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Dissonant Catholicism

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These three books, Matthew Fox’s The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and How It Can Be Saved, Jason Berry’s Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, and Roy Bourgeois’ autobiographical pamphlet, My Journey from Silence to Solidarity (2nd edition), are all written by persons with deep connections, past and in the case of Jason Berry, present, to the Roman Catholic Church; and all have their roots in the Papal reign of Benedict XVI. Yet, they are all still relevant, because, despite a new Pope at the helm, Francis, who on some matters has departed sharply from his predecessor, in other, quite fundamental ways, he definitely has not. Benedict’s presence is still felt visibly under Francis, as his first encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium certainly shows—once again upholding the male-only Catholic priesthood, the “moral” prohibitions of abortion and homosexuality, and the continuing relegation of women in the Church to secondary status while condescendingly expressing sympathy for their special problems. (See on AlterNet Adele Stan’s critique of Evangelii Gaudium, “Killing Them Softly: Pope Francis Condemns Inequality, Sanctions Gender Inequality,” December 6, 2013, http://www.alternet.org/killing-them-softly-pope-francis-condemns-income-inequality-sanctions-gender-inequality.)

Despite Francis’ greater openness; expression of concern for the poor and the marginalized under capitalism and his stern call for amelioration of its baser aspects; admonition not to “speak so much” about abortion, gay marriage, and other matters of division and contentiousness within the Church; and his acceptance that atheists can be moral too, his departure from Benedict is more a matter of engaging style rather than doctrinal modernization. Francis, above all, is a PR gem for a very beleaguered Catholic Church, which has alienated millions across the globe, even, perhaps especially, within its own ranks. (Britain’s National Secular Society quite acidly notes this aspect of Francis, his pleasing persona being a PR triumph for a Vatican still mired in its old, unpleasant ways and quite unwilling to change on fundamentals, merely repackage them more pleasingly. See its blog of October 31, 2013 from Terry Sanderson, “Are we being bamboozled by this charming Pope?” http://www.secularism.org.uk/blog/2013/10/are-we-being-bamboozled-by-this-charming-pope.)

All this makes these three books still timely and relevant, and brings back to the fundamental reality that while the head has changed, the body still remains moribund and pernicious in basic ways, but clothed in a new set of clothes that better hide the warts, the tumors, and the open wounds. The more things change, the more they remain the same! So these books published over a three-year span, Fox’s in early 2011, Berry’s in mid-2011, and Bourgeois’ first edition in May 2012, the second edition in May 2013, are not only still timely, they further demonstrate a continuity in the Vatican not only throughout the reign of Benedict XVI, but now, well into the reign of Francis; and demonstrate how little has actually changed beneath Catholicism’s surface, while much has seemingly changed on the visible exterior. The Church of Francis is still, in many ways, the Church of Benedict also.

Matthew Fox is a former Catholic priest and Vatican-stationed theologian who became subject to the umbrage of Benedict for his liberal views; and The Pope’s War devotes its first half to an acid biography of Benedict and his transmogrification from the moderately liberal theologian he was in the early 1960s to the fierce conservative he became in reaction to the ferment and rebellion of 1968, a ferment and rebellion that reached even Catholic theology schools and students in Germany where he taught. Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict’s birth name), according to Fox, also had a burning ambition to become Pope, and so accommodated himself to the conservative Church bureaucracy to fulfill his desire. However, The Pope’s War is not a personal vendetta, but rather a prism on how the Church traditionally works as seen through breaking up into its constituent parts the beam of light cast by one powerful man.

Fox, now an Anglican priest and active teacher, theologian and author, devotes the second half of The Pope’s War to an elaborate prescription for reforming and renewing the Catholic Church by “secularizing” and “Protestantizing” it (as the Catholic traditionalists would object), replete with a more mystical and personalized approach to theology. Fox also calls on concerned Catholics to become active in Catholic reform groups, and names several, a list actually representing a Rogue’s Gallery of organizations the Church has specifically anathematized! Tellingly absent from Fox’s list is the “official” Catholic reform and renewal group, the one such group the Vatican actually approves of, Pax Christi: which makes Pax Christi as a Church “reform” group akin to—a chicken rights’ group approved of by Col. Sanders! Matthew Fox is a visionary who advances a visionary program, and in this way, may inspire those forces for change who are still within the Catholic Church as much as it will lead others to disregard it as too unrealistic given the nature of the Church, even under the looser and more congenial Francis at the helm instead of the very rigid and demanding Benedict.

Jason Berry is a practicing Catholic and renowned investigative reporter whose writings were instrumental in breaking the story of Catholic priest-pedophilia to the public. A resident of New Orleans, Berry is also a jazz historian, a documentary filmmaker, and a novelist, and these special literary and creative gifts inform Render unto Rome and make it sparkle as though it were a well-crafted whodunit novel that brings together seemingly disparate parts—parish closing due to diocesan financial pressure; a corrupt business man; a corrupt Cardinal high up in the Vatican hierarchy; the founder of a controversial order of Catholic priests who was a consummate fundraiser for the Church but later exposed as a predatory moral monster; and a financial system for the world’s largest religious body that is medieval and completely lacking accountability in its structure, and where individual bishops run their diocesan finances as private fiefdoms—all these are elaborated separately in the book, and carry the reader along despite their seeming disparity, but are all brought together elegantly at the end. All of which make Render unto Rome both a fascinating documentary on a little-known and highly secretive part of the Church, and a searing indictment and exposé of its inner workings. I reviewed Render unto Rome for New Politics online back in February 6, 2012 in my review-essay “Piety, Money, and Catholicism” (http://newpol.org/content/piety-money-and-catholicism); I thought highly of the book then, as I expressed, and nothing has changed since.

Roy Bourgeois is one of the most distinguished contemporary Catholics there is, although excommunicated by the Church since 2008 and remaining so. Bourgeois is, of course, founder and head of SOA Watch, which has been an active force for ending the infamous School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Georgia (which has had its name changed and sanitized into WHINSEC, acronym for Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), the official U.S. training school for Latin American military torturers and dictators; a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with SOA Watch; and an outspoken advocate for women’s ordination to the Catholic priesthood and unrelenting foe of what he calls the Church’s “sin of sexism” and “old boys’ network” of the celibate male priesthood. A Maryknoll priest for 39 years, and actively involved with the Maryknoll order for 45 years as seminarian and priest, Bourgeois was abruptly laicized in October 2012 while he was awaiting his appellate hearing at the Vatican for insubordination and “giving scandal” to the Church for his insistent advocacy of women’s ordination. The abruptness of Bourgeois’ laicization contrasts sharply to the years and even decades it takes for the Vatican hierarchy to officially laicize a known priest-pedophile, and the second edition of My Journey from Silence to Solidarity takes the reader up to that fateful official dismissal from the priesthood. Here I must note in self-disclosure that I have gotten to know Roy Bourgeois over a period of years in interviewing him for four articles for the left newsmagazine and website In These Times that have been published since 2009, and consider him a personal friend. He also sent me gratis copies of both the first and second editions of My Journey from Silence to Solidarity, with the copy of the second edition personally autographed. Two of these In These Times articles are longer, in-depth looks at the man and his advocacy: “The Rebel Feminist Priest,” published August 16, 2011 (http://inthesetimes.com/article/11836/the_rebel_feminist_priest/), and “Father Roy Bourgeois’ Journey,” published September 2, 2012, (http://inthesetimes.com/article/13767/father_roy_bourgeois_journey/) a review-essay on the first edition of My Journey from Silence to Solidarity, which reveals how Bourgeois moved from superpatriotic Louisiana lad who paid segregation no mind to the activist and outspoken advocate for social justice who’s not afraid to butt heads, no matter how exalted the head. Roy Bourgeois shows in this pamphlet that he has much to be proud of in the way he moved from incomprehension and timidity to outspokenness and solidarity—yet the pamphlet, as is the man himself, is infused with a disarming modesty that is honest to the core, and never smug or bragging in tone. Bourgeois also penned an Op-Ed in the New York Times addressed to the new Pope on March 20, 2013, “My Prayer: Let Women Be Priests.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/21/opinion/my-prayer-let-women-be-priests.html?_r=0) My Journey from Silence to Solidarity can be read and downloaded for free at http://www.roybourgeoisjourney.org, where it may also be purchased in hard copy.

Running through all three of these books as backdrop is the greatest moral crisis the Catholic Church has faced since the Protestant Reformation—that true scandal, that true rot, of Catholicism today, priest-pedophilia and even worse deliberate cover-up extending all the way to the top of the Vatican hierarchy, and implicating, at least through negligence, even Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It is, of course, a major headache Pope Francis inherited, and on which he’s going to form yet another Commission to study it and make recommendations. (See “Pope Setting Up Commission on the Sexual Abuse of Children by Priests,” New York Times, December 5, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/06/world/europe/pope-setting-up-commission-on-clerical-child-abuse.html. As the article points out, even Catholics favorably disposed to Pope Francis see this as another PR gesture on the part of the Vatican, which may or may not be fruit this time around.) Another demonstration on just how much things remain the same in the Catholic Church even when they change, with all three of these three books exposing to the bright, glaring sunlight of unwanted publicity the real problems within Catholicism today.

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