"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).

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Wanted: A Theology of Disobedience

I was gratified to read this week of a French priest flatly insisting that people stop calling him 'father.' That accords with what I argued in Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power. 

I was told by friends/critics who read my book in draft that my calling for an abolition of the practice of automatically conferring the title "father" to clerics would be the hardest bit to swallow in an already challenging book. But here is one priest in France saying the same thing, and in the book I drew on another (Carlos Dominguez-Morano, about whom see below) who also laid out very solid psychological reasons (to say nothing of theology) for abolishing the title "father."

Morano is also extremely critical of notions, and especially practices, of "obedience." On this score, too, he has led me to change my mind. I now regard both notions--of "spiritual paternity" and "obedience as a virtue"--with far more skepticism than I once did.

Indeed, more than twenty years ago now when I was en route to becoming a Catholic, I discovered a facetious phrase in the writings of the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, who spoke about certain converts who “exult in the freedom to submit to authority with wild abandon.” I gladly saw myself as such, and went on to publish several articles extolling ecclesial obedience in the thought of the Jesuits Henri de Lubac and Walter Burghardt as well as John Henry Newman.

I cannot bring myself to read those now. Indeed, part of me wants to find old copies and burn them so that no child, no seminarian, no human being will ever think that he or she must submit to a clerical predator because obedience is a virtue—because he demands obedience “under pain of sin” or “in the name of God” or to receive some favor. These stories have led me increasingly to think that demands for obedience in any organization must always be regarded with suspicion—including, now, the Church.

Indeed, let me put it as strongly as possible: the Church should be held up to more suspicion than any other organization whenever it demands obedience in any matter beyond the strictly doctrinal as set down in, say, the universal catechism. I say this because the Church, unlike so-called secular organizations, is singularly vulnerable to abuses of obedience for two reasons: first, it often demands obedience in the name of God; and second, because it thus covers itself with a theological patina, it can more easily cower and frighten people (“disobeying me is disobeying God!”) who are conveniently bereft of any of the safeguards deliberately built into other organizations to prevent abuses of authority. (We have no “whistleblower” lines anonymously to call; we have no HR department to convene a hearing over sexual harassment.) In other words, in demanding obedience the Church has often, inexcusably, forgotten her own central doctrine of original sin which, as St. Augustine famously showed us, very often manifests itself via libido dominandi.

Augustine, of course, discusses that phrase in the City of God in reference to the Roman Empire and other non-Christian forces rampaging about the world. (John Rist's discussion of Augustine on this point is worth your time.) But the problem is that the Church has often uncritically and unconsciously adopted the language, practices, and structures of the empire and other polities since then. As I tell my students, structures we so commonly use today—e.g.,  “diocese” or “metropolitan” or “pontiff”—are all directly borrowed from the empire. So too our now universal practice of ordaining men in a cursus honorum, requiring them to process through a series of “lesser” offices en route to the greater, mirrors exactly how one advanced through the ranks of the Roman army. At one point the Church would ordain a man directly, not sequentially, to the priesthood or episcopate. But by adopting the Roman cursus we changed our practices of ordination (which I treat here).

We might be tempted to think these are harmless remnants of our Roman past, and perhaps they are. But far less harmless is the borrowing of the habits of hierarchical coercion and enforced obedience accompanied by serious (and sometimes lethal) threats one finds enacted by armies and empires, by modern nation-states—and by the Church. While the Church has not convened a court martial and then carried out a sentence of death on those who go astray, she has not been averse to handing such “offenders” over to the secular government, which shares no such scruples about, e.g., executing homosexuals on the Church’s behalf (as a recently published, and seemingly laudatory translation of a bull of Pope Pius V makes clear).

What we require today, more than ever, is a theology of disobedience that will begin to help the Church disentangle her life from that of imperial interlopers and begin to undo some of the damage causes by a perversion of obedience. This is a conclusion I came to after reading Carlos Dominguez-Morano, Belief After Freud: Religious Faith Through the Crucible of Psychoanalysis (trans. F.J. Montero [Routledge, 2018]). I finished it in a few days last August, but have hardly been able to write about it fully since then. It is a tour de force and deserves a very wide audience. (Its Spanish original is now in its fifth edition, and we can and should encourage such a popular dissemination among anglophone audiences.)

Part of my reticence in speaking about it comes from how many and how powerful are its challenges in some crucial areas not just of practice but of faith. My own thinking about Freud and the analytic traditions following from him--especially in Britain with, e.g., Winnicott, Bion, Klein, Coltart, Bollas, Fairbairn, Guntrip, Phillips and others--has generally inclined towards more "therapeutic" uses, whether in an individual-clinical setting, or in questions like, e.g., the healing of memories. I have not, in other words, thought Freud through in the context of, e.g., the father-son relationship between Jesus and His Father as expressed in the gospels. But Morano does this and more in ways that I have found nobody else comes close to doing. (To the extent that Catholic scholars have engaged Freudian and analytic thought seriously, it is the Jesuits who have done more than most, with Morano writing several books in Spanish over the last two decades on Christianity and psychoanalysis; and, in the anglophone world, the late Jesuit W.W. Meissner being similarly prolific.)

I must confess that when I received Morano's book in the mail in late August I was peeved and put out: for I was then on sabbatical and part of my plan was to write, if not finish, a book I have tentatively called “Theology After Freud,” a book I have been thinking about intermittently for nearly twenty-five years now since studying psychology in Canada, undergoing a classical psychoanalysis there, and ever after trying to integrate analytic thought into my work in ecclesiology, ecumenism, and the healing of memories, especially between Catholic and Orthodox Christians (the subject of my first book). But I quickly came, sincerely and modestly, to thank God that Carlos Dominguez-Morano wrote this book for it is far better and braver than anything I would have attempted.

That is nowhere more in evidence than his reflections on obedience. This book landed in my lap in this summer of endless revelations about sexual abuse, which is always also an abuse of power. And as we are hearing these tales, what is the default response of too many hierarchs to those wondering what can be done? Why, pray and fast, of course! But such seemingly pious exhortations can mask, this acutely perceptive psychoanalyst says, a sinister agenda: “religious power structures have never been indifferent to prayer and have so frequently manipulated it to their advantage…. Prayer finds in power a perfect ally and associate to help pursue certain goals, not always clear in their evangelical motivations.” Those goals, I would suggest, usually include the unspoken domination and enforced silence of the people instructed to pray, for such praying, it is confidently assumed, will be not to ask God to “scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts” and to “put down the mighty from their [episcopal] thrones” (Luke 1:51-52). One must, therefore, question the motives of those exhorting us to prayer and expecting of us obedience to these and other exhortations and orders:
on these occasions when the subject finds himself in conflict and in disagreement with certain approaches from authority, it is frightening to hear that old ‘pray on it’ advice. Frightening because we are left doubting whether what is really wanted is that the matter is taken up with the God of Jesus of Nazareth or with the god of that figure in the unconscious, the superego.
Dominguez-Morano goes on to argue elsewhere in the book that one of the key lessons of the earthly life of Jesus vis-à-vis his parents, especially revealed in the incident where they find him teaching in the temple at the age of twelve, is that he shows us how to overcome the problem of earthly fathers and their claims to power over us: “Any type of paternal projection on other social figures must be overcome. Nobody on earth can claim paternal authority. Nobody can exert paternal power or protection functions in the Christian community.”

If we refuse such power and paternal functions, we do so, Dominguez-Morano reminds us, because Christ says “You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends” (John 15:14-15). Those who are called to be friends with God must learn to conceive him anew, moving past paternal projections onto priests, bishops, and popes, and all the problems inherent in those. Thus Dominguez-Morano can say that “the Christian should not nostalgically search and long for the father. The father figure dwelling in the psyche of the person must be buried.” Once the paternal image and authority is buried, Dominguez-Morano counsels, it must not be resurrected by us in the secret and perverse ways we so often do. For in the
Christian community, it has to be stated…, the place of the father should remain empty. Father, teacher, or director are not Christian words insofar as they are used to describe a type of interpersonal relationship inside the community. Only God can take that place. 
What does such a radical counsel do to relationships between seminarians and their rector? between priests and their bishop? between students and their professors such as I? How could a Jesuit—famously vowed not just to obedience, as all monastics are, but to special obedience directly to the “holy father” and pope (papa=father!) of Rome—of all people get away with recommending such a radical re-ordering of terminology and relationships within the Church? What would the Church look like—and in particular the Society of Jesus—and how would both operate if we attempted to put this into practice?

Here, precisely as both a good Jesuit and perhaps even more a good psychoanalyst (recall that Freud explicitly expected analysts to exercise what he called “abstinence,” refusing to give directions to patients on how to live their lives), Dominguez-Morano does not say, leaving it up to us to invoke here a perhaps even more famous charism of Ignatius’s society: discernment. In this season of never-ending crisis, we need more than ever to discern how relationships in seminaries and dioceses, in parishes and schools, and religious orders and across the entire Church, can be re-ordered to prevent the abuses that have so often been perpetuated in the name of obedience. As we discern these new structures, relationships, and lines of authority, we must, Dominguez-Morano rightly says, cease patterning ourselves on empires and any other “authoritarian system” in which “domination…fear, and feelings of guilt quite alien to Jesus of Nazareth’s message and to what his message should inspire” are rampant.

At the same time, however, Morano is quite right in saying (even if this needs more development) that he is not calling for an overthrow of the entire idea of obedience in the Church, for to do so can easily give rise to what he calls narcissistic tyranny. Without some order, including obedience to legitimate needs of the community, you can easily have individual egos run amok, creating anarchy and chaos, destroying the very possibility of a "common good" and a communal life, and thereby serving nobody well. Thus he is calling for a much more communal practice of obedience so that it is no longer just a superior and inferior in silence and secrecy making certain decisions without wide consultation and open and forthright discussion in freedom.

The need for such a reconfiguration today is, or should be, obvious to all. My own book Everything Hidden Shall be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power attempts to give several practices of communal discernment and decision-making involving the entire people of God who, once the decision has been made, then submit to it and obey it not because some hierarch feels entitled to demand they do so, but because, by the grace and light of the Holy Spirit, the mind of the entire Church has been moved to commit and obey the Spirit's leadership.

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