Both fidelity and open dissent are preferable to silent indifference
Photo by Dennis Jones
Call me a glutton for punishment if you like, but I spent a good amount of time in the evenings during our past week in Chatham plowing through David France's 600-page epic, Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal. It chronicles in excruciating detail the sexual abuse scandal that had been occurring for decades and broke like a massive avalanche against the Church in late 2001. It was creepy and painful to read how many of the sickening details were overlaid upon the geography of the archdiocese in which I live. If not for a few twists of fate, this is something that could have happened to me or my children.
Going through the book, I was struck by what I consider to be one of the cruelest ironies of the scandal... the reaction of young Catholics in the blogging world that we've seen in the aftermath.
In the wake of the disclosures, many young Catholics just checked out in disgust, but many of those who still care strongly about the faith took an interesting if unexpected view. Rather than seeing the root cause of the crisis, which was clericalism, a clericalism which took down both conservative and liberal clerics alike, young people who still care about Catholicism seem to have bought heavily into a narrative that scapegoats homosexuals and "liberal" bishops. Leaving aside the fact that banning homosexuals from the priesthood would be counterproductive, and difficult to the point of impossibility, this narrative would actually make matters worse in that it would foster the kind of furtive, secretive, closeted behavior which tends to manifest itself in abuse to begin with. This narrative, rather than seeing the clear dangers of clericalism (the tendency of the those in the priesthood and the hierarchy to identify the Church as themselves, and to circle the wagons and close ranks to any perceived threat against them), encourages the very kind of unquestioning obsequiesness and deference to clerical figures that allowed the abuse and coverups to occur to begin with. Groups who try to keep pressure upon the bishops, and to ask for accountability and greater lay involvement in the running of the Church, like the VOTF, are roundly excorciated in these circles.
To a certain extent I can understand why this is so. It is easy for later generations to lay blame upon the Second Vatican Council because of a coincidence in timing. Never mind the fact that Boston's most notororiously abusive class was the Class of 1960, with a distinctly pre-conciliar formation. The scandals followed the Council, therefore, as far as this line of thinking goes, the abuses allowed by the Council must have been at the root of it. In other words, not only the sexual abuse scandal, but all of the current ills in the Church can be laid at the feet of the Council.
I hold a different view, perhaps because of my age and what I saw happening at the time. Whether the encyclicals were right or whether they were wrong, it looks crystal clear to me that a Council that was enthusiastically and even ecstatically received was undermined almost overnight when Sacerdotalis Caelibatus and Humanae Vitae blew two huge holes in the bottom of the Barque of Peter. After the first encyclical, a huge exodus from the priesthood began, along with a steep dropoff in new vocations. With the second, the hierarchy lost almost all credibility with the laity. The weight of papal authority has never been the same since. People stopped going to confession, and priests stopped wanting to hear their confessions. How long can a Church survive under such circumstances?
One particular passage in the book really resonated with me, because it made reference to my own parish. Jim Muller, who went on to become the co-founder of the VOTF, was speaking with our pastor, Reverend Tom Powers. It hit really close to home for me, because I remember very well the flourishing, burgeoning days that he makes reference to, and in being very heavily involved in what he describes. As for the young conservatives... I don't know if they really know and appreciate how well Jim Muller understands them...
He remembered the first time he had received communion at St. John's, as a young idealistic father. Back then, St. John's bristled with kids and teenagers and young couples. The youth ministry was active. It was not unusual to see over a thousand attend a Mass, even on nonholidays. Now his own children, who had left home for college and independent lives, would attend Mass only if their father had them in a paternal half nelson. At fifty-nine, Muller was still among the youngest parishioners at St. John's.
The problem was, he thought, the Catholic Church was out of step with young people's lives. They looked at church uncompromisingly. For some time now, Jim Muller had felt that by practicing cafeteria Catholicism-picking and choosing among the doctrines that made sense to him, and disregarding the rest-he was guilty of a sort of lazy hypocrisy. His children rejected this as inauthentic, which he knew it was. He and Kathleen both had made their compromises in small, almost imperceptible stages. They continued using birth control even after Humanae Vitae was handed down.They objected to the very notion that a church hierarchy might attempt to govern such personal matters as sexual love. But they kept their objections to themselves. As a result, they confessed fewer and fewer things, less and less often creating more and more psychic space between themselves and then church.
In significant other ways Jim was nonetheless a church conservative, or at least a church nostalgic. He craved some of the fabulous aspects of the Mass that were done away with in the name of modernization. In his youth, Gregorian chant epitomized a church of miracles. He missed the Latin liturgy, its muffled mystery and transcendental force. He understood why these things were changed, and he even applauded the effort to make Catholicism accessible and significant in ordinary people's lives. But he felt as though the church had opened up the wrong things to the parishioners. They craved decency and democracy, and respect for their life decisions in a modern world-they craved a catechism of the here and the now; the church gave them tinny language instead.
Once he told his pastor, Father Tom Powers, that he feared for the future of a church rejected by his own offspring. "It made no sense to me," he said, "because they're extremely spiritual people. I asked my daughter, `Where did your spirituality come from? Pop culture? Madonna?' And you know what she told me? Star Wars. `May the force he with you.'" He lifted his hand as if to joust. He laughed. He found something wonderful, and desolate, about the explanation.
"We have lost the next generation," Powers agreed. "We have pushed them away."
Muller knew it was true, and it disturbed him. It was the prophet Jeremiah who said, "Shame on the shepherds who let the sheep of my flock scatter and be lost."
He had asked Powers, "What's lost if you lose institutional religion?"
"Community," the priest answered.
At the time, Jim Muller shrugged. But since learning about [the scandal], he no longer felt he had the luxury of passivity. This was a Catholic Watergate. How could he not do something to harness his disgust?
Muller makes some really interesting points here about the psychic space that we've allowed to be created, and the need for authenticity in the hearts and minds of young people. They can smell what is phony from a mile off, and it is killing us. In a lot of ways, this reminds me of a family with an alcoholic in it. There's a huge problem that no one wants to talk about. We talk around it and we talk through it, and we talk past it, but no one wants to talk about the dead elephant in the middle of the room.
I think we've let the whole Humanae Vitae thing in particular fester for too long, and it colors everything else. Over 90 percent of Catholic couples use artificial birth control, and even the vast majority of weekly-mass attending Catholics do, despite the hierarchy's persistent ban. Now, this can mean one of two things. Either this is a teaching not properly taught, or it is a teaching not received. If it is a teaching not received, the laity had better start speaking up and saying something to the bishops, because this double-life in the Church can't go on forever. Something has to give one way or the other. People either have to get in line with the Church teaching (which seems to be the Vatican's strategic line of thinking... pare things down to a leaner, smaller, more obedient Church), or the laity have to speak out.
It is one thing for a layperson to read Humanae Vitae and to form his or her own consicence one way or the other in response to the Church's argument using biblical citations, the early Church Fathers, and Natural Law. It is another thing altogether just to silently reject Church teaching a priori just because he or she doesn't feel like it and couldn't be bothered. The latter, in their own way, do just as much harm as pig-headed curial officials who don't feel a need to listen to the laity.