Monday, December 24, 2012

What Would Jesus Say to the NRA?

By Shane Claiborne

Note: This commentary was first published December 24 at HuffPost Religion.

What does the birth of the baby Jesus 2,000 years ago have to offer the violent, troubled world we live in? Or what would Jesus say to the NRA?

I want to suggest: a lot. A whole lot.

Jesus entered the world from a posture of absolute vulnerability – as an unarmed, innocent child during a time of tremendous violence. The Bible speaks of a terrible massacre as Jesus was born, an unspeakable act of violence as King Herod slaughters children throughout the land hoping to kill Jesus (which the church remembers annually as the massacre of the Holy Innocents).

Perhaps the original Christmas was marked more with agony and grief like that in Connecticut than with the glitz and glamour of the shopping malls and Christmas parades. For just as Mary and Joseph celebrated their newborn baby, there were plenty of other moms and dads in utter agony because their kids had just been killed.

From his birth in the manger as a homeless refugee until his brutal execution on the Roman cross, Jesus was very familiar with violence. Emmanuel means "God with us." Jesus' coming to earth is all about a God who leaves the comfort of heaven to join the suffering on earth. The fact that Christians throughout the world regularly identify with a victim of violence – and a nonviolent, grace-filled, forgiving victim – is perhaps one of the most fundamentally life-altering and world-changing assumptions of the Christian faith. Or it should be.

So what does that have to do with the NRA? Underneath the rhetoric of the gun-control debate this Christmas is a nagging question: Are more guns the solution to our gun problem?

Everything in Jesus' world, just as in ours, contends that we must use violence to protect the innocent from violence, which is the very thing Jesus came to help us un-learn through his nonviolent life and death on the cross. Surely, we think, if God were to come to earth, he should at least come with a bodyguard – if not an entire entourage of armed soldiers and secret service folk. But Jesus comes unarmed. Surely, we think, if God were about to be killed he would bust out a can of butt-kicking wrath; but Jesus looks into the eyes of those about to kill him and says, "Father forgive them." The Bible goes so far to say that the wisdom of God makes no sense to the logic of this world, in fact it may even seem like "foolishness" (or at least utopian idealism).

When soldiers come to arrest and execute Jesus, one of his closest friends defensively picks up a sword to protect him. Jesus' response is stunning: He scolds his own disciple and heals the wounded persecutor. It was a tough and very counter-intuitive lesson: "The one who picks up the sword dies by the sword ... there is another way."

That lesson that Jesus taught his disciple is as relevant to us, and the NRA, as it was the early movement of Christians in the first century. Violence will not rid the world of violence. You do not use swords to get rid of swords or guns to get rid of guns. There is another way.

Many Christians have begun to speak of Jesus as an interruption to the "myth of redemptive violence," the assumption that we can use violence to get rid of violence or that we can destroy a life to save a life. The myth of redemptive violence has many ugly faces. It teaches us that we can kill those who kill to show that killing is wrong. It teaches us to live by the law of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" a law that Jesus firmly spun on its head, saying, "You've heard it said 'an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth ... but I tell you..." There is another way. Killing to show that killing is wrong is like trying to teach holiness by fornication. The cure is as bad as the disease.

At one point Jesus even weeps over the violent world he lived in, lamenting that "they did not know the things that would lead to peace." The fact that Jesus carried a cross rather than a sword has something relevant and redemptive to offer our violent-possessed world. After all, the Bible has a lot to say about loving enemies, and "Thou shalt not kill," but doesn't even mention the right to bear arms.

So let's imagine. What would Jesus say to our nation, where these are things are true:

• 10,000 people die from gun-related homicides each year, that's one Sandy Hook massacre a day, every day

• There are nearly 90 guns for every 100 people

• There are more than 51,000 licensed gunshops (and 30,000 supermarkets)

• Guns that can shoot 100 rounds a minute, and are only designed to kill, are still legal

• Other than auto accidents, gun violence is the leading cause of death of young people (under 20)

• $20,000 a second is spent on war

There is a reason we talk about "Peace on Earth" so much around Christmas. There is a reason why we talk about Jesus as the "Prince of Peace." He consistently taught that we can disarm violence without mirroring it, and that we can rid the world of evil without becoming the evil we abhor. So let us recommit ourselves to Peace this Christmas season and new year – in honor of Jesus, and in honor of the holy innocents.

Shane Claiborne is a justice and peace activist and the author of The Irresistible Revolution.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Many Voices, One Church

Note: Continuing with our series that recognizes and celebrates the contribution of lay preachers within the local church of St. Paul-Minneapolis, the editorial team of the PCV in honored to share the following homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent by Gretchen Hovan of the Spirit of St. Stephen's Catholic Community.

For an introduction to this series, click here.


Gospel Reading: Luke 1:39-56.

I’m Gretchen Hovan, and Scot and I have been worshiping with this community for almost seven years. When I was first contacted about breaking open the Word today, I was a little worried that I was chosen because I am like Elizabeth: the medical community is fond of reminding me, too, of my advanced maternal age.

Reading about these two women, and babies stirring in wombs, while my own baby is growing inside me was a different experience. There is much to wonder about in this story, and much has been written about the symbolism of the two women and their pregnancies—of Elizabeth as fulfillment of the old covenant, of Mary as the promise of the new covenant.

As I read, I was haunted by memories of learning about Mary. Like many Catholic girls, I wanted to be like Mary, the woman who was so central to our faith. I wanted to say yes to God like she did. When I got older, I saw that what many in the Church valued was Mary as empty vessel, as conduit, as pure instrument of God. And it seemed like Mary’s ever-virgin status was the most important part of her. Mary was set up for me both as a model and as something I could never be. More disturbing, she was often portrayed to me as someone who had no will, no say in her life. Any reading that didn’t fit the image of obedient Mary, like the Wedding at Cana, when Mary directs Jesus to help, and Jesus follows her, was glossed over by my childhood priests.

I was pretty frustrated by this image of Mary and angry at what it was saying about women and our role and worth in the Church. I was ready to disregard her, and any message her life and actions may have for me, when I had the good fortune to attend a university run by Marianists. They helped me to see Mary and her life in a new way. There were two lines of the Gospel often present on our campus, in prayers, statues and writings: one from the Wedding at Cana, “Do whatever he tells you,” and one from the gospel of Luke, after Jesus was born: “she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” This stuck with me—Mary was a thinking person, someone who was actively taking part in constructing the meaning of her life.

Our gospel today is about Mary and Elizabeth, two women of faith, who were together in their pregnancies—both of them unusual situations, both of them finding solace in the other. It is easy to get lost in wondering why Mary went to Elizabeth, why she left before the birth of John, who she traveled with, what it was like. But the part of the gospel I want to focus on is the part that kept jumping out at me: Elizabeth’s words. “Blessed is she who trusts that the promise of God will be fulfilled.”

I wasn’t sure what those words meant, or why they were the ones I kept thinking about. Is the promise of God the promise that the prophets, like Micah, spoke of? Is it the promise of a Messiah? Is Mary blessed just for fulfilling that promise by giving birth to the Savior?

I don’t think so. That phrase, “the promise of God,” seems to me to be broader than that. It’s the promise that we will have a kin-dom like the one described in the Magnificat. And Mary shows us how we will get there.

Mary acts because she believes that the kin-dom of God will be in our midst, and because she acts, we have Emmanuel, God-with-us.

I have a friend who’s mother is notorious for serving old food, freezer-burnt food, questionable food. Too many times, her children and their spouses have said yes to food that they regretted, so now the refrain in their house, when the mother offers food, is “Let me see it first.”

I think that’s how I too often am—let me see God’s kin-dom first, let me see evidence of the goodness of God first—and then I will act.

When we are faced with the brutality of the world—when children in the US are killed in schools, when children in other countries are killed in daily bombings and acts of terror, when we see people who are starving, who are not safe in their homes, when we see politicians bickering about small difference—it is easy to lose hope, to be cynical, to wait and say, “Let me see it first.”

But that isn’t how it works, and Mary and Elizabeth are a call to me, to us, to act even if it seems hopeless. Each of them had plenty to fear and plenty to worry about. Yet Mary rushed to be with Elizabeth, and Elizabeth recognizes the joy in what was happening: “Blessed is she who trusts that the promise of God will be fulfilled.”

It is through our acting that we have the metanoia, the change of heart that fulfills God’s promise. Dorothy Day wrote about this: “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us? When we begin to take the lowest place, to wash the feet of others, to love our brothers with that burning love, that passion, which led to the Cross, then we truly say, "Now I have begun.”

Mary, Elizabeth and Dorothy’s lives remind us that we can’t wait to see it first. We can’t wait for someone else to make the kin-dom happen for us. We are the ones who will each do this—for ourselves and for each other. How are we going to act, as they did, to bring hope, to bring the kin-dom of God alive today?

“Blessed is she who trusts that the promise of God will be fulfilled.”

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What If Children Mattered No Matter Where They Lived – and Died?

By Peter Hart

Note: This commentary was first published December 17, 2012 on the blog site of FAIR – Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.

We do not live in a world that treats all life equally. Not even close. Human beings inevitably feel certain tragedies more deeply, based on proximity to the victims, national identity, the circumstances of death and so on.

It is not surprising that there has been so much media attention paid to the horrible massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. The thought of small children being gunned down in a classroom is shocking and tragic. And the usual suggestions to avoid "politicizing" a tragedy by talking about public policy decisions that might prevent future tragedies seem to have less resonance this time around.

When we draw comparisons between a particular event and other similar tragedies, it is not to say that they all matter equally, but to remind ourselves that we're conditioned to feel that some matter quite a bit more than others.

When I heard the news about Newtown, I thought of previous mass shootings in this country. That is perhaps a natural reaction.

But then I also thought about the case of Sgt. Robert Bales. He is accused of massacring 16 Afghan civilians earlier this year, nine of them children. It is not the only atrocity of the Afghan War, but the accounts of the attack are particularly horrifying. Bales allegedly left his base and entered the villages of Balandi and Alkozai, near Kandahar. He proceeded to kill the victims as they slept, and then burned some of their bodies.

It is not that U.S. media failed to cover the atrocity. But the tone of the coverage placed considerable weight on the damage these deaths would do to the war effort (FAIR Media Advisory, 3/12/12). Questions were posed like, "Could this reignite a new anti-American backlash in the unstable region?" One headline stated, "Killings Threaten Afghan Mission." USA Today actually had on its front page, "Patriot Now Stands Accused in Massacre."

Seeing the atrocity this way prioritizes issues like national security – and obscures the fact that children were killed in their sleep, and that the person alleged to have killed them was a member of our military. This particular incident is, in some ways, just a more horrifying version of many other U.S. attacks that killed children in Afghanistan, or the drone attacks that have killed hundreds in Pakistan.

It is understandable, on some level, that these deaths will not affect most Americans the same way as the deaths in Newtown. They are deaths in a poor, violent country most of us will never see.

But that should not prevent us from asking ourselves – and our media – why that is, and wondering what our politics and our culture might look like if media decision-makers felt that that stories like this deserved more attention.

One has to imagine that our world would be different if we treated every tragic death as if it mattered. U.S. media shy away from imagery that could be considered too explicit or graphic – especially when it calls attention to suffering caused or endured by U.S. forces. As journalist Amy Goodman has said on countless occasions, if our media showed the brutal consequences of U.S. war-making, those policies would change.

Sometimes these discussions can be quite explicit. Time's Joe Klein's comment that four-year-olds in Pakistan might have to die from drone attacks so that four-year-old Americans do not die in terrorist attacks was a reminder that, for some people, some lives are practically expendable.

So what would a healthier media look like? It wouldn't tell us not to grieve over Newtown. It would tell us that violence against children is deplorable no matter where it happens, or who inflicts it – and that there are things we can do to stop it, both close to home and many miles away.

© 2012 Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

Peter Hart is the activism director at FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting). He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra, and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003).

12/19/12 Update: Army Seeks Death Penalty in Afghan Massacre Case – Gene Johnson (Associated Press via Yahoo! News, December 19, 2012).

Opening image: An Afghan boy prays earlier this year over the grave of one of the victims of a shooting massacre carried out by U.S. soldier Robert Bales. (Allauddin Kan/AP)

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Shooting of Children and "God's Plan"

By Edward J. Blum

Note: This commentary was first published December 14, 2012 by HuffPost Religion.

Children die. Sometimes peacefully at home, as my eight-month-old son did about a year ago. Sometimes when bombs blow up churches, as was the case in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, when four little girls died. And sometimes they are slaughtered, as in several biblical tales and during the shootings in Connecticut. These are horrific moments that leave us wondering, "where is God?"

We are not the first, and sadly, we will not be the last, to wonder about the place of the sacred amid the deaths of innocents. That theodical problem is with us – theologically unsolved and socially unresolved. But history and personal experience have taught me one thing: silence can be powerful.

"God has a plan for this," a woman explained to me as she prattled on just before the memorial service for my son Elijah. She meant the words to be comforting, but I swallowed them as if lumps of clay. They have sat in my stomach ever since, and try as I may I have been unable to vomit them out spiritually. Providential interpretations of everyday life sometimes feel satisfying – like when bad traffic slows me or down or when a friend has a cold. The deaths of children are quite another.

This chatty woman was Elijah's very evangelical grandmother. She meant well; she loved and loves Elijah, but to her, everything was in the hands of a big, all-seeing, all-powerful Father. For me, the thought that God had a plan for my son to be unable to eat, that God intended for my son to fail to breath, or that God was instrumental in my son dying in my arms was disgusting. To me, that God could only be an awful and wicked monster.

And the thought, today, that God perhaps has a plan amid the Connecticut shooting sickens me as well.

As a historian, I knew that I was neither the first, nor the last to lose a child. Millions have lost their children or experienced those losses from afar, and sometimes in devastating and highly public circumstances. In 1963, white terrorists killed four young girls when they bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Anne Moody (who became a civil rights activist and then wrote one of the most famous memoirs of the movement) did not know them, but she heard the news on the radio with her family in Mississippi. It sent shockwaves through them. "I looked at George; he sat with his face buried in the palms of his hands. Dave sat motionless with tears in his eyes. Mattie looked at Dave as if she had been grounded by an electric shock. I put my hand up to my face. Tears were pouring out of my eyes, and I hadn't even known I was crying." She could not remain in the house. Moody fled into the streets and then, lost and confused, she found herself in a graveyard.

She wanted to find God and some meaning in it all. "I sat there looking up through the trees, trying to communicate with God." She prayed, "Now talk to me, God. Come on down and talk to me." God did not come down, so Moody decided to shout up. "Mama used to tell us that you would forgive us seventy-seven times a day, and I believed in you. I bet you those girls in Sunday school were being taught the same as I was when I was their age. It that teaching wrong? Are you going to forgive their killers?" Moody was at a loss for how to deal with the deaths and with the killers.

On that day, Moody's pacifism died. She would no longer stand back as others used violence to get their way. If God refused to help, then she even threatened violence at his throne. If she found out that God was "black," then, "I'll try my best to kill you when I get to heaven."

For Anne Moody, traditional Christian teachings offered her very little, if anything. Turning the other cheek would only allow the violent to continue. Arguments that "God has a plan" would never bring back those four little girls (as they will not bring back the lost in Connecticut or my little son). She wanted change and change now – from heaven and from politicians.

But perhaps God was there as Moody prayed – in the silence. Perhaps God did not say anything, because God knows that words at times like that were meaningless. Perhaps God is more like the whisper in the wind that the biblical Eljiah experienced or like the Jesus who knelt silently when the "adulterous woman" was brought before him. Perhaps he knew, as my friend Jonathan Walton – now the pastor at Harvard University's Memorial Chapel – knew that one can mourn with another without telling them how to interpret the events. Reverend Walton's text message to me after my son's death is the only one I have kept: it reads simply, "sigh." He knew as a father and as a brother that this was not the time to counsel.

So as we mourn the many losses; as we hug our children; as we have our debates over gun control; and as we wonder where God is, perhaps we can think about what we say and what we do not. Perhaps in this moment "sigh" is better than childish theology; perhaps to remain attentively quiet is what God would ask of us – because that is what God seems to do too.

Edward J. Blum is an associate professor of history at San Diego State University and the author of several books on race and religion in American history. His latest book is The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.

Related Off-site Links:
A Call for Compassion – Colleen Kochivar-Baker (Enlightened Catholicism, December 15, 2012).
Praying a Deep Sigh – Rev. Jacqueline J. Lewis (HuffPost Religion, December 15, 2012).
Where Were You, God? – A Prayer for Newtown – James Martin, S.J. (HuffPost Religion, December 15, 2012).
Something to Think AboutThe Wild Reed (December 14, 2012).
Pope "Deeply Saddened" by Senseless Attack in U.S. – Associated Press (December 16, 2012).
Slaughter Exposes Social Crisis Deeper Than Gun-Control Laws – Paula Simons (Edmonton Journal, December 15, 2012).

Image: A woman comforts a young girl during a vigil service for victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Friday, December 14, 2012, at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newtown, Conn. (Andrew Gombert/AP)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

American Catholicism: Not "Some Monolithic, Unchanging Thing"

The following excerpt from Jerome Baggett's 2008 book, Sense of the Faithful: How American Catholics Live Their Faith, was recently shared by Jayden Cameron on his blog Gay Mystics: A Place of Inspiration.


Ending and Beginning

“The thing about American Catholicism is that it both exists and doesn’t exist!” Bill McNamara blurts out these words but then seems surprised by them, as if he had happened unexpectedly upon someone from his past. He tarries a bit, reflecting.

“What do I mean by that?” he asks, now seemingly reacquainted and rightly confident that he has anticipated my next question. “I mean it exists in the sense that it’s an it, something you and I can talk about, and we can identify elements of it and so forth. But it doesn’t exist as some monolithic, unchanging thing. It’s not as if any one person understands it and lives it out the same way all the time or in quite the same way as anyone else.”

Even though Bill was among the very first people I interviewed for this book, I permitted myself an early conclusion: He knows what he is talking about. After many cups of tea and through constant interruptions by Rusty, his seal-point Siamese — whose name, like those of all of the respondents in this book, is a pseudonym — Bill’s account of his life and faith demolished the idea that American Catholicism could be “some monolithic, unchanging thing.”

Born into a working-class family in the early 1930s, Bill grew up in an almost entirely Irish section of Philadelphia. His upbringing was typical of the “urban villagers” about whom sociologist Herbert Gans once wrote so compellingly. The ethnically defined neighborhood, the modest economic means, the large family that included Bill and five younger siblings, the clearly prescribed gender roles to which his contractor father and stay-at-home mother purportedly strictly conformed, the traditional — and, in this case, traditionally Catholic — mores: Bill can recall it all in vivid, if not wistful, detail. The particulars of his religious upbringing are especially memorable to him. He attended nearby parochial schools until he was swayed by an unexpectedly generous financial aid package to enroll in a large public university, where he majored in accounting. He went to church each week without fail, and, unless serving as an altar boy for an unpopular (read: inordinately early) Mass, he was typically accompanied by his entire immediate family. This instilled in him an enduring love for the beauty of the Mass and especially its music, which he still compares favorably to the “cacophonous crap” one hears at other, mercifully unnamed parishes. One of the younger parish priests served as a “friend and kind of mentor” for Bill who could talk to him about nearly anything, including at one point his own — admittedly short-lived — thoughts of entering the seminary. And, of course, there are the stories that seem to be standard fare among Catholics of Bill’s generation. From the accounts of his mentor’s many kindnesses to the somewhat overwrought “ruler-wielding nun” tales, from now-humorous accounts of first confession trepidation (“Hell, it was scary in that little booth!”) to feelings of intense piety while accompanying Jesus along the Stations of the Cross each Friday afternoon during Lent, Bill’s world was Catholic through and through.

However, once he entered his twenties, that world came to an end. “I never had any animosity like a lot of gay Catholics who had bad experiences in school or things like that,” he confides. “I wasn’t against it, but I didn’t feel that comfortable with it anymore.” Always attracted to men, Bill first became sexually active at the age of twenty-six. Then, rather than concealing from others what he considers his “honest, true self,” he moved to San Francisco, where he got a well-paying job with an insurance company and eventually began his new life as an openly gay man.

He closed the door on his Catholicism slowly at first, then finally slammed it shut. This age-old tradition seemed incongruous with his new city and job, new friends, and, after ten years or so, a relationship and then a newfound level of intimacy with Daniel, his partner for eighteen years. Daniel attended weekly Mass at Most Holy Redeemer church in the city’s burgeoning gay enclave, the Castro District. But he went a bit less often when he and Bill bought a house together across the bay in the Oakland Hills. Bill, on the other hand, preferred to sleep late most Sundays.

Everything changed when Daniel contracted AIDS, and Bill became his primary care provider. This tragedy brought Bill agonizing stress and heartache, but it also introduced him to a face of Catholicism that he had not previously known.

The AIDS Support Group at Most Holy Redeemer sent volunteers to help tend to Daniel’s health and personal needs, which, toward the end of his life, required daily visits. Even in his grief, Bill was impressed by these people’s witness to their — and once his — faith. This was not the intolerably dogmatic “Churchianity” that had come to seem ossified and irrelevant to him. Nor, of course, was this the vicious “God hates fags” message he had heard while doing some church shopping before moving from Philadelphia. He found this open-hearted and open-minded incarnation of the faith to be very alluring. So much so, in fact, that Bill began attending Mass at Most Holy Redeemer not long after Daniel’s death and soon became an active member of first the AIDS Support Group and then the parish itself.

Bill’s story might appear to fit the familiar “lapsed Catholic returns to Mother Church” mold, but Bill has not returned to anything; he has begun something new.

On the one hand, he is quite the unabashed Catholic: “I love the traditions, and I love the mystery; I think it’s a very, very, very rich religion.” On the other hand, though, he is adamant about his freedom, even obligation, to mine those riches on his own terms and in accordance with his own needs. He has chosen to be a member of Most Holy Redeemer across the San Francisco Bay rather than of his own neighborhood parish, which he considers less “open and affirming” to gay Catholics. He respects priests enormously (although he is less generous in his assessment of bishops), but he is also a strong advocate for the laity’s role in both pastoral ministry and parish governance.

He is a “greeter” at the main (10 a.m.) Mass on Sundays and has sponsored several Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) candidates. At the same time, he bristles at the thought of being presumptuous enough to even talk to others about faith in a way that might be perceived as inappropriately pushy. He calls himself a “very strong Catholic” but, without hint of apology, eagerly embraces the pejoratively intended moniker “cafeteria Catholic” as a testament to his own religious agency and capacity for discernment. In short, Bill has begun something new as a Catholic in response to developments in his personal life and because he has lived through a period in which the American church itself has witnessed important social and cultural changes. As a result, it has also begun something quite innovative.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

"Perfect" Priests and Their "Sacrificial Lambs"

A review by John C Seitz of Marie Keenan's Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power, and Organizational Culture (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Note: This review was first published November 21, 2012 by the National Catholic Reporter.

If we want to understand sexual violence, we have to get to know its perpetrators and the worlds in which they were formed. In the particular context in which Marie Keenan is interested – clerical sexual abuse and its cover-up in the U.S. and Ireland since the middle of the 20th century – such an adage goes from truism to nonstarter. Pressure not to get to know clerical abusers and the institutional, educational and social worlds of their formation comes from many angles of varying validity.

A posture of attentiveness to abusers may strike some abuse victims and their advocates as excusing the abuse and losing sight of the harm it may have inflicted. For their part, media outlets have helped uncover abuse, but they have also contributed to the vilification of clerical offenders, fixating on the category of pedophilia (at the expense of other abusive scenarios), and fomenting moral panic.

Church officials, on the other hand, want to isolate abusers and officials complicit in cover-up. They would have us pay attention to abusers only as aberrant pathological individuals. The theological or institutional context for their production as clergy is more or less off-limits.

Keenan, a researcher and lecturer in applied social science at University College Dublin and a registered psychotherapist, plunges into these taboo waters, taking her readers into the theological, moral and institutional contexts for abuse and cover-up. Working with the ever-present caution that to “understand all is never to forgive it all,” Keenan makes this journey in part through analysis of extensive conversations with nine Catholic men – all retired or laicized Irish priests and brothers – who admitted to having sexually abused minors in the past.

The premise for such a move is simple: Vilification of abusers prohibits thick understandings of their lives. Content to turn “them” into monsters, we avoid their (and our) implication in wider contexts that helped produce the abuse. Humanizing abusers offers significant new angles on the problem. Listening to these men’s stories allows Keenan to see that they “were not in themselves ‘bad’ men, rather, they were trying to be ‘perfect’ priests.” Description of what it meant to be “perfect” – to practice the priesthood in the officially celebrated manner – goes a long way toward explaining how these men could “rationalize” their behavior and the secrecy that surrounded it.

Keenan does not rush into a presentation of the perpetrators’ stories, as if they alone were enough. Instead, the first half of the book includes a review of the existing literature on clerical sexual abuse, the culture of seminaries, and psychologies of abusive behavior. This first half of the book also includes an insightful reading of the complexities of “power” as theorized by contemporary scholars of gender. She interprets these sources clearly and cautiously. These chapters alone make Keenan’s work immensely useful. But the book’s real contribution comes from its exploration of the stories of nine abusive clergymen in Ireland.

This latter section of the book develops several themes relevant to the rise of abuse in Roman Catholic settings. Her focus is on seminary culture and education (in the period before the 1990s) and the kind of living it enabled and disabled. In these spaces priests learned to fear sexuality, disavow their bodies and emotions, bury non-priestly components of themselves, and adapt to emotionally isolated and lonely lives.

Two additional themes enhance her critique of clerical formation. The first is a paradox of clerical life, a condition she describes as simultaneously powerful and powerless. Valorized as special beings with unique ritual powers and heightened virtue, priests and brothers were also demeaned and devalued by expectations of humility and deference to their clerical superiors. Often unsupported and unsupervised and yet conditioned toward obedience to those above, many clerics experienced frustration in a church that demanded so much of them.

These conditions, along with sexual immaturity fostered by lifelong silence surrounding sexuality, helped produce priests who had an “emotional congruence” with children. Keenan sees perpetrators of abuse tragically seeking to navigate their emotional tempests in the presence and with the bodies of young people, whom abusers saw as equal, if easily silenced, partners.

The other most compelling theme concerns moral education. The church, Keenan argues, has offered poor tools for making judgments. Instead of judging out of a context of relationships with particular others and dynamic processes of introspection and empathy, seminarians were instructed in the technical and intellectual application of fixed, universal and external rules. Impersonal and abstract, this moral theology enabled abusers to treat their behavior as a matter of sin against God and purity and not as a matter of harm for others. Moreover, the confessional, with its seal of secrecy, further enabled the abuse by providing a context for expiation of this sin. Regular confession helped convince the priests that they were at least trying to meet God’s standards. All of the nine priests confessed their abuse in confession – according to their reports, only once did a confessor alert the abuser to the criminal nature of the offense. The system advanced a purity ethic at the expense of a relational ethic.

If all or most priests and brothers were trained amid these conditions until very recently, why did some abuse while others did not? Keenan argues that abusers were more likely to be those inclined to be rule followers rather than rule breakers. Many clergy had the ability or cunning to know which rules they needed to bend or break in order to make seminary and clerical life humane. Others, those aspiring to the most strict and idealized version of the priesthood (what Keenan calls “Perfect Celibate Clerical Masculinity”) were essentially harmed by the church in the process. Buying into the impossible standards of this idealized clerical identity stifled opportunity for these men to openly explore their humanity and sexuality, develop intimate and satisfying adult relationships, account morally for their impact on others, and see themselves outside their duties to powerful superiors.

The stunning conclusion of this work is that for those who embraced the idealized model of perfect celibate clerical masculinity, seminary and priestly life were in themselves abusive contexts. Overly credulous or unsavvy, they accepted standards that led to “soul death.” Eventually, children were the “sacrificial lambs” on the altar of this image of clerical perfection. Until recently, victims’ silence allowed Catholics to ignore their complicity in the institutional secrecy and hypocrisy that helped these sacrifices continue.

For Keenan, it remains a question whether these voices speaking up will result in real change. Vilification or dismissal of abusers won’t contribute to the solution. Apologies, shame and even strict “zero tolerance” policies will not constitute the kind of structural reform that will begin to solve the problem in the Roman Catholic church. Only a “new model of the church” will do. Keenan’s hard-nosed and sophisticated book is a step in that direction.

John C. Seitz, Fordham University associate professor of theology, published No Closure: Catholic Practice and Boston’s Parish Shutdowns in 2011.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Quote of the Day

The galling truth is that many American Catholics—perhaps a majority—do not fully share the bishops’ view of what constitutes the fulfillment of human nature. They do not believe [for instance] that same-sex intercourse and the use of contraceptives are “unnatural,” and therefore do not see gay marriage or contraceptive coverage as threats to religious liberty.

Of course many laity are dissenting from the magisterium, and doing so in part because the bishops’ credibility has been so drastically diminished. We all know why; there’s no need to belabor the sexual-abuse scandal with its record of episcopal obfuscation and self-pity, or before that the damage done by Humanae vitae. Although [Archbishop] Dolan acknowledges the disenchantment in the pews, he’s clearly impatient with the subject. Bishops, he tells John L. Allen Jr., have to "get over this sense of being gun-shy" in the wake of all the revelations. Conceding that he and his colleagues must speak with "graciousness, and a sense of contrition," he adds that "we have to mean it." But do they really mean it? The impression of many attentive Catholics is that they’d rather pound the crosier on the floor. Dolan himself insists on "the uniquely normative value of the magisterium of the bishops," as though that "value" remains self-evident.

There are excellent reasons to find the bishops’ recent dudgeon unconvincing. Over the past decade, we’ve witnessed plenty of outrages to human dignity in this country: the official legitimation of torture and assassination; the prosecution of a war condemned by not one but two popes; the growing attacks on governmental support and compassion for the destitute, often under cover of ‘subsidiarity.’ The bishops’ responses to these outrages have been muted at best. Why so little prophetic ardor to battle these iniquities? Why no ‘fortnights for dignity’ to rally the faithful against state-sponsored violence abroad? Or haven’t the bishops noticed that the United States has been at war for the better part of the past twenty years?

Eugene McCarraher
Excerpted frpm "Morbid Symptoms:
The Catholic Right’s False Nostalgia
November 23, 2012