Religion, Faith and Sprituality

Monday, August 27, 2018

Is There a Civil War in the church? Of course there is!

Is there a civil war in the church? Of course there is!  It has been transpiring for a while, perhaps, intermittently, since the reshaping of practice and ritual that came with the Vatican II. Did it flare a bit with the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report? With the resignation of Chile’s Catholic bishops? With this past weekend’s letter from Cardinal Carlo Maria Viganò? Yes. Catholics in the United States and western Europe have been steadily seceding, in one way or another, from 'communion' in/with the church since the start of the Vatican clergy sexual abuse crisis. This past weekend, some conservative Catholics—some call themselves “orthodox”—fringe (throwbacks, I believe) Catholics rallied behind Viganò and took their shot. 

To extend the metaphor, the bout was pro forma, featured Viganò as a ‘tomato can,’ and the fix was in the whole time. Canon Code and Catechism strict constructionists have no standing when it comes to condemning the pope. There are Canon Laws that apply to prelates who flout dogma and doctrine, but the pope is the pope (It’s good to be the king.) and ultimately answers to no one. Some Catholics might say he answers the God, but throughout church history, God has allowed many exceedingly shady popes to remain in power. 

What is interesting to me is how the orthodox fringe now aims to appeal to the pope as if he were a senator. On one online blog, I noted an exhortation to “write a letter of complaint to your bishop.” This is curious for two reasons:1. Few if any American bishops are free of culpability in the Vatican clergy sexual abuse scandal. 2. Pope Francis is the pope, and they installed him. 

It’s ironic that very people who otherwise adhere to the letter on teaching, now propose to unseat the pope. They are the most likely faction of Roman Catholicism to champion the ex cathedra infallibility of popes, but they, in. sense, want the current pope to be "impeached." (Some orthodox Catholics have a bit of a recent history of proclaiming popes they don't favor invalid.) The people militating to remove Pope Francis are the same folks who coined the phrase “cafeteria Catholic.” When they are not pushing for the removal of a 'legitimately' elevated pope, they are militating for a medieval church. Their campaign is fascinating and absurd. 

This Viganò affair constitutes an attempt to treat the pope as not fully papal. Their argument, which is not a bad one, given the way rules and regulations work in the institutional church, is that a pope who flouts long held teaching is not fit to serve as pontiff. Through this scandal Catholics in the pews obtain a glimpse at how changing doctrine works. I'm often asked why the pope can not just make same-sex marriage licit in the church, or decide to ordain women. A pope is not supposed to act unilaterally. But into the job description is an understanding that popes will not overrule other popes. Pope Francis, contrary to the opinions of some, has not changed doctrine in any way. He has merely made an effort to change tone. Despite all of this, the pope is extremely powerful. His political power is not limited to the confines of Catholicism. It is extremely unlikely that a fringe faction of the Catholic Church led by a scorned prelate who is not free of the coverup taint will gain any traction in a mission to unseat this pope. That is a good thing. 

The criticisms about McCarrick are not at the heart of their overall grievance. Viganò has remained silent while playing nice with Cardinal McCarrick for many years. The McCarrick affair was merely an opportunity for Viganò to strike out against gay men in the priesthood, and Pope Francis’s generous disposition toward LGBTQ Catholics, and the pope's expansive view on the matter of possibly allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments (Some U.S. Dioceses, by the way, long ago authorized priests to administer sacraments to LGBTQ Catholics who are married/ living in partnerships as well as to divorced and remarried Catholics at their discretion) 

That Pope Francis’s and Cardinal Viganò are probably on exactly the same page re: their attitude toward women is something Catholics ought to think more about, but Viganò longs to being gay restored to a “disorder.” He doesn't care that social science and psychology are not on his side in this. He wants Catholics to take the Eucharist on the tongue, for example, and not in the hand. This wistfulness is generally an extension of a longing to elevate the priesthood itself. Only the consecrated hands of the priest are fit to hold the sacred body of Christ in their hands, the reasoning suggests. 

From a baby-theology standpoint, it adds a super-human, supernatural quotient of status to the priesthood itself. This clericalism—this way of looking at priests—is what enabled priests who raped children to do so with impunity. Christ on the tongue has more to do with increasing the power of all priests. Giving priests more power is the last thing the church needs. Ironically, Viganò and his ilk depart dramatically from this thinking as they as they lobby to remove a pope from the Holy See.

The pope is the pope. He can do what he wants. If the pope were purging the church of gay priests, pushing for Communion on the tongue, pushing for turning LGBTQ Catholics away from receiving Communion, insisting that divorced and remarried Catholics ought not receive the sacraments, team Viganò would be affirming his inviolability. The wrongdoing chronicled in the Pennsylvania grand jury report is not the source of their outrage, but the means to an end. Viganò and the orthodox fringe have been gunning for the Bergoglio (almost) ever since the day Viganò allegedly duped the pope into an unplanned audience with the thrice married defender of traditional marriage, Kim Davis. 

As I mentioned in “The Fish Rots From the Head” last week, I signed a petition that called for the resignation of the U.S. bishops. I signed because I wanted to stand in solidarity with fellow Catholics who were protesting the systematic rape of children and the attending coverup, but I knew the letter was symbolic.  

I have not doubted, not for even a moment, that the pope knew about conduct outlined in the Pennsylvania grand jury report before the public did. I do not doubt that Pope Francis may have allowed Cardinal Carrick to remain in ministry after finding out he possibly had raped a child. I do not doubt that Pope Francis is guilty of taking part in the coverup of crimes against innocent children. 

The can't ever know what the pope knew. What we can know is that there are not very many cardinals. We know they talk to each other. We know many have worked together for decades. We know that some serve as each others’ confessors. And we know that whether a given prelate reported a sex crime to law enforcement is eminently (no pun intended?) verifiable. I don’t mean to imply that Pope Francis has not been moved by the suffering of McCarrick’s alleged victims. It is just not so simple as that. Pope Francis may care, but it is likely that the pope's concern for the suffering of children who have been raped by his priests is trumped by his concern for the suffering of the institution. (For more on this read “The Fish Rots From the Head.”)

So, Viganò et al are most likely correct, but Viganò has ulterior motives. He believes the pope has handed the church over to "sodomites." (Viganò himself has also been credibly accused of taking part in the coverup.) I believe every prelate who knew about the illegal conduct of bishops and failed to report it to law enforcement, should resign—the bishop of Rome included. But it will not happen. The pope will quickly move on. 

I also believe the penance for their collective sin should include vigorous efforts to advocate for changes in the law that expand opportunity for survivors to report sex crimes committed by clergy by extending statutes of limitations for looking back. Prelates should actively engage, as penance, in lobbying to eliminate statute of limitations for reporting child sexual abuse. Bishops should open all records to government investigators. They will welcome fiscal oversight that ensures that diocese dollars are not used to investigate victims or play for slander suits filed by priests. Anything short of that is both not nearly enough. None of this, however, will happen. It is way too expensive. 

The pope is more prince of the church than president or prime minister. The College of Cardinals is not really interested in what Catholics want or think. They conduct synods and so forth, but most of these are held for the benefit of Catholic intellectuals, who in indirect ways, serve as the hierachy's apologists even while finding fault. When the bishops want the input of Catholics, it is generally because they want more money. People in the pews, have almost no power over the hierarchy. Almost.Catholics do have a modicum of power: the Vatican likes money. They really really like money. They like money so much, they do not mind taking it very very poor people who don't question where the cash goes. My own grandmother was a highly intelligent woman born in the year 1900 on a farm in County Mayo Ireland. She went as far as second grade and read the New York Daily News almost every day well into her late 80's, but in her last years of life, I she still believed that giving money to. the church would get her into heaven. My brother and I, both of whom often attended mass with my grandmother, used to call her Manhattan pastor "the Rolex priest."  

Within the past decade, the bishop of my own diocese shuttered churches on which old folks depended while restoring a pro-cathedral less than a mile away from the opulent cathedral he already had. In the service of this effort, he collaborated with corrupt politicians, unscrupulous real estate developers. Many very devout, very old people I have known lost their homes as a result of imminent domain projects boosted by Brooklyn's two-cathedral bishops think nothing about bleeding poor people and the elderly. 
When the bishop of my diocese was finished shutting non-earning parishes, he moved on to parishes like my own which had been, in a sense, floated, by a small cabal of devout middle class parishioners. As the parish began to fall apart, the bishop sent the beloved pastor to a tithing parish, an astonishingly incompetent deacon, and the team of core believers who stayed now tell me that parish are barred the parish from using the parish house, new locks are on mail boxes, a beloved nun who had been volunteering for years has been whacked, and there's whinging about the per capita donations being down. The bishops have never minded robbing poor, elderly or vulnerable Catholics in the pews. This is one (not the only one) of the reasons the hierarchy is so fiercely progressive on immigration—Immigrants are great tithers. This also explains the push to keep LGBTQ people in the pews. The Vatican wants all Catholics in church, feeling pressured to tithe whether they are admitted to communion or not. 


The only power Catholics I the pews have in the context of church policy is economic power. Catholics can refuse to tithe. 

The Vatican skims its small percentage off of what dioceses collect from parishes and special collections, but is always worried about protecting its wealth. (I believe most of the Vatican’s disposition toward women, for example, rises out of financial interest.) The Vatican is one of the wealthiest operations in the world, but much of its wealth is not liquid. 

Refusing to tithe could prove especially important in the context of that Pope Francis's papacy. Bergoglio was chosen, in part, because he was a good financial manager. (If you read Laudato Si, you noticed how left brain the current pope is.) Pope Francis helped the Vatican to weather a banking scandal, while projecting a (possibly authentic!) image of humility. Charismatic clerics tend to make good fund-raisers, and Pope Francis is no exception. An organized tithing strike would never be sufficient to change dogma, but it could, I believe, influence the shaping of other teaching. The psychological conditioning around tithing is, however, so strong, that it is difficult for many Catholics to even imagine boycotting the basket. We have been indoctrinated to believe we are, in a sense, giving to God, and not buying a beach house for a guy like Cardinal McCarrick. 

I often get accused being a Protestant when I champion the idea of a tithing strike. (Withholding tithes was a form of activism favored by Protestant reformers.  I am an Irish Catholic, but I do not take “Protestant” as an insult. ) Another critique of my refusal to tithe implies that I take cash out of the mouths of poor and elderly folks. I do not. It is easy to share with people in need without kicking back to the Vatican. 

I love my parish and I am fortunate enough to have a little money to donate to people who have less than my family has, so it has been hard for me to refrain from tithing. I decided over a decade ago that I was unwilling to support an organization that would not ordain women. I still find ways to contribute to people in need but I always strain to deny the Vatican their cut. I also made a concerted effort, during this time, to contribute time and talent to my parish. Labor is a contribution the Vatican can't pinch. I hope that this summer's Catholic eruption might cause Catholics in the pews to think a bit more about what their voluntary tithing does and buys. 

Back to the civil war in the church. Is there a civil war going? Of course there is! Is the church headed for a schism? Not yet. Despite that, schism phobia permeated almost everything Catholic that I read this past weekend. A non-Catholic asked me why Catholics in the United States are so fearful of schism. The answer is two-fold. There is the concern that the mystical body of the (“catholic” and “Catholic”) church might be fragmented, but also, there’s concern about all the wealth. 

Who gets all the money if a real schism happens? Today, I imagine that it Team Francis would acquire all booty. But if a man like Cardinal Vigano were to become pope—


No sitting pope is likely to cede power or money. Catholics will continue to debate among themselves, but Catholics who really want to create change in the church will begin to explore the only leverage available to them. They will stop kicking back to the Vatican They will begin to put their money where their mouths are. 


Michele Somerville 
August 27, 2018
NYC


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