The Expiration Date of This Catholicism: Being a Theologian in an Abusive Church [UPDATED]
As the news is again reminding us, Catholics are part of a secretive and abusive church, built on “homosocial” power: men governing men and excluding women; men in a culture of homoerotic images too often and too loudly denying genuine life beyond heterosexuality; and willing to go to almost any length to protect this coven of masculine narcissism.
I am a member of a church that has abused thousands of kids and teenagers over the last several decades. How does my work in religion and culture relate to this trauma, to this Catholic evil? I have argued in a recent book that “the physical-spiritual violence toward thousands and thousands of young souls in the past several decades calls fundamentally into question the content and purpose of thinking for and with this religious institution. As theologian Stephen Pattison has argued, the ‘long-overdue ‘discovery’ of child abuse must be to Western theologians what the challenge of the poor has been to colleagues in South America—an imperative to a fundamental re-visioning of theology.’ Sexual abuse of minors is the awful lodestar for all future American Catholic theology.”
Catholicism is a tradition that has given me an early familial religious identity, that educated me as a child, that provided my PhD training (at Boston College), and that set up a higher education system that has employed me (at three Jesuit universities over the last decade). I still identify as a Catholic theologian, though in my recent work I have tried to open that category up to various other philosophies and perspectives that might include, out of the conviction that one religious habitation may not be enough for the demands of our pluralistic present, nor is it necessarily adequate to the heterogeneous history that gives us our religious identity.
But this turn to multiplicity in religious identification cannot mask the singular Catholic truth that my church has abused, raped, and silenced boys and girls, has accepted that abuse as collateral damage in the outworking of the Roman Catholic project, and worked hard to invent ways to protect abusers and to protect itself from knowing the details. But decades and indeed centuries of skating ahead of the cracks are now, I hope, ending, and not because church officials decided it was time to end the lies, but because victims-survivors have, across the world, called a massive ecclesial timeout on Catholic business as usual.
Since the breakthrough revelations in 2002 in Boston, thanks to the secular media, the end of a kind of Catholicism has begun. This should even be experienced as the end of Catholicism as such, properly interpreted, insofar as Catholicism is so identified with these old structures of governance. But it is also true that Catholicism will not die. Too many are still set free by all the elements of its potential for courageous and holy living: liturgy, prayer, study, justice, mercy.
But there will have to be a new Catholicism, or new Catholicisms. There will have to be, because new Catholicisms are already emerging. It is now old news that the old system of a deferential laity who will continue to show up for “full, conscious, and active participation” in the face of an inability of our church to come to terms with an adult laity and the mendacity of its old structures of authority – this system is gone or going. Different Catholicisms are already detaching themselves from these old structures, from below: Catholics redefining their mass attendance, their loving relationships, their relation to the magisterium, their sense of the roles of women, their relation to people of other faiths and religions, and more.
My theological work sits at the intersection of faith and culture, especially popular culture. In the face of what is being revealed about the Catholicism that has been so much my atmosphere, how can I justify my intellectual work? I have had to ask myself whether my research project shares in the failures of ecclesial courage into which I was also trained as a Catholic. This is not an easy question to answer. I realize now that focusing on theology and culture has been an escape from ecclesial problems. And responsibility? But it has also been a way of preparing myself and my readers and students for dealing with the implosion of this Catholicism. Understanding how faith and culture interrelate, with rigor and patience, can be the antechamber of a new way of being religious, after what we will have had to let go about what we thought Catholicism was and could be.
New York City, New York, United States
UPDATE 27 March 2010, 6:00pm EST
Thank you to all who have read and responded so far, both on this blog and by email. I have a few brief responses:
* A few of the responses were of the "anticipatory justice" variety, suggesting that Catholic tradition is built durably for dealing with such crises of leadership. Some responses say that Catholicism has been scandalous before; that people are imperfect; that we have dogmas, doctrines, or canon laws to deal with such things. I am concerned that these responses dilute our attention to the present, to the victims, to the processes that led to and protected the abuse, and to the ways that abusive practices are linked to a whole style of religious governance. Moreover, I am reluctant to embrace a theological prefiguring of where this is all going. Paul Lakeland may be right dogmatically that "we are in the dying and rising business." I would argue, though, that identifying the (theological) business we're in is not as theologically necessary, or indeed urgent, as identifying the ways that appeals to that "business" are going to help us stop the destructive patterns in the way the church is run (just as appeals to that "business" have been part of keeping the traumatic behaviors going in the past). Tendencies to anticipate in advance how we're going to get out of this suggests to me a reluctance to face the trauma. (I do not thereby suggest that Lakeland disagrees with this.) I am with Prof. Lakeland on the importance of not knowing where a thoroughgoing confrontation with all that needs to be confronted will lead us. The global outrage suggests that many have hope. But I think it is theologically important that with respect to the church, we do not now know exactly for what we should hope, because we do not yet have the theological exposure to the truths we need. The theological task at hand seems more to do with the struggle to tell the truth about ourselves as church.
* This crisis gathers together so many seismic issues at stake for the Catholic Church that it may well be that there is a rationale for calling Vatican III.