"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Friday, February 08, 2008

Viewing the skulls of bishops

Now that we're in Lent, I am not only reading but carefully pondering Fr. Al Kimel's fine series on purgatory. I recommend the same to all even as I look forward to defending it from the inevitable criticisms. But my Lenten meditation also includes, as it should, prophetic diagnosis of sin itself. Like each of us for ourselves, I must begin and end with my own sins; but those are of less general interest than the sins of Church leaders, which also point to the purification that American Catholics need to undertake collectively.

In the past I've been critical enough of the clergy, especially of the American bishops as a group. Having had my say, I figured that too few would notice or care if I said anything more. But now a few friends have drawn my attention to Fr. Richard John Neuhaus' pre-publication review, entitled "Paved with the Skulls of Bishops," of Philip Lawler's new book The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture (Encounter). I have not read the book or even had the opportunity to buy it; that will change ASAP. But to me, the most important thing is what the book prompts Neuhaus, a man far more influential than I or even Lawler himself, to say. The news is not good. But the right perspective on it, which Neuhaus provides, affords a certain kind of hope. It helps some of us see ourselves in the problem.

From the review:

“The thesis of this book,” writes Lawler, “is that the sex abuse scandal in American Catholicism was not only aggravated but actually caused by the willingness of church leaders to sacrifice the essential for the inessential; to build up the human institution even to the detriment of the divine mandate.” Bishops again and again responded to the crisis as institutional managers, employing public relations stratagems to evade, deceive, and distract attention from their own responsibility. Lawler several times invokes the terse observation of St. Augustine, “God does not need my lie.” The bishops lied, says Lawler, and many of them are still lying. This is offered not as an accusation but as a conclusion that he believes is compelled by the evidence.

The first aspect of the scandal, the sexual abuse of children, has been acknowledged and addressed,” Lawler writes. “The second aspect, the rampant homosexuality among Catholic priests, has been acknowledged but
not addressed, and later even denied. . . . The third aspect of the scandal has never even been acknowledged by American church leaders.” The third aspect, the malfeasance of bishops, “is today the most serious of all.”

Over 80 percent of reported cases of abuse were with teenage boys. That does not include, of course, uncounted instances of sex with men who are of age, since those cases, as several bishops have opined, constitute no problem for the Church, meaning no legal or financial problem. Spiritual and moral problems apparently do not enter the equation. The name for this is corruption.

Indeed. By way of explanation, Neuhaus quotes Lawler quoting a once-widely-discussed article by Jesuit priest Paul Shaughnessy that was written well before the Boston scandal broke in 2002. It is entitled "The Gay Priest Problem." I myself have read that article, quoted it before, and owe much to it. It explains a lot. By all means read it.

Why do I dredge this up again? Because, just as the Boston scandal was a "synecdoche" for the national sex-abuse-and-coverup scandal, so that national scandal is a synecdoche for the failings of American Catholics as a whole. With some laudable exceptions, the bishops as a whole are like American Catholics as a whole: they don't yet "get it." The bishops as a whole have yet to confront and address the fundamental, spiritual failings on their part that let the sex-abuse problem get out of hand; American Catholics as a whole have yet to confront and address the failings of theirs that have so gravely undermined the witness of the Church in this country. We do, after all, get the leadership we deserve. But just as it is too convenient for the bishops to focus attention and outrage on those under their authority who sexually abuse minors, so it's too convenient for American Catholics to focus attention and outrage on the failings of bishops and priests. When it comes to sin, the first finger we point must always be at ourselves. What we need is purification: of our faith itself, and of our personal practice of our faith.

We need to purify our faith because, among American Catholics as a whole, the theological virtue of faith is no longer fostered or even widely understood. Consider one important example.

If you're an active Catholic who is not a "progressive" Catholic, but who has belonged to a parish or institution not committed to maintaining orthodoxy, you have probably observed a phenomenon familiar to many of us. If you make a point of seeking fidelity to the Magisterium in such a setting, especially from clergy or vowed religious, you will find yourself labeled "divisive" and/or "intolerant." If you lack formal credentials in theology, you will also be labeled "ignorant"; if you have them, especially if they are impressive, you will merely be labeled "arrogant." In neither case will you be permitted to catechize. Of course none of this is to say that frank orthodoxy is actually verboten, though it occasionally is; most progs recognize that the cardinal virtue of tolerance requires recognizing that all of us, even the orthodox, have a right to our opinions. But in the nature of the case, such tolerance is—to adapt a phrase from Herbert Marcuse—"repressive tolerance."

That's because, in a Catholic setting, to regard fidelity to the Magisterium as just one tolerable option among others is to reject the very concept of fidelity to the Magisterium. To be Catholic means that one does not regard that which the Church teaches with her full authority as a matter of opinion. One regards it as that which God has revealed, and one so regards it on the authority of the Church, which one believes is the Mystical Body of Christ sharing in his authority as her Head. Understood as including without being limited to fidelity to the Magisterium, orthodoxy is therefore not opinion. It is necessary as a boundary condition for that assent of faith which, as such, carries with it the certainty that we are not deceived. This is not to rule out all theological opinions; those cannot be avoided, and some diversity thereof is healthy. It is not even to rule out all false theological opinions. What the assent of faith rules out is treating what the Church has taught with her full authority as itself a matter of opinion, as ideas which some might find useful but which could turn out to be false. It also rules out treating as irreducibly a matter of opinion the question what counts has having been taught with the full authority of the Church. When there is disagreement about that question, as inevitably happens in this or that case, it is ultimately for the Church herself to settle, either through the consensus fidelium over time and space or by a formal ruling from the Magisterium.

But that is exactly the stance which, in many quarters of the Church in America, is roundly rejected. Again, it is not always or even often rejected by formal denial. Many Catholic leaders are too prudent for that, if only because they don't want to jeopardize their platform and perks. But once orthodoxy is treated as mere opinion, it is effectively ruled out. It comes to be seen only as an irritating ideology that must be tolerated for the time being, but which cannot be allowed influence to match the authority on which it claims to be based. More or less quickly, a necessary condition for the assent of faith gets sidelined and silenced within what is, or ought to be, a community of faith. Heterodoxy then becomes the community's orthodoxy. At the extreme of such a process, this-or-that kind of orthodoxy opposed to Catholicism, often of the secular, left-wing variety, takes the place of mere heterodoxy.

Now it might be replied that this is only a problem in "progressive" settings and does not reflect on the American Church as a whole. There certainly are quarters of the Church in this country where the virtue of faith, and the orthodoxy on which it depends, are understood and fostered. But such a witness is severely undermined by the degree to which the bishops allow dissent to go unpunished. E.g., even personally orthodox bishops such as Egan of New York and Wuerl of DC refuse to withhold the Eucharist from Catholic politicians who openly defy Church teaching on points that the Pope himself has indicated are non-negotiable. Other personally orthodox bishops, such as Flynn of the Twin Cities or O'Malley of Boston, refuse to discipline heterodox theologians on the faculties of universities over which they have at least nominal authority. And then there's the fact, so widely known as to be rarely mentioned, that on the literally vital matter of contraception, lay Catholics are allowed to do exactly as they please—which in most cases involves rejecting the constant, irreformable teaching of the Church. Even Catholic media are caught up in the corresponding ambiguity: we have the National Catholic Register, yes, but we also have the National Catholic Reporter. Of course it is well-known, among those who give thought to such matters, that the Catholic Church in America is polarized. But what is not so well understood is that the very persistence of that polarization strengthens the heterodox sides of the spectrum. Once again, it gives out the impression that orthodoxy is optional: not merely for American Catholics as Americans—which is and ought to be unexceptionable—but as Catholics. That makes it impossible for the virtue of faith to be widely fostered and understood among rank-and-file Catholics.

For not only is it not obvious that orthodoxy is optional for Catholics as Catholics; it's downright false, and when it's believed, it's objectively incompatible with being Catholic. That's why it has often been observed, rightly, that American Catholics have come to think habitually like Protestants: the Church is one "denomination" among many; as a simple matter of conscience, one may pick and choose among her teachings; the only important things are to worship at the church of your choice and be a nice person. Such is the attitude that must be extirpated if we are to purify our faith. But it cannot be extirpated if constant, irreformable teachings of the Church are themselves treated as mere matters of opinion. Do the bishops have the courage to get us past that? Their record, at least as a body, is not encouraging.

The problem of optional orthodoxy is also important because, unless faith itself be purified, we cannot properly understand how to purify our practice of the faith.

Purgatory is a post-mortem process, for the already saved, of being "purged" of our sinfulness to as to be divinized as fully as God intends. We can avoid that if we complete our purification on earth by learning detachment from sin through suffering, both involuntary and voluntary. But that's a concept and a necessity which, for several reasons, we've largely lost sight of in the American Church. When thought of at all, purgatory is seen mostly as an eschatological escape valve for the lukewarm, an excuse for not answering the universal call to holiness. I still have a vivid childhood memory of the joy with which the men of my neighborhood started grilling hamburgers on Friday evenings when Pope Paul VI eased the traditional fasting rule. Ascesis across the board has pretty much gone south from there. I rarely even hear anymore about the old idea of "offering up" suffering joyfully as a way to participate in Christ's Passion and thus become more like him: holier. The idea and the reality are still very much out there, of course, especially among conservative younger priests and adult converts; but neither that form of ascesis or any other form plays a prominent role in collective Catholic life anymore. Aside from the relaxed fasting rules, which are unenforced and therefore effectively optional, ascesis is purely private and optional. That would be fine if clergy and vowed religious led the laity by preaching and example to greater ascesis all the same. But they don't, and nobody much cares.

Given that orthodoxy itself is effectively optional, it should come as no surprise that ascetic orthopraxis is too. But if everything is effectively optional (except smoking in church, which will get you ejected if not arrested), what becomes of collective witness? What we've become is a collection of individuals willy-nilly at variance with each other and often at variance, for good or ill, with our leaders. So much for being the Mystical Body "one in mind and heart" with her Head. So much for answering the universal call to holiness together.

The road to hell, as St. John Chrysostom once said, may well be "paved with the skulls of bishops." But we need to learn something about ourselves by viewing them. I think we can. As Barack Obama likes to say: "We can do this."
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