A Sound of Sheer Silence

A Sound of Sheer Silence

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.

So, what can be done?  More rigorous screening of priesthood candidates, yes.  But, as I mentioned in the first post, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States is operating under a massive vocations deficit such that the siren song of filling numbers is always going to undercut screening initiatives until that deficit is fixed structurally.  And that means expanding the pool of available applicants, which means married people and/or women.  There certainly is little enthusiasm for considering women's ordination, but there also seems to be only tepid interest in having married priests.  I believe this, in large measure, is a product of the fact that allowing married priests risks blowing up the closed clerical culture.  It will simply not be as tight and cohesive cadre if you have priests going home at the end of the day to spouses and families.  And where would that leave the celibate priests (or, in many cases "celibate" priests) that remain?

I believe the biggest hurdle to the introduction of married priests is the fear among the existing clergy that the existing clerical culture will be destroyed by the introduction of "outside elements."  The system is so closed and the clergy class is so reliant on it that the prospect of it being swept away raises the fear that clergymen will be left alone and adrift.  And yet, the existing clerical culture is precisely the thing that needs most to be changed, and even, in all likelihood, blown up completely.  As I said in the previous post, the culture is fundamentally broken, and the sex abuse scandals are only a single (albeit by far the worst) manifestation of its brokenness.  But the only people who can take the steps to end the broken culture are the ones who are reliant on it, and thus the ones least likely to be willing to do anything that might compromise the thing on which they rely.  It seems to me that many folks are willing to just ride it down to the bottom.

Part of the unwillingness to make changes stems from a lack of understanding of what the problem really is.  Pope Francis is a good example of this.  His favorite bugaboo/punching bag is "clericalism," which he sees as a sense of superiority among clerics with regard to the laity, as well as a high handed manner.  Pope Francis is absolutely correct to identify this as a critical problem.  But every time Pope Francis talks about clericalism, he talks about it as if it were a character flaw in the priests in question, as if clericalism was an attitude that one freely chooses to embrace or not embrace.  At no point does Pope Francis ever acknowledge or recognize that clericalism is a product of a set of theological and operational realities built into the structure of the Roman Catholic Church.  Priests act like they a superior form of life as compared to the laity because they are superior to the laity in the context of the way the Roman Catholic Church operates.  Priests act like the opinions of the laity don't matter because the opinions of the laity don't matter.  If you have a theology that says that priests are different and special on a fundamental level, and that they are not subject to review from folks who are not special in that way, then the special people will act accordingly.  This is a product of the system as it is designed, not a character flaw in the participants.  Pope Francis haranguing priests about clericalism is sort of like the Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps lecturing his Marines about being too aggressive.  Every bit of the culture and institutional structure of the U.S. Marine Corps is geared toward inculcating an aggressive, warrior ethos.  One guy, no matter how senior or respected or liked he is, is going to change that through a couple of speeches.

If Pope Francis is serious about rooting out the idea that priests are superior to laity, then he should make it so that priests are not superior to laity operationally.  And, no, I don't mean having a handful of lay officials in the Vatican; I am talking about giving real operational power to laity at the lowest level.  You want a bishop who cares about preventing child sex abuse in his diocese?  How about having that bishop be selected by a board that includes a bunch of moms and dads, such that if those moms and dads are not convinced of the potential bishop's seriousness on the topic, he never becomes the bishop in the first place?  You want a parish priest that doesn't treat his parishioners as dim children?  Make those "dim children" responsible for selecting the pastor in the first place; that will cure that attitude real quick.

A couple of weeks ago, there was an incident where an Episcopal priest on Long Island, New York, was arrested on child pornography charges.  I don't mean to suggest that the Episcopal Church is a shining beacon or has always been perfect on child protection issues, but I found the statement from Bishop Lawrence Provenzano (a former Catholic priest, for what it is worth) to be instructive.  First, Bishop Provenzano immediately terminated the priest's faculties upon learning of the charges.  If, somehow, the charges against this priest turn out to be meritless, I am sure Bishop Provenzano would consider reinstating this priest.  But, until then, the charges themselves were enough to cut this guy off, and the burden of proof is on the priest to get it back.  Second, the focus of the message from the bishop is on the needs of the community in which this priest had served--providing pastoral care to the members of the congregation who surely are upset by these developments.

That is a statement from a bishop who believes that his primary responsibility is toward the lay people in his diocese, not to the priests.  This is the way it is supposed to be.  And this is the way it has manifestly not been in the Roman Catholic Church.  So long as a church leader sees himself as primarily responsible for maintaining the smooth functioning and life of the caste of clerics, then you will get decisions that benefit the caste as opposed to the people who are supposed to be served by that caste.  Which is why the caste protected its own at the expense of the kids.

The problem is not primarily about attitudes; the problem is an elevated theology of who priests are (even in that theology's toned-down, post-Vatican II form) and an institutional structure that is unreconstructed from the pre-Vatican II maximal vision of the priesthood.  If the Roman Catholic Church doesn't change that, then all of the rest of this is talk.  The clerical culture, which allowed and facilitated the sex abuse crisis, needs to be torn down for good and for all.  This move is not sufficient to prevent future abuse of children, but I believe it to be necessary.  It is what needs to be done.

Post-Script
I was going to end this post here.  But I have been on a James Baldwin kick recently, prompted by the documentary I Am Not Your Negro which is out and is (hopefully) coming to my neck of the woods soon.  In the course of that search, I came across the clip below, which might as well have been Baldwin speaking directly to this issue.



Love is where you find it.  And you don't know where it will carry you.  And it is a terrifying thing, love.  It is the only human possibility, but it is terrifying.  And a man can fall in love with a man, and a woman can fall in love with a woman, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.  It is not in the province of the law; it has nothing to do with the church.  And if you lie about that . . . if you lie about that, you lie about everything.

"If you lie about that, you lie about everything."  For a significant segment of the clerical class, lying about who they love is a mandated part of the job.  And the straight folks are forced, in a sense, to lie as well--to say for certain that they will not experience "the only human possibility," as Baldwin calls it.  Baldwin would tell us that this lie predisposes you to lie about other things.  I suspect Baldwin would not be surprised that people who lie about love are willing to lie about kids being abused.

Here's the next part, discussing his novel Giovanni's Room.

It's not about homosexuality at all; it's about what happens to you when you can't love anybody.  It doesn't make any difference if you can't love a woman or can't love a man.  If you can't love anybody, you are dangerous.  Because you have no way of . . . you have no way of learning humility.  No way of learning that other people suffer.  And no way of learning how to use your suffering, and theirs, to get from one place to another.  In short, you fail in your responsibility, which is to love each other.

The job of a priest, at its most fundamental level, is to show us how to love one another, because our job as a Christian, at its most fundamental level, is to love one another (see, e.g., 1 John 3).  If a person who can't love another person is dangerous, a priest who can't love another person--not talking about loving a person (or worse, people in the abstract), but actually doing the work for real--is a catastrophe.

Having a mostly or entirely married priesthood will not guarantee that we will be free of priests who can't love another person--there are certainly married people who can't really love anyone else.  But I can't help but think that a celibate priesthood is always going to attract the people who can't love, because they think that by not having to form an exclusive, close relationship with another, they won't really be exposed.  But, then, you are left with a bunch of dangerous people in positions of power and influence.

Maybe, at its heart, the Roman Catholic priesthood is trying to do a thing, or more accurately a series of things, that you are not supposed to do.  Maybe it is trying to do a thing that runs counter to the way we are built.  Maybe it is not good for us to be alone.

1 comment:

catlady said...

WOW! This article, and all the thinking and experience behind it, nails so many of the problems of Catholicism clearly and profoundly.
I can't think of anything to add or subtract.
Thank you.