Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Benedict, Doubt, and the State of the Church

I was looking through the archives of my old blog, and found something I wrote about the state of the Catholic Church back in 2009.  With the papal conclave happening right now, I think it's especially relevant, considering that the Church's current problems were plain as day early on in Benedict's reign.  The distance I have traveled in terms of religion since then is telling.  I was not an observant Catholic, but did get married by its rites, and considered myself at the very least a cultural Catholic.  Nowadays I'm an agnostic Episcopalian, and like many lapsed Catholics over the last few years, I've cut what few ties to the Church I had left.  It's hard to tell if the choice of the next pope will reflect any progressive change, or whether the Church leadership is fully aware of its current situation.  Whoever the next pope happens to be, he will have his hands full.

 Below are my reflections from four years ago, which don't really seem out of place these days.  I am struck by my positive memories of my dealings with certain clergy and Catholic lay leaders at that time.  It's a needed reminder that the Church can do things right, and that many great people do its work.  I only hope the spirit of this positive side of the church carries the day in Rome this week.


While I visited New Jersey over the winter holiday had many intimate encounters with the Catholic Church, an institution that I both love and revile in almost equal measure. L and I attended Mass at the old Italian church where we will be getting married, and on both occasions were treated to the homily stylings of an ultra-orthodox, aged priest. The Christmas morning sermon was a thing of true of awfulness wherein he expounded aimlessly on the Church's doctrine of Mary's virginity, sternly pointing out that she remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus to her ascension. This meant in fact that the baby Jesus had not gone down the Ever Virgin's birth canal, but had evidently appeared in her arms "like light through a pane of glass." Of course, like all unimaginative priests, he quickly politicized the Immaculate Conception by lecturing the congregation about abortion.

I was willing to cut the guy a little slack, since he was obviously too old to be doing what he was doing. Unfortunately for him and for the Church in general, the number of vocations has been dropping off severely. Worse yet, those young men who sign up for the priesthood today tend to be ideological firebrands who actually fervently believe in things like papal infallibility instead of merely paying lip-service to them, and seem content with the Church's larger turn to the Right in the last thirty years.

A couple of weeks later, however, I was reminded of the great potential latent in the Catholic Church. L and I attended pre-Cana, a seminar required of couples who wish to marry in the Catholic Church. Truth be told, I was quite worried about the event, afraid that I would be bludgeoned with doctrine on birth control by a man who had sworn himself to celibacy. The location itself raised my fears, as we sat in the gymnasium of an old Catholic school that reaked of the crushing guilt and intimidating austerity I knew well from my religious upbringing. That being said, the priest, a Benedictine monk, gave a talk brimming with humor that almost had me falling out of my chair. (Sample: he showed up in his hooded habit and announced, "I thought I would slip on something more medieval today." He cracked jokes about the Jesuits and Protestant perceptions of Catholics as drunks while acknowledging some of the truth behind the stereotype.) We also heard from two Catholic couples who had been long married and who offered practical advice that transcended religious doctrine. The woman who ran the session pointedly told us we could read the official stuff about abortion and birth control if we wanted to, but that the session would concern itself more with resolving the day-to-day issues married people face. Lo and behold, pre-Cana actually benefitted L and I. Too bad the spirit of practical morality and openness we experienced there seems to be in such short supply in the Church these days.

The two opposing forces in American Catholicism, inclusion and exclusion, are a major part of the movie Doubt, and lie at the heart of the contemporary Church. I happened to see Doubt while in Jersey, and it thoroughly touched me. At some points I almost broke down, because it portrays something that has all but died: American Catholicism as an organic, communal culture, rather than a zealous, inflexible, anti-modern ideology. It shows a world where people in the neighborhood walked to the church, and Catholicism was not merely a set of beliefs, but a cultural identity.

In the film, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), represents the inclusive impulse that moved the church towards reform in the 1960s. He wants to enlighten and welcome his congregation, not discipline and control them. Sister Aloysius (played brilliantly by Meryl Streep) does not agree with Flynn's approach, and subscribes whole-heartedly to the "do as you're told or else" school of Catholicism that traumatized my childhood. Sister James (Amy Adams) is a young nun stuck in the middle with a kind heart but unsure of herself. (She reminded me powerfully of the nun who taught me in the first grade and greatly encouraged my reading habit. I don't find it surprising that she left the cloister.)

Matters are complicated by the fact that Flynn has been credibly accused of abusing one of the more vulnerable boys in the school. While the viewer might sympathize with Father Flynn's attitude and despise Sister Aloysius' rigidity, we become suspicious of him and start to admire her tenacity. In the end, we don't know what really happened, but there's no mistaking the references to the Church's recent abuse scandals and its consequent loss of moral authority. Of course, this hasn't stopped the clergy from wagging their fingers on abortion during and after the election. In ways that I don't have time to detail here, Doubt displays HOW the mechanisms of the church and the arrogance of some of its leaders could be used to cover-up sexual abuse.

Pope Benedict exuded that arrogance in all its ugliness this week when he reinstated four schismatic, reactionary bishops, one of whom is an unapologetic Holocaust denier. Considering the long, ugly history of anti-Semitism that the Church has been trying to correct and atone for since Vatican II, this move could not be more retrograde. How an instituion that claims to be the moral arbiter for over a billion people could reward someone for downplaying one of the greatest crimes in human history (and with the participation of many Catholics) is as astonishing as it is appalling.

Even if one of these bishops had not been a Holocaust denier, Benedict's move would still signal a willingness to welcome the most reactionary interpretations of Catholicism. All of these bishops belong to the Society of Pius X, a splinter group opposed to the Vatican II reforms of the church. The pope and the other high clergy are open and inclusive, but only to those who want to bring the Church back into the Middle Ages. Catholicism does not have to go down this path, but men like Benedict are doing their best to drive out anyone who could steer it in a more modern, tolerant, and yes, viable direction. With their clergy aging, churches closing, and moral authority all but shot, they might not have a whole lot more time to work with.

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