institution or society sorely needed to preserve its humanity, at a particular point in history.  It turns out that Franz Jägerstätter was right about the meaning of the Nazi period and the Catholic pastoral officials, the successors of the apostles, who urged him to deny his conscience and obey the command of the Fatherland to give Nazi military service were wrong in the moral scheme of things.

Chittister's argument here (and the moral example of Bl. Jägerstätter and countless other similar examples over the course of history) implicitly counter the prevailing logic of those now promoting and defending the restorationist purge mounted by this pope and the previous one in the Catholic church.  I have hesitated to write much about this prevailing logic (which is an apologetic for the patriarchal logic sustaining the hierachical system of Catholicism as it is now arranged) because this logic is, frankly, crude.  It's not worth a great deal of intellectual effort.  It is not intellectually compelling, for anyone with a beyond-parochial knowledge base or outlook on the world.

And yet it is powerfully represented in the contemporary Catholic church and many of its most ardent defenders, particularly among Catholic youth who identify as John Paul II youth, and who have been schooled (and very badly so) in the John Paul II era of catechesis.  This logic goes something like this: we would not have gotten to the point we have reached in the development of Catholic truth, if what we now have is not correct.  If it's not true.  If it doesn't represent God's will for the Catholic church.

Truth wins, after all.  We have  won in history, and those minority positions and the dissenters who have defended them have lost, because our truth is the truth.  And theirs is error.  And not only does their minority error deserve altogether to be expunged from the record, but they themselves, the dissenters, deserve to be expelled from the Catholic family.  Forgotten.  Treated as dead.

To question any facet of what we now have is to question an entire system on which the Catholic church's claim to represent Christ in the world stands.  We cannot and will not change 2,000 years of Catholic truth merely because tired old liberals of the 1960s and the Vatican II era want to dismantle our system of divinely ordained truth.  The longer this truth has played out in our church and in the world, the more certain we are that it is God's truth at work through the Catholic church in the world.  The very fact that it is old--2,000 years old, we maintain--points to its legitimacy as divine truth.

There's so much wrong with this set of crude presuppositions, with this crude apologetic of the John Paul II generation in the Catholic church, that I hardly know where to begin to discuss what's wrong.  Or how to begin countering claims and presuppositions so laughably devoid of any historical basis or elementary logic that they hardly merit intellectual effort.

If one did want to stoop to an intellectual response to such a non-intellectual grab bag of ill-conceived notions about the Catholic church, what it teaches, what it has done over the course of history, here are some of the obvious points I think one might make in response to the prevailing logic of the new generation of apologists for Catholic truth, with their crude, defiant insistence that their truth has won and is validated as the truth simply because it has stamped out dissenting opinions (along with one brother and sister Catholic after another, ho happens to hold those opinions):

Those 2,000 year-old "truths" being defended by the John Paul II generation of apologists are not by any means what the church has held and taught forever.  The primary way in which those "truths" reach the current generation of younger Catholic is through the catechism.

Jesus would not recognize the catechism.  He would be mystified by what he would read in the catechism--by its enumeration of "truths" he supposedly delivered to the church as the deposit of faith to be safeguarded by the successors of the apostles generation after generation in the church.  The catechism would make no sense to him, as a devout Jew.  The notion of truth on which it depends--the notion that divine truth can be bundled up into little syllogistic package-statements and delivered as a "deposit" to be parroted and ardently defended by generation upon generation of faithful Catholics: that notion is worlds removed from the Jewish notion of religious truth with which Jesus's thinking was imbued.

The idea that someone walking into any Catholic church in the world today, and participating in its liturgical worship, is somehow doing and acting as followers of Jesus did and acted in the New Testament period is laughable.  The notion that any liturgical forms or ecclesial gewgaws venerated by Catholics today faithfully replicate the practice of New Testament Christians, who met in house churches for eucharistic celebrations that occurred in the context of meals, is so historically naive as to be absurd.

The belief that what the church says in its current catechism is what it has always taught, for 2,000 years, and that church teaching has not changed (over and over and over again) is equally absurd for anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of history.  What the church has taught and how those teachings have been formulated over the course of 2,000 years of complex history have changed repeatedly.  Change is, in fact, one of the most elementary truths of the church from its foundational period, from the time in which Paul corrected Peter when Peter argued that the community could not change, could not discard the Jewish mold in which the church was born, in its interaction with Gentile culture.

The church is commanded to change and has been commanded to change from its very inception, since it is commanded to go into all cultures and proclaim the gospel to every culture in the world.  That mission makes no sense if the church cannot constantly reframe how it sees and does things, in ever-shifting cultural contexts.

The belief that "the bishops may be bastards, but they're our bastards"; that the church is incapable of cruelty and had no role in the Inquisition or in promoting holy wars, etc.; that priests, bishops, and religious cannot be and have not been capable of extreme cruelty at many points in history; that the church clings to solid, unchanging truth while the state is constantly knocking about to find truth and is the real source of error and cruelty in the world: all these childish beliefs make sense only if Catholics choose to ignore reams and reams of easily accessed historical information available to any half-educated person with a desire to learn today.

Younger Catholics, Catholics miseducated in the John Paul II era of Catholic truth, pay a higher and higher intellectual and moral price for their refusal to engage the obvious and intellectually compelling critical arguments of many of their co-religionists and the culture at large today.  That price is the price of negotiating the cognitive dissonance created by, say, the expulsion of Fr. Bourgeois from a religious community for supporting women's ordination, while Cardinal Law, who protected one serial pedophile after another, lives in "spendorous surroundings" in Rome, in the following way: Catholic truth is the truth, and the bishops are our bishops.  And so any other truth that competes with the official narrative of the church must ipso facto not be truth at all, or must be tarnished truth.  Tarnished like what passes for truth in non-Catholic religious traditions that have departed from the successors of the apostles and have lost access to the deposit of faith in which real and complete truth is locked up.

And so we John Paul II apologists have to cut and paste, clip and patch, in order to ignore the many plain truths coming our way every day from the media, the internet, the world around us, the classroom--anywhere--as we cling to the truth taught to us only by the church.  The same truth it has taught to us for 2,000 years.  Which is mediated to us only by the bishops as successors of the apostles.  Who have the keys that lock and unlock the deposit of faith in which these salvific, unchanging truths are stored.

And we will defend that truth at all costs, and those who dispense it to us, no matter how cruel our defense begins to appear to people of good will, including some brother and sister Catholics, because that truth has prevailed.  We've won.  We won when John Paul II was beatified.

And only winners have the truth.  That's what truth is, by definition.  It's what wins in history.  Losers, by definition, have departed from the truth.  And in grinding the faces of the losers in the ground, we Catholic apologists modeling our practice of the faith on Bl. John Paul II's practice are actually doing a holy thing, since we're defending and vindicating the truth on which the salvation of all humanity depends.

This is, in a nutshell, the kind of crude logic I hear the John Paul II generation of Catholic apologists using, as they interact on various blogs these days (including this blog), and in other venues of discussion where the topic of Catholic truth is on the table.  It's embarrassing.  It's naive.  It demands a tremendously dehumanizing intellectual and moral price from those who push these arguments.  It is morally repulsive in its bellicose triumphalistic claim that truth is what wins in history and what loses is ipso facto untruth.

But it also happens to be the position that has "won" in the church, and it's an absolutely perfect fit for the logic of patriarchal hierarchy on which the governance system of the church depends.  And it will therefore not only not disappear now that John Paul II has been beatified, but it will continue to grow within the Catholic church.  It will continue to grow because it's being deliberately massaged from the top/center of the church now.

All things considered, I think Joan Chittister might just be right: a wiser and more humane institution might find other ways to deal with minority opinions.  Opinions which, though vanquished for the nonce, often turn out to have pointed the way to real humanity, while the dominant opinion of an era turns out to have pointed in quite the opposite direction.

The graphic is a photograph of Fr. Roy Bourgeois protesting at the School of the Americas, 1999.

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