Friday, June 15, 2012

Catholic Identity Again: More on Joan Chittister and Christiane Amanpour

Benedict and Curia, December 2008

I keep hearing in my head snippets of Joan Chittister's dialogue this week with reporter Christiane Amanpour, to which I linked yesterday.  Amanpour says she needs to "push" Chittister, and then she voices what she hears the Vatican and U.S. bishops saying to American religious women: 

You are a part of the Roman Catholic church. 
You either stay in line or you get out of Dodge. 
It's back to basics. 
Toe the line.

Basics.  Lines.  My way.  Serve me and my definitions or leave.  

Catholic?  It's me and what I say.  Not you and what you do.

To which Chittister responds (and note in both cases I'm using actual pieces of the dialogue of these two, with slight elaborations of my own),

Well, what line are we talking about here? 
With the men running the church, it's a matter of wanting to make the rest of the world part of your world. 
For the medieval mind, there's an answer to everything, only one, it's either right or wrong, and we'll tell you what it is.  For the modern mind, born in a scientific age, there many answers to many things, and we have to look at them all to know what is best.

And I think this is extremely revelatory, this dialogue in which a reporter "pushes" a leading American woman religious on the tension between American nuns and church leaders, and allows this leader of American nuns to give voice to what is basic to the tension between the two groups.  As I noted several days ago, there is an exceptionally powerful movement within Catholicism today at a global level, which is all about setting Catholic identity in stone for political reasons.   

The debates about Catholic identity, which are to a great extent being manufactured by the controlling center of the Catholic church, are all about asserting the unlimited, unilateral, and exclusive right of the power center of the church to define the meaning of Catholicity.  For political reasons. 

And about their right, in the process of asserting that claim to their unilateral right to define what is or is not Catholic, to draw the lines that place some of us inside and others of us outside the circle of Catholic identity.  To subjugate and silence others who ask any inconvenient questions at all about the definition of Catholic identity handed down from the center.  Or who actually live Catholicism in a way that butts up critically at any point against the established, official definition of Catholic identity.

Read some of the dialogue at the recent Commonweal thread Grant Gallicho started on the Catholic Theological Society of America's discussion of the contraception issue, and these intents (with their political agenda) are crystal clear:

There's one way for Catholics. 
It's what the hierarchy says. 
It's Catholic dogma. 
It's in the Catechism. 
No dissent allowed. 
By dissenting, you're putting yourself outside the lines drawn by the officials who have the right to draw those lines.

Not only are these declarations ill-informed at a theological level (since the issues around which these folks are seeking to draw a single Catholic line, including contraception and homosexuality, have never been defined at a dogmatic level prohibiting all questions or dissent), but they also rather astonishingly miss the point, it seems to me, of what catholicism is really all about at a constitutive level.  And I think that's what Joan Chittister is getting at when she notes the need for diverse perspectives to pursue multiple truths in the world in which we actually live after the arrival of modernity.

Chittister is defending a deeply catholic approach to the culture at large, against an inherently anti-catholic approach which, ironically, is being decreed from the center of the Catholic church as the only possible approach to defining Catholic identity.  Which is being decreed, that is to say, by a tiny minority of the church's membership--by men, by men who are almost exclusively of white European descent, acting in political collusion with other powerful laymen who are similarly almost exclusively of white European descent, who profess to be heterosexual.

An exceptionally limited group of people want today to assert the unquestionable, decreed-from-above, take-it-or-leave-it, we-own-you-don't definition of what it means to be catholic: to belong to a church whose very name for itself points to the widest diversity possible.

Men like Benedict and Timothy Dolan and William Lori and Carl Anderson, whom Robert Mickens profiles this week in the British Catholic journal The Tablet (the article itself is behind a pay firewall).  As Mickens points out, Anderson, the Supreme Knight, has quietly exercised tremendous power at the very center of the Catholic church for some years now, though most Catholics have little knowledge at all of his role in setting church policy and defining Catholic identity--or of his powerful influence in the Vatican Bank.  Or of his years spent working for Ronald Reagan.

Or of his very cozy ties to the powerful archbishop William Lori, who now spearheads the U.S. bishops' "religious liberty" office, and who is Supreme Chaplain of the Knights of Columbus.

An extremely limited, sociologically discrete group of men claim the right today--the unilateral and unquestionable right--to determine the definition of Catholic identity for everyone.  For everyone else.  Those men are almost exclusively white, of mature years, wealthy or connected to circles of great wealth and power, and right-wing in their political leanings.  Their determination to set the definition of Catholic in stone at this point in history is absolutely inextricable from their political intent--which is equally about controlling everything possible, from their pinnacle of power, in the political and cultural sphere as well as the religious sphere.

And, unfortunately, American religious women have become convenient political tools in this draconian political game that may very well determine the course of human history and of the planet itself, if this controlling group of powerful men has its way in the coming American elections--as it intends to do, by hook or by crook.  So that now yet another nun who spent much of her career teaching theology in a university that is not even Catholic, and who was necessarily involved in many cross-religious and cross-disciplinary dialogues in that prestigious American university, is being pilloried for having written a book about fundamental ethical theory that, we're asked to believe, betrays Catholic truth and Catholic identity.

Let me repeat that point, please: Sr. Margaret Farley, who spent much of her career teaching at Yale, wrote a book several years ago about fundamental ethical theory--about how we might approach the discipline of ethics at a foundational level, especially in the area of sexual ethics--which was addressed to a cross-disciplinary, cross-religious audience.  Which never professed to be asserting Catholic identity or parroting magisterial teaching--because that's not how Catholic theologians who expect to have any academic credibility at all do theology any longer.  Not in non-Catholic universities where the quality of one's argument, the cogency of one's case, the breadth of one's learning and one's demonstrated ability to engage a multiplicity of sophisticated audiences count above all.

Theologians who expect to be taken seriously in academic cultures worth their salt don't pick up the latest edition of the Catechism, record what it has to say about topic x, and then go to their academic discussions and turn on their Catholic tape-recorders so that their colleagues will know the unequivocal Catholic position about issue x.

And it's for being an outstanding Catholic theologian that Sr. Margaret Farley is now being pilloried--and used, along with other Catholic religious women, as a sensational case study in all that has gone wrong with the Catholic church insofar as it has gotten out of the control of people like Timothy Dolan.  Or Joseph Ratzinger.  Or Carl Anderson.  Or William Lori.

To which I hear Sr. Joan Chittister responding, But you men who claim that you and you alone represent what the Catholic enterprise is all about only represent the tip of the catholic iceberg.  You aren't by any means at all the entire church catholic.  

And your controlling definition of Catholic identity isn't even, in most cases, based on your experiences of living the gospel of Jesus Christ in midst of the world's struggling, marginalized communities.  And so your definition lacks a legitimacy and grounding in lived experience that undercuts this definition's claim to dominance from the outset.  

And if you keep at it, you're going to end up with a definition of Catholic identity and a church fashioned around that identity that represent hardly anyone in the Catholic church but your own selves--you men who believe you should control everything.  You're going to end up with a definition of Catholic identity that is in no conceivable sense catholic.

And which decisively excludes Jesus himself from your notion of what it means to be Catholic.

Later in the day: my apologies both to Sr. Joan Chittister and to readers for having misspelled Sr. Joan's surname wrong in my posting earlier in the day.

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