Wednesday, November 1, 2017

More from Michael Boyle on Elevated Theology of Priesthood: "'Theory' and 'Intellectual Integrity' Are Really Place Holders for the Unfettered Discretion of the Priest'"

At his Sound of Sheer Silence blog, Michael Boyle has responded to my posting commenting on his own reflections about how the central nexus from which the abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic church is an "elevated theology of who priests are." Interestingly enough, as I just typed that phrase, I misremembered Michael's exact words and typed, "an 'elevated theology of who priests think they are.'"

That's the problem, isn't it? This is about clerical self-definition, clerical self-understanding, in which, ipso facto, lay people play no role at all. Because they are by definition not exalted and by definition not ontologically superior. The laity have absolutely zero governing power in the Roman Catholic institution, though they are, in the pyramid scheme that constitutes the institution, the broad base on which the small clerical apex sits.

Or as Michael puts the point in his response to my recent essay — the first link above:

But, that's the key--it is up to the priest to decide whether or not these people [i.e., LGBT people, divorced and remarried ones] are allowed to continue to operate in the church context, and on what terms.  The suggestion that the people themselves, that divorced and remarried people or LGBT people, are able to determine their own status and their own situation before God without the need for adjudication by clergy is beyond the pale.  "Theory" and "intellectual integrity" are really place holders for "the unfettered discretion of the priest."  This unfettered discretion is really the best of all worlds for a priest--it allows him to be seen as merciful and kind when he wants to cut people a break, and when he wants to hammer people for whatever reason, he can deflect blame onto "the rules."

As Michael goes on to note, though Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia is the bĂȘte-noire of the Catholic right and is being cast by that sector of the church as heretical, it supports — and isn't this ironic? — precisely that clericalist understanding of the priesthood that is, in many lay Catholics' views, the very problematic heart of the abuse crisis itself. To serve clerical ends, the Roman Catholic hierarchy has created a wink-nudge way of doing pastoral business that functions ultimately to bolster the discretionary power of the exalted, ontologically superior priest as pastoral decisions are made. As Michael concludes, the name of the game here is "clerical power, and the preservation of it."

It shouldn't be overlooked that my essay about Michael's reflections on the elevated theology of who priests are and the link of that theology to the abuse crisis was responding to a statement of an unidentified English priest who loathes Pope Francis, who was quoted in Andrew Brown's recent essay, "The war against Pope Francis." That unnamed English priest states that he opposes what he sees as Francis' pastoral approach to LGBT people or the divorced and remarried because "[w]hat I care about is the theory." 

This English priest speaking off the record claims that many other priests loathe Pope Francis as he does, and want a church that puts "theory" above pastoral considerations as priests interact with "sinners" like queer folks and the divorced and remarried. Father Pep, as my previous posting calls him, appears perfectly content to deal with these "sinners" in a discretionary way — as long as the whip of "theory" remains in his hand, and he is at liberty to wield it in a way that reminds those "sinners" just how miserable they are. And as long as it demonstrates what ontologically superior somebody has the power to offer them what particular goodies they grovel quite enough . . . .

As Massimo Faggioli observes yesterday, there's propositional Catholicism and then there's testimonial Catholicism, and it seems Francis is altering the balance that has long obtained between these two definitions of Catholicism — between theory and (pastoral) practice. It's the re-balancing of the scales in the direction of praxis that has the Catholic right (and the political right in general) exercised: where will it end?

What will testimonial Catholics want next? Condemnation of the death penalty as an expression of the praxis of "authentic" Catholicism? Opposition to draconian capitalism and the way it chews up and spits out everyone but the super-rich? 

Where will all of this end, if we start trying to hinge Catholicism on what its adherents do and not what they say?

For myself, I must admit, not much of this has any meaning at all any longer. The words — from both sides — blow past me in the wind and I occasionally pay some attention to their bright and shining colors, their tensile flutters in the air. 

But they do not affect me and cannot affect me in any meaningful way when the message I've been given — and many others like me — is that I'm no longer part of the Roman Catholic tribe within whose bosom these arguments have meaning. Propositional Catholicism has been wielded as a surgical knife to cut some of us from the bosom of the church, and as that has happened, no flavor of confessional Catholicism I have ever encountered — most certainly not the liberal flavor that predominates in the Catholic journalistic sphere and academy, or among Catholic groups advocating for the marginal — has been willing to reach out to me and tell me that I do, in fact, belong, have something to offer, am wanted and needed within the Catholic church.

As I say, I suspect I am very far from finding myself in this position vis-a-vis tribalistic American Catholicism, which can be fiercely communitarian when it is guarding its propositional boundaries, but totally oblivious to its communitarian imperative and confessional obligations regarding people it has chosen to tag as uncharitable garbage when they speak out in undesirable accents and ask unacceptable questions. 

The engraving of a Meigs elevated train is from Wikimedia Commons and was originally published in Scientific American, 10 July 1886. The Wikimedia page for the illustration points to the Catskill Archives as its source for the Scientific American picture.

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