I’ve been reflecting on the current stage of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church as seen through the lens of moral foundations theory, because it seems to me that one of the dimensions of dissonance in the responses of Catholic factions to what’s been unfolding since the summer of ‘18 relates to the findings of those proposing this new theory of moral psychology.
A little while ago, I read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and (perhaps appropriately) it really struck home by validating something I saw in myself and the people around me. That is, people are not morally rational…at least not primarily rational. Instead, people form an opinion, especially about morality, intuitively, in their emotional center, and then turn to reason to justify that heartfelt opinion secondarily. What changes people’s minds, Haidt argues, isn’t really a change of mind; it’s a change of heart, usually by intersecting with personal stories that shift their current worldview by exposing them emotionally to another way of seeing a situation.
Moral foundations theory, which Haidt outlines in the book, assumes that communities of interest prioritize different constellations of moral values, with some mix of care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and maybe liberty/oppression. Haidt (himself a self-professed progressive atheist) argues that progressives tend to keep their moral reasoning almost exclusively in the first two dimensions, while conservatives tend to use all of them in more of a balance. (Libertarians are a special breed, who in part sparked the addition of the sixth provisional value set.)
In trying to understand my friends who believe that the root cause of the current crisis is the tolerance of deviance from church teaching on sexuality (by which I don’t only mean openness to LGBT believers, but recognizing that that’s the key issue), what keeps coming up in my mind is an observation that they are driven by a deeply felt sensitivity to sanctity and degradation. At a very obvious level, this applies to a reaction to the idea of same-sex sexual relations at all by those who are offended by them; clearly, they would hold that same sex relations violate the sanctity of the divine design of human sexuality and signal the degradation of what sex was meant to be.
But, deeper than that, there’s a sense that what it means to be Christian is to seek sanctity and purity and to actively keep out all that degrades. The other elements are important – authority in determining purity, loyalty to that vision of sanctity, etc. But in this understanding, the Church is a fortress in a viciously antagonistic world, one that must be kept secure by keeping it pure, by keeping out those who by their identities would degrade it.
You could do a full-out Bible Study on Old and New Testament passages that underscore this point. I’m not going to, but I welcome those who want to. I’m just conceding that this is a narrative of what it means to be holy that extends back to the beginning of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
But it’s not the only narrative that can claim that heritage and power, and that may be the issue at play in a lot of the dissension we’re seeing today. What Pope Francis brought to his papacy was a different model of what it means to be Church (one echoed by his predecessor Saint Pope John XXIII and many others): Church as field hospital. Let me try to make that case:
One of the gifts of Catholicism is the lectionary – a break down of the Bible into chunks of Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament and Gospel passages that cycle you through most of the Bible every three years on Sundays and every two years on weekdays. Today, tomorrow, and any day, every Catholic Church in the world (pretty much) will read and reflect on the same set of readings, including at least one Gospel passage, one Psalm, and one other reading. These were set decades ago, so it’s not the case that a pastor wakes up, is struck by a particular thing, and goes to pick readings to underscore that thing. You have to play the cards that are dealt, and while that doesn’t cover the entire Bible, it covers most of it. So if you’re Catholic (or attend another Church that follows a common lectionary), you will hear over the course of time a broader lens of what’s in the Bible, I would argue, than if you are attending a Church in which a pastor picks one book at a time to go deep on. (Growing up in such a Church, I got a heavy dose of Pauline letters; less so the other stuff.)
I raise that to say, it is really, really hard to listen to Jesus’ exploits, both of word and deed, every single day without getting a clear sense that he was deeply subversive and intensely driven by care. Most of what He says, and most of what He does, centers around breaking a norm in order to show care and, even more subversive, actively include those who had been cast out as degrading, unsanctified. Widows and orphans, sure. Those afflicted by deformities and illnesses blamed on their sin or their parents, you bet. But lepers and bleeding women and Samaritans and Romans who were specifically declared unclean and degrading to observers of the Hebrew law of the time.
His subversive focus on care didn’t just undercut the sanctity/degradation and the authority/subversion realms. He violated fairness in what he said, all the time. The parable of the workers said forget paying people based on how hard they worked; shower them all with enough. The parable of the Prodigal Son becomes the parable of the Prodigal Father, who lets his son waste away half his inheritance on wine, women and song and then throws a feast to welcome him back, ticking off the older son who still clings to fairness and all-but-shouts “He’s cheating!” And, perhaps most uncomfortably, in his crucifixion and resurrection, he testifies that even the most malevolent harm can be transformed into loving care, not only for the sinless Son, but for the thief rightfully executed at his side.
In the light of that subversive ethos, this counternarrative of the Church says we are not called to be set apart from the hurting as a shining, exemplary, pure fortress on a hill; we are called to be a field hospital, choosing as Jesus did to go straight toward the margins, to actively embrace those that purity says you should keep at arm’s length, to overwhelm them with love and let yourself take on their stain in the process. One of the fundamental turning points in St. Francis of Assisi’s life doesn’t get as much play in the arts and legends as his taming wolves and preaching to birds. When he was younger, he was horrified by the lepers outside Assisi’s walls, reflecting the cultural norms and good hygiene. But in the process of his conversion, God confronted him with a leper who Francis finally saw not as an impurity or a threat but as a brother needing human touch. When Francis hugged the leper he had earlier scorned, it marked the turn toward sainthood. So are we called as Christians to love first those most scorned by our society, even those that make us go “Eww.” So says the Gospel writers. So says Francis of Assisi. So says the current pope, as imperfect as his example may prove to be.
I obviously have a rooting interest between these narratives, so I admit the bias. But it seems to me that our choice of vision is one of running away from sin or running toward love. Either way, you’re running; one direction is clean and cold, and the other is warm and messy. Like I said, I’ve made my choice based on the God I’ve encountered in Word, Spirit and Sacrament. But I also need to recognize that others hearing the same Word, participating in the same Sacrament, and receiving the same Spirit might be pulled in the other direction. (And the test I will offer – which life brings the most evidence of the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, and the like) – might be a split decision or draw to a truly objective judge.)
As (almost) all of us react in horror to the thought that 16 years after US Catholic Bishops adopted a charter to protect children from sexual abuse, there remain thousands of cases (perhaps) that have never been reconciled, and a hierarchical culture of coverup, you notice that some people’s horror is a little different from others. The victims of abuse lose when we allow ourselves to obsess on those differences rather than the crimes from which there has been no repentance. But maybe if we understand how these divergent narratives of what the Church should be drive those differences, we can give them a nod of understanding and shrug them off enough to focus together on bringing care to the victims and justice to the wronged, and we can rebuild a Church that can hold together the tension of fortress and field hospital.
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