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Occupy Wall Street and the Movement to Occupy Faith Communities: Reflections

A number of days ago, theologian Tom Beaudoin posted commentary at the “In All Things” blog site of America magazine asking whether the Occupy Wall Street movement might be a moment for Catholics to consider occupying our own church.  Needless to say, Beaudoin’s question provoked lively commentary at this site, where a group of ultra-right wing Catholics have for some years now dogged the steps of the Jesuit editors of the journal, trying to force them to toe the religious and political line of the American right.  The Jesuits are a particular target of the American Catholic right, after one of their previous Superior Generals, Pedro Arrupe, made the preferential option for the poor a priority for this religious community.

It turns out that Tom Beaudoin is not the only member of a faith community now asking about what the Occupy Wall Street movement means for her or his religious group–asking, specifically, whether his or her religious community needs to be occupied now.  As Sarah Posner reports at Religion Dispatches, an Occupy Judaism movement has now emerged.  Posner notes that a leader of this movement, Daniel Sieradski, is pushing back against the expectation of the Jewish religious establishment that members of American Jewish communities “check our social justice values at the establishment’s door.”

And it’s not just Judaism: in a recent article entitled “Occupy the Greek Orthodox Church,” Louis Ruprecht notes that amidst huge national protests against the draconian austerity measures now being imposed on the Greek people to try to resolve their nation’s financial crisis,  the Greek government has taken an unprecedented step.  It’s asking the Greek Orthodox church, which enjoys lavish tax breaks under Greek law, and whose clergy receive state salaries, to begin shouldering its burden to solve the country’s economic problems.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is, indeed, it seems, spreading to various religious communities around the world.  And I wonder what that might mean for them, and for the role of religion in the contemporary world and in this nebulous but powerful (and now widespread) movement for social transformation.

In the first place, I suspect that the word “occupy” itself needs to have a high profile in the discussion of this question of what Occupy Wall Street might mean for religious communities.  As Laurie Penny notes at Common Dreams, at its very core, the worldwide movement to “occupy” economic and political structures and public spaces designated as spaces belonging to economic and political elites is an “act of defiance” to recolonize public space.  Penny writes,

What commentators fail to understand is that occupation is itself a demand. It’s a new, practical politics for those disillusioned with representative democracy, which demonstrators claim is a private club run by the rich, for the rich.

And if this is correct (and I think it is), then movements calling for the occupation of the Catholic church, or Judaism, or the Greek Orthodox church, are acts of defiance calling for the “recolonization” of the public spaces of those religious communities.  They’re demands for the elites leading and dominating these religious communities to recognize that the space the communities occupy belongs to the entire religious community, and not to the elite that happens to control the community.  As Daniel Sieradski notes, the movement to occupy faith communities represents a direct, decisive challenge to the leaders of various communities of faith as those leaders instruct their fellow believers to check their social justice values at the establishment’s door.

There is, I conclude, large and growing disaffection among many people of faith at the carefully tailored way in which the ruling elites of their religious communities present social justice values to the community of faith.  All too often, in the preaching of those who manage various religious communities, the call to do justice, to live justice, applies to everyone but the leaders of the faith community itself.  The call to do and to live justice, which is central to the Judaeo-Christian scriptures, applies, in the preaching of many leaders of faith communities, to the world at large, but never to the church, temple, or synagogue.

And it also does not apply in any systematic or hard-hitting way, in the preaching of many religious leaders, to the ruling powers of socio-economic structures: as Chris Hedges notes at Truthdig, churches no less than the media, academic institutions, the Democratic party, and the arts and labor establisments, have “set the parameters for limited self-criticism in a functioning democracy as well as small, incremental reforms.”  All of these institutions have, Hedges thinks, tended to become liberal “safety valves” for morally indefensible political and economic structures whose core governing principle is greed. And so these institutions–religious communities included–benefit largely from keeping things as they are, while they decry the worst excesses of the system of greed they claim to critique:  “The liberal class is permitted to decry the worst excesses of power and champion basic human rights while at the same time endowing systems of power with a morality and virtue it does not possess.”

Here’s what I think Hedges means by these observations: many communities of faith, including (and perhaps in particular) those of a liberal bent, have come to enjoy a symbotic, parasitic arrangement with the rapacious economic structures that are now causing the collapse of the global economy, and creating tremendous misery for many people around the world.   While never directly challenging the core principle of greed at the center of these economic structures, the leaders of faith communities talk in vague, sentimental terms about the need to share, help, and love.  But to share, help, and love in ways that, essentially, change nothing about rapacious systems based on greed, and that essentially change nothing about the tremendous disparities in wealth that these systems have now produced . . . .

And, in particular, the religious leaders of various faith communities benefit from the symbiotic, parasitic arrangement I’m describing.  They cannot and will not challenge the core principles on which the current system of enormous rapacity is based, because issuing such a challenge would undercut their own power and privilege at the trough at which that system of greed feeds.

And so the occupy Catholicism/Judaism/Greek Orthodoxy/whatever movement, in pushing for the right of believers to occupy the public space that belongs to their entire religious group–to all the people who stand within a given religious tradition–is pushing back against the claim of elite groups within religious groups to have privileged knowledge of what it means to be a believer living justice and doing justice in the world today.  And these movements of occupation are also pushing back against the sheltered, privileged political and economic status of leaders of religious communities, which hobbles those leaders’ witness to justice and closes their mouths about the tremendous injustices from which the current misery around the world springs.

So, to return to Tom Beaudoin’s question: what would it mean for us Catholics to occupy our Catholic church today?  In one sense, that question has already been on the table for some time now, as church leaders all over the place close churches and schools that were built by the donations (and, often, by the actual labor) of the people in the parishes affected by these closings.  These churches and schools are closed without consulting or securing the agreement of the Catholic families whose ancestors built the structures in question.

In some areas, Catholics who refuse to give up their churches and schools have literally occupied their churches and schools, refusing to permit them to be closed.  A case like this is back in the news right now in the Boston archdiocese, in the parish of St. James the Great in Wellesley, where parishioners have refused to stop occupying their parish church since it was closed in 2004.  And where the archdiocese has just announced it intends to shut off heat and water in the facility as winter approaches . . . .

And then there’s the abuse crisis, where legions of “ordinary” Catholics continue to ask how our church leaders could have so grossly betrayed us (and, especially, the least among us) in their mishandling of the abuse crisis, and how we, as everyday Catholics who enjoy no governing power or privilege in our church, can alter this situation.  The indictment of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph last week is opening that question up all over again in a new way for American Catholics.

In response to Finn’s indictment, the Vatican has just announced it has no intention of “intervening” in the legal process in any way.   In the latest issue of the National Survivor Advocates Coalition (NSAC) News (17 Oct. 2011, vol. 3, 187), which I received by email today, Kristine Ward, NSAC’s chair, has issued an editorial statement about the Vatican’s response to Finn’s indictment.  I don’t think this issue of the newsletter is yet online at the NSAC website, so if readers will bear with me, I’ll cite the email edition of the editorial here.

Here’s how Kristine Ward reads the Vatican’s statement that it will not “intervene” in the matter of Bishop Finn’s indictment:

In the vernacular this means Pope Benedict has no intention of removing this bishop from his position as head of this diocese. This is not because as the Vatican statement said “any intervention would be interpreted as interference” with the implication that the Vatican action could somehow influence the trial but because the Vatican is not going to withdraw a bishop from his post in the sexual abuse scandal. To do so would crack the wall of complicity, deep and wide. Pope Benedict has chosen instead to plunge further into pain and turmoil the Catholic faithful of this diocese and by extension all of the universal Church. Instead of morality, Pope Benedict has chosen relativism.

I think that Kristine Ward is absolutely correct to read the Vatican statement as she reads it.  The movement to “reform” Vatican II–the so-called “reform of the reform”–which the current pope, Benedict, and his predecessor John Paul II spearheaded in the Catholic church is, in key respects, all about the refusal of the leaders at the top of the Catholic church to give up power and privilege they have enjoyed for centuries, from the time of Constantine forward.  The Constantinean arrangement, which amalgamated the Catholic church and the Roman Empire, gave popes, bishops, and priests immunity from civil law, and permitted internal church law to govern the behavior of Catholic leaders.

Vatican II called for a revision of this way of doing business, as it sought to place the Catholic church in constructive dialogue with civil society.  One of the reasons the past two papal regimes have sought not only to stall but to reverse the reforms of Vatican II is that those leading the Catholic church do not want to concede their “right” to do business according to church canons and internal church governing regulations, even when secular civil law demands that they behave otherwise.  And this is why bishops like Finn continue to flout civil laws requiring that priests known to be a threat to minors be reported to civil authorities.

What we see going on now–particularly in the case of Finn in a stark way–is a struggle between the laws of secular democracies and the ancient principle of the Catholic church under the Constantinean arrangement, by which its internal laws trump state laws, when it comes to the behavior of popes, bishops, and priests.  And as Kristine Ward notes, when that principle is under new scrutiny in the legal actions against Finn, the Vatican is not about to concede an inch by forcing Finn’s resignation.

Frank Cocozzelli (who is an attorney) analyzes the legal aspects of Finn’s case in two important recent articles (here and here) at Talk to Action and Open Tabernacle.  As Frank concludes, the case involving Finn bears watching among all of us who have sought repeatedly to call our Catholic pastoral leaders to accountability for their spectacular and immoral mishandling of the abuse crisis.

In some ways we have gotten nowhere, when an American bishop could, in just the past year, hide a priest possessing graphic images of child pornography on his computer, and could continue to permit that priest contact with children, while reporting none of this to civil authorities.  And this despite an agreement in 2008 with survivors of clerical sexual abuse in this diocese to abide by internal church regulations and civil codes re: reporting suspected child abuse to authorities . . . .

And so, given how powerless many lay Catholics have long felt in the face of the abuse crisis and how our church leaders continue to handle it, I read what is happening in Kansas City right now as an “occupy-the-Catholic-church” moment.  Or, at the very least, as an opening to such an occupy-the-church moment . . . .

Because we lay Catholics have had almost no power at all, at an institutional level, to change a situation in our church that large numbers of us desperately want to change, the legal action against Bishop Finn–in secular court, beyond the control of Vatican officials–opens the door for us to take back our church.   As this case proceeds, I’ll be very interested to watch and see how many Catholics might begin to take advantage of the opening it represents, and to begin occupying our Catholic church.

Which belongs to us as the people of God . . . .

(Please see as well this postscript to the preceding posting.)

The graphic is a photograph of the Occupy Saint Paul group that occupied the space in front of Saint Paul’s cathedral this past weekend.

Cross-posted from Bilgrimage, 17 Oct. 2011.


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