The Wilkinson Report on the crisis facing the church and the priesthood in Australia has drawn a lot of interest. It also drew the usual responses from the elements in the Church who seem to fail to understand that the Holy Spirit and Our Lady Help of Christians have been answering the call for vocations for decades. There were some particularly vicious taunts of racism directed at people, including Dr Paul Collins one of the people responsible for helping organise the study, who questioned the wisdom of importing priests foreign to the Australian culture to fill the gaps. Dr Jane Anderson has been upset enough by these bloggers to pen this response...
'Racist' – a Catholic paradox
In response to the recent Wilkinson Report [LINK], strident bloggers have levelled charges of racism against Paul Collins for having had the courage to raise issues surrounding the policy of importing overseas born priests. Their unwarranted criticisms might easily be shrugged off or consigned to the eccentric bin. But their unwarranted accusations can also be recognised as a danger because they potentially frustrate the need for a debate about this subject. It is all too common for this simplistic "racist" tag to be applied whenever this issue is raised and for this reason there is an urgent need to scrutinise the accusations made by these bloggers.
The racist tag is, on the whole, voiced by vociferous right wing Catholics who assume that the institutional Church's priestly policies are sacrosanct. They essentially believe that the priesthood should be uniformly moulded to celibacy and maleness, a prescription that enables them to uphold their static beliefs in the security of fixed structures. For these reasons overseas born priests present few problems. However, in their protection of these priests, they attack those who question the policy in characteristically demonising ways.
First, their arguments are reductive. In narrowly applying the racist tag, they neither take into account the context in which they use it, nor are they mindful of the context from which they borrow it. Their intent is to use the power of the label to diminish the veracity and volume of alternative thinking.
In Australian society, the word "racism" has been attributed an authority that can be used by citizens to police those who inflict damage on cultural minorities. It is one way of upholding the principle of equality, a cornerstone of our democratic pluralist society. Thus, in calling a person a racist, we, as citizens can socially penalise and, in some instances, criminally prosecute those who fail to abide by that standard.
There are, however, few structural parallels between Australian society and the Catholic Church. The Church, as we are often reminded, is not a democracy, but a hierarchy; nor is it considered pluralistic, but rather monolithic. As well, the principle that right wing Catholics seek to uphold is not equality, but subordination. In applying the racist tag in the Church context, they defend highly ranked overseas born priests while attacking the much lesser ranked critics of this policy. In effect, their discriminatory remark entrenches discrimination; a paradox given the tag's original intent to free the suppressed.
Secondly, such verbal bullying seeks to distract. The racist tag takes the focus off informed criticism and redirects them on to the person who authored them. In this shaming exercise, strident bloggers aim to damage the reputation of concerned Catholics to such an extent that a reader will exclude him or her from their consideration. And if this is effective, so will the message be excluded, regardless of its merit.
This tactic should be condemned, especially in light of the Second Vatican Council. At the Council, there was a concerted effort to expand the horizons of the Church, a process that saw the adoption of an ethos enshrined in the "People of God". This retrieved biblical image encouraged the idea that the Church is a community and not primarily a hierarchy. This notion was further advanced in the principle of collegiality among bishops in collaboration with all the baptised, which was supposed to enable all Catholics to participate in the Church's decision- making processes.
Despite this ideal having been subverted by recent papacies, informed and concerned Catholics exercise their responsibilities as baptised Catholics when they draw attention to the problems relating to overseas born priests. It is in the interests of the Church to have these difficulties recognised, named and analysed. Our Church will not benefit from ignorance, secrecy and suppression.
Note here also that when informed Catholics raise concerns relating to bringing in overseas born priests, they generally do so in relation to other issues such as ameliorating the clergy shortage in alternative ways, clergy-lay tensions and the subordination of women. They are not saying there is no place for overseas born priests, they are, however, questioning how this policy is being used to ignore pressing questions and adding to the complexity of those difficulties. Such nuance, moreover, not only challenges the racist tag, but also those who seem to be believe that their voice is the only one worth listening to.
Thirdly, the use of the label 'racist' is malicious. In their contempt, strident bloggers disregard the decades of scholarship that background some Catholic commentators and the experience of others. Such incivility effectively portrays the Church not as Christ would have it. It does not reflect the ideal, "see how they love each other", but rather one of "see how they hate each other". We are not a right wing Church, nor are we a left wing Church. We are meant to be one community, and the healthy tension between these two positions is supposed to produce the creativity that is necessary for a functional and vibrant Church.
One wonders how much longer informed and concerned Catholics will bang their heads against the locked door of the institutional Church, protected further by strident gate keepers who slander loyal and committed, concern and informed Catholics. We as a Church need the sacrifices informed critics undoubtedly make, but more than that, we need right wing Catholics who will listen with a faithful sense of catholicity that recognises the value of what the left wing is saying about the policy of bringing in overseas born priests.
Jane Anderson 10Mar2011
What are your thoughts on this commentary?