Saturday, April 24, 2010

Tough Love for Papa Razzi

There was an interesting article today in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Munich newspaper that is doing for the child abuse scandal in Germany these days what the Boston Globe did for the parallel scandal in the United States a decade ago – holding their feet to the fire and showing no mercy.

It’s working. The resignations are coming from all directions. People are leaving the church in droves. For someone like me, whose experiences with the church militant engendered a rage I have nurtured all my life, this turn of events has generated no small amount of satisfaction.

Anybody motivated by anger runs the risk of making highly unjust assessments, of course. To avoid that, despite my conviction that religion is bunk, I have tried to make a sharp distinction between those who “listen for the still small voice of God” and those for whom religion is a political instrument. In the Catholic Church, that means there are two kinds of folk, the Vatican I, authoritarian, types – those who center the church on the authority of an infallible pope – and the Vatican II, pastoral, types – those who would channel the energies of the hierarchy into care and compassion. It’s not hard to see where most catholics line up. The two German contemporaries, Hans Küng, and Josef Ratzinger, serve as illustrations. Küng has devoted his life to ecumenism – pulling first all Christians back together and ultimately all people of faith. Ratzinger has let it be known he’d rather have a small group of diehard conservatives in the church than too wide a tent.

I’ve never hidden where my rage against the church comes from. It is the insistence of authoritarian religion (obviously not just of the Roman Catholic variety) that homosexuality is a sin, and same-sex relationships are inherently disordered. Add to that the church’s recent insistence that a nine-year old girl must face excommunication if she aborted the baby she was carrying after being raped by her father – and her mother too, for helping her - and other similarly loathsome directives stemming from ideological certainty and, frankly, I don’t understand why everybody doesn’t want to beat the church with a stick.

As the abuse scandal rages on, and the bishops fall like bowling pins, the Süddeutsche Zeitung continues as the paper of record. Day after day we get facts to feed the view the church is corrupt, and quite possibly stupid. Certainly absurd. Definitely arrogant. Today, I was pleasantly surprised by a change of tone in an article by German historian (and regular SZ journalist) Gustav Seibt. Up till now, most people have framed this as a story about sexual abuse. Seen this way, one is led inexorably into discussions of celibacy and the church’s approach to sex as something to be avoided. Or at least rigidly channeled. I have argued this story should not be about sex at all, but about abuse of power. Any organization with hundreds of thousands of members is bound to have some bad apples. I have argued that what is really rotten is the role of the church as enabler. And I have seen this enabling as derivative of arrogance and love of power.

Seibt comes at this from another direction, and brings a refreshing reframing of the story – one I’ve heard before, but not so clearly articulated. His is the approach of a cultural anthropologist. He doesn’t write in the jargon of a cultural anthropologist, but he performs the work of one. He sets two cultural worlds side by side, each with their own attitudes, values and beliefs. One is medieval, hierarchical, patriarchal and authoritarian. The other is almost a mirror image with all the features in reverse – modern, non-hierarchical, non-patriarchal and non-authoritarian. One culture’s chief value is the salvation of souls. The only real offense is an offense against God. And if offending God is the only real sin, a child abuser can beg forgiveness and the offense against God goes away. The victim is not at fault and, as an innocent, is of no real concern to the church, whose only real function is the elimination of sin. With values such as these, exonerating priests, even moving them after sufficient penance to other locales with the admonition to go and sin no more, the church is acting out its cultural values exactly as one might predict.

Framed this way, the problem for those of us who share the values of the other culture becomes one of culture conflict. Do we allow the church to continue to function according to its otherworldly values? Or do we impose our own, those of a modern democratic society committed not to helping citizens gain entry into the next world, but keeping citizens protected in this one.

We don’t need to see the church as bad guys committed to selfish interests at the expense of children. We can embrace them as a culture committed to values which are at odds with modern values. This may seem like some kind of mindfuck, but only if you think putting yourself in another’s shoes creates illusions and not sympathy.

The German state has taken a stand with culture conflict recently. Turkish fathers in Germany who insist their daughters not go to school are told “Sorry, sir, but your daughter will not be deprived of an education as long as she lives among us.” And we make it happen without further ado.

The Church, too, needs to be told, “Sorry, folks. You can go on with your concern for the next world if you like, but you must stop now, once and for all, protecting abusers of children from the law of the state.”

That is slowly but surely what is coming to pass. What Seibt has done for me is he has given me a way to approach the church more as the anthropologist I am and less as the angry gay I can be.

I’m more gay than anthropologist, alas, so this is not a perfect cure.

But it’s a step in the right direction.

And when you separate the person from the screwed up values they hold, all sorts of good things can happen.

Yes, Johnny, I know you think that knife is fun to play with. But I’m going to take it away from you. Now brush your teeth and go to bed.

Yes, mugger, I understand your father beat you and made you what you are today. I’m willing to spend money to get you into treatment, a good home where people will love you, and a good school where you can build a better life. But I’m not going to let you mug me. I’ll jail your ass if I have to.

Tough love, I believe it’s called.

Time to give Papa Razzi some tough love.

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