Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Mr. Winters Continues USCCB Blogging: The Bishops and Their Credibility Problem

In his blog reports about the USCCB meeting, National Catholic Reporter writer Michael Sean Winters is seeking to downplay the notion that the U.S. bishops want to pick a fight with the Obama administration over issues like marriage equality or the provision of contraception by health insurance plans.  Winters' first-session report yesterday began that meme, as he noted that the bishops are concerned about asserting the libertas ecclesiae in a cultural and political context that, to their mind, increasingly threatens the freedom of the church.

This is a telling admission, since it is tantamount to admitting that what the bishops are really seeking to defend as they tell the Catholic community and the world at large that they're defending religious freedom is actually the so-called freedom of the church.  They're asserting the "right" of the Catholic church--founded in the Constantinean arrangement that melded church and state and gave the church "liberty" to dictate to the state while pursuing its own internal business free of state intervention--to exercise veto power over governmental decisions and regulations to which the church objects on grounds of conscience.

This is different from saying that the leaders of a religious community have a right to object to various political or cultural decisions on grounds of conscience, and to encourage their adherents to stand with them in raising such conscientious objections.  What the bishops are asserting--what the term libertas ecclesiae means, in the Constantinean paradigm for which the Vatican and its bishops are still fighting--is the "freedom" or "right" of the church to constrain the state.  To dictate to the state.  To make the state dance to the tune of Catholic leaders.

Even when a sizable percentage of the Catholic community does not agree with its own leaders about the morality of issues like contraception, abortion, or gay rights--the neuralgic issues that are eliciting the last-ditch stand of Rome and its bishops to keep the Constantinean arrangement in place, in some tenuous form, in the postmodern world and following the second Vatican Council.

Naturally, the assertion by the leaders of any religious community in a pluralistic secular democracy that they should have the "right" and must maintain the "freedom" to exercise such veto power over governmental decisions on grounds of conscience makes many citizens of that democracy nervous.  And it should do so.  It should concern Americans in general that, just before this meeting of the Catholic bishops of the U.S. took place, their president, Mr. Dolan, requested a secret private meeting with President Obama, for which the same NCR reporter now seeking to whitewash the bishops' concerns and actions as all about love and not about political control was given an exclusive scoop.

The same reporter who now mediates (and spin-doctors) what is occurring at the USCCB meeting, for the mainstream media and the Catholic community.  The same insider journalist who now wants us to understand that the bishops' attempt to block and remove rights from a minority community is an expression of love and mercy and not of their desire to serve certain narrow partisan political goals qua religious leaders--to promote the interests of a single political party while undermining the leadership of the other political party.  And to do so at the expense of the vulnerable minority community whose humanity is being objectified, demonized, and employed as a utilitarian tool in a political game.

Unfortunately for the bishops, when they or any other religious leaders resort to such political tactics in the context of pluralistic secular democracies, and then seek to clothe them in religious garb, many citizens of these democracies will also then turn the spotlight on the religious leaders making large claims about the libertas of their religious group and about its leaders' "rights" to exercise veto power over the decisions and policies of a democratic government.  And so, as Michael Sean Winters' summary posting about the first day of the USCCB meeting also notes, even as the bishops assert their "freedom" and "rights" in the public square, they want to deal with the question of their "credibility."

The bishops recognize, in other words, that they have a colossal image problem.  And to deal with that image problem, they're relying on the services of a group of centrist Catholic media mavens who have their ear and trust, and who have made it their professional business to interpret what "we Catholics" believe in beltway circles, and to try to force the Democratic party to adhere to conservative notions of Catholic beliefs that are not held  by a majority of American Catholics and are more consonant with the ideology of the Republican party than the Democratic party.

The bishops have a serious image problem due to their persistent, never-quite-admitted and never-rectified mishandling of the abuse crisis.  The bishops have a problem presenting themselves as credible spiritual leaders when their persistent and never-rectified behavior in the abuse crisis has inverted core moral values that are plain to most thinking people of good will, Catholic or otherwise.  The ability of the top leaders of the Catholic church to maintain that the core value to be served in addressing the abuse crisis is  to safeguard the image and reputation of priests (and the assets of the church) rather than the needs of children has proven beyond shocking to those who have closely followed this crisis with any attention at all.

And so when the bishops now tell us they are serving high moral values by attacking a vulnerable minority community and seeking to restrict and remove the rights of that community--Mr. Cordileone, the head of the bishops' marriage initiative, called this a "sacred duty" yesterday--they face a steep uphill climb in convincing the American public that they're exercising moral or spiritual leadership grounded in any sound principles at all.  And the spin-doctoring of their centrist apologists only compounds the problem, since the resort to image-management techniques gives the game away: it tells us that the bishops still do not get it.

They still do not get that the questions many Catholics are now raising go considerably beyond the "credibility" question of Mr. Winters' analysis.  The critical questions coming from the faithful to the bishops drive to the heart of the most fundamental claim of all hat Catholic leaders make about the church--namely, that the Catholic church exists to keep the memory of Jesus alive, to mediate and transmit that memory to each successive generation, and to do this first and foremost by functioning as a credible sacramental sign in the world of God's all-embracing love of the world through Christ.

The bishops remained concerned about image, and they employ media mavens who are also image-fixated to advise them.  If they want to rehabilitate their image, they should perhaps begin to listen far more widely than they have done up to the present.  They need to listen first to their own people--to the Catholics for whom Mr. Winters of NCR and Ms. Steinfels of Commonweal keep claiming to speak, as they inform the Obama administration on behalf of "us Catholics" that what the bishops believe and think is synonymous with what Catholics believe and think.

If he wants to refurbish his image and regain credibility Mr. Dolan need to stop picking up the phone any time Robbie George, the Republican neocon hack who has his ear, calls (as Winters' summary article linked above admits is the case), and start listening to the Catholic people in general.  To Elizabeth Johnson, for instance, who did not have the entree Mr. George (or Mr. Winters or Ms. Steinfels) enjoys, as the bishops recently skewered her theological work without even consulting her in the process.  Or to some of his flock who have just spent weeks among the Occupy folks in Zuccotti Park.

Or to some of the people who work in the Catholic Worker soup kitchens in New York.  Or to any survivor of childhood clerical sexual abuse anywhere who seeks a meeting with him: it's outrageous, from the standpoint of the fundamental values the Catholic church and its leaders should be serving but don't serve, that the bishops remain more accessible to Mr. George, with his powerbrokering agenda serving the super-rich, than to any survivor of childhood clerical abuse anywhere.

Until and unless the bishops begin such a widespread listening process--until they stop behaving like Cabots who will talk only to Lodges who imagine themselves to be in touch with the only powerbrokers who count--their credibility will continue to wane. And to wane and wane again.

And people spiritually hungry for something beyond image-making and mean-spirited political games--people who want real and authentic contact with the all-loving Jesus about whom Mr. Dolan spoke so eloquently yesterday--will continue to look anywhere but to the Catholic church under its current regime for that redemptive presence and touch of God in the world.

(But what I really want to know as I read about yesterday's meetings is which Eminence dined with whom yesterday evening.  And, dear God, could we Catholics possibly get any sillier, and any more beside the point in any contemporary discussion of moral values that really counts in the culture at large?  Eminence?  Really?

Carolyn Disco is absolutely right (see the last link above) to find the continuation of these "nobility-based" titles [as she aptly calls them] absurd, in the post-Vatican II church.  And what can Jim Pauwels possibly be thinking in defending the obsequious practice of addressing prelates as Eminence as "tipping one's cap to the squire"?

Squires and eminences?  Is that what the Catholic conversation has really come down to, all these years after Vatican II?  And the most pertinent--the best and brightest--thing we have to offer to a culture understandably roiled by a colossal gap between rich and poor about which our moral teachings at their best have much to say?  But which their Eminences do not intend to address at this eminent gathering, lest they tee off some of their rich Republican handlers friends.)

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