The Church is paralyzed today. Last November’s meeting of the USCCB, the recent papal motu proprio (which I discussed here), and now this month’s USCCB meeting have all demonstrated an exhaustion of episcopal imagination, which cannot conceive of ways forward through the abuse crisis except by mindless repetition of the very structures and processes which have, in many ways, given rise to the crisis.
We are caught in precisely the scenario Freud described in his 1914 essay “Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through”. The patient who neurotically and destructively continues to enact certain patterns of thought and action is repeating what he cannot remember clearly: some trauma is buried in his psyche, and it is evident only by and in his repetitive actions, which are a disguised form of remembering. A psychoanalysis helps him work through that trauma, ending the cycles of repetition by allowing him to remember the original event, helping to free the patient to move forward.
We are caught in the repetition of those deeply destructive structures and processes, and have turned one crisis into three: sex abuse is also (as Christopher Altieri has put it with unmatched clarity) an abuse of power and, as we are now learning out of West Virginia, money also. Today the Church is paralyzed and cannot find solutions for this tripartite crisis, and the risk we run here is that of descending into what Freud called the “death drive.”
Why are we paralyzed? What is the cause of the paralysis? Can we move forward, finding new life out of these death-dealing ways?
It seems to me the paralysis is of a pattern well known to the mariners and mythologists of Greek antiquity, who gave us the celebrated images of ships in the very narrow Strait of Messina being caught between Charybdis and Scylla. These were reputed sea monsters dwelling on either side of the strait and almost invariably capturing and capsizing those who sailed too close to one side to avoid the peril of the other. The Church today appears to be paralyzed by fear of the Charybdis of the papacy, on the one hand, and a Scylla called “lay involvement” on the other. We need to think carefully about these fears in order to see they are groundless. Like all neurotic fears, the images of them that lurk in our minds are far more fantastic and fearsome than the reality.
In my new book Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power (Angelico Press, 2019), I discuss these fears at length and how they have led us to be paralyzed—and how we can move beyond the paralysis.
Several people recently have asked me to give examples of what I mean. Let me give two such examples here briefly, while encouraging people to read the book for the details.
Let’s first consider the papacy. It has changed enormously over the centuries. For the last 150 years the Church has essayed a particularly hazardous model of maximal centralization, which as we now realize is not only profoundly unhelpful, but also without serious historical or theological justification, or ecumenical appeal. It has done so largely as a reaction to an unconscious traumatic pseudo-memory of the French revolution and Napoleonic ravages in response to which, it was claimed by many nineteenth-century Catholics, a “sovereign” pontiff was needed who would be untouchable by secular powers—or any other powers, including brother bishops.
That model is still operative today, because the “memory” still suggests that if we do not have a sovereign pontiff operating a very centralized system, then any day now a new Napoleon could arise to sack an entire episcopate. As Adam Phillips likes to say, “memories always have a certain future in mind.” “Memories” of long-dead tyrants in utterly singular and unrepeatable circumstances were used to justify a future in which no pope could ever again be at the mercy of a secular ruler. This has given us a system today premised upon near-absolute powers of “sovereign pontiff”.
American bishops in the nineteenth century happily went along with Pope Pius IX inserting himself more and more into their affairs and muscling them aside from their own responsibilities. We saw this again just last week in American bishops dithering about whether an abusive retired bishop can be in any way “restricted” or disciplined by his successor. The reluctance here to entertain such timid proposals comes from the fear that in advancing any such prospects, the bishops are treading on papal “sovereignty,” as, we are told, it is only the pope who can discipline a bishop.
Certainly in the current system that seems to be the case de iure. But de facto there is no discipline in a system that includes more than 5000 bishops in the world today. The prospect of one man supervising all of them is on its face problematic, if not impossible, and as we have seen with Theodore McCarrick (inter alia), not only was there no discipline, he continued to get promoted.
Many organizational experts today insist that nobody can realistically or justly supervise more than a dozen people (“direct reports”) in any adequate way. So, in practice, bishops today are accountable to nobody—the pope does not have time, and his brothers in the episcopate are too timid to think of alternative models by which local accountability could be restored to the Church. Even the “metropolitan” model advanced by such as Blaise Cupich is virtually impotent.
Clearly, then, this system, which preserves monopolistic structures and powers of the bishops (including the bishop of Rome), does not work and must be changed, especially as it has aided and abetted abusers for decades. But we have no sooner come to that conclusion, often very reluctantly, then we are paralyzed by a second set of fears. Here we run aground on the Scylla of something called “lay involvement”.
The fact that such involvement remains optional indicates just how much anxiety and fear there is today. Some bishops, to be sure—a clear minority in the conference—seem to grasp the point as when, for example, Bishop McKnight of Jefferson City was reported as saying that “it should be mandatory that we involve laity … because that is the Catholic thing to do.” But the fact that neither the American bishops nor the bishop of Rome have cemented such requirements into place indicates what, in my book (following the scholarship of Claudia Rapp and Peter Brown, inter alia), I call the snobbery of ecclesial elites: clerical and academic elites, having advanced theological degrees and belonging to cozy guilds, are loathe to think that unlettered people in the pews should have any serious say in anything—except, perhaps, paint colors for the parish hall or what kind of fish to fry for the Lenten fundraiser.
Our very language here is highly instructive: “lay” people, a phrase that, in conventional usage, is taken to mean someone who lacks something like advanced training, professional accreditation, or ecclesial office. They are, in short, little more than uneducated peasants who should be nowhere near church governance.
And yet those who think this way are mistaken, even delusional, imagining that the mere possession of an advanced degree, or a Roman collar, somehow make one into a trustworthy expert. This is a kind of magical thinking that should be strongly questioned whenever we encounter it. I have loathed this kind of credentialism my entire life, realizing that while I am the first person in my immediate family to attend university (never mind graduate with a doctorate), that in no way makes me superior in intelligence or virtue. My grandmother, with “only” a high-school education in interwar Scotland was extremely intelligent and well-read and effortlessly possessed in abundance certain virtues I have struggled to attain even to a small degree. It was she who introduced me to a model I have so often cited in this regard: Winston Churchill, who proudly had a union card for the brick-layers association, but held no Oxbridge diploma for he never went to university. And yet he led Britain to victory in 1945 and wrote many widely cited books of history and biography, even winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953.
Perhaps more germane here, I start every semester of every academic year by reading parts of Evagrius’ On Prayer to my students, telling them, as that great fourth-century monastic did, that prayer is what makes one a theologian—not an “A” in my class, or a degree from a pontifical faculty like mine. Prayer and holiness are what will gain them virtue and thus heaven. Degrees and books may in fact hinder both for they tend to make us (as St. Paul would say) puffed up with the arch-sin of pride. That sort of prideful credentialism and snobbery are really repugnant in Christians, whose first leaders were a bunch of fishermen following the unlettered son of a carpenter wandering around Palestine before getting himself killed at the hands of clerical and political elites.
There is, then, no reason to defer to elites in governance, and no reason to fear the “laics,” as I call them in my book, borrowing from Nicholas Afanasiev (whom I discussed here in this regard). But fear them many churchmen do, and here again we see unanalyzed pseudo-memories of “lay involvement” being used to justify this fear so as to continue to shut laics out from governance. In the neurotic unconscious “memory” of the Church, we are forever facing another Henry IV fighting Pope Gregory VII at Canossa in the eleventh century, or Thomas a Becket and Henry II in England in the twelfth, or Thomas More and Henry VIII in the sixteenth, or Pius VII and Napoleon in nineteenth-century France—or, in the same time, “trusteeism” in America (which I show in the book to be groundless).
But as the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar argued in an essay published in 1939 we cannot mindlessly defer to past examples, good or bad, for
no time is completely like another, and the Church is always standing before a new situation, and, therefore before a new decision in which she can let herself receive advice and admonition from her past experiences but in which, however, the decision itself must be faced directly: The past can never lighten, let alone dispense from, the decision itself.
The decision the Church faces today is a very simple one: to “approach the future as a friend/without a wardrobe of excuses” in W.H. Auden’s memorable words. The Church’s choice is to continue to be paralyzed by episcopal monopolies based on pseudo-memories from the past, or to open her structures to a better future in which age-old synodal practices return at the level of parish (where the laics and bishop together openly decide on when to move a priest, and why), diocese (where the laics and clerics, together with the bishop, vote in an annual synod on the budget, demanding accountability and closing off the means for “princes of the Church” to spend thousands of dollars on booze, flowers, etc.), and nation, where there will be real mechanisms for bishops to discipline and depose each other. (My book goes into great detail as to how this works, with a chapter each on parish councils, diocesan synods, and national or regional synods.)
Synodal governance at all three levels will introduce accountability to a degree totally missing today. Our future must be one in which the laics, clerics, and hierarchs each constitute one of the three irreplaceable “orders” dependent upon each other, accountable to each other, open to learning from and in charity supporting each other. Nothing in the apostolic constitution of the Church prevents this and everything in our present moment is crying out for this structural-synodal reform without which the free-fall of the Church will continue. The laics today, to borrow again from Auden, are “exiles who long for the future/that lives in our power” and “they too would rejoice/if allowed to serve enlightenment”.
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