Monday, November 16, 2009

Moral Authority?

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops meets this week in Baltimore, Maryland. Their number one priority is the creating and issuance of a “pastoral letter” to U.S. Catholics. The very tightly written pastoral lists four “dangers” to marriage, specifically: artificial birth control, cohabitation [outside of marriage], divorce and same sex marriage. The most amazing thing about this document is not its content, which is remarkable for various reasons, but rather, the fact that in substance the document was ready drafted before the bishops met and that they will dutifully sign off on that document.

The same group of men has been unable to agree upon the age for confirmation, not for months, not for years but for decades. Some bishops require confirmation of infants; some confirm grammar school children and some administer the sacrament of confirmation in late high school. They each have impassioned theological rationales for their divergent practices, but as a body, they have not been able to agree upon a common age for the administration of the sacrament nor, upon a common rationale/theology for administration of the sacrament at that particular age. Yet, on these four cardinal questions regarding marriage they are all of one mind and in only a matter of days. Amazing!

Canon Law, a code of thousands of specific laws that governs the life of the Church, mandates that in each (Arch) diocese the (Arch) bishop shall meet with his clergy once per year for convocation. Ostensibly, the purpose of these gatherings is for the bishop to dialogue with his pastors. They are to present the pastoral concerns of their individual parishes and together with the bishop, through prayer; discussion and reflection develop pastoral plans, procedures and thereby address the needs and concerns of the faithful. By logical extension, a meeting of the national conference of bishops is to act in a like manner.

Having attended twenty-three annual convocations in my own Diocese, under two different diocesan bishops, I can honestly say that the intent of convocation and its reality are two different things. What happens at real convocations is that the bishop sends out a schedule in which he pre-determines the subjects for discussion. Usually, there is a speaker, which the bishop has selected and approved, and the pastors/clergy are presented with a dog and pony show. Periodically, a “panacea d’ jour” which the bishop has selected and pre-approved is mandated for the entire diocese. Some of these have been “Renew” RCIA, a diocesan capital campaign to raise 27 million dollars (we raised 57 million in pledges) for four stated goals. The central goal was the construction of a youth center at the diocesan retreat house, which has yet to be built.

The point of all of this is that input into these pastoral decisions/theological questions is suppose to come from the faithful, through their pastors, to the bishop. The bishop and pastors/clergy are then to formulate a response and through servant leadership help to advance the spiritual growth and development of the diocese. One level up this is to happen at the regional level and then, on the national and international level. They say that it is hard to teach an old dog new tricks and apparently, this applies to the hierarchy of the church. Pope John XXIII tried; however, he was not yet even dead for one month when the bishops gathered in Rome for the Second Vatican Council moved, by acclamation, to declare him a Saint. The newly elected Pope Paul VI intervened, stopped the process and referred the question to the Roman Curia.

After the death of Pope Paul VI and the election of John Paul II and now, Benedict XVI Rome has been turning back the clock and imposing a monarchial form of church governance. A top down decision-making process in which the diocesan bishops are seen as little more than branch managers and enforcers of Rome‘s views. It is the current Pope and his Curia [Vatican bureaucracy] that dictate theologies and policies remotely. The laity are seen as mere subjects of the church. They are expected to conform their personal lives to the dictates of the current central administration. This is to be done without discussion or, question.

I feel sorry for the bishops who gathered this week to discuss the “pastoral” which they have been handed from on high. They will have more latitude in their selection of entrees at the catered meals than they did in the formulation and expression of the “pastoral” letter. If the demands of the “pastoral” were to have any credibility whatsoever, the question of the moral authority of the bishops has to be clarified. First, their own freedom in constructing the “pastoral” letter and secondly, their own moral competence on sexual ethics is called into question.

Before the bishops can make demands of Roman Catholic laity in the area of sexual ethics, they themselves have much work to do in this regard. The immediate resignation of any Archbishop, Bishop or Superior of a Religious Order who knowingly transferred pedophile priests from one assignment to another and thereby facilitated new incidences of pedophilia should be required. Beyond that first step, those bishops/superiors should be required to meet with victims/families and personally ask for forgiveness. It was the (Arch) bishop’s/Superior’s administrative decision that directly facilitated the victim to suffer. The bishops knew these priests were pedophiles. Justice demands that just compensation be made to those victims and their family members. A chain of accountability and clear procedures are required to prevent this sort of abuse in the future.

There remains the question of the knowledge and the complicity of the Vatican and the Pope himself in the sexual abuse scandal. At some point, this must be honestly addressed. Yes, the pedophile priests were the primary agents of abuse; however, their superiors became accomplices when they failed to use their authority to protect the children and their families. Arguably, this is the greater sin/crime since; they facilitated countless instances of pedophilia. Only when this is addressed, will the bishops and papacy begin to regain moral authority.

A troubling illustration of this monarchial form of moral ethics is to be found in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. Archbishop Wuerl has threatened to eliminate programs that help the homeless. He justifies his decision because, same sex couples are to be granted the right to civil marriage and their spouses would then receive spousal benefits. The Church would be legally required to pay benefits to spouses who are in marriages the Church considers illegitimate.

That churchmen who are commanded by Christ to serve the poor, hungry and needy would instead hold them hostage is a scandal. “Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee? Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25: 44-45) Does Archbishop Wuerl refuse to hire remarried heterosexual divorcees, whom the Church considers to be living in adultery? Does he refuse to pay for spousal benefits in those cases? Would other Catholic (Arch) dioceses shut down charitable programs because, they cannot discriminate against employees who are divorced and remarried; and therefore considered adulterers by the Church? Why is this “mortal sin” acceptable to Archbishop Wuerl and the other not?

At this point, some will object that the Catholic Church is unable to stop divorcees from remarrying and thereby enter into adulterous relationships. They can however, use their influence and wealth to reverse laws that grant full marriage equality to same sex couples. This objection presumes that it is morally sound to do so. It presumes that the God commands them to do so. Here Bishop Geoffrey Robinson offers a radically different moral view, which is held by many theologians. He states on page 190 of his book “Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church” the following:

“We have already seen that Paul and the other writers of the Second Testament outside the gospels failed to maintain the radicalism of Jesus on both purity laws and property laws. If their sayings on those subjects are not divinely inspired truth, we must have serious reservations as to whether their other sayings on sexual matters can be taken, in and of themselves alone, as final proofs, and hence whether assertions without convincing arguments are sufficient. Are we once again dealing with the story of a journey that ended only in the person of Jesus and not in anyone else who came before or after him? For example, did Paul share the almost universal opinion of his time that all people are in fact heterosexual, so to engage in homosexual relations is a free (and perverted) choice by a heterosexual person?”

John J. McNeill S.J. makes a similar point, in his book:
“The Church and the Homosexual,” he states: “The persons referred to in Romans 1:26 are probably not homosexuals that is, those who are psychologically inclined toward their own sex—since they are portrayed as ‘abandoning their natural customs.’ The Pauline epistles do not explicitly treat the question of homosexual activity between two persons who share a homosexual orientation, and as such cannot be read as explicitly condemning such behavior. Therefore, same gender sex by two individuals with same sex orientation is not ‘abandoning their natural custom.”
This is exactly what the American Psychological Association proclaimed when it declassified homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973 and stated that it is rather, a person’s natural sexual orientation.

It seems that Benedict XVI and most of the hierarchy do not want to consider or address these theological or psychological insights. That would require them to speak prophetically in the third world. Most Catholics live in the Third World and a pope or bishop would risk a huge loss of market share if, he were to voice the insights of the aforementioned theologians and psychologists. Catholicism would also risk reversals in the Ecumenical outreach to the Orthodox Church [the second largest Christian Church] and to Islam [the world‘s largest monotheistic religion.]

One can hear an echo from Scripture in their justification of this injustice. “Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish" (John 11: 49-50). Yes, same sex couples, like Jesus, can be dismissed along with the requirement of justice in their case. Like Caiaphas, Benedict XVI, Archbishop Wuerl and most of the hierarchy have concluded that it is expedient to sacrifice same sex couples for “the greater good.” Contrary evidence from theology and psychology is simply ignored.

Jesus spoke the truth and the apostles’ reaction is recorded in the Gospel “With that, all deserted him and fled” (Mark 14: 50). None of them was too eager to follow Jesus to Calvary. In this sad and narrow sense, Benedict XVI, Wuerl and most bishops are truly “successors to the Apostles."


Sebastian said...

I have attended more convocations and meetings with bishops than I care to remember. The only comments by priests that are politically possible are: 1. "Bishop, do you think that your leadership in this (any) area is superlative?" or 2. "Bishop, do you think that your leadership in this (any) area is really, really superlative?" A religious order priest who leads many retreats for priests has told me that he has seen, again and again, lively, talented, informed, and animated priests become cowed, dejected, sycophants the moment a bishop entered the room. Unfortunately, the moment one is slated to become a bishop is the last moment anyone is allowed to speak candidly to him.

FDeF said...

If only all this were general knowledge among the laity, perhaps there would be rumblings...then again, perhaps not.

colkoch said...

Brilliant post Fr. Geof, especially the part about market driven gay bashing in order to maintain relevance in the third world.

It is truly sad to see that mainstream Christian leaders are colluding with secularist political groups like the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), in sacrificing gays and encouraging gay persecution to maintain it's hold on third world politics.

Your other point about just how much real authority the bishops have is well taken. The lack there of undoubtedly drives their insistence on the same sort of boot licking obedience in their priests. This is not obedience to authority it is pure fear based on self preservation.

TheraP said...

Thank you for this depressing summary - one could almost say "litany" - of sins of the church. I can only add one more thing that is nagging at me: What about those religious orders in Australia that perpetrated horrific abuse on children sent from Britain as orphans?

The Prime Minister of Australia has apologized. Britain is going to apologize. When is the Pope going to apologize? When are the orders that housed and abused these children going to apologize? And the bishops who must have hidden this? When will they apologize?

The stench and corruption is getting to a point where honest persons will no longer be able to call themselves Catholic without retching. I personally feel a growing sense of horror here. Yes, horror! It's like a horror movie now. Except it's real.

We have all been terribly, terribly betrayed.

John I. said...

Sorry for the cross post, but apparently others have similar concerns as well:

IT said...

What's a gay Catholic to do?

My wife's decision: join the Episcopal church. THey really DO welcome everyone.

Mareczku said...

I agree with Colkoch, this is a brilliant post. It is sad that nobody can stand up to the bishops. If they were only as good at protecting children as they are at protecting each other. What some of these bishops did to protect and enable predators is an outrage. And still some of the bishops don't seem to get it. Some seem to have a haughtiness and contempt for the common person. Perhaps this is rude to say but it angers me that for years and years the Church and its leaders allowed young gay people to be used by its clergy to satisfy their lusts. People knew that it was going on and allowed it to go on. And these same bishops that allowed young gay people to be used in this way tell them that they are not good enough to have a loving and committed relationship with someone of the same sex. They were good enough to be used but not good enough to have a loving commitment recognized by the Church.

Sister Mary Agnes said...

Father--another great post, but a little on the long side. Keep up the fight for those of us still living in secret in the inside.