Generous Orthodoxy  

Friday, March 18, 2016

Doubts about Pope Francis

Sorry, but I can't shake off my misgivings about Pope Francis. The new issue of First Things, a publication not given to criticism of the Roman Catholic Church, contains an article which is quite sharp in its depiction of the pontiff's failures to meet rigorous standards for addressing the church's problem with sexual abuse (back in the news partly owing to the Oscar-winning film Spotlight). It fits with the picture of the former Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio who showed a similar weakness when the Argentine "Dirty War" was going on all around him. Unlike Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez, the Archbishop of Santiago (Chile), Pope Francis--then Archbishop of Argentina--did not encourage his priests to speak out as did Silva Henríquez when Pinochet's regime was torturing and "disappearing" thousands. 

I can't forget the memory of Elisabeth Käsemann, the daughter of the great New Testament scholar Ernst Käsemann, who died under torture during the Argentine Dirty War. Along with many other political prisoners, she died because there was no one in power to speak out on behalf of those who were imprisoned simply because of their political views.

The New York Times Magazine recently published an interview with a celebrated Mexican journalist, Jorge Ramos. When asked about the recent visit of Pope Francis to Mexico, drawing tremendous crowds and media attention, he said this:
 I don’t know. In Cuba, he called Raúl Castro — who’s a dictator — the president. He refused to meet with dissidents there. He refused to meet with victims of sexual abuse in Mexico. He refused to talk to the families of the 43 students who disappeared in Ayotzinapa. It was a different pope from the one we saw here in the United States. When he goes to Latin America, he becomes shy and lacks the courage to criticize those in power.
I admit to a longstanding, deeply-held view that to ignore wrongdoing is to encourage it. In my previous post, I write about the sin of denial. I'm always amazed and disappointed that so many people persist in denial when its usefulness as a psychological buffer has long passed its "best by" date.

I was not particularly thrilled when Bergoglio chose the name Francis. I can't believe that the real St. Francis wasn't dangerous in some way. These legends about him, these treacly quotations attributed to him, these popular sentimental images of him seem false to me.

Well, we'll see. Pope Francis does seem to have confronted the Curia in some ways. Certainly he has caught people's attention with his "optics" and soothing words as he travels the world. But not to meet with the families of the 43? Is that courageous? Is that Christ-like?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Denial, denial, denial: Can't we just call it SIN?

The season of Lent is theoretically the time in the Christian church when we talk about sin, confess sin, repent of sin. Except for Ash Wednesday--which is very sparsely attended these days--there really isn't much preaching or teaching about sin in the congregations that I can discern. And yet sin is around us all the time, implicating us all. I have just returned from my yearly swing through the South (where Lenten dinners with speakers are still popular) and I addressed two congregations with the topic "Sin as Good News." The address, which is essentially a synopsis of my chapter "The Gravity of Sin" in The Crucifixion, will shortly be posted under Discourses on this website.

In my talk, I give two illustrations of Sin which implicates us all: 1) the narcotics racket, and 2) "the lawless ocean" (the title of a Pulitzer-Prize-winning series in The New York Times) where young boys and men are lured onto undocumented ships to serve as slave labor: a major product of this trade is canned seafood for Americans' beloved pet cats. We are all involved in this sort of thing because we as a society don't protest it enough, don't take action against it enough, don't boycott the products, don't take an interest in those whose lives are destroyed--unless, of course, it's our own children or grandchildren.

These thoughts are occasioned by the news from the NFL today. For the first time, the organization is finally admitting that there is a connection between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Most commentators immediately linked this to the confession of big tobacco that there was indeed a connection between smoking and disease.  In both cases, the admissions came after many years of denial.

It seems to me that we should name this sort of denial as the eighth deadly sin, or something like it. I don't mean the psychologically useful sort of temporary denial that helps us get through a crisis, like being told that we have pancreatic cancer. I mean refusal to look squarely and honestly at ongoing situations involving victims that are demonstrable, visible, documentable, and dangerous.

I have personally seen many long-term cases of denial in various churches. A vestry ignored its rector's financial misconduct for over a decade even though it was plain to see. A revered, not to say adored, senior pastor was finally outed for long-term abuse of a young woman. A beloved longtime choirmaster was fired after decades of improper conduct with young girls in the choir (witnesses had not been believed, and parents did not come forward). In another church, an organist was hired even though he was an active ephebophile (and had been dismissed from his previous position for it); he continued the behavior in his next position. At a very well-known parish, sexual abuse of children by staff members went on for years in the 80s and 90s and, according to my highly-placed informant, "everybody knew about it" but did nothing. In one of these cases I was the whistle-blower, but I was fortunate; I was backed up and did not suffer for it. More often than not, whistle-blowers are ignored, disbelieved, discredited, demoted, or fired.

When an institution--whether it be a church, a college, a business, or any other institutional environment--allows this, it results in a culture of denial. It isn't always sexual misconduct. A nationally well-known case is that of Ellen Cooke, who embezzled $2 million from the Episcopal Church. She held a powerful position at headquarters where her management style and "tyrannical" ways allowed her to keep complete control of the auditing process. Complaints were ignored because she was protected for years by the presiding bishop of the denomination. Generally speaking, businesses are less likely to overlook such malfeasance, but there used to be a bitter joke in the Episcopal church: "Q. When is a businessman not a businessman? A. When he becomes a vestryman." In other words, a culture of repression and denial exists in many congregations and their ruling elders, or vestry, or council, or whatever, sheepishly buy into it.

For many years, I have kept a file on whistle-blowers. More often than not, they have paid heavily for their bravery.

I think it's time for institutional denial to be identified as a type of Sin.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Pacific Northwest, New England: what ails the churches?

I was at lunch last week with some friends in Berkshire County (Mass.). There was some conversation about how difficult it is to make friends in New England. I testified that in our 25 years of experience here, in spite of joining in numerous community activities and inviting numerous people for lunch and dinner at my house, I had not made a single local friend outside the church I've attended since 1983. The women at lunch, friends from three local churches, are all full-time residents of the Berkshires, whereas I divide my time equally between our two houses--but all agreed that it is very difficult to make friends in this part of the world. People keep to themselves.

Our older daughter lived in Seattle for almost eight years. They worked hard to make friends--they invited people over, they had dinners and parties, they played golf, they joined a church...but in the end they were glad to leave because they had made no real friends. This phenomenon, well known, is called the "Seattle Freeze." People are friendly on the surface, but they do not seek out connection or develop new relationships. Speight Jenkins, the director of the Seattle Opera, encountered this phenomenon when he moved to Seattle from New York. Apparently this syndrome applies to the Pacific Northwest in general; a young couple whom I know just moved to Vancouver, BC, where they are deeply involved in church life. They are in shock; they say that it does not occur to the members of their church that they might say hello or strike up a conversation with someone.

What's the common denominator here, between New England and the Pacific Northwest? I believe it offers a partial clue to the precipitously declining membership in these two parts of our country. The Pacific NW was named, until recently, the most unchurched part of our country; just a couple of years ago that unwelcome designation shifted to New England. Can it be, in part, because of this unfriendliness? When church attendance begins to dwindle, I've noticed that the remaining members often seem to withdraw into themselves, as if they didn't want to meet anyone new.

One of my most-viewed blog posts goes into some detail about the impact of friendliness and its opposite in attracting members to church. I describe my own experiences, over decades, of being frozen out of worship services in all parts of the country. Among other things I wrote:
 Most recently, this past spring, Dick and I were amazed by the friendliness and vitality of the American (Protestant) Church in Paris. It made me want to join immediately. In contrast, six years ago I found the American Episcopal Church in Rome (St Paul's Within the Walls) to be singularly unfriendly even though I attended for three consecutive Sundays. Passing the peace has had no effect on this problem. In American Episcopal churches, I pass the peace to all my neighbors around me in the pews, and as soon as the service is over they immediately turn away from me as if to get away from me as fast as possible.
In my earlier blog on this subject, I make some specific suggestions for tackling this problem. I didn't discuss one of the most important, which is a goodly number of meals served at church functions, and inviting people to come--not simply with a blanket invitation, but inviting someone specifically and actually escorting them to an event. Of course this is based on the hopeful assumption that churches have dinners. If there were more church lunches and dinners, I'm convinced, more people would come--but putting out a welcome sign on the street is not enough. People have to be escorted in and  introduced to other people. Ditto with coffee hour; I know from personal experience how painful it is to stand around with a coffee cup and not be greeted.

Here is my earlier post: