"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Idolizing Popes While Ignoring the Abuse of Nuns

It just so happened earlier this week that, ten minutes after reading Sylvia Poggioli's story on the NPR website about the clerical sexual abuse of nuns, I was being interviewed on the local NPR affiliate for nearly an hour about my book Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power. I'll post a link to the on-air piece and the longer interview on their website when it airs next week.

When I began the book last summer, these stories had not really begun to emerge--they really are that recent. If I were writing the book now, I'd include a chapter on nuns and abuse; but in fact what I do say in the book about power applies equally here as well. The book's arguments about the need for local structures of accountability, about abolishing episcopal-papal monopolies on power, and about dethroning false ideas of "obedience" all equally apply to religious/monastic communities as much as to parishes and dioceses. If bishops must now be held to local account, and if their near-absolute monopoly on power must be removed, so too must superiors-general of all the religious orders (I suggest starting with the Basilians) be stripped of their monopolies of power and their ability to manipulate and destroy people in the name of "obedience" and "God's will" and "avoiding scandal" and "the good of the Church" and all the other self-justifying lies these people tell.

The overlooked factor here is indeed power and the structures by which it is maintained. Some people have not mastered that lesson yet. As I noted here, I first wrote about this crisis more than twenty-five years ago, and these stories no longer surprise anybody. But, alas, these stories have now hardened into a narrative that certain Catholics cling to, excluding any and all epistemic humility by which they might realize that the crisis is not just one of  "clericalism" or "homosexuals in the priesthood." The insistence by which such simplistic and mono-causal narratives are still defended is depressing to behold.

So too is the apparent inability of certain Catholics to walk and chew gum at the same time. If some fetishize one "cause," other Catholics think there is only one "solution." These types obsessively focus on one aspect and insist we can talk about no other. Why can people not recognize that this crisis is about sex, about power, about clericalism, about the structures by which clerics maintain and abuse their power, about misogynistic violence towards women, and about abuse of boys and men by other men? As Christopher Altieri argued last summer, we need to get out of the ideological blind-spots to look at the whole crisis without sparing anyone's blushes. My book does not get caught up in such useless intra-Catholic battles, but says: what can we do, going forward, to build a stronger, more accountable Church?

In point of fact, as the title of the book makes clear, this is a crisis of sex and power--and whether the victims are young or old, male or female, school children or nuns, makes no difference at all: they are all victims and that is the first, and only, thing we need to know about them. Exploiting some victims while ignoring others to advance some pet theory about "lavender mafias" or to push for the ordination of women or some other cause is appalling. The only "cause" we should be consumed with is the one that works to get all the stories out, all the abusers named and removed from power, all the filth purified from the Church.

As we now are seeing in these new stories about the abuse of nuns, it is clear they do not fit into the hardened ideas, ideological stereotypes, and blindly held notions of the Vatican as one giant closet of gays and nothing else. Some people pop up tediously to quote some statistic or other about "80% of victims are male," which claim they brandish to slay any stories about, e.g., the abuse of women (a "distraction" as one man said in reference to the NPR story, apparently with a straight face but clearly not a conscience).

To counter this all-too-human propensity to falling into ideological if not idolatrous thinking, most of which happens outside our conscious awareness, I began the book, and spent the first chapter, drawing in particular on the Jesuit psychoanalyst Carlos Dominguez-Morano to help us bring to the surface the ideologies and idols that so often govern, bind, blind, and limit our thinking as Catholics through myriad distortions. His book Belief After Freud is invaluable in this respect and many others.

I also returned to Paul Ricoeur, who, more than forty years ago now rightly argued that the Freudian project is useful in one key respect: showing us the human propensity for idolatry, and helping us to outwit that. (Adam Phillips has said that Freud was a “man whose project was the destruction of idolatry.")

And Catholics are especially stupid and blind if they think they/we are exempt from the dangers of idolatry--as Carl Olson rightly argued. The Catechism itself says that "Idolatry not only refers to false pagan worship. It remains a constant temptation to faith. Idolatry consists in divinizing what is not God. Man commits idolatry whenever he honors and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods or demons (for example, satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc." (s.2113). For too long we have not merely revered but idolized clergy, the pope above all. That must end. The whole cult around him, the fawning, the interviews, the endless talking and writing by him and his courtiers: the whole weary roadshow must end.

Let us return to the days when the name of the pope, or any of his ideas, are about as well known as the name or ideas of the secretary-general of, say, the UN or the World Health Organization. We have to Google those people up to find the first thing about them--the pope should expect no more. He's not some oracle or idol, and we must get that through our thick skulls.

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