Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Ten Questions We Should Be Asking about the Finn Story

All of the really useful courses I have ever taken in research methodology stress this important point: good, productive research depends on asking the right questions.  Start with the wrong set of questions, and no matter how sophisticated your research technique, you're not going to end up with useful data and a set of meaningful conclusions.

One of the reasons I stay frustrated--in the extreme--with many of my centrist Catholic brothers and sisters is that they seem intent on asking the wrong questions.  Over and over again.  While avoiding the really important questions that Catholics with a strong concern for the future of their church need to be asking.

A case in point: several of the centrist Catholic websites in the U.S. dominated by Catholics with strong ties to the Catholic academic community of the U.S. have recently been discussing the situation with Bishop Robert Finn and the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.  In particular, they've been asking what happened in the case of Father Shawn Ratigan--why Bishop Finn took no action when he first learned of the danger Ratigan posed to minors a year before Ratigan was arrested on charges of possession of child pornography.

And here are the kinds of questions centrist Catholic intellectuals who are firmly grounded in the Catholic church at an institutional level, who are deeply enmeshed in its structures of governance and in its structures of allocation of power, are asking about the Finn story:

1.    Why did Finn allow his vicar general Father Robert Murphy to handle the situation after a Catholic school principal, Julie Hess, wrote diocesan officials to share widespread concerns about Ratigan and the danger he posed to children?

2.    Why did Finn not inform himself about Ratigan and the complaints against Ratigan, about the dangers Julie Hess's letter told diocesan officials Ratigan posed to children?

3.    Why did he wait so long--more than a year, and after Ratigan was 's arrested!--to read Hess's letter? 

4.  Why are things so badly managed in the Catholic system, so that case after case like this comes to the attention of the public--case after case in which we learn that bishops did not inform themselves about serious situations in which a priest in their charge endangered minors, and in which they delegated the matter to fumbling subordinates?

In my view, these are not the right questions to be asking now.  They're not productive questions to ask.  They won't get us anywhere near what's wrong with the Catholic system at present.  They won't get us anywhere near the moral rottenness at the center from which the damaging behavior proceeds again and again, seemingly with no end in sight and no solution to the problems.

They don't get us near the rotten heart of the system, because these questions assume the problem we're confronting is a malfunctioning system that is basically tenable and good, and that can be fixed with a bit of baling wire here and dollop of glue there.  These questions assume that the majority of Catholic leaders are upright, honorable men who truly intend to get to the bottom of the problems and address them.

The questions centrists enmeshed in the Catholic system keep raising presuppose that the system itself is not the problem.  To presuppose that, centrists would have to question their own security and comfort within the system.  And their complicity with a rotten system that is actively harming one brother and sister Catholic after another.  And their callous cruelty in the face of the damage the Catholic system, the mean machine, is inflicting on large numbers of Catholics these days.

The questions that need to be asked, instead, if we hope to come anywhere close to what is seriously wrong with the Catholic system as it's presently configured, are the following.  These are the questions that those who know the abuse crisis best of all--its victims, its survivors--are asking about the Finn situation.  They are light years more likely to yield really useful analysis of the rotten behavior of Bishop Finn than the polite status-quo-preserving, tinkering-with-things-as-they-are questions centrist Catholic academics have been asking about the Finn story.

Here are ten questions we should be asking about the Finn story, if we really want to move forward with a solution to the abuse crisis, and really care about the future of the Catholic church:

1.    Given the abysmal performance of one pastoral leader after another throughout the church in handling priests abusing minors, what does it mean to be a barely adequate (not even an effective) pastor in the church at present?  What kind of viable theology of pastoral leadership can we possibly salvage in the church now, given all we have learned in recent years about what our pastoral leaders are capable of?

2. When did bold lying, persistent, cynical lying every time one of these situations arises become acceptable behavior on the part of Catholic pastoral leaders?  If lying is not permissible for lay Catholics, if we're expected to abide by the fundamental moral rules proclaimed to us by our pastoral leaders, why is it acceptable on the part of the pastoral leaders?

3.    How can the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church expect to be credible teachers, when their own behavior belies the norms they proclaim to the rest of the church?  And how can lay Catholics who refuse to address the immoral behavior, to call it what it is, possibly be part of the solution to the problem, and not part of the problem itself?

4. Why has the future of the Catholic church been mortgaged to the maintenance of a historically developed and entirely mutable system of governance--the clerical system that places all power in the hands of the ordained, and demands that the ordained be only males who profess celibacy (without practicing celibacy in many cases)?

5.    Since large numbers of Catholics are now walking away from the Catholic church in the developed nations due to the pastoral malfeasance and immoral behavior of its leaders, what do the pastoral leaders and lay Catholics concerned about the church's future intend to do about all the Catholics they continue to alienate as they keep the current system in place and as they defend that system as an expression of God's will for the church?

6.    What are the theological roots of the most shocking finding of all in each story that breaks in the the abuse crisis: namely, that priest after priest and bishop after bishop is oblivious to the needs of vulnerable children, while the needs of priests, including those abusing minors, are always put first?

7.    How can the church maintain any claim at all to bona fide catholicity and any claim to possess Catholic truth when it not only tacitly accepts the loss of large numbers of its members due to the malfeasance and immorality of its pastors, but actively hounds these dissenting or critical members out of communion?

8.    How do the lives of those now gone affect my life as one who chooses to remain?  What is my responsibility to these brothers and sisters who are no longer in the pews, but whom I have been taught to regard as an essential part of my life in the body of Christ, so that I cannot possibly be complete as long as they are alienated and shoved from the table?

9.    Why have Catholics of the center, who continue making excuses for a morally rotten system and who refuse to recognize the moral rottenness that is the primary reason many brothers and sisters are leaving, become so convinced that what is not infallibly declared or part of the core teaching of the church is not questionable?

10.    Why does the center continue to remain silent about the almost unanimous non-reception of Catholic teachings on sexual ethics, including the teaching on artificial contraception, while they continue to put up with and tacitly collude in attacks on those who are gay and lesbian?

These are ten key questions I'm inclined to ask in the wake of the story of Bishop Finn.  They're not the kind of questions being asked in discussions of the Finn case at centrist Catholic websites in the U.S.  And as a result, the discussion at those websites will continue to be an intensely parochial, exceptionally beside-the-point  pseudo-intellectual nattering on about where the deck chairs should be properly placed, as the Titanic lurches to the bottom of the sea.

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