Saturday, June 18, 2011

Interesting Times: National News Brimming with Catholic Stories This Weekend

No one's quite sure where the "Chinese" curse, "May you live in interesting times," originated.  Or if it's even really a Chinese proverb.  Or whether it's really a curse or a blessing.

Whatever the provenance or meaning of that old "Chinese" saying, it certainly seems to apply to the Catholic church in the U.S. this weekend.  Interesting times, indeed.  Enough fodder for a bucket full of fascinating Ph.D. theses about all kinds of topics: the volatile interaction of religion and politics in American culture; the fateful consequences of the U.S. Catholic bishops' choice to turn their church into an arm of the Republican religious right; the consequences of personality cults and shallow seminary training in the priesthood as it now stands; the damage an institution does to itself when it excludes valuable candidates for ordination solely because of their gender, etc.  

One weekend, and the following is happening in one national Catholic church--the Catholic church in the U.S.:

1. A high-profile personality-cult priest with a rabidly faithful following announces he's leaving active ministry, sets up an exceptionally strange website to carry the announcement and issues an eerie YouTube video, and the true believers predictably go wild, plastering internet sites with comments about their undying devotion to their guru.

2. The Republican chambers in New York are haunted by his eminence the Catholic Bishop of Brooklyn, who is "dispatched" by his superior his eminence the Archbishop of New York from Seattle to Albany, to try to stop a civil action granting the civil right of marriage to a group of citizens in a secular state of a pluralistic society.  Because Archbishop Dolan and Bishop DiMarzio say so.  Because the church says that it and it alone has the right to determine what marriage is about for everyone, even in a civil society, and who shall or shall not marry.  Even in a pluralistic, civil society.*

3. Ardent lay supporters of a high-profile right-wing Catholic bishop who has recently been discovered to have taken no action for months after he knew a priest in his charge possessed child pornography announce a public march in support of the bishop.  While an advocacy group that urges American Catholics to begin taking clerical abuse of children seriously begs this group not to march, noting it will deter minors being abused by adults from reporting the abuse, and will cause adults who know of such situations of abuse to question whether they ought to speak out.

4. While the priest at the center of this storm turns out to have seemed unexceptional (and this in itself should raise red flags) to many observers throughout his seminary career and the start of his ministry: he's a former Boy Scout who has been a Boy Scout leader, a John Paul II-generation Catholic who was inspired by the visit of John Paul II to Des Moines, where Father Ratigan saw "the universal church" gathered (in a field in the overwhelmingly white and middle-class American Midwest).  He has accompanied Bishop Finn to national March for Life events, and has gotten himself into trouble by asking a group of fifth- and sixth-graders (!) whether they're pro-life.  A typical--an all too typical--young priest of the John Paul II generation.  The type of priest we're persistently told now by the powers that be is a solution to the problem of clerical sexual abuse of minors--a problem banished to the torrid past of the free-for-all sixties . . . .

One weekend, one interesting story after another.  One church with many different types of adherents, its news splashed across one newspaper after another this weekend.  Not always flattering news, by any means.  News that gives many Americans pause to think--to think about why prelates of a particular church consider it their purview to dictate to the elected members of a state legislature how or whether to vote on an issue over which those prelates should, in a true pluralistic democracy, have no jurisdiction whatsoever.

News which suggests that the people who call themselves Catholic in the U.S. are deeply divided in key respects, and perhaps not conspicuously mature or well-educated, when it comes to understanding what their faith is really all about, beyond the easy slogans of the JPII period of church history, and not conspicuously mature and well-educated about making critical decisions based on their faith and how it relates to the political sphere.  

May you live in interesting times.  And I'm still not sure whether the saying is a blessing or a curse.

(What's my assessment of the story and what makes it interesting, you ask?  I see an immature body of religious adherents who have struggled to come of age through Vatican II, but whose immature, unskilled, unadmirable "leaders" have deliberately retarded the coming of age of the church they lead, and who are men caught in cycles of going-nowhere adolescence, for which the entire church they lead is paying an increasingly high price.)

*See the valuable commentary of Father Geoff Farrow, Mary Hunt, Paul Moses, and Michael Bayly about these matters.

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