A Third Way: The Desperate Insistence

Vincent Miller has an insightful piece up on America’s In All Things blog. He wonders about cluelessness as one of two choices for discerning the “law and orders” crackdown:

It shows that the Vatican is either profoundly clueless about the audience to which it speaks or it simply does not consider them important.  Either way, this profoundly undermines its teaching authority.  The damage goes far beyond this statement.  Much of the Gospel wisdom stewarded by the Church is profoundly counter cultural; easily dismissed as cluelessness.  The legitimacy of the whole teaching suffers with such astounding displays of real cluelessness.

Two things to add here. With the advent of Liturgiam Authenticam, we liturgists saw a shift from the reception of the message of the liturgy, the intelligible texts of Comme Le Prevoit. Instead we now have a focus on the message itself.

It might be interpreted as a kind of narcissism on the part of the hierarchy: we need to get the message right so we’re okay with God. If the people don’t receive it, we can pass the blame on them: they’re either too stupid or too relativistic. Too bad they don’t realize the Holy Spirit is active in all this anyway.

Professor Miller misses one cynical possibility. I think there’s a third way other than cluelessness (the triumph of incompetence) or outright dismissal (that, the new translation meme). It might well be that some in the curia sense, if not recognize, the erosion of their authority. They intentionally yoked women’s ordination and sex abuse together. In the latter, they want to appear serenely in charge. And by tacking the former onto the latter, they reassert their dominance over doctrine. It is really not about the primacy of the sacramental system at all. It’s a desperate insistence that they are the ones in control, no matter how many of their number turn up with computer porn, mistresses and children, or sex predators under the chancery carpet.

Other commentators have suggested the Catholic hierarchy has reached a tipping point. I wonder if the point has already passed, if indeed we’re talking about a single point at all. I’m thinking a long river here, not a fulcrum. When the headwaters were trickling downhill in the 19th century, the Church had its opportunity to abandon the aristocracy of Europe and side with the common folk beaten down by wars, corruption, and the machines of industry. So the Marxists beat them to it, and ever since Rome has been in tantrum mode.

The world war era (1914-1989) saw the stream widen, and we did have some voices suggesting a reorientation of ministry, outreach, and emphasis. And sure, even in the papacy we had a few years of good intentions. Benedict XV attempted mediation in the Great War. John XXIII called a council and the diocesan bishops ran roughshod over the curia. But even these are overshadowed by revisionist efforts to uptick the number of Jews saved by Pius XII. (Are we up to 600,000 now?)

The time for building credibility in both the ages of civic corruption and war, and in the more recent peace (1989-2001) has come and long since gone. The devilry of the modern endless war (2001-date, with no end in sight) has found a companion in the revelation of immoral and criminal acts in the Catholic hierarchy regarding sex, power, and money. I’d say we are long past the white water rapids of an uncontrollable river. If calm boating happens to lie ahead, it will only be with that retreat to a smaller church so desired of those conservatives too lazy to get themselves to a desert monastery and do it the (real) Benedictine way.

For many of us, it’s a new apologetics: apologizing for the hierarchy for at least every word spent promoting Christ and his Gospel. The only way to discern the Holy Spirit in all this is that more people haven’t already abandoned the high hats. But what a wasted opportunity we had in the last century. Why does it take crisis after crisis to make us see it, and even then/now, we have those deniers firmly in place at the top?

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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12 Responses to A Third Way: The Desperate Insistence

  1. Copernicus says:

    Thank you, Todd. Strong words, but powerful and necessary. I agree with you.

  2. crystal says:

    I have to admit, I don’t think they’re clueless but that they just don’t care how things go over because they feel untouchable.

  3. Sam Schmitt says:

    Maybe this is all true, but . . . .

    If by “credibility” you mean what the media thinks of you (and they cannot stand anyone they cannot make or break), you do have a point.

    Seems like the Church loses “credibility” either way. The Church defends itself? It’s being defensive and hiding the truth. The Church apologizes? See, we were right and the church was wrong all along – why should we ever trust it again?

    This is not self-pity, just recognizing the futility of trying to live up to the demands of an entity (the media) that doesn’t understand you, has no real interest in doing so, writes about you purely in their terms (money and power), grants a podium to those who have a vested interest in attacking you – all to sell more papers (they’re a business, after all).

    Obviously the Church will never gain this sort of “credibility.”

    So why should it spend all its time trying?

    Personally, I have no idea how to solve the perceived PR problem at the Vatican. But analyzing it terms of power and control and the media says more, I think, about our particularly American view of the world (politics as interpreted by the media is reality) than about how the Vatican thinks.

    • Liam says:

      The credibility issue that matters is:

      1. With the faithful; and
      2. With seekers.

      Like it or not, that how these audiences will receive information through mass media. Ignore that, and you are ignoring the needs of the audience.

      Roman bureaucracy (like bureaucracies in general) is more concerned with intramural matters.

      The problem is, what the Romans consider to look like a brutta figura (namely, anything that makes a prelate look bad or that questions the prudence of exercises of authority) is not the same as what those audiences think. Good communication involves a strong dose of empathic understanding of the audiences’ perspectives. Roman bureaucracy tends to view that as a sign of weakness. Like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

      • Sam Schmitt says:

        Liam,

        Let’s not forget that not everyone takes what the media says at face value, and for good reason.

        Having said that, I agree that the Vatican and its press office need to do a better job “packaging” their statements to the public. Just releasing news about woman’s ordination and clerical sex abuse on the same day (let alone the same document) is probably a bad idea!

      • Liam says:

        Sam

        I agree.

        But.

        Unfortunately, cognitive studies show that people will tend to hold on to negative first impressions of events that later turn out to be incorrect, even if the corrections are disseminated widely. This is why negative campaigning is so successful. It’s also why communications handlers of powerful people can be scornful of the “reality-based community.”

        This is not an area where the Holy See is necessarily gifted with special graces of wisdom and insight.

        In fact, I would say this incident reveals a remarkable lack of that most valued of Roman virtues, prudence.

  4. smf says:

    The problem is you are assuming this conflagaration could have been avoided. In fact it probably could not be. If the two things had been announced on opposite sides of the planet in different months the fact that you are modifying the same document and implementing the same procedures for both sets of offenses would have been linked and pushed by certain parties.

    Look, in the wider world it is not unknown to bundle news items together for release in such a way that you hope everyone notices your intended headline and then quietly leaves alone the other part of the story. This is an accepted PR thing. Now the Vatican is certainly PR tone deaf. Yet even a PR professional might have advised burying a change in policy regarding attempted ordination of women in a news release about the much more widely noticed issue of sexual abuse. They do that sort of thing in politics all the time after all, and business too. (Sales are up ten percent, oh and p.s. we are laying off all our American workers and shipping the jobs to China…).

    • Todd says:

      Professor Reno makes a serious error in his assessment of the Church after WWII. The erosion of regard for the Church was in full progress before 1945. Except for Vatican II, the hierarchy has mostly failed to engage the world and evangelize.

      I think Pope Benedict has the right intentions, but his tools are lacking.

      • Sam Schmitt says:

        Which tools do you suggest he use?

      • Todd says:

        He needs different people in the curia. Much has been made of his transition in appointments: from politicians to theologians. He needs pastors more–people with experience in the parishes of the world.

        I think we need to retire Liturgiam Authenticam and the hermeneutic it represents.

        I don’t think the Church has anything to fear by engaging the world. We should make a joyful nuisance of ourselves. We don’t need to pout and point fingers.

        If he’s serious about only the pope criticizing the cardinals, then he needs to gently but firmly clean house.

        Good leaders motivate people to virtue. For our times, John Bosco is a far more fitting exemplar for clergy than John Vianney.

  5. Patti says:

    Hubris.

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