Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Survivors of Clerical Sexual Abuse File Petition with International Criminal Court: Historical (and Theological) Reflections

I haven't yet said anything about the recent historic action of survivors of clerical sexual abuse who have filed a petition with the International Criminal Court calling for investigation of top Catholic officials for protecting clergy who have abused minors. Those named in the petition include Pope Benedict.  For an array of valuable statements by SNAP leaders about this historic filing, see this document released as the filing took place.

I haven't written about this step up to now, because there's not yet a great deal to say, other than that it has happened, and how the ICC will respond remains to be seen.  There's much talk of the probability that the ICC will in all likelihood not pursue the investigation.  We'll see.

Even so, in my view, the step that survivors have taken with this appeal to the ICC is historic, and deserves attention regardless of the outcome of the filing.  The historic nature of this action strikes me all the more, when I consider that, in the same week that the petition was filed, the bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Robert Finn, has had to appear before a grand jury to testify about his actions in the case of Father Shawn Ratigan.  As I've noted in a number of previous postings (this is the first of a series), when pornographic images of children were found on Ratigan's computer, Finn failed to remove Ratigan immediately from all contact with children, and this lamentable failure became public knowledge when Ratigan was arrested after the images came to light.

The ICC filing and the demand that Finn testify (as well as the court actions now being taken against the archdiocese of Philadelphia) signal something significant, it seems to me: they signal that, increasingly, Catholic officials will not be permitted to act as if they are above the law, when it comes to their responsibility for covering up crimes against children.  And that's a big change.  What's happening now, vis-a-vis the legal responsibility expected of Catholic officials accused of facilitating sexual abuse of children, represents a sea change in how various societies--including societies with deep Catholic roots like Ireland--regard the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church.  And what those leaders can get away with.

When the abuse crisis began to break open in all its ugly ramifications with the stories out of Boston in 2002, my initial response was divided.  Part of me held out hope that the pastoral leaders of the church would respond to these revelations pastorally.  Part of me hoped that Catholic officials would begin to behave like bona fide pastors, with concern and compassion for those who had been abused, in response to all we (and they?) were learning from the Boston cases.

But another part of me fully expected Catholic officials to do precisely what they did, on the whole, as a response to the abuse crisis: to dig in their heels and assert their authority and their freedom from the law in ever more blatant and appalling ways.  The part of me which recognized that bishops and the Vatican had no choice except to lock themselves into a pattern of defensive reaction, obfuscation and lies, and louder and louder assertion of their divine authority, was the part of me that had already begun to see these patterns unfolding as lay theologians like myself began teaching theology in large numbers in Catholic institutions after Vatican II.

For many of us who were energized by the Second Vatican Council and its call to open windows to the Holy Spirit within the church, the Council seemed to be a prophetic, Spirit-driven calling for more lay involvement in the leadership and mission of the church.  For some of us, the sense of excitement the council created led to our desire to study and teach theology, to assist the church in its mission of educating people and transmitting its core values and teachings to the culture at large.

And then, for some of us who had begun this vocational journey in response to Vatican II, and for whom the council's promise of reform still held hope, a brick wall suddenly appeared.  With John Paul and his right-hand man Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict), the church's leadership went into reaction mode.  Lay theologians experienced the reaction as a top-down and often ruthless attempt to reassert clerical control over the discipline of theology, at a point in history when the number of priests teaching theology (or teaching in Catholic universities, period) was sharply declining, and the number of layfolks and women religious teaching theology was rising.

The effects of that top-down attempt to rein in lay theologians and reassert clerical control over the discipline of theology have been disastrous and deeply harmful to the church as a whole.  The story of this period of reaction has yet to be completely told anywhere.  Some of those who could tell valuable parts of it are still teaching theology in Catholic institutions and are afraid to speak out.  Others, like me, have been shoved to the margins, and have little institutional support to research and write about what has gone on in recent years--and our voices don't count for much in the institution any longer, due to our marginalizations.

I've been thinking lately about some of the implications of the ruthless top-down attempt to rein in the discipline of academic theology under the last two popes, as I've reconnected with a number of my classmates from graduate school.  As we reconnect and talk about our experiences in recent years, I'm struck by the fact that a large percentage of us no longer teach theology.  The brick wall placed in our path as lay theologians by John Paul II and Ratzinger proved insurmountable for all of us.

Each of the classmates to whom I've recently reconnected is, as it happens, a lay theologian, though one of us was a nun when she first began to teach theology.  We're also, for the most part, gay, and though we weren't out of the closet in grad school, all of us chose to come out in the years following our theological studies.  None of us did so, however, openly or publicly while teaching theology.  We did so when we were booted out of and blocked in one Catholic institution after another, for reasons usually never made clear to us, and when we had nothing left to lose--except more of our integrity--by remaining silent about our sexual orientations.

None of us in the group with which I've now reconnected teaches theology any longer.  We can't do so.  In each of our cases, the institutional church has put up insuperable obstacles to our vocations, and we cannot find our way around those obstacles.  In our class, those who did survive as theologians have tended to be those who already had institutional entree that we non-survivors lacked as lay theologians: they've tended to be religious who have enjoyed the support of their religious communities (and who had jobs waiting for them in their communities' institutions when they graduated). The survivors have been religious who knew how to play the church-political games and remain in the good graces of the hierarchy as they pursue their theological vocations.  They've also been, in many cases, lay theologians who are similarly politically astute and have long been "connected" in a way that we non-survivors were never connected to the church institutionally.  They have had entree, in other words . . . .

My soundings of what has happened to a number of my graduate school classmates is a tiny case-study, it seems to me, in what has happened to the church under the reins of the last two pontiffs, and a case-study in what is at the heart of the abuse crisis.  With the Constantinean turn, the leaders of the Catholic church became fully amalgamated into the ruling structures of the Roman Empire, and the pattern of ruling--the expectation of ruling--continued up to Vatican II.

In key respects, Vatican II sought to dismantle the structures within the church that had been built on the foundations of the Constantinean turn.  But the council failed.  It failed insofar as it failed to anticipate the ruthlessness of reaction among those determined not to yield their power and privilege and claim to rule.  It failed insofar as it implemented no procedures that really had teeth to effect the necessary changes--the fundamental changes--in how authority is wielded in the church.  The council failed insofar as it did not implement procedures necessary to make the reforms of Vatican II succeed, by blocking the inevitable tendency of reaction on the part of powerful controlling forces called to reform.

And reaction set in with a vengeance with John Paul II and Ratzinger/Benedict, reaction that has been all about reasserting the unilateral power, privilege, and authority of the clerical caste of the church over against its lay members and secular society itself.  The last two papacies have been a reassertion of the Constantinean model of church (and of the relationship of the church to secular society), in reaction to Vatican II and its call for reform.

But then the abuse crisis came along, and one of its effects has been to give Catholic leaders no choice except to be subject to secular laws--to appear in court to answer charges, for instance, when they have flaunted the law.  As I think about this development, about Bishop Finn having to appear in court in Kansas City (and Catholic officials being forced to testify in Philadelphia), and as I think about the ICC filing, I begin to wonder if the Spirit is not at work, in some strange and dark way, through these developments to achieve the goals of Vatican II that the current leaders of the church have thwarted.

The present leaders of Catholicism refused to reform their church, in response to a clear mandate of all the bishops of the church gathered together at its last ecumenical council.  They have resisted what the Spirit clearly said to the church in that transformative moment.  Quite specifically, they have sought to revert to a Constantinean understanding of the power and authority of the church's clerical elite, insofar as Vatican II appeared to threaten that power and authority.

And now civil courts and secular legal systems and criminal authorities are forcing the leaders of the Catholic church to admit that they no longer enjoy the kind of unchecked power and privilege afforded to church leaders by the Constantinean arrangement.  And in these developments, we may be seeing the teeth for reform that the documents of Vatican II lacked.  We may be seeing the action of the Spirit to produce the reform of the Catholic church that its leaders have adamantly resisted, even as they have paid lip-service to what the council decreed.

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