Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Der Speigel: Is it Really?

I read this morning an article entitled "Helpless in the Vatican: The Failed Papacy of Benedict XVI" published in Der Spiegel, the German weekly magazine.

As I wrote on Holy Saturday, I have been terribly discouraged by the waves of sex abuse that continue to buffet the Catholic Church. I'm disappointed in the actions of bishops and the culture of secrecy that allowed horrendous abuse of the innocent to take place. I grieve that the Church has lost the trust of many and is now looked at with scorn and suspicion. I am angry at many bishops who, in my estimation, have too often been spectacular failures, preferring the role of "institutional administrator" rather than commission to follow Christ as shepherds of souls, stewards of grace, and heralds of faith.

Yet, my frustration with the failures of the hierarchy of the institutional Church is only compounded by my frustration with the facile and sloppy reporting of the media. The authors of the Der Spiegel piece write:

There is also no lack of recommendations relating to the future of the Church, both from believers and non-believers. Suddenly everyone knows what the Church has done wrong in decades gone by: the celibacy and the exclusion of women from the priesthood; the hierarchy of old men and the persecution of any efforts to liberalize the theology; the blind condemnation of contraception and birth control in the poor regions of the world; the eternal lack of understanding of homosexuality; the mistrust of technology and modern culture; and the constant needling and provocation aimed at the Protestant churches, Judaism and Islam. (Emphases are mine)
Der Spiegel, in German, means "the mirror" in English. One would suppose, then, by the name of the publication that the goal is to reflect accurately the situation being reported. Hence the title of my post "Is it Really?": is this really an accurate reflection of the state of the Catholic Church?

I have two points to make in light of the above paragraph.

First, there is no denying that we are enmeshed in a sexual abuse crisis. Nor can anyone deny that each of the aforementioned issues is an issue. But it does seem to me a non sequitur that the sexual abuse crisis is immediately related to any or all of the listed issues. There is no shortage of sex abuse in our public schools, yet we don't often try to tie in "celibacy" as one of the contributing factors to the abuse. In other words, I don't exactly follow the train of logic that admits of a problem with sex abuse (fact) and then goes on to tie it into a host of other issues. While these are undeniably issues the Church has to face, I would eschew linking sex-abuse with the other issues in a facile manner.

What Der Spiegel does, as many media outlets, is to use the emotional gravity of the sex abuse case to then indict other, potentially non-related, areas of Church life and practice. I do not think this either fair or the fruit of careful thinking. As I've said, I'm not denying that they are issues. But I don't know that one can make a leap from "sex abuse" to "all other issues" as neatly or easily as the authors of this article seem to have done.

Point number two.

One of the great buzzwords in philosophy and theology is "the Other." We must always respect and give due deference to "the Other." The genealogy of "the Other" is beyond the reach of this post, but its influence is hard to ignore.

There is sort of an unwritten rule that we should be cautious in making judgments. "Who are you to judge?" is a common refrain. Judgment is avoided because there is a healthy impulse to listen to all voices, to make sure that all sides are represented, that the stories and experiences of all parties have been given a fair hearing.

Oddly, however, the rule of giving "the Other" a chance to speak is jettisoned when it comes to the Catholic Church. Above, the authors gave a (common) litany of what is wrong with the Catholic Church. Not only is there no effort to say what is right with the Church (hospitals to care for the ailing, schools to educate the young, social service organizations and individual parishes that provide the corporal and spiritual works of mercy) but there is no effort made to give a fair hearing to the Church's position. "The Other" in this case is silenced and presumed wrong.

I'm not to be heard as saying that the Church is right on all of these issues. I should like to be heard as saying that there is an ironic twist that in a culture where we decry judgment on "the Other" we see judgment with impunity, as though it is simply a matter of course that the Church is wrong on so many issues! The final line of the quoted paragraph marks a performance of this irony: the authors judge the Church for its supposed 'needling' of other traditions...a judgment is made on the judge by the....judge?

My difficulty with the article is that it rests on emotional and rhetorical flourish than it does on careful investigation. The force of the article comes from its ability to tap in at our natural (and expected) abhorrence of clergy sex abuse and then uses that to color the portrait of the Church and the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. Furthermore, the piece performs the irony of our culture: we who profess to be non-judgmental of "the Other" are indeed quick to judge "the Other" when it is convenient for us to do so.

As I have said, I am not denying that there are tremendous problems and issues to be addressed. But what we need is to find a sense of balance in order to make prudent and well-discerned decisions about how we are to move forward.

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