Steve Boehrer was in Rome the day Angelo Roncali was elected Pope John XXIII. He stood in the Piazza San Pietro, watched the white smoke puffs, and felt hope for his Church. He was 25 years old then, a veteran of the United States Navy, anxious to finish his seminary studies and be ordained. He was subsequently ordained, earned a doctorate in theology, became chancellor of a diocese, but later, like many, came "to see the light" and left the priesthood. Like many of us here at Catholica he really did buy the forward-looking vision of Vatican II discerned by the majority of the Bishops of the world. He has been aghast at the steady march of the minority, reactionary element amongst the hierarchy who have left no stone unturned to undo the vision discerned by the majority of bishops at Vatican II to turn the clock back. In this commentary he explores some of what he is attempting to explore at greater length in his novel, The Purple Culture.
The Purple Culture
The pervasiveness of the priest sexual abuse scandal is well documented. Lawsuits filed by the abused against the Catholic Church are daily items in the media. It is a fact that bishops, upon reports of abuse by victims, transferred abusers from parish to parish, from diocese to diocese and even to other countries. Moreover, bishops routinely stonewalled and through attorneys played hardball with victims who sought help and redress. Factual data without editorial comment is available to anyone at www.bishop-accountability.org.
While much is made of the facts, there has been scant inquiry into the motives of all those bishops who kept known abusers loose among the innocent. It has been speculated that the bishops acted out of ignorance or naivety. Bishops, however, are well educated and generally possess advanced degrees. Some have suggested that the bishops were wilfully evil. I don't think so. Bishops begin their ministry as do most priests with an intention of service.
I suggest that a search for the motivations that underlie episcopal behaviors will help us understand their behavior in this scandal and on many other issues including a married clergy, women priests, openness and dialogue with dissenters, birth control, their increasing fundamentalism, and more. The answer lies in an evaluation of their unique culture, a purple culture whose behaviors were borrowed and established centuries ago.
Every culture has its addictive qualities. We all share the non-reflective manner of acting within the generally accepted prescriptions of our culture. Born into a racist culture, we would be racist until reflection led us away. Born into a culture of empire, we would think ourselves chosen to lead our lesser humans into the light of democracy or, depending on our empire, into servitude. Experts tell us that organizations can be addictive and that the addiction necessarily extends to the culture of the organization. They also note that addicts have a way of exempting themselves from conventional morality.
The Aristocratic Culture
The historical record shows without doubt that the primary source of the episcopal culture is the aristocracy. With the support of Roman Emperors the Christian leadership took on the style of the aristocracy in the fourth century. By the middle of the fifth century, aristocratic standing was a virtual requirement for the office of bishop. Historians have determined that a papal court has existed at least since the seventh century. Over time, pontiffs took on the royal mystique and claimed absolute power even over kings. They dispensed titles such as prince, duke and the like. They exercised power over life and land in their own domain and beyond. By the time of the French Revolution the aristocracy had a total monopoly over the episcopal offices. Such aristocratic appointments carried the aristocratic culture into the Church.
It was a culture based on pretense, the mystique of a ruler, who by the grace of God, or so it was claimed, controlled everything at his pleasure. As a consequence, sycophancy defined the society because ambition could only be advanced in that manner. The culture was exploitative, belittling and pompous. Trivia replaced substance.
In that culture, the masses were all but discounted. Their role was that of provider (labor, food, taxes) to nobility and, of course, as cannon fodder. Aristocracy projected the image that they watched over the masses with concern. The reality was that the rest of humankind seldom entered the aristocratic consciousness. If they ever noticed the dire poverty and terrible sufferings of the masses, aristocrats did little more than thank God they were not of that estate. As they were nobility by the grace of God, so the grace of God had established the others in their misery.
The secular aristocracy began to disappear with the French and American revolutions. Aristocrats are present in society today but are mostly without political power. Where they exist today it is mostly as symbols of national identification or unities, positioned by the affection of the citizens.
Not so with the clerical aristocracy. The mystique of aristocracy is found throughout the episcopal culture: precedence as displayed in coats of arms, titles of eminence and excellency, grants of knighthood, absorption in trivia as evidenced in today's concern over the minutiae of liturgical wordings, and a near total discounting of the laity. In the liturgy we see the throne, the royal garb, and the etiquette of bows, genuflections, and kneeling.
A careful review of history shatters the mystique. It displays the aristocracy to have been a shallow lot, concerned mostly with gossip, parlor games, entertainments, sports, intrigues, and perhaps especially, their genealogies. This legacy remains in the Church.
Prime Paradigm of Cult
The monarchical aristocracy is the prime paradigm of cult. A cult is always centered around a living leader who requires absolute submission. Questioning and dissent are forbidden. Behavior is controlled, sometimes to the minutest detail. The cult leader draws in members by the promise to meet some need: dependency, idealism, ambition, a way out of delusion, meaning, spirituality, etc. Behaviors within a cult are determined and given legitimacy from the top. The leader of a cult manipulates and exploits cult members.
This is not to imply that the Catholic Church as a whole is a cult. It is not, since the laity display and maintain a reasonable independence. The same is not true for the episcopate. All one need look at is the suppression of dissent in a host of moral matters. "It is not even to be discussed", comes from the pope himself. Recent history also contains rare bishops who have dared to think and act outside a Vatican perspective. They were quickly marginalized.
Another component of the purple culture is narcissism. The DSM-IV [LINK], the diagnostic manual for psychotherapeutic professionals, lists nine diagnostic criteria for narcissism, any five of which are said to confirm the diagnosis. Eight of them express behavior flowing from unwarrantable self-exaltation.
Professionals tell us that a large group of people can be narcissistic. For example, an elite military force, indoctrinated as being special, praised for their specialness, wearing the insignia of specialness, considering themselves warriors without peer, and having a sense of invulnerability. When shown to be vulnerable they can react with violence even on innocent non-combatants or prisoners.
It is theorized that we all begin life as narcissists and lose that characteristic as we mature. Professionals point out, however, that narcissism can be re-acquired. People can reach a degree of other-centeredness and then re-cultured into a return to self-absorption. We hear bishops refer to their assembly as "the most exclusive club in the world", and their society containing those cultural behaviors as a "perfect" society. And then, there is their disdain for the laity's wisdom.
Pray for our bishops
To protect their purple culture, bishops have exhibited all of the behaviors needed to achieve control of the members: control of thought, of expression, of property, and of finance. "Pay, pray and obey" has been the laity=s lot, and is not a quaint fiction.
It is clear that bishops did not experience guilt in their abetment of and cover-up for priest sexual abusers. They did not experience guilt because their addiction to their purple culture blinded them to the devastation. They did not experience guilt because they were able, consciously or not, to give themselves a personal exemption from wrongdoing. They were acting for a higher cause, their divinely decreed culture. They did not experience guilt because it would question the perfection of their culture and themselves as reflections of that culture. They did not experience guilt because their eyes, ears, minds and hearts are turned in one direction, and it is not towards the laity. The laity are totally discounted. (With the possible exception today of attorneys)
A moral defect infects our Catholic leadership. Is there a cure? Is there some form of social petri dish where the purple can be leached away and bishops re-cultured to a moral compass that points once again to its true north - i.e. all of humanity? Can we have realistic hope that the wisdom of the laity will be heard in open dialogue? (Can anyone doubt there would have been no abuse crisis if parents had been consulted?) Certainly not as long as they continue to avoid self-evaluation.
Pray for our bishops. They are today's morally indigent.
Stephen L Boehrer. Submitted to Catholica 10 Nov 2011
What are your thoughts on this commentary?