Friday, August 28, 2009

Eugene Kennedy on Roman Catholicism's "Post-Hierarchical Blues"


Catholic author and psychologist Eugene Cullen Kennedy – whom I first became aware of when I discovered his excellent book, The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality - has an article in the latest issue of the National Catholic Reporter (NCR). Actually, “article” doesn’t do justice to Kennedy’s latest inspired, literate, and richly evocative work.

Yes, it really is that good! Take for instance this paragraph:

The sexual wounds in Catholicism can never be healed and the Sex Abuse Crisis never resolved in the unhealthy atmosphere, acknowledged or not, that prevails in the full court press to restore dead Old Church hierarchical practices and privileges to a Church that can only thrive collegially. The Vatican Blues are like New Orleans funeral music trailing off a lost procession wandering through a maze of side streets so that it jolts the moldering corpse of hierarchy along on its catafalque but never buries it.

Following are further excerpts from Kennedy’s NCR piece, “The Vatican Blues.”


The proposed investigation of American nuns is the latest riff in the Vatican Blues, better understood as the Post-Hierarchical Blues that now drift as dolefully as the Dies Irae once did across St. Peter’s Square. This Roman run on nuns is a transparent effort to restore high noon glory to the hierarchical style on which the sun of history set long ago. A sad but simple analysis reveals that this inquisition is a prime, but by no means singular, example of Virtual Sex Abuse that can be found in today’s Church.

Virtual Sex Abuse describes actions, often sprinkled with holy water and haloed with incense fumes that share genetic markers with physical and psychological violations of the Sex Abuse Crisis. In each, the powerful look down on the powerless as beneath and subject to them and exercise their power over them to control them by humiliating and demeaning them. This process is always swathed in the camouflage of pseudo-authority – how many times have you heard it? – this is “good for you,” we don’t take questions and you are never allowed to talk about this either. In short, and though it is infinitely subtler, it’s Father Maciel masquerading as Mother Superior.

Fever Spikes

This inquiry into the women who did nothing less than build the Catholic Church in the United States, is also related to other sacred sorrows, such as the self-satisfied efforts to repudiate and repeal Vatican II, as well as to other lesser embarrassments including Pope Benedict’s raising the Lazarus of the Latin Mass from the dead and his giving general absolution to heretical Lefevbrists while offering a particular scolding to loyal theologians as “dissenters.” On the hospital chart of history, however, these actions are not evidence of Roman triumphalism’s revived vigor; they are rather temperature spikes in the Roman fever to resurrect the long dead hierarchical form.

These febrile readings indicate that these restless assaults on good people, women religious and sound theologians are the symptoms of ecclesiastical necrophilia, the perverse public embrace of dead hierarchical methods to regain live control over the Church. The Church possesses the generative authority that flows from the word’s Latin root, augere, meaning to grow, to increase, to create, or to help others to develop fully. Bureaucrats corrupt this, however, into authoritarianism, a style of controlling or limiting persons, of stifling their growth to keep them as docile as children. Common sense, or the sense of the Catholic community, tells us that authority is healthy and authoritarianism is unhealthy. . .

Reading the Signs of the Times

At Vatican II, the oldest of institutions sensed and reacted to the newest of things a full generation before General Motors or General Electric, along with other industrial giants, realized that hierarchies no longer worked. Vatican II’s assembled bishops spoke of “something new coming into human experience” and, reading the signs of the times, grasped that the age of hierarchy had ended. In their clearest response to the inexorable change underway the Council Fathers returned to the concept of collegiality that recognized that bishops possessed authority by their ordination rather than by delegation from the Pope, and that they presided over local Churches rather than as pro-consuls carrying out the orders of a monarchical Pope.

The Church was meanwhile involved in an exciting but disordering renewal. In his recent memoir, Archbishop Rembert Weakland poignantly describes Pope Paul VI’s touching but personally exhausting efforts to preserve the collegial spirit of Vatican II against the massive efforts of curial officials to reinstate hierarchical control in their Vatican offices. To his successor, John Paul II, the Vatican Blues sounded like the Communist Internationale. He resolved to drown them out with the Gregorian Chant of a refurbished choir of complacent bishops who would loudly sing the one note scale of hierarchy. Pope Benedict XVI, despite demonstrating sensitivity to human personality in his first encyclical on love, has continued these policies with the mannered but nonetheless Teutonic rigor with which he presided over the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.

That Old Time Religion

The Vatican Blues bewail the present widespread attempt to bring the Church into the second decade of the 21st century by returning to the first decade of the 20th century. The hierarchical presumptions about divided personality that placed enmity between the spirit and the flesh, relentlessly subordinated the married to the celibate, and condescendingly claimed superiority and protected status for clerics: these were the necessary and sufficient conditions for the steady, tangled, largely hidden but widely seeded growth that led to the bitter harvest of the Sex Abuse Scandal. This scandal was not, as is often superficially charged, a result of Vatican II’s new “liberal” Church but rather of Vatican I’s old, controlling, secretive, conservative and clerically top heavy Church. That long unreformed sexually conflicted ecclesiastical culture that preyed upon immature seminarians, stunting their psycho-sexual growth, before they preyed in turn on the children placed in their care.

Bringing back that old Church re-energizes the hierarchical ethos that generated and rationalized the modern slaughter of the innocents known as sex abuse. The resolution of the Sex Abuse Crisis has not been blocked by the massive legal actions pending against the official Church. The latter are the bitter fruits of the late hierarchical culture’s expectation that the police, the professionals, and their own people would give it cover from publicity, public inquiry, or public humiliation in the justice system. Clearing up the Sex Abuse Crisis is stalled at the intersection shut down long ago by the hierarchical truck that lumbered out of the past to collide with the future, stopping traffic in all directions.

One of the most familiar strains of the Vatican Blues is played by the street musicians who watch one of the most common and painful examples of the conflicts engendered by the efforts to restore an Old Church in New Times. That is the clash reported almost every day between lay Catholics who believe in the Church of Vatican II and bishops who have been told to restore the old hierarchical Church of Vatican I. . . .

The Sexual Sub-Text

As traditional Blues music is saturated with sexual longing, frustration, and the risky gambles of love, so the Vatican Blues are drenched with conflicted and suppressed sexuality. Its signature theme can be felt in the irregular rhythms of hearts numbed by the hierarchical denial of ordinary people’s simple hunger to be human. This commonplace sexual restiveness is no less real for its being regarded with the hierarchical condescension expressed by Pope John Paul II. His attitude was as hard to read as his Slavic half smile because, although he championed the person in abstract philosophical writing, he urged an idealized sexuality that transcended the human condition.

In this well remembered pope’s view from on high, personality was divided into superior and inferior areas whose borders were as volatile as those between Israel and Palestine. For John Paul II, the good elements were the intellect and the soul and the suspect elements were the body and the flesh. John Paul II believed that, even for the married, foregoing sex was, as classic hierarchical thinking expresses it, a higher good.

It was this long false and painful hierarchical structuring of the person by Church leaders that inflicted a sexual wound on believers who were thereby made to feel guilty for the alleged crime of being human and being sexual. Church officials closed the great bronze doors of St. Peter’s, leaving the cries of the sexually wounded to be swallowed up by the cheers of the pilgrims crowding the square outside. Such misunderstanding and mismanagement of the sexually violated set off the weeping beat of the Vatican Blues, that plangent lament rising from the tumbled and telescoped cars of the Hierarchical crash scene.

A swift sad current of conflicted sexuality sweeps through the major issues in contemporary Catholicism from birth control and celibacy to resurgent clericalism’s ambivalence toward homosexuals and its allergic reaction to women. Their common elements are found in the Sex Abuse Crisis. The latter symbolizes the boxes within boxes of ecclesiastical structures and presumptions that are functions of the very hierarchical form that, following the intransigent convictions of his never-quite-pleased-with-us predecessor, the present we-never-quite-know-what-he-thinks-of-us Pope is determined to restore in the Church. It is impossible to imagine that John Paul II was or that Benedict XVI is aware of how an old Church hierarchical dynamic played a role in fostering this indefensible sex abuse, prompted its formal but profoundly flawed ecclesiastical defense, its lingering insensitivity to its victims and its inherent resistance to attempts to resolve it. . . .

Submission as Mission

The Vatican Blues can be heard in the spinning wheels of the overturned Hierarchical truck, its fuel bleeding across the pavement strewn with contents taken from ancient tombs. Papal orders for bishops to right the vehicle and to get it running again are destined to fail. The bishops are dutiful but are not ennobled by and are minimally appreciated for making daily efforts to carry out these orders. The hierarchical imperative traps them in a Faustian bargain in which they are commissioned with power over others in exchange for their submission to the power of the institution.

Submission is the lost chord in the Vatican variations of the Blues; nobody wants to admit how it haunts the melancholy music. Bishops accept submission as an aspect of their roles without understanding how much or what they must surrender of themselves to its veiled dictates.

Through their trusting submission they make themselves vulnerable, never suspecting that, in the exchange, power will be used against them. Their resulting wound is secret and they bear silently what the Code Hierarchical demands of them. This parallels exactly the experience of the victims of sex abuse who make themselves vulnerable by submitting trustingly, never suspecting that clergymen will use their power in an unhealthy way against them. These latter victims are typically told to bear their wounds in secret and in silence following the frayed but familiar phrase, “for the good of the Church.”

The bishops are therefore victims in what only seems to be a bloodless or sexless transaction in which they must submit themselves completely not to the Church of Jesus but to the arbitrary Mayan gods of hierarchy. The essence of the experience is the same for all victims: Somebody with power exercises it over somebody who lacks countervailing power or possesses no power at all. Victims, be they boys surrendering to the needs a controlling priest or bishops yielding to the demands of a controlling curia, submit to an unmistakably unhealthy transaction that yields satisfaction to those wielding power but takes something that can never be retrieved from those on whom it is exercised.

The Sex Abuse Scandal grew out of the hierarchical soil that is rich in the minerals of unchecked power that always corrupts by distorting healthy authority into unhealthy authoritarianism. The latter’s presumption to privileged control of other persons recapitulates the essence of sex abuse. Hardly any bishops are hard at heart hierarchs and, as the Sheehan-Kobler research at Chicago’s Loyola University shows, most of them are actually uneasy about exercising the power of their office. They are victims of the hierarchical culture to which they sacrifice themselves, “over-committing” themselves, as Erik Erickson wrote of youth’s vulnerability to great causes, to the hierarchical system that may not ask them for a down payment on entrance but forecloses swiftly once they are inside its pseudo-sacred confines.

Bishops may often feel but cannot express the sting and throb of submitting themselves to Roman commands because the latter are always presented as tests of their loyalty to the Pope and of their absolute acceptance of his teaching authority or Magisterium. Like soldiers carrying out orders to charge in the foggy heat of battle, many bishops may not even know how seriously they have been wounded until afterward, perhaps only after they are transferred, retired, or find themselves left, without hope of further advancement, to wait for death, wondering why they were not fully rewarded for a life of loyalty, everything is fine, they say, smiling weakly for a last photo for the diocesan paper as the hierarchical procession passes by without them. . . .

Burying the Dead

The sexual wound in the lives of Catholics remains so because Church officials are themselves caught in hierarchical pressures whose unhealthy aspects they do not recognize. Dedicated hierarchical bureaucrats will not examine the negative and damaging aspects of this dead process because for them it is an elixir, the Vatican Viagra by which they maintain their potency.

That explains why they have rejected Vatican II with its renewal of the collegiality that would disturb lives whose snug arrangements depend on hierarchy’s survival. The Vatican II Deniers among the clergy are less enamored of so-called doctrinal purity than that of the less than pure enjoyment of exaggerated hierarchical privileges. Often self-absorbed, such clergy offer, in their frequently condescending treatment of their people, further examples of the virtual domination/submission sex abuse that lies at the chilled heart of the elaborately rationalized this-is-good-for-you investigation of American women religious.

The sexual wounds in Catholicism can never be healed and the Sex Abuse Crisis never resolved in the unhealthy atmosphere, acknowledged or not, that prevails in the full court press to restore dead Old Church hierarchical practices and privileges to a Church that can only thrive collegially. The Vatican Blues are like New Orleans funeral music trailing off a lost procession wandering through a maze of side streets so that it jolts the moldering corpse of hierarchy along on its catafalque but never buries it. Perhaps now, however, we finally understand those once puzzling words of Jesus, “Let the dead bury the dead.”

- Eugene Cullen Kennedy
National Catholic Reporter
August 25, 2009

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
No Patriarchal Hierarchy, No Rigid Conformity
The Holarchical Church: Not a Pyramid But a Web of Relationships
Genuine Authority
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
Trading with Frozen Truths
Rome Falling
What Is It That Ails You?

Image 1: Photographer unknown.
Image 2: “Return to Old and New Orleans” by Drue Kataoka.
Image 3: “Funeral March” by Charles Coleman.

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