Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Why We Cannot Cheer the Pope

The May 2008 issue of The Progressive Catholic Voice is now available to view online. As editor of this online journal I’m happy to announce that this latest issue contains some timely and interesting articles. For instance, in the May issue:

• The editorial team shares with Archbishop Nienstedt a “dream of solidarity, mutual respect, reciprocal care, and shared mission among all Catholics in this archdiocese.”

William Coughlin Hunt reviews Charles Pilon’s novel Waiting for Mozart, a novel that powerfully and entertainingly explores current conflicts within the church.

Mary Lynn Murphy seeks to understand the increasing climate of fear among liberal Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis.

• A media release from Call to Action-Minnesota highlights an international campaign for the Vatican to restore women leaders to the history of the Church, and to invite female scholars to next October’s International Synod on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.

And then there’s Paula Ruddy’s insightful article, “Why We Cannot Cheer the Pope,” in which she identifies the “oppressive sour note” that makes it difficult for many in the church to take a balanced view of the recent papal visit to the U.S. Paula’s article is reprinted in its entirety below.


Why We Cannot Cheer the Pope

By Paula Ruddy

The Progressive Catholic Voice
May 2008

Vatican II. The Council’s name has become a code word for division. Whose church is it? Lay people who have gone about making it their own find themselves in a tug of war with clergy and hierarchy. They feel angry, fearful, and sad when power descends arbitrarily.

What can be done about it? Ecclesiologist Richard Gaillardetz, speaking at the Call To Action-Minnesota meeting on April 19, cautioned us against “demonizing” people who do not agree with us. He tries first to look at the commonalities with people who disagree with him and to see the good that they do before bringing on the criticism. It’s a respectful and balanced attitude toward people. Good advice, in general.

But a power clamp-down on people’s autonomy is not just garden variety disagreement. It’s oppression. The problem is that oppressed people cannot take a balanced attitude toward their oppressor. A battered wife, for example, can’t take a dispassionate view about how wonderfully her husband treats his colleagues at work. Those of us who feel oppressed could not hear a good word Pope Benedict XVI said on his visit to the US. Praise for him leaves us cold. Why is that? Are we “demonizing” him? We are fully aware that he is a human being, fallible and limited like the rest of us. He can have some good ideas and do some good things. But we wouldn’t go to see him and we do not want to listen to him. As theologian Anne E. Patrick puts it in the introduction to her Liberating Conscience:

A single cipher is enough to ruin an entire musical experience, no matter how splendid the composition or accomplished the organist. A droning note ought not to be endured. Someone must say: “Stop the music." No one can follow the melody on racial and economic justice, no one can hear the harmonies of peace and respect for life until this cipher on women and sexuality is repaired.

The oppressive sour note is about authority and control and is, therefore, primarily about sexuality. The oppressed are women, suffering from unequal status and the moral teachings around reproduction and marriage; they are gays and lesbians excluded from communion; they are victims of sexual abuse by predator priests and nuns and the bishops that protect them. Anyone who dissents in a Roman Catholic parish or educational institution on the moral teachings around sexuality feels the oppression. For example, no Catholic parish or organization in Minneapolis or St. Paul can let the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities, Dignity, or Call To Action meet on church property for fear of the descent of power to punish them.

The more absolute the power, the more profound is the disrespect for the man who wields it abusively. It is said of the pope, “He could solve these injustices with the stroke of a pen.” He could remove bishops who connived to protect sexual predatory priests. He could use current science to update the moral teaching condemning homosexual partnering. He could move to ordain women and make celibacy in the priesthood optional. He could set the bishops of the US free and instruct them to listen to their people. Rage boils up when he visits the US in his red shoes, oblivious of the suffering he is responsible for. Are we demonizing the pope? No. We are saying “we cannot hear you until you recognize us as equals in baptism.”

And we have no expectation that this pope, any more than the last one or his appointee bishops, will be able to recognize us as equals. They are not demons; they live in a different universe. They act out of a patriarchal construction of church – Gaillardetz’s pyramid with the power at the top – and we see church as existing fully in each community – Gaillardetz’s interrelated circles. With regard to moral theology, they define “good Catholic” from the point of view of patriarchs, and we define it from the point of view of our egalitarian culture and its interpretation of Vatican II. Anne Patrick characterizes the two very different paradigms of virtue in the current conflict:

The [patriarchal] paradigm is based on a metaphor of domination, which emphasizes control of the lower by the higher, the unruly body must be dominated and tamed by ‘dispassionate’ reason. . . . The rigid emphasis on control from above extends beyond sexual matters to include social ones as well, hence the high value placed on obedience in this model. (pp.77-78)

In this model, she says, “chastity becomes the pinnacle of perfection.” All “matter” is grave where sexual sin is concerned, but violations of charity and justice are more or less grave. Along with physical chastity, obedience to authority makes one a good Catholic. Since Patrick wrote her book, some social “sins” have now been added to the list, but the patriarchal model remains intact. Both men and women have been formed in this model, and it feels normal to perhaps a majority of Catholics.

In what Patrick calls the egalitarian/feminist model (to distinguish her model from other conceptions of feminism) a “good Catholic” acts entirely differently. Both women and men are increasingly being enculturated in this model.

Rather than understanding power as control over others, this paradigm operates with a sense of power as the energy of proper relatedness. . . . It recognizes that the focal sign of religious devotion should not be the directing of one’s energy to controlling bodily impulses and other people, but rather must involve a stance of ongoing commitment to the well-being of oneself and others, which has material as well as spiritual components and entails building social relations of respect, equality, and mutuality. (p. 79)

People who are comfortable in the patriarchal/pyramidal model will not understand how oppressive the Roman Catholic Church is for a person formed in the egalitarian/feminist culture. The thousands of people who cheered the pope, rather than feeling oppressed, probably appreciate the stability of the age-old model. It takes some compassion to put oneself in the shoes of sexual abuse victims, discounted women, gays and lesbians, divorced and remarried Catholics, silenced scholars, and all the persons whose lives have been restricted by hierarchical power. Until the people conscious of oppression outnumber the comfortable ones, the paradigm will probably not shift.

One option for those feeling oppressed is to seek a less patriarchal church community. Many Catholics are doing that. Another option is to put the egalitarian/feminist model to work in our own parishes in whatever way we can. Read our local author Charles Pilon’s new novel Waiting for Mozart for a dramatic rendering of how that can be done.

Paula Ruddy is a co-founder of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform.


Dan said...

"He could use current science to update the moral teaching condemning homosexual partnering."

As a science teacher with a degree in physics, I'd like to repeat the fact that science is amoral. It has nothing to say regarding what is right or good. It is a method of inquiry upon which we impose moral beliefs, sometimes those which encourage scientic research and sometimes those which limit it.

For example, many work tirelessly to find a vaccine against HIV/AIDS to stop the spread of human suffering at the hands of this devastating disease. There is nothing in the discipline of science which inspires such compassionate effort. On the other hand, we very carefully regulate the types of trials that can or cannot be performed on human subjects. Again, science itself imposes no such restraints. Both cases are examples of humans imposing their moral beliefs on science and do not necessarily arise from the scientific method.

As such, I do not see how "current science" can somehow provide an argument for same-sex partnering against the traditional Christian condemnation.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Dan, for your correction.

I did not put that precisely, and perhaps I am wrong. I was thinking that contemporary social science and psychology present data that mental and emotional health and well-being of homosexuals is increased by committed partnering and that those factors are at least as important as the procreation factor in analyzing what natural law requires. In short, the purposes of human coupling can be more complex than the simple goal of procreation.

Doesn't contemporary social science show that people have sex for more ends than just that one? It seems that the Catholic church's teaching is at odds with the contemporary US ethic of mentally, emotionally, and spiritually healthy sexual partnering.

I'd like to know your opinion on which view is more humane and more likely to produce social order.


Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Dan,

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

You question how "'current science' can . . . provide an argument for same-sex partnering against the traditional Christian condemnation."

Actually, this condemnation is itself based on a flawed understanding of the human procreative process. The conventional wisdom of ancient times (the closest thing back then to "science") believed that the male transmitted and deposited a mini-human being into the female. Thus for centuries some in the Church maintained that masturbation was a greater sin than incest, as at least in the case of the latter, the little human in the male seed was being deposited into an environment where it could live and grow. This wasn't the case if a man "spilled his seed on the ground."

Like masturbation, homosexuality was largely condemned because it was seen to be killing the little human in the male's seed by not depositing it where it could live and grow. Modern science has debunked such an understanding of procreation. We now know that there is no miniature human contained in the male sperm. We acknowledge the role that women play in the procreative process. Masturbation and same-sex activity are not killing a pre-existing little human waiting to be placed in the incubator of a female body.

Related to this faulty understanding is the later development of a condemnation of homosexuality based on "teleology" – the end or purpose for which. As D. Stephen Heersink notes:

"According to Aquinas the 'function for which the penis serves' is to impregnate wombs. Maybe that is one 'use,' approved by god, but what about urination? Nope! Not allowed. The penis is allowed only one function, the final end for which it functions approved by god in the natural law (the mind of reason, mirroring the mind of god). Only one 'for the sake of which' is possibly a final end. Only one, huh?

"So, we either burst our bladders, and die in infancy, or we had better inseminate quickly before we need to urinate – twelve years after birth – so that our penises will only serve the one, holy, and final end for which its functions as approved by the Church of Rome and its bishops. (No wonder celibacy is required. Celibate priests won't have to deal with two final ends in conflict!) Perhaps intermediary ends might be interesting."

As irreverent as Heersink is, he certainly has a point.

As do I: If a previous understanding of procreation shaped theological and moral ways of understanding human sexuality (including homosexuality), shouldn't new developments also be allowed to continue this shaping?

Let's face it, human experience is the locus of divine revelation. Accordingly, we should be attentive to the ways by which God manifests Him/Herself through human lives and relationships - including gay lives and relationships. The study of human experience of sexuality is therefore a helpful thing.

Interesting, some within the Roman Catholic hierarchy do indeed attempt to use science (or, rather, pseudo-science) to support the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. For instance, in the November 8, 2008 issue of The Catholic Spirit (the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis), Fr. Jim Livingston endorsed the quackery of the National Association for Research and Treatment of Homosexuality (NARTH) by citing this organization as a useful resource and by encouraging people to visit its website so as "to learn . . . about the emotional root causes of homosexuality."

Fr. Livingston also recommended an audio CD of a talk given by NARTH co-founder Joseph Nicolosi, an individual whom Archbishop Nienstedt, when he was a bishop in Detroit, invited to speak to the priests of the archdiocese as an "expert" on homosexuality.

Many Catholics are concerned by the local Archdiocese's increasing reliance on the perspective and "findings" of NARTH to support and validate Church teaching on homosexuality, especially since NARTH’s findings and methodology are seldom, if ever, offered to peer-reviewed journals for critical analysis. In short, the group lacks any respect from the wider scientific community.

Will you be writing to the chancery, Dan, and insisting that they cease using the "amoral" science of NARTH to support the Church's teaching of homosexuality?



For more about NARTH, see the following Wild Reed posts:
When Quackery Goes Mainstream
No Place for Dialogue in Archdiocese Newspaper
Debunking NARTH (Part I)
Debunking NARTH (Part II)
Former “Ex-gay” Shares His Experience of NARTH

CDE said...

It's difficult to cheer the Pope if you won't first hear the Pope.

It's like a child in the middle of a temper tantrum ("we do not want to listen to him.") The parent might be offering the very thing the child needs, but the child is too busy with the tantrum to stop screaming, to listen, and to find out what is actually being communicated / offered.

It seems that dissenters have bought the lie of the serpent in Genesis and so interpret things through the lens of a power-struggle (cf. Genesis 3:5).

This is very unfortunate. Anyone who has taken the time to read what the Pope said during his apostolic visit to America would realize that he didn't shake the finger at anyone, but was ready to put the best interpretation on everyone's efforts to live the Gospel, and encouraged everyone to foster a personal, intimate, living relationship with Christ Jesus. The Pope wasn't issuing mandates, but inviting fellow Christians to mature discipleship. It was a very hopeful message, not a shaming message at all.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

The culture of dissent in America runs deep... I think because we live in a country founded by Puritans deeply suspicious of authority and tradition and racked with Calvinist baggage... who sought escape from their dark, shame-based and dualistic world view in the sentimentality of transcendentalism. I think this history goes a long way toward explaining the way American Catholics tend to misunderstand the place of authority and conscience in the moral life, as well as the role of the Church as a mediator of grace and revelation.

CDE said...

As to the comments following this post, I don't know where to begin.

Michael, I have never heard the logic proposed that you claim was "the conventional wisdom of ancient times." If you're going to argue with the Church's teaching, you need first to accurately represent what the Church teaches and why. Otherwise, you're fighting straw men.

Anonymous said...

Clayton, you have made my point. You do not experience oppression in the Roman Catholic institution and so you do not understand the experience of those who do.

From your vantage point of ignorance you judge us childish and speak of wise fathers talking to children. It is just the sort of oppressive attitude I'm talking about. Perhaps you could reflect on some oppression you have experienced in your life and try to empathize.


Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Clayton,

I’m not sure if you grasp the main point of my previous comment. All I’m saying is that if you trace back the Church’s teaching on human sexuality you can clearly see how it has been shaped by human experience and knowledge of sexuality.

Of course the hierarchy won’t admit it, but its teaching on sexuality is still, to some degree, reflective of a very primitive and flawed understanding of the procreative process. Over the centuries, the Church has overlaid this understanding with all manner of high-sounding theological words and metaphors (most of which, incidentally, were produced by men), but if you dig deep enough you’ll find traces of that primitive perspective.

I must admit that I’m surprised that you’re unaware of such a perspective; of how, in other words, the ancients understood procreation. The “conventional wisdom” of the ancients that I outlined above is well known, and was closely connected to how they experienced the natural world, in particular agriculture.

Ronald A. Simkins, for instance, notesthat:

The ancient Israelite understanding of gender was based on the metaphorical relationship between procreation and agriculture. The Israelite’s perception of their sexual bodies was embedded in their experiences of the world. The man is like a farmer who sows the seed of life in the soil; the woman is like a field who receives and nurtures the seed, contributing the necessary environment for life but nothing essential to the life that is created.

While T. Jacob John writes:

There were aspects of [this] ancient understanding which have had . . . negative effects. It was of course known that the wife does not conceive after each sexual relationship with her husband; for conception to occur it was understood that “God has to open her womb”. Thus childlessness could only too easily be understood as a divine punishment or curse. Furthermore the understanding of procreation was that the man provided the “seed” and the woman the “soil” in which it grew; the man’s role is active and life-giving, the woman’s role is passive and inert. Her own “seed”, the egg, was not recognized. This view had social consequences: it was the man’s duty to procreate; an unfaithful wife betrayed her role as the sole bearer of her husband’s progeny and could be stoned to death. On the other hand, the man could plant his seed with a bit of freedom in a harlot or a slave-girl.

I find it hard to believe that you are unable or unwilling to acknowledge that such an understanding has, over the centuries and perhaps even unconsciously at times, shaped the Church’s teaching on sexuality, and that to this day we continue to live with some of it’s negative and oppressive effects, including sexism and heterosexism. Of course, these exist in the wider society, but they're particularly present and destructively active in the Roman Catholic Church.

In part, this is due to the fact that the Church has not kept up with developments in humanity's understanding of sexuality. Nor has it been open to the Spirit present in the lives and relationships of all of its members, including its LGBT members.



CDE said...

Hi Paula,

Although I have experienced oppression in the Church (see my comment on this recent NYT post by Rosemary Radford Reuther), I don't see any value in returning to that experience of anger and fear.

Perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18), and fear has a tendency to cast out love.

The freedom we experience when we believe in God's love is a real release from the slavery of fear. Why should I want to return to this slavery, and what good would it offer you?

As an aside, what is oppressive about the trust experienced by a child of God?

CDE said...


My point was that I cannot see that particular ancient understanding having relation to the Church's teaching on human love and sexuality today.

Respect for the woman's fertility is at the core of the Church's teaching against contraception (and its support of natural family planning), and Paul VI made the point in Humanae Vitae that women suffer when contraception is allowed, because it exacerbates the tendency of men to use women as mere sexual objects for their enjoyment.