Thursday, May 5, 2011

National Catholic Reporter on Firing of Bishop William M. Morris: Pope's Priorities Now Clear

National Catholic Reporter has published an editorial addressing the recent firing of Australian bishop William M. Morris.  As the title of the editorial suggests, if anyone still remains in doubt about Pope Benedict's priorities for his church, she or he need doubt no longer: the priorities are clear after this action.  It's all about extending an "intellectual chill" in the church that goes beyond the excommunication of Fr. Roy Bourgeois for supporting women's ordination or the condemnation of Sr. Elizabeth Johnson's magisterial work on the theology of God.  

It's about suppressing any and all dissent, even the kind of pastoral thinking out loud that Bishop Morris did in the 2006 pastoral letter to his diocese that has resulted in his dismissal.  It's about asserting absolute control over any and all intraeccesial conversations, from the top or center of the church, and assuring that if those conversations don't march lock-step with the top/center, they're squelched.  Squelched along with the hapless brothers and sisters in Christ mounting the conversations because they imagine that the gospels (and Holy Spirit) have inspired them to do so.

A powerful excerpt from this powerful editorial statement:

First, it turns out it’s really not that difficult for the pope to give a bishop a pink slip. In the course of the quarter-century clergy sexual abuse cover-up, there’s been considerable handwringing over just this question. Bishops don’t “work for” the pope, we have been told. Bishops are “fathers” to their flock – with all the unconditional love and commitment that entails – not employees subject to the whims, well-intentioned or otherwise, of the boss. Canonical procedures must be followed.

Apparently, that’s just so much hooey. If the pope and his advisers care deeply about an issue about which a bishop has publicly raised questions – such as women priests and optional celibacy – a way can be found to dismiss that bishop.

And – noteworthy because it goes to some underlying issues – a bishop who acts against church teaching and law related to sexually abusive priests apparently need fear no such reprisal.

Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali, for example, continues a life befitting a prince in splendorous surroundings, even as his flouting of church procedures (and perhaps civil law) resulted in nearly 30 diocesan priests facing administrative suspension and heat from local prosecutors.

And not to forget Cardinal Bernard Law, orchestrator of the Boston clergy abuse cover-up. His punishment?  An extended Roman holiday and a healthy pension. Meanwhile, Morris gets the door.

The pope’s priorities are clear. 

The context presupposed by the preceding remarks: one of the ploys the Vatican and some dioceses have sought to use to evade moral and legal responsibility for priests sexually abusing minors, who are permitted to remain in ministry after their abuse has become known, is the argument that bishops and priests don’t work for any big boss above them.  They are independent contractors, as it were.  And so those above them in the tightly controlled hierarchical system according to which Catholic governance is structured are not in any way responsible for the actions of those beneath.

As anyone who has given even cursory thought to the behavior of ethically challenged, morality-eliding corporations recognizes, this tactic of shielding the top or center from responsibility is a common evasive tactic of any corporate structure that is a rigidly structured hierarchy.  This evasive technique is a by-product of hierarchy, a predictable response precisely of organizations structured as top-down (or center-to-margins) hierarchies.  

Hierarchical corporate structures place supreme emphasis on the obligation of everyone in the hierarchical chain of command to obey everyone above him.  I use the male pronoun deliberately here, because these tightly controlled hierarchies demanding implicit, absolute obedience down the chain of command are far and away more typical of male-dominated institutions than female ones.  They’re common in institutions that have historically been male-bonded fraternities, like the military, the police, corporate boards, etc.  And the Catholic church. 

In most of those secular institutions, of course, change has been underway throughout the 20th and into the 21st century, and the rigid mechanisms of control are being vigorously challenged, primarily by women seeking full inclusion in the social and economic structures of various societies.  In the Catholic church, however, the structures of absolute control have grown only ever more stolidly authoritarian at this point in history, precisely in response to the claim of many women that they are called by the Spirit to be ordained ministers, and thereby to enter (and, from the viewpoint of the patriarchal system itself, to interrupt) the hierarchical chain of Catholic governance.

The response of the leaders of the Catholic church to that claim of many Catholic women and those in solidarity with women seeking ordination has been to fossilize the structures of control, the hierarchical mechanisms, even more decisively.  It has been to reassert the hierarchical motif within the Catholic system of governance, and, following Bl. John Paul II, whose ultimate response to the question of ordaining women was to decree that he could not change what God had set up within the church even if he wanted to do so, to call that inflexible patriarchal reassertion divine inspiration, an affirmation of what the Catholic church has always believed and practiced, which no pope has the right to change.

This reflexive gesture of self-protective, self-perpetuating patriarchy within the Catholic governing structures, in response to the valid claims of women to share in the ministerial life (and governing responsibility) of the Catholic church, locks the leadership of the Catholic church into patterns of patriarchal response typical of male hierarchical communities at their morally grossest.  To return to the evasive technique of the Vatican and bishops faced with questions about their moral and legal responsibility for priests abusing minors: one of the effects of the decision of the past two popes to hinge the future of their church on the maintenance of patriarchy as a divinely instituted ecclesial order for Catholicism is that Catholic governance structures are now ever more faithfully aping the behavior of male hierarchical institutions at their ethical worst, in secular society.

When faced with questions about the responsibility of those on top (or at the center) for those down the chain of command, leaders of rigidly structured hierarchies completely dependent on unquestioning obedience as the primary virtue of the leadership structure always, predictably shield the top or center from responsibility.  Though everyone observing the behavior of the structure under consideration, and examining how it fits together, knows that in the tightly controlled hierarchy, no decision ever takes place or can take place without the knowledge and consent of the man at the top/center.

Since total control of the top/center man is what the entire system is all about.  And total unquestioning obedience of every other link in the chain is what it’s all about as a corollary.  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.

And so here’s the situation that results from the decision of Popes John Paul II and Benedict to structure the Catholic church even more hierarchically, more patriarchally, than has been the case in the past: as the NCR editorial notes, while good, pastorally astute bishops (or priests or theologians) like Bishop Morris or Fr. Bourgeois or Sr. Elizabeth Johnson are chewed up and thrown away by the current system of Catholic governance, morally shady, ethically disreputable characters like Archbishop Chaput or Cardinals Rigali and Law thrive.  They are held up by the system as exemplars of its primary virtue: unquestioning obedience.

Cardinals Rigali and Law continue to live in “splendorous surroundings” despite their clear, undeniable protection of priests sexually abusing children, while Bishop Morris is out on his ear.  And the Catholic faithful are asked to identify Chaput, Rigali, and Law as moral heroes (they have, after all, served the church well through their unquestioning obedience), while they’re asked to view Bourgeois, Johnson, and Morris as morally questionable renegades.

Something’s wrong with this picture, with the picture the official Catholic church wants to paint for itself and adherents at this point in history—it’s morally wrong, in the view of increasing numbers of faithful Catholics.  Because we can see with our own eyes that those being chewed up and spit out by the rotten system have a moral integrity that vastly exceeds the integrity of the men being held up to us as moral exemplars.  And we find ourselves in a moral and spiritual bind, as a result.

When such harsh cognitive dissonance develops—particularly around central symbols of who or what is a moral exemplar—in an institution that claims to teach and exemplify moral values, here’s what usually happens: morally thinking, morally sensitive, upright people tend to shy away from the institution, and look elsewhere for sustenance for their moral lives.  But as they do so, true believers energized by the demand for absolute unquestioning obedience turn to the institution in question even more decisively, because it feeds their psychological need for unquestioning obedience.

The beatification of John Paul II is a rallying cry—a battle cry—of Benedict to the latter group, to carry the day for the Catholic church in the 21st century.  As Tom Fox notes in a statement today about the Bishop Morris story, Morris knew that he was to be fired the day following the beatification of John Paul II.  Pope Benedict himself told Morris this in a meeting 14 months ago (for further background information, see Anthea Gleeson’s interview with Bishiop Morris in The Chronicle [Toowoomba, Australia] and Tom Roberts and Joshua McElwee in this recent NCR article).

The date of Bishop Morris’s sacking was chosen deliberately by Pope Benedict to follow immediately on the beatification of the previous pope.  It was chosen, in other words, to be a concrete demonstration of what that beatification means for the whole church, and a signal to the true believers within the church who have called for the heads of Morris, Bourgeois, Johnson and others that they won a victory with this beatification.

And that, no matter what many Catholics or people of good will think, the leaders of the Catholic church will continue to demand that we regard Chaput, Rigali, and Law as unalloyed exemplars of the Catholic moral life in the 21st century.  Precisely as they also demand that we see Bl. John Paul II such an unalloyed exemplar.

This is a bold decision on the part of Benedict to continue at all cost hinging the future of the Catholic church on its remnant elements (and, it always has to be said when we speak of the remnant church, on the powerful economic European and American economic elites driving these Vatican decisions), on the ever diminishing cadre of true believers willing to identify unquestioning obedience as the central virtue of the Christian life.  Even if Jesus does inconveniently say that love is the primary calling of those who walk in his path of discipleship, and is the primary characteristic by which those called by his name must be known.

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