Monday, January 28, 2013

Frank Bruni Talks Hubris and Cosseted Clerical Castes, Michael Sean Winters Talks Tortellini

In a pull-no-punches statement yesterday entitled "Catholicism's Curse," New York Times columnist Frank Bruni brings the devastating critique of Catholic clericalism that has been growing by leaps and bounds since the abuse crisis broke wide open a decade ago into the mainstream of American public discourse. And National Catholic Reporter columnist Michael Sean Winters is furious as a result: he's furious about what Bruni may well accomplish via his mainstreaming of the intra-Catholic critique of clericalism.

Bruni surveys the stories now breaking as materials in previously sealed Los Angeles archdiocesan files  are being disclosed, and points right to the heart of the troubling pattern recurrent in diocese after diocese that we now see exposed, all over again, through the Los Angeles stories: "[W]hat hasn’t changed is the church’s hubris" (emphasis added). And lest we fail to get that point, Bruni repeats it:

This hubris abetted the crisis: the particular sway that abusers held over their victims and the special trust they received from those children’s parents were tied into the church’s presentation of priests as paragons. 
And this hubris also survives the crisis, manifest in the way that the Vatican, a gilded enclave so far removed and so frequently out of step with the rest of the world, clamps down on Catholics who challenge its rituals and rules. Much of what these dissenters raise questions about — the all-male priesthood, for example, or the commitment to celibacy that priests are required to make — aren’t indisputable edicts from God. They’re inventions of the mortals who took charge of the faith.

In talking about hubris, gilded enclaves, an exclusive and privileged all-male celibate club, Bruni is talking about clericalism, in other words--what one Catholic after another has been talking about non-stop as abuse cases have come to light with sickening predictability now from diocese to diocese, from country to country, in the past decade. In mounting his critique of clericalism, he keys off Garry Wills's forthcoming book Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, which notes that the all-male, celibates-only hieratic clerical caste with which the Catholic church has ended up in its ministerial elite is an historically conditioned development that was not dictated by Jesus or mandated by the gospels. Historically conditioned, and therefore susceptible to change--if the church had leaders willing to entertain the notion of change.

Here's clericalism, in Bruni's estimation:

But while I have nothing against priests, I have quite a lot against an institution that has done a disservice to them and to the parishioners in whose interests they should toil. I refer to the Roman Catholic Church, specifically to its modern incarnation and current leaders, who have tucked priests into a cosseted caste above the flock, wrapped them in mysticism and prioritized their protection and reputations over the needs and sometimes even the anguish of the people in the pews. I have a problem, in other words, with the church’s arrogance, a thread that runs through Wills’s book, to be published next month; through fresh revelations of how assiduously a cardinal in Los Angeles worked to cover up child sexual abuse; and through the church’s attempts to silence dissenters, including an outspoken clergyman in Ireland who was recently back in the news.

As Bruni notes, to safeguard that cosseted caste, the current leaders of the Catholic church have been willing to slap down Catholic religious women, particularly those calling for open discussion of the exclusion of women from ordination, and one theologian or conscientiously dissenting priest after another, most recently, Irish Redemptorist Fr. Tony Flannery, who has been suspended from ministry for refusing to renounce his endorsement of women's ordination and his call for open discussion of contraception, homosexuality, and clerical celibacy. Flannery has recently revealed that the Vatican threatened him with excommunication as it sought to force him to renounce these positions.

And as this new year began, the Vatican officially notified Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois of his dismissal from the priesthood because he supports women's ordination . . . . 

So why does NCR columnist Michael Sean Winters not want this story to be told, so much so that he resorts to cheap pot-shots at Bruni, advising him to return to his food-writing roots and stick to tortellini and leave the theology to Winters's bishop (and boss, via Winters's position at Catholic University of America) Cardinal Wuerl? In my judgment, Winters's bile has everything to do with the fact that he knows that once the intra-Catholic critique of clericalism goes mainstream through articles in publications like the New York Times, there's no going back.

There's no going back to the church of a cozy hieratic club closed to outsiders, which protects its pet hangers-on in the Catholic journalistic community insofar as they turn a blind eye to the significant shortcomings of the elite boys' club that cossets those hangers-on every bit as much as it cossets its own members. There's no going back to a church in which people will deferentially equate the hierarchy and its fallible, historically conditioned statements with God and God's word, as Winters is always inclined to do.

The only way forward for Catholics now, as Bryan Cones incisively notes in his own commentary about Bruni's article at U.S. Catholic, is a thoroughgoing unravelling of the myth of the cosseted caste. And that unraveling frightens those who inhabit the elite echelons of that cosseted caste, along with the hangers-on who benefit from defending the club and partaking of the goodies it dispenses to them.

The only way forward as the now powerful intra-Catholic critical discourse about hubristic clericalism  hits the mainstream is more radical and thoroughgoing critique, and the eventual dismantling of the clerical elite itself--if the church is to have a future and if its future is no longer to be mortgaged to the maintenance of this elite, closed club that Jesus did not mandate for the church. I suspect Mr. Winters sees this handwriting on the wall as a lay Catholic who has quite a way with words about tortellini (and clericalism and gay life and politics, etc.) blows the whistle of critique publicly, and it terrifies him.

(And on this point--the inevitability of a return to a "consensual form" of living our Catholic faith which ditches the current top-down coercive one favored by Benedict with his high-profiling of the magical-mystical clerical elite--see Jerry Slevin's recent good statement at his Christian Catholicism blog site.)

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