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

Friday, July 23, 2010

Outside the Magic Circle

With his conservative confrères, British Catholic blogger Damien Thompson likes to call the British Catholic hierarchy "The Magic Circle." The phrase is meant pejoratively, of course. They see the bishops as a self-congratulatory cabal more interested in maintaining its élite status among "the great and good," including and especially the Anglican establishment, than in easing the path of traditional Anglicans into the Church or, more generally, in implementing the Pope's policies for the Church at large. If they're right—and I have independent reason to think they are—the fact itself is disturbing. Whatever the ideological coloration, if any, of a magic circle might be, just being part of a magic circle is usually bad for peoples' souls. It constitutes a culture of privilege that insulates them from the worst criticisms, causes them to think themselves better than others, and makes them resistant to reforms the need for which is obvious to many outsiders. That sort of problem fueled the Protestant Reformation centuries ago. In a sense, the Catholic hierarchy in Europe and the Americas has continued to be a magic circle for a long time. But is that about to end?

With occasional and egregious exceptions, the Church hierarchy has been part of the Establishment, thus enjoying a presumption of good will on the part of government, big business, and high society. Indeed the exceptions, such as in Mexico and Spain for the early part of the 20th century, can be seen largely as reactions against that status. But in an atmosphere of ever-encroaching secularism, the sex-abuse-and-coverup scandals are fast destroying the status and most of what goes with it. I believe that faithful Catholics should greet that development the way Lenin greeted the travails of Russia in World War I: "the worse, the better."

Over at First Things' "On the Square," theologian R.R. Reno has lately been commenting on the iteration of the global scandal in the Belgian Church. In his latest installment, he notes:
Police raids, computers impounded, and holes drilled into crypts so that spy cameras can be inserted. Perhaps the chief investigator’s office was as blindsided as the Vatican, suddenly waking up to the fact that the Church is now outside the magical circle of elite society, and that elite society, always attuned to changes in status, demanded the Church be treated differently. Scrambling to action, they overcompensated with heavy-handed tactics. [Emphasis added]
Generalizing, Reno observes that "after the scandals," the Church in Europe
...has become largely disestablished on the ground, with few going to church (a social reality the consequences of which were masked, perhaps, by the remarkable charisma of John Paul II), and therefore it can no longer retain the privileges of social establishment, one of the most important of which is protection from debilitating criticism.

If I’m right about the larger dynamics at work in the current round of scandals, the Church is in for a tough season. The expulsion from the elite makes her leaders supremely vulnerable.
Already true of the Church in Europe and Canada, I believe that will come true of the Church in the U.S. and the rest of the Western Hemisphere. The Church will be forced in the concrete to recall why cardinals' hats are red. That the trends in Africa and Asia are actually running in the opposite direction is a fact whose significance I shall explain at the end. For now, we must see the travails of the Church in the West as the beginning of a much-needed purification.

Two factors allowed the sex-abuse-and-coverup scandals across the globe to get out of hand: the strength of the old presumption of good will, which obtained as much among the laity as among the clergy, and the inability of the bishops in their magic circles to grasp that moral and legal rules applicable to ordinary people applied to them and their brother priests. Such is the consequence of belonging to a culture of privilege. Politicians, at least in relatively democratic countries, aren't insulated quite as well because their enemies often cannot resist using their peccadilloes against them. It takes more than mere peccadilloes, however, to destroy prominent clergymen. It takes being part of a systemic corruption that hits a moral nerve in the larger society. That's what's been happening. In the long run, that will have proven itself a good thing.

In the late sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great was the first Roman pontiff to describe himself as servus servorum Dei: "slave of the slaves of God." His failure to see anything wrong with the live institution of slavery itself—a blind spot he shared with the entire world of his time—enabled him to adopt slavery as a metaphor for the servant-leadership he exemplified so well. It is that model which so many bishops have forgotten. Indeed, they had started forgetting it in the fourth century, when the emperors Constantine and Theodosius privileged them as officers of the state. The collapse of the Western empire did force the bishops, especially those of Rome, to assume a degree of temporal authority that some of them exercised well. Yet what St. Athanasius said in the fourth century has been true of all too many bishops since, even in Rome: "the path to hell is paved with the skulls of bishops." Of course no earthly or demonic force can destroy the Church; as Cardinal Consalvi pointed out to Napoleon, even the best efforts of bishops have failed to do so. And that much will remain the case. But God is as interested in saving the souls of bishops as he in saving other souls. Hence he will often chastise the bishops by permitting the Church to be persecuted in their persons. Such events remind some bishops—the ones disposed to be so reminded—that they are servant leaders, and that they should expect no easier a fate on earth than that of the One they are called to serve through serving His people.

That's what's starting to happen to the leaders of the Church in what is broadly called "the West." I think the Pope sees it. But he is not in the majority among his brother bishops. The recently retired Archbishop of Brussels, Cardinal Danneels, doesn't see it. Cardinal Sodano, formerly Vatican secretary of state and now dean of the College of Cardinals, doesn't see it. And how many bishops in the U.S. have admitted that their reflexive interest in protecting their culture of privilege, which included protecting a lavender mafia, was the cause of their own complicity in the sex-abuse-and-coverup scandal? It seems that almost everybody gets it but them. Until they get it and change accordingly, things will only get worse for the Church. If and when they do get it, then and only then will things get better.

This is a spiritual law I've observed at work even in my own life. Once, for about a dozen years, I had an academic career. Thus I was part of a magic circle: I got to treat abstractions as realities; I interacted mostly with the cultured and like-minded; I had enough vacation time to actually think and write about what interested me. I didn't have to take work that bored and alienated me just to keep a roof over my family's head. I was very comfortable and began, subtly and insensibly, to think myself immune from the iron laws of ordinary life that the vast bulk of humanity groaned under daily. My fall was slow but sure; I hit bottom when I suffered a severe bout of clinical depression a decade ago. When I recovered, my life became harder than it had ever been. Although I had nobody but myself to blame, it took me another several years to realize that. Aside from a few brief and happy interludes, my life has continued being hard—but no harder than that of most of the world's people, and easier than some. So if my circumstances ever improve enough to let me earn a living in roughly the sort of way I once did, I will not take the privilege for granted. I will be grateful, for I will have been chastened enough to see that all is gift, and that the pleasant gifts are less deserved than the unpleasant ones.

That's what the leadership of the Church needs to learn by experience. A few have, but most have not.  Before there can be resurrection, there must be death. The increasing size and strength of the Church in the global South may be part of the resurrection; it is certainly where the Church's center of gravity is shifting and is likely to remain. But the lessons about to be learned by the Church in her historic base of influence will eventually have to be learned everywhere.
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