A Reader Puzzles over Criticism of the Pope/hierarchy

By Mark Shea
Patheos blog
August 16, 2019

A reader puzzles over criticism of the Pope/hierarchy

They write:

I want to start by saying the I appreciate your writings, especially on poverty. I was coming to the conclusion that American churches alignment with Ayn Randian economics was related to “faith alone”/antinomian theology, which claims that the Christian life ought to require no sacrifice, and you expressed these thoughts very well in your books and blogging. Some protestants have also come around to that idea, as articulated in David Platt’s book.

I’m unfamiliar with Platt, but I am struck by how much conservative Catholicism in particular (in the US) has taken on the flavor, culture, and sometimes the theology of Evangelicalism. The false political soteriology that opposition to abortion (and voting Republican) taketh away the sins of the world is, in particular, everywhere in the culture right now, to the degree that Trump and FOX, far more than the Holy Father and the Magisterium, tend to form the thoughts and minds of conservative Catholics. This deeply troubles me, as you have no doubt noticed. The idea of comparing one’s thinking to the Magisterium and not to Democrats is foreign to many American conservative Catholics now. And the idea of the Catholic both/and (expressed in, among other things, the concept of the Seamless Garment) is regarded with reflexive contempt. Much that I loved and appreciated in coming into the Church, precisely because it was more capacious than American Evangelicalism’s cramped either/or is now dismissed with a sneer. The Rules, rather than the Person, have come to matter most. The Randian habit of subjecting the person to diagrams, property, and things is one manifestation of this. It breaks my heart.

I know you have heard this a million times, but one things that is giving me hesitancy to become a member of the church is the current corruption of the hierarchy/sex abuse cover up. I understand that these incidents have fallen since 2002, but many of those who protected abusers are in the church. I believe, as an outsider, that Catholic laity should have the ability to be critical of bishops and priests who stray from Catholic teaching.

Understood. A couple of things, simply from the perspective of an ordinary layman:

Catholic laity, especially in the US, are plenty critical of their clergy, right up to the Pope. Some of that criticism is richly deserved and is taken, not to bishops but to cops, as it should be, since the bishops have show themselves untrustworthy in such matters as abuse. Yet at the same time, the irony of the abuse scandal and the reforms that come from it is that the American Church really has performed a sort of miracle of reform. One lawyer who has prosecuted over 500 suits against the Church (an agnostic, by the way) has argued that the Church’s work in reforming itself in the US should be a model for every institution troubled by sexual abuse (which is essentially every institution that brings adults and children together, since predators are attracted to prey). He has written a book about it. The great irony of the abuse scandal is that the guy who oversaw the reforms and who did a brilliant job of it, as far as they went, was Cardinal McCarrick, who saw to it that a system was put in place that held everybody but himself accountable. It is one of the weirdnesses of life that a really and truly gifted and competent bureaucrat who knows how to run and reform systems can also be a grave sinner. Given such a task myself, I would have curled up into a fetal position and had no idea where to start, as would most people. This guy knew what he was doing and brought all his skill to bear to really fix a massively broken system—and to cover up his own sins. Weird. Simul iust et peccator.

As to the notion that corruption in the hierarchy is a verdict on the truth of the Faith, I more or less give my views here.

Of course, there is the question of simple safety in the Church, but that is basically the same issue as safety in schools or other watering holes that attract predators. I would say the reforms have made the Church much safer and I certainly have no fears for my grand-children there.

The basic problem now, it seems to me, is the reform of the global Church. The core issue is predators, gay and straight, and enablers, liberal and conservative. I am not at all convinced the global hierarchy has any idea what to do, and much of that is due, paradoxically, to the fact that the sexual revolution is still far in the future for millions of Catholics (including many victims) and they themselves would rather not discuss abuse. The west is mostly past that. But in many places, it is the victim of abuse who is still seen as the defiled one (including by him or herself) and getting from there to calling the cops is a long, long journey. Also, I think a lot of bishops in the global south saw and see this as a decadent American thing and not as it actually is: a global issue.

At the end of the day, the question comes back—theologically—to what the Church is. If it is the body of Christ, animated and made holy by the Holy Spirit and not by our human wonderfulness (as I believe) then my duty to Jesus Christ is to stay and fight and pray for her healing, not out of devotion to some human institution, but out of love for Christ. It was not Francis or the bishops who died for me and it sure as hell is not them who drew me to the Church, but the presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist and the sacraments and the whole body of Christ that I, just as much a sinner, require because Jesus called me here.

My reader continues:

My problem is that the ones who seem to be doing this are Catholics very aligned to US conservative politics, like Michael Voris. People who you are critical of. I think that despite my disagreements with them, I sincerely appreciate that they challenge the idea that Catholics have to always agree with the Pope and Bishops. Then again, I am not sure on what is proper teaching on how laity should criticize “bad shepherds.”

The problem with the conservative subculture typified by Voris is that it does not think with the Tradition, but with right wing culture war categories. For them, the problem is gays and liberals. That’s it. That’s all. Just purge the gays and liberals and the Church will be right as rain and anybody they think is light in the loafers or a lib is the enemy. The problem is, this is just not real. Abuse is committed by gays and straights. Victims are male and female and not all of them are underage. And enablers are liberals and conservative, as the careers of Maciel, Law, Neinstadt and, alas, JPII make clear. Indeed, when John Corapi, an exalted right wing celebrity priest, got caught canoodling and walked away from his vows, Voris attacked, not him, but his bishop for trying to bring him to heel. Why? Because Corapi was a conservative folk hero and therefore couldn’t be an abuser while his bishop was presumed to be part of the shadowy Church of Nice liberal conspiracy. Just because some demagogue is railing about “the bishops” does not mean they have the good of the Church in mind. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the endless war that has been waged against practically everything Francis says and does by a well-financed cabal of American (and a few contintental) conservatives who have hated his guts from the moment he was elected.

That’s not to say I think Francis is perfect. I think he is on an agonizingly slow and frustrating (to me) learning curve when it comes to the abuse crisis. I think his prescriptions for reform are well meant, but that he needs to face the fact that in addition to reporting abuse to bishops, abuse must be reported to the cops. But the blinding hatred of Francis which sees everything that he says and does with enmity and which has now culminated in the utterly nutty charges that he is a heretic and even a Satanist say everything about that toxic subculture and nothing about him.

There are Catholics who are outside conservatism critical of the hierarchy, like Elizabeth Bruenig. I guess my overall question is if you know of other good Catholic sources dedicated to exposing hierarchy who abuse their power, or if you disagree with the approach taken by sites like ChurchMilitant and CruxNow. The scandals are the greatest reason people have a negative opinion of Catholicism, even though the abuse was obviously a violation of church teaching.

I believe Church Militant is a gravely toxic and spiritually deadly phenomenon that should be avoided. I could not tell you five words CruxNow has written, so I’m not much use there. Elizabeth has her head screwed on right and I generally agree with her critiques. As far as exposure of crime, I would just stick with ordinary media. Right wing Catholic media has long ago lost its credibility for me. But more than that, I would keep in mind the old illustration from the Department of the Treasury. They don’t teach Treasury agents to find counterfeits by having them pore over every conceivable permutation of a false bill. They teach them what a genuine bill looks like. Far better is to set about learning what the Church actually teaches and, above all, seeking to be a fruitful disciple of Jesus Christ in the midst of his Church than to marinate our minds in the sins of clerics. God knoweth they are there. Nor is it wise to practice “enemy of my enemy is my friend” ethics which look to culture war enemies and then just perversely embrace whatever they hate, even if it’s stupid to do so. This is what has turned the Christianist Right into a massive Freak Show. There is also much that is good, holy, right, true, and lovely in the Body of Christ. Nobody ever became a saint by obsessing over the crimes of others. If it happens to be our duty to call out an evil, then let us do our duty. But it is also vital that we devote ourselves to the Presence, more than the absence of Jesus in his Church.

Hope that helps!








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