A Sound of Sheer Silence

A Sound of Sheer Silence

Monday, February 20, 2017

"This Old House" as a Model of the Church

Here's an idea that has been bouncing around in my head for a while.  It's in its most preliminary phases, so this is more of "getting something down on paper" than any kind of polished product.

The Christian church, in many ways, is like a very old house.  For one thing, it is old--2,000 years old.  For another thing, like many old houses, it has a bunch of stuff in it that is not in keeping with modern times, some of which are actually dangerous--old school fireplaces that vent gases into the house, asbestos coverings on pipes, etc.  And, even if you don't have things that are affirmatively dangerous, you still have a number of things that don't make sense in the context of the way we live now.

Now, there is a school of thought that says, "why bother with these old houses?  Let's just tear it down and start from scratch."  So, on this plan, you tear down the old house and build something new.  Maybe you build some sort of gigantic "McMansion" in its place (we might think of one of those evangelical megachurches); maybe you build some super-modern, ecologically friendly "tiny house," or a yurt or something (we might think of an "emerging church" congregation here).  On this theory, people can get precisely what they want, without any compromise.

But, there are three problems with this approach.  First, it is fundamentally wasteful.  Any house you are going to build is going to need walls, floors, a roof, plumbing, and electrical wiring.  Tearing down and scrapping all of that in the existing house just so you can put the same stuff in the new house is re-inventing the wheel.  It is an enormous amount of wasted effort to end up in the same place.  Plus, there is a very real chance that you won't actually end up in the same place, as not everything modern is as well-made or enduring as the stuff from the past.

Take for example, the increasing focus in many evangelical communities on structured liturgy.  On one level, I think this is great--I love liturgy, it is a critical part of my spiritual life, and I am not alone in that conclusion.  At the same token, so much of what they are doing could be achieved by simply adopting the existing forms of liturgical worship.  Why spend all of your time and effort developing your own book of common prayers when you can just use, well, the Book of Common Prayer?

The second problem is that building exactly what you want reflects whatever it is that you think is great in a particular moment in time.  What seems to be great now may not seem so great in a while, or even relatively soon.  You might go whole hog on this tricked-out yurt, only to come back in a year and think "why did I think it was a good idea to live in an oversized tent?  What was I thinking?"  At which point, you likely will be forced to start over again.  Old houses reflect patterns of building that have been proven over time.  They may not be perfect for your needs, but they fundamentally work.

The third problem is that, even if your tastes and preferences don't change, creating a house precisely in your image is a kind of narcissism.  If "church" means "everything I want and need, in the way I understand these things," you are never going to be stretched.  There is an ever-present danger in religion of recreating God in your own image, and if everything around you is a product of your values and ideals, it becomes very easy for that to creep into how you understand God.  God should unsettle us, and insofar as we experience God via church, then church should unsettle us somewhat as well.  There is no little bit of a consumerist mentality behind the idea of insisting that your house, and your church, is exactly the way you want it to be.

So, let's exclude the people who don't see the point of the old house and consider what we might call "traditional" folks.

Monday, February 13, 2017

How Did This Happen, Part 4--What Is To Be Done?

Summing up what was included in the last three posts (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), I would say that the Roman Catholic clerical sex abuse crisis was caused by:
  1. a completely closed and insular clerical culture
  2. which prioritized its own autonomy from judgment by non-clerical institutions, and
  3. which developed a culture of "don't ask, don't tell" with regard to sexual indiscretions
  4. formed in light of its own internal struggles around the fact that a majority of its members were closeted gay men, and
  5. which was also struggling with shrinking numbers, thus
  6. was incentivized toward doing whatever possible to keep priests in the fold and on duty
  7. while lacking robust tools to recognize the true harm and danger of the sexual abuse of children.
In light of this diagnosis, what can be done to rectify it?  One thing that will certainly not rectify it is creating a culture of paranoia around homosexuality inside the priesthood.  And yet, that seems to be what has happened, and in many respects may be one of the few substantive changes that occurred since the first wave of revelations in the U.S. in 2001-2003.  Bill Lindsey points to the infamous "Halloween document" issued in 1986 by then-Cardinal Ratzinger and the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith as a turning point on LGBT issues, and I trust Bill's insight as he was "on the ground" at that time in a way I was certainly not.  I can say, however, that the 1986 document was received and interpreted inside the clerical world as a prohibition on being "out," at least in terms of outside of the clerical sphere.  In other words, it's fine to be gay so long as you don't public say so, because by publicly admitting that you are gay you are embracing a "gay identity" or something.

Even naive, twenty-something me could see that consensus was cracking during my time inside the ropes (2000 to 2003).  During my time in the Dominicans, I remember clearly a couple of conversations that I was peripherally involved in regarding whether a particular person (who has in fact been ordained and is still with the Dominicans) was "too out" to be part of the Order.  Keep in mind that I joined a Province of the Dominicans with a decidedly liberal reputation; keep also in mind that I suspect I was the only straight person who participated in the conversations.  People were starting to circle the wagons, and the folks most eager to do the circling in my experience were the gay priests.  One got the definite sense that they saw their comfortable status quo (in which no one asked too many questions about their sex lives as long as they kept it in the fold) being threatened by the blow-back from the sex abuse scandals, and were looking to dig in and protect their turf.  

From what I can gather, this process kicked into overdrive with the 2005 Vatican instruction which stated that people with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" or who "support the so-called 'gay culture'" could not be ordained or admitted to a seminary (a judgment which was recently upheld).  This resulted in a doubling-down on the notion that a priest cannot, under any set of circumstances, be out.  So, what all of this accomplished was that the old "don't ask, don't tell" became "don't ask, don't tell, but if it comes to light then you're toast."  It's just like the old culture, except orders of magnitude more paranoid.  Needless to say, this is not an improvement.

Friday, February 10, 2017

How Did This Happen, Part 3--Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Any honest discussion of sexuality and the Roman Catholic priesthood must start with the elephant in the room--something approaching a majority of priests are closeted gay men of one form or another.  That seems impossible to believe for many people, but no one speaking honestly has ever seriously challenged this premise, at least not to me.  And my own experience confirms this assessment.

If you think it through, though, it's not really surprising.  In a pervasively homophobic culture, a priesthood in which you were not allowed, and thus not expected, to enter into a (opposite sex) marriage would be logically attractive to men who understood that such a marriage was not an option for them.  It doesn't even have to work on a conscious level.  I remember asking an elderly priest how he knew he had a vocation to the priesthood, and his response was, "I remember being 14 and seeing all my friends starting to get really into girls, and I was never particularly interested, so I took it to mean that I had a vocation to be a priest."  Knowing this man (now deceased), I believe it never occurred to him that he may not have been interested in those girls because he was not straight.  Whether or not he was gay I can't say, but you can imagine how someone who was would be steered toward becoming a Catholic priest by this thought process.

Another factor that encouraged the presence of gay men in the Roman Catholic priesthood is the operation of what writer Libby Anne calls the "Two Boxes" model of sexual morality.  The Two Boxes model of sexual morality says that there is one box labelled "acceptable sexual practices"--in the Catholic account, sex between a married man and woman that is "open to the transmission of life"--and one box labelled "unacceptable sexual practices" which is everything else.  Critically, in the Two Boxes model, the "everything else" is not differentiated into gradations of more or less unacceptable, but basically lumped together into one mass.

We will turn later to how pernicious this model actually is, but for now the key point is that the Two Boxes model "turns down the heat" on gay men inside the priesthood.  Yes, it is true that they are expected not to have sex, but so are their straight brother priests.  And, if they were to have a sexual encounter, it is not treated as some unique and terrible act, but is instead rolled in with other sorts of sexual violations.  If everything is equally bad, then your thing is not uniquely bad in the way it was generally viewed in the outside culture (the paranoia around homosexuality in the priesthood, which I understand is pervasive now, is really a modern phenomenon--more on that in the next post).

In any event, the point is that there have always been more gay men in the Catholic priesthood than what would be predicted by the percentage of gay men in the population as a whole.  And, if you know where to look (dig through the comments section of Father D's satirical blog to start), there is no shortage of stories of prominent clergy having, shall we say, a gay old time in the days before Vatican II.  But the period immediately after the Council changes the game in two substantial ways.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

How Did This Happen, Part 2--A People Set Apart

In the previous post, I framed question #2 of "how did this sex abuse crisis happen?" as "how did it come to pass that the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church covered up the fact that some number of Roman Catholic priests had and were sexually abusing children, either actively or passively, thus facilitating the abuse?"  The answer to that question, in my view can be answered in a one sentence response--"because the culture of the Roman Catholic priesthood is sick and broken, and the sex abuse crisis is the most visible manifestation of that pathology."

It is extremely important here to emphasize the word "culture."  While people contribute to cultures in which they are a part, a culture is a conceptually distinct entity from any particular member of that culture.  There are deeply decent and honorable men who are Roman Catholic priests.  But the culture in which they swim is not decent and not honorable in the main.  And, in what is perhaps the greater tragedy, fundamentally decent and honorable men can become compromised by that culture to do things they would never otherwise do.

Let's talk about the big picture elements of that culture, and then drill down to the specifics.  If you look at the history of the Roman Catholic Church, probably the single most consistent thread post-Constantine is the absolute and uncompromising insistence by the Church that clerics are not, and should never be, subject to the authority of non-clerics.  Thomas Becket died, and was named a saint, for standing up for that principle--that he and his clerics could not be tried by the king's courts in the manner of every other person in England.  Gregory VII is acclaimed as a great pope for asserting the same privileges for clerics in the Holy Roman Empire.  These fights are often framed as being about protecting the Church from domination by power-hungry kings, and there is truth to that, but the core principle is clerics are to be judged by other clerics, and never by non-clerics.

No doubt, some of this push was a power grab on the part of the Church visa ve secular authorities.  But the origin of this idea, in my opinion, is the theology underlying the priesthood the developed in the West and lasted all the way through to Vatican II (and, in some quarters, to the present day).  Consider the way the Baltimore Catechism describes the priesthood:

Q. 996. How should Christians look upon the priests of the Church?

A. Christians should look upon the priests of the Church as the messengers of God and the dispensers of His mysteries. . . .

Q. 999. Why should we show great respect to the priests and bishops of the Church?

A. We should show great respect to the priests and bishops of the Church: 
   1. Because they are the representatives of Christ upon earth, and

   2. Because they administer the Sacraments without which we cannot be saved. Therefore, we should be most careful in what we do, say or think concerning God's ministers. To show our respect in proportion to their dignity, we address the priest as Reverend, the bishop as Right Reverend, the archbishop as Most Reverend, and the Pope as Holy Father.

If you start from the proposition that the clergy are, in a unique and irreplaceable way, "the messengers of God and the dispensers of His mysteries," "the representatives of Christ upon the earth," and the group with absolute control over "the Sacraments without which we cannot be saved," it naturally follows that priests are categorically different and above lay people.  Why should they have to justify themselves to folks who lack this unique gift?  The idea of a people set apart, and set above, the mass of lay folks is a logical extension of the "high" (perhaps, "extreme") vision of what the ordained priesthood is and how it operates.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

How Did This Happen? Part 1

Less than a month ago, I said I would stop talking about Roman Catholicism, and I had every intention of sticking to that.  But I am going to break that promise to talk about the release of the report of the Royal Commission in Australia about clerical sexual abuse.  The results are shocking--if the reports are correct, the scope of the problem in Australia was even worse than in the United States or in the UK/Ireland.  To give an example, there was a reference to a Benedictine monastery in Western Australia in which 17.6% of the monks had an abuse allegation lodged against them at some point in the 1950s.  Think about being in a room with a group of monks in which one out of every six of them had someone in the 1950s accuse them of committing a sexual violation on a minor.  Think of how many complaints were not made in the culture of the 1950s.  One in six.  My God.

I had a twitter exchange last night with Maureen Clarke about the report, focusing on what is the obvious question--how did this happen?  I've gotten this question before from various folks, and I decided it might be worthwhile to lay out my best effort at answering this question.  I've talked about pieces of my thoughts on this topic in various places, but never in one place in a cohesive way.  This is obviously only my own take, based on my own experience--I have no particular expertise other than having seen behind the veil of the Catholic priesthood.  So, take this for whatever you think it is worth.

The first way to address this question, I think, is to divide the question "how did this happen?" into two parts, based on two different facets of the "this" at issue.  The first "this" is "how did it come to pass that some number of Roman Catholic priests sexually abuse children?"  The second "this" is "how did it come to pass that the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church covered up the fact that some number of Roman Catholic priests had and were sexually abusing children, either actively or passively, thus facilitating the abuse?"  This distinction is important, I believe, because the causes for the two questions are different, and because much of the discussion around this issue confuses these two questions in a way that makes it difficult to get to the bottom of either of them.  In this post, I want to focus on question #1, and leave the more complicated question #2 for future posts.

On question #1, I think it is probably useful to talk about the wrong answers that have been offered (I should note that all of these wrong answers are relevant when discussing question #2).  The first wrong answer, offered as part of a set of conservative talking points, is that the sexual abuse of children is a product of the disintegration of morals brought about by the Sexual Revolution.  If this is true, then we would expect that clergy sexual abuse of children would be unknown in early, more moral days, but that is demonstrably false.  St. Peter Damian, one of the great theologians of the Roman Catholic Church, wrote a letter to the Pope chronicling in extensive detail the wide-spread abuse of children and implored the Pope to do something to stop it.  In 1049.  You can find discussions of clerical sexual abuse of minors in local synods all the way back to the 4th Century.  There is nothing new about any of this, and nothing to do with the Beatles or the Pill or whatever other bugaboos of the Sexual Revolution you want to point to.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Good Christian Sex--Post-Script

Previous Posts in the Series
Introductory Chapter
Chapters 1 and 2
Chapters 3 and 4  (Especially good!)
Chapter 5 and 6
Chapter 7
Chapters 8 and 9

Rev. Bromleigh McCleneghan's Good Christian Sex is great.  I've given it to a couple of people who have told me they have benefited greatly from it.  It is the book I would give to a teenager or young adult trying to work their way through the process of integrating sexuality with spirituality and wholeness.

Rather than recap the book again, I figured it might be useful as a post-script to think about "where to go from here"?  McCleneghan sketches out a vision of an authentic progressive Christian sexual ethic, but it is no criticism of the book to say that there are places that would benefit from further reflection and development, as no one book can be a comprehensive account of something like sexuality.  Here are a couple of places that I think she or others might jump off from to expand the good work done in this book.

First off, I think it is worthwhile to take a deep dive into marriage and what it is for.  I am sure that many folks hearing that, especially coming from the world of the progressive side of the Mainline, will say "my God, we have been talking about and arguing about marriage for thirty years, and you want to argue about it some more?"  I am also sensitive to, and appreciate of, arguments by people such as Fr. Tobias Haller that the topic of marriage has been blown out of proportion and is just not that central to the Christian faith.

But McCleneghan points to the idea that much of the marriage discussion that has occurred in Christian circles has been predicated around the "Golden Ticket" idea--marriage as a license to have sex.

Friday, February 3, 2017

How Shall We Live in the Age of Trump?

It has only been two weeks.

I thought it was going to be bad, and I thought it was going to be chaotic, but I was not prepared for the pace of the chaos.  Many have suggested that this break-neck pace is intentional on the part of Trump or his thought-leaders (Steve Bannon, who appear to be Trump's primary advisers, strikes me as perhaps a real life version of the Joker).  Maybe so, but whether intentional or not, I sense that many people are reeling, or flailing around trying to hold on to something solid.  I am certainly one of those people.

In times like this, the question is always "how shall we live?"  What are we going to do to get through this?  I am not a judge that can evaluate the propriety of the new rules and laws that are coming down the pike, and I am not a legislator that can vote for or against them.  I don't have a media platform to try to influence a mass of people.  What should I do?  What should we do?  We hear much talk on social media of "resistance," but what sort of resistance?

I don't feel comfortable telling people how to resist, as I am not sure what to do myself.  I would, however, offer this.  It seems to me that the ultimate form of resistance--at any point but especially now--is a life lived with integrity, in keeping with one's personal convictions and moral compass.  So much of what we see around us is some combination of falsehood and expediency, and a grounding in personal integrity is the antidote to both of those contagions.   Any other resistance or activism that one might undertake will be grounded in, and spring from, this space of personal integrity.

All of us have places in our lives in which we have compromised our integrity, even if in minor ways.  We all have places where our actions don't align with our values, and rather than deal with that directly we find evasions and work-arounds.  We rationalize these work-arounds in various ways, but all of them come down to some narrative of expediency--it's easier, it's more efficient, it produces fewer waves, etc.  I would suggest that all of us could profit from some self-analysis to identify where those work-arounds are to be found, and then to do what we can to shed them.  Because, ultimately, those work-arounds compromise us, even if only marginally.  We know deep down that they are work-arounds, we know deep down that they do not reflect the person we want to be and who we believe ourselves to be ultimately.

In this time, when things seem to be getting weirder by the day, I would suggest that now would be a good time for all of us to try to free ourselves of these work-arounds.  There is a freedom in being free of these compromises, in living with integrity.  That freedom comes from knowing that you are not subject to anyone else's agenda, in part.  But it also comes from knowing that you can speak and write and protest and be an activist without worrying about having some secret that you need to protect.  To use a wonderful Russian term that has entered our lexicon under unfortunate circumstances, there is a reason that kompromat is so sought after by those who want to influence people's behavior, and that is because it works.  Once you get enmeshed in something that you know you shouldn't be in, you will do all sorts of things to protect your secret.

For me, I concluded that being a practicing Roman Catholic was a source of a lack of integrity in my life.  I was part of something, and thus implicitly supporting, a set of policies, values, and works that I did not agree with.  Sure, in my own head I was dissenting from those things, but I had learned how to not rock the boat and navigate the waters such that I could stay in good standing.  I played the game and I found a work-around.  But in playing the game and finding a work-around, I was committing myself to silence, to being self-censored.  I was compromised.  And so, recently, I have decided to rectify that compromise.  And, while it was tough, to be completely honest it wasn't as tough as I thought it would be, and I do feel free in a way that I wasn't completely expecting.  The freedom does not come from some (false) sense that my new home is perfect and filled entirely with wise saints, but from the feeling that there is no longer a conflict at the heart of everything I do in connection with church.

Here's another thing that living with integrity can do.  Let's suppose that you have decided to set out on the path of activism of some kind.  Living with integrity will arm you will the tools to know when the folks you are walking beside are heading right off the cliff.  I say that not because I think there is something obviously wrong with any of the groups that are protesting the Trump administration, except insofar as they are made up of human beings.  Human beings have a natural tendency (and, if you want to call it an "original sin," I'm not going to stop you) to become the very thing that they seek to resist.  Everyone who seeks to be active in the Age of Trump will be forced into situations where they will have to decide between speaking out against bigotry and exclusion among their own "team" and staying silent for the good of that team.  Being a person of integrity and cultivating those instincts and habits will serve all of us well when that day comes.  And it will come.

I am not a powerful person.  I am not rich, nor influential in any significant manner.  I cannot unilaterally change the way the world around me runs, and I certainly cannot change what people think and say and believe.  All I can do is live with integrity, and use that integrity as a platform for living the rest of my life.  This living with integrity may not change anything, it may not sway anyone to my way of thinking (or any way of thinking).  But it is all I have, and it is what I am committed to do.