Since June 2002 in the printed pages of America magazine and here on its blog (such as, more recently, here and here), I have tried to make occasional theological sense of the unfolding sexual/managerial abuse crisis in the U.S. Catholic Church. As someone who works in the area of practical theology, the lived experience of faith, critically and appreciatively understood, is an important consideration for me in trying to do any theological work.
Reading today's newspaper made me wonder anew at what Catholicism is facing (or not facing). Like some other commentators, I believe that this scandal is as much about the fundamental terms of the church and theology as it is about problematic "accretions" to an otherwise unproblematic ecclesial-theological substructure.
In today's New York Times, I read about the response of Bishop Michael J. Bransfield to allegations made in the current trial in Philadelphia exploring sexual abuse and coverup at allegedly high levels of the Catholic Church there. According to news coverge, Bishop Bransfield was refuting claims that he himself was guilty of sexual abuse and that he also knew of abuse by another priest.
Of course, I don't know what the truth is in this particular case, and as much as anyone, I hope for a fair trial and a just verdict in every aspect and for everyone affected.
But my point concerns the highly visible, public proliferation of these disputes, reports, and trials regarding abuse in the Catholic Church over the past decade in the United States, and what they might mean for the ongoing and unfolding experience of Catholic identity in this country. Again and again for ten years running, the press has been filled with testimonies, accusations, and sometimes denials, concerning abuse of young men, teenagers, or children by priests. A great many of these testimonies and accusations have proven true. This is so much the case that, as I argued in a recent book, the sexual abuse of minors is the awful lodestar for all future Catholic theology in the United States. It is a call to a major theological rethinking of the church in practice. Moreover, these crucial matters are so frequently on the radar for so many baptized Catholics that I wonder whether, ten years into the latest ecclesial convulsion, Catholic identity in the United States is being marked anew by the crisis -- in a way that will and should change the sorts of questions that students of theology ask about what it means to be Catholic.
Here is more of what I mean: about fifteen years ago, theologian Kathryn Tanner (now at Yale) wrote a deeply reflective book called Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology (Augsburg Fortress, 1997). While not itself a work of Catholic theology, Tanner argued that developments in cultural studies, including theories of ordinary life and everyday experience, could help theology understand that religious communities are rarely joined by consensus on normative beliefs or practices.
Rather, she suggested, theologians should study religious identity as a matter of proximity to some "common stake" about which members disagree and about which they care. In other words (and Tanner is not the only one to argue something like this), religious identity is usually more a matter of where one stands with regard to matters on which people take sides than with regard to some presumed essential, ahistorical essence like the way "principles" or "values" are often portrayed.
What holds people together in a "shared" religious identity is not that they have basic agreements, but that they have "common stakes" on which they take up varying tensive perspectives. For many Catholics, I think, a rough and ready sketch of those common stakes would probably include: teaching authority, mass, priesthood, Eucharist, the body, women, divorce, sexuality, and more. Many Catholics disagree on what these "matters" (symbolic while always tied to real persons/experiences) mean in Catholic life, yet the felt significance of these stakes helps make up the core of Catholic identity. I am here applying Tanner to Catholic identity; Tanner herself does not do this. Moreover, her argument is more subtle than I can render in a brief blog post. If you are interested, I suggest you read it for yourself.
With apologies for lack of nuance, what I am wondering here is whether sexual abuse has now become, or is in the process of becoming, one of those "common stakes" for Catholic identity in the USA.
That is, whether a felt response to clerical sexual abuse (and various items related to it) is now what is "called up" in people's minds and hearts when they picture what has to be accounted for when talking about Catholicism. This is not to suggest that baptized Catholics (whether they identify as practicing, non-practicing, post-practicing, or something else) all agree on the causes, course, and consequences of the sexual/managerial abuse scandal, but that sexual abuse is inching its way upward into the lived palette of colors available for public discussion of Catholicism.
We will have to await future studies to see if this is indeed the case, but how Catholic identity is interpreted today will set up the very frameworks for the studies that will be undertaken tomorrow.