Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

It Didn’t Happen There: Easter reflections on America, transparency and the Catholic Church

In Religious Conflict on April 4, 2010 at 8:45 am

One has to admit that there is something terribly sad in witnessing such a chilling scandal for the Catholic Church on the most sacred of days for the church. One need not be religious to recognize the pathos of this situation. The Easter celebration has none of the commercialism of the Christmas season and comes at a time in the northern hemisphere when we need it, after winter has passed, and one could not have had a more beautiful Easter weekend in the Washington area. I certainly do not intend to pile onto this problem, but it seems an opportune moment to reflect on one good thing about the kind of culture that the United States is trying to offer to the world through its example: transparency.

If you risk the cherry blossom crowds and fight your way to the Jefferson memorial, you will find the following words to your back and right:

Almighty God hath created the mind free. All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens . . . are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion . . . No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion

This kind of commitment to transparency, even in matters of religion and authority, is part of what we Americans celebrate in monuments.

We now think of the idea of American Exceptionalism as a kind of taunt. Those who speak about American Exceptionalism either use it to praise the United States as a city upon a hill that provides a moral example to the rest of the world, or to attack it as arrogant and disconnected from the needs of the poor and marginalized people around the world. The best use of the term has nothing to do with either of these moral claims. The best use goes back to the question of the peculiar circumstances here that prevented the rise of Socialism, while preserving a highly religious, voluntaristic, and anti-establishment culture.  This is best captured in the work of Seymour Martin Lipset in his book by the name American Exceptionalism. The slogan for his effort might be “it didn’t happen here” (also a book he co-authored). The point is that there are fairly strange features of the United States as a developed nation and we have just seen this in play again as we had so much drama over producing a very centrist (by world standards) and market based health regulation bill. The claim is normative, but merely descriptive. The exceptionalism comes through in how difficult it is to establish a positive right to health. In America, one person’s right is often recast as another person’s obligation.

This resistance of Americans to any strict obligation, even in conditions that could well be beneficial from a system perspective, is matched with a tendency to err in favor of individual autonomy and a commitment to transparency (at least to the appearance of such). We see this in the common sense philosophy behind the idea that one should not be partisan, but instead just fair. We see this in the various lifestyle experiments that are associated with the state of California as much as any other place. Most importantly here, we see it in the belief that no authority is outside the contempt of the public for moral transgressions. This last aspect of American Exceptionalism shows how this problem with the Catholic Church and child molestation has come to light in the United States.

I remember the issue of child molestation as an American problem. When the story was no longer denied, it appeared that it was American priests who were the ones involved in the crimes. It seemed reasonable to suppose that it was the very individualism of the United States that prompted the transgressive behavior. The problem was American laxity with respect to sexual norms that somehow passed into its priests and led to the corruption we could no longer deny. Now, with the Pope himself implicated in what are really heinous crimes and confronting the  Howard Baker question “what did the Pope know and when did he know it,” we have to recognize that there is something deeply flawed in the church’s relationship to modern sexual norms.

I have to believe that this is a case in which America has given the world a gift. It seems completely implausible to me that this kind of child abuse has not been taking place in Ireland and Italy and Bolivia as well as in America. We now recognize this as a world problem because of the exceptionalism of American Catholics and their willingness to question authority and push the question to a point that we can no longer ignore it.  This is one positive aspect of the American political culture. Not simply committed to liberty of thought and transparency to the point of  naivete, Americans are practiced in a kind of therapeutic pragmatism that allows them to forgive themselves for traumas that others have imposed on them, and to push that guilt back up the authority chain to where it might rest.

So, this is a moment when I can be proud to be an American, something that is much needed in times of war and recession in which we are deeply implicated. Americans raised the alarm on this tragedy and as serious as it is, we needn’t worry for the future of the Catholic Church, which has passed through the fall of Rome, Luther’s 95 theses and the Inquisition. If the church can survive Luther, it can survive Freud. Maureen Dowd today has defended her actions and those of the American press, with the quip that the church needs a sexorcist not an exorcist.  In one way, she is right; to prevent the confrontation from escalating, the church will have to go through its own kind of renewal on this issue. What better day to begin than Easter?

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  1. This is a great article. A few weeks ago I preached on this very topic in church and I mentioned the gift the American church brings to the universal church on this child sex scandal. The link to Easter makes is very appropriate as the church needs some renewal. What the American church has to learn from the universal church is that, there are many ways of dealing with problems other than resignations, paying, imprisonment or all three. Sometimes it is good to let people face their “mess” and clean it up, learn from it or take decisions for the betterment of the institution.

  2. Clement, It is wonderful to hear from you who has a chance to make a difference on this. I think you are right that the Americans are too formal. We tend to either do too much or do nothing at all. Alternative processes that engage the spirit of the problem are, of course, welcome. But as with other matters where Most American problems are on display for world condemnation, we may ironically be ahead of other places who prefer quiet “solutions” and denial. This is why I think that as chilling as our sex, gender and racial problems are, we actually have much to teach other places. We are loud and open. That is both good and bad. What we do very badly here is care for the poor and protect the vulnerable. Class is our cross. For many, these are hard times to respect the U.S., but there are places where that respect is still due.

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