Monday, January 6, 2014

Pope Francis and the Clerical System: Jerry Slevin on Lay Catholics and Making a Mess, Colleen Baker on Seeing from the Margins and Interpersonal Relationships

Yesterday, I asked about Pope Francis and his reform of the Catholic church: "Will he continue the disastrous decision of his two predecessors to hinge the future of the Catholic church on the maintenance of the clerical system at all cost?" I realize that Francis has said quite a bit that's critical of clericalism.

For instance, a summary of his 29 November question-and-answer session with 120 superiors of religious communities has just been published (pdf file) by La Civilta Cattolica, and it's highly critical of clericalism. In this session, the pope calls clericalism one of the "worst evils" in the church, in fact. See Bill McGarvey's brief report at America's "In All Things" blog on this document.

And so my question yesterday was not about whether Pope Francis is on record as being concerned about clericalism and its seriously destructive effects in the life of the Catholic church. My question is about what he intends to do about it--beyond zingy media statements and not very costly symbolic rearrangements of the furniture of Vatican offices. 

I'm very interested in a question Jerry Slevin asks in his new year's piece at Christian Catholicism, which, to my way of thinking, perfectly dovetails with the question I asked yesterday: Jerry writes, 

Will Francis restore the Church to a consensual model where Catholics have a real say on their leadership? He could, if he and his numerous cardinal allies are pressed hard enough to do so. It likely depends on how much pressure is applied by foreign governments, especially at present from Australia and the USA, on Pope Francis and his cardinal allies. So far neither mounting financial penalities nor Catholics’ unheeded complaints have had much influence on the Vatican’s policies. No bishop has been imprisoned yet for protecting predatory priests.

Jerry's pointing out, of course, that the proof of the reform pudding will be in how Francis chooses to deal with the abuse crisis in the Catholic church--which directly stems from and is deeply rooted in the clerical system and the clericalism it spawns as its little monster. Clericalism is a way of thinking (and a system of governance) which asks us to imagine that lay members of the church become ontologically superior to all other lay people once they've been ordained, and that they should gain, via the laying on of hands, a privilege denied to the other 99% of church members, and unquestioned power over those 99%.

Jerry's answer to his question in the preceding paragraph:

It is clear that this must change to get the Vatican to act effectively to curtail the priest sexual abuse of children. Francis cannot do this alone. Catholics must get their political leaders to create a "mess" that Francis can then use to propel reforms.

If I'm reading Jerry correctly, he's proposing that lay Catholics take their cue from Francis himself, who encouraged young Catholics to "make a mess" in the world and the church this past summer. He's pointing out that the power to effect such a mess (and therefore the power to propel reform of the church forward in a significant way) lies in lay Catholic hands, insofar as we lay Catholics do everything in our power to compel our political leaders (and our judicial systems) to do what the leaders of the church have refused to do up to now: deal directly, proactively, and effectively with the abuse of minors by Catholic religious authority figures.

I think this is an ingenious take on Francis's call to young Catholics to make a mess, and I also think Jerry Slevin is right on target to insist that talk about reforming the church will be just that, talk, until we see Francis begin to deal directly with the abuse crisis. Which is to say, until we see Francis begin to confront in the most direct way possible the clericalism from which the abuse crisis stems . . . .

Something else has struck me in my reading this week. On Saturday, I highlighted another statement by Pope Francis in his 29 November colloquy with religious superiors. As I noted, Francis told the religious superiors to whom he spoke,

I am convinced of one thing: the great changes in history were realized when reality was seen not from the center but rather from the periphery.

The statement is set within a larger context that is, to my way of thinking, very important. Francis follows the preceding statement by maintaining,

It is a hermeneutical question: reality is understood only if it is looked at from the periphery, and not when our viewpoint is equidistant from everything. Truly to understand reality we need to move away from the central position of calmness and peacefulness and direct ourselves to the peripheral areas. Being at the periphery helps to see and to understand better, to analyze reality more correctly, to shun centralism and ideological approaches. . . . It is not a good strategy to be at the center of a sphere. To understand we ought to move around, to see reality from various viewpoints. We ought to get used to thinking. 

We ought to get used to thinking. We need to get used to thinking, that is, if we expect really to be capable of reforming the church, which is a massive, cumbersome institution deeply entrenched in social, political, and economic structures highly resistant to reform.

And how do we think? Francis's proposal is remarkable: we think most effectively when we move away from the central position of calmness and peacefulness and direct ourselves to the peripheral areas. We cannot see clearly when we occupy the center, or when we imagine that we stand at the center of the universe. And we cannot, therefore, think clearly when we stand in the center or imagine that this is our place in the universe.

To see the social reality we inhabit more clearly, we need to move to the peripheries and view that social world through the eyes of those shoved away from the center--the dispossessed, the disempowered, the oppressed, the poor, those on the margins. To understand we ought to move around, to see reality from various viewpoints.

When we see only from the center, and when we apply only the optic of the powerful to our analysis of the things, we are blinded by our own self-interest. Our assumption that the world revolves around us occludes our vision, so that we miss huge chunks of the social and economic picture of the much more complex socioeconomic universe we inhabit.

If one applies these hermeneutical insights about the center and the margins to the church itself, it seems clear that Francis is proposing that the church cannot be seen clearly at all from its center--from the Vatican, from the papal throne, or, for that matter, from inside any clerical club. It can be seen clearly only from its peripheries, from the experience of the 99% of lay members of the church who effectively have no power at all, institutionally, to govern their church. 

And the church can be seen most clearly of all through the eyes of lay members of the church who have been brutally shoved to the margins by the rest of the church--notably, survivors of childhood clerical sexual abuse who have chosen to make public the abuse they suffered as children. Not to mention Catholic women, who are, among all lay Catholics, further disempowered by being denied access to ordination . . . . And, it goes without saying, I'd add gay Catholics to this list, as well as Catholics on the socioeconomic margins . . . .

In her recent reflection on Pope Francis's 29 November statements to religious superiors, Colleen Baker relates his insights to her experience training residential staff in the mental health care facility in which she works. She picks up on the hermeneutical implications of Francis's remark about seeing more clearly from the periphery than from the center by relating this insight to interpersonal relationships. She reports on a conversation she had with one of the clients at her care facility: 

This idea of change coming from the seeing the reality from the periphery is not just about institutions and cultures, but also about interpersonal relationships. One of my clients, irritated with me for some reason, put that idea this way:  "I do not live in the center of your personal universe." 

Again, I see powerful implications in Francis's analysis, as mediated through Colleen's interpretive frame, for the clerical system and the clericalism it spawns. When I hear Francis speaking of the "little monsters" that the clerical system all too frequently appear to produce, I hear him talking about a problem of interpersonal relationships.

I hear him speaking about people who take power and privilege for granted--power over others--and who, in too many cases, choose the priesthood as a vocation precisely in order to aggrandize themselves, and to avoid having to relate in any productive way at all to the people they are called to serve as priests. I hear Francis talking about "little monsters" who imagine they have become some new, entitled form of human being through the laying on of hands, and who suppose that this entitlement should translate into the right to order others about--and to abuse them. Because giving anyone unchecked power over anyone else is always a recipe for abuse . . . . 

I hear Francis saying that this system will not and cannot be reformed until Catholic clergy are required to interact with the lay people they serve in a way that moves the priest from the center of the parish universe--to interact with respect, with the intent to listen to those whom they're called to serve. I'll freely admit, though, that my imagination falls very short when I ask myself how this prescription for reform can be set into motion in an institution that continues to place every bit of governing power in the hands of the elite group of ordained "celibate" men who run the show.

It seems to me that Jerry Slevin is precisely right: the only way to reform an institution whose governance system is shaped in this way is to make a mess. Because people never relinquish power willingly, and this has to be said a fortiori the more power they hold in their hands: when that power is absolute, those wielding it become exceptionally resistant to appeals to share their power or behave decently.

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