It’s only as good as we practice it: clarifying my Greek Catholic thoughts on the sex abuse crisis

It’s only as good as we practice it: clarifying my Greek Catholic thoughts on the sex abuse crisis August 20, 2018
The Theotokos of the Passion, known among the Latins as Our Lady of Perpetual Help – Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

An Eastern Catholic writing colleague of mine wrote after my post last week on the Pennsylvania grand jury report on the Latin Church that it is our problem too. He attached what I think is the closest thing we have to an omnibus of news articles from the Survival Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) on the crimes of Fr John Danilak and its cover up by the Byzantine Catholic Bishop Andrew Pataki in the Eparchy of Passaic, as well as that of Fr John Rebovich in the Eparchy of Parma. Another friend corroborates these Ruthenian examples – the Ruthenians in the United States call themselves the Byzantine Catholic Church of America – but the ones he cites have not been made public yet, though he says that they were perpetrated by supposedly ‘celibate’ clergy. There are also a number of Orthodox cases. Many of these, which include cases for the Orthodox in communion and not in communion with Rome, are posted on the site that is aptly named Pokrov (for the Protecting Mantle of the Mother of God). I am also familiar with the recent abuse allegations in the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), both against the bishop and the boarding school, as well as the sordid business with the Ephraimites and the broader problem of fake starets (elders) who claim to be Orthodox spiritual guides.

These problems with abuse in Orthodoxy – both in and out of communion with Rome – do not alter my argument that Byzantine liturgical sensibilities around the agency of the laity might help the Latin Church rediscover what it means to be ‘Catholic’ after the failure of its bishops. However, I do think a clarification is necessary. Another friend of mine who goes regularly to temple with me remarked after reading my thoughts on the difference between the de facto current structural emphasis of the Latin Church on its bishops’ conferences and the messier synodal structure of my Greek Catholic church is that I am ‘very into structure.’ I take this as a compliment after years of intellectual over-emphasis on individual agency due to my conservative background, but in this case, I also think it means that maybe I wasn’t clear. The beauty of the blogging genre is that we are figuring things out as we write, though, so I’m glad to be afforded the opportunity to clear my throat a little bit more.

When I say that Eastern Catholicism might be able to offer a way of being Catholic that is detached from being Latin and its requisite juridical and bureaucratic obsessions, I am not only saying that our Byzantine ecclesiology is somehow better as a system. The Orthodox who are not in communion with Rome can certainly afford to be triumphalistic, but those of us they call uniates cannot. For us Eastern Catholics, not only do we have a fantastic structure that emphasizes lay liturgical action, but also we are fantastically bad putting it into practice. Part of this comes from having a kind of chip on our shoulder because we are treated by both the Latins and the other Orthodox as second-class citizens in the Catholic communion, and we also tend to be believe it. The result, as one of our theologians Cyril Korolevsky said over a century ago in his classic essay L’uniatisme, is that despite our Greek heritage, our inferiority complex leads us to prefer Latin theological formulations and ecclesial modes. We therefore have a church structure that is more driven by lay participation, synodal among the bishops, and democratic in practice than the Latins. The operative word in that last sentence is practice. Envying the Latins makes us do terribly authoritarian things too, including the cover-up of sex abuse. It might, as I saw somewhere on the Internet, sometimes be better that our churches are small, as the stubbornness of a hierarchy cannot stamp out the gossip of ordinary lay people. But that is small comfort when the larger problem is our colonized ecclesial mentalities.

The question that the problem of uniatism raises, of course, is why anyone should relate to Rome at all. Since we have become in the habit of using the term intrinsically disordered to describe the current crisis, perhaps the term might be useful for understanding that there is more than one mode of intrinsic disorder when it comes to the Latin Church. Uniatism is the usually touted problem, but the other is the irrational hatred of Rome, to the point of some Orthodox churches including the papacy in its anathemas for the Sunday of Orthodoxy. A Latin friend of mine is fond of quoting the late René Girard’s dictum to choose one’s enemies carefully as you will become them, and I think he is right. I was chatting not too long ago with a theologian in our church who told me that, just for fun, he had done up a two-column comparison between the powers of the Bishop of Rome and the Patriarch of Moscow over the operations of their respective churches. Hands down, the Moscow Patriarchate had more, yet it is they who condemn Roman authoritarianism and uniatism the loudest. I won’t enumerate that comparison, as I do not want to steal my colleague’s publication thunder. But there is more than one intrinsically disordered way to relate to the top-down hierarchical culture of the Latin Church: one can be colonized by it, but one can also be locked in a psychic cycle of hatred with it such that one becomes the very monster they despise.

There is no Christian in the world, I am suggesting, who does not in some way relate to Rome. Protestants are the discontents from the Latin Church, often forming their polities in reaction to Roman authoritarianism and claims that such a structure perverts the Gospel, and the Orthodox have sometimes behaved the same way, in some parts because they saw that those who signed unions with Rome getting latinized (while not acknowledging their own latinizations by way of maintaining the relation with Rome in a negative way). Because the reality, it seems, is that the church of Rome presides over the other churches – ideally in charity, but maybe not always in practice – I have become fond of either the gestures of friendship that some Orthodox Christians make toward Rome (such as in the practice of a number of bishops and theologians in the Ecumenical Patriarchate) or the movement among Eastern Catholics to understand ourselves as Orthodox-in-communion-with-Rome. In fact, these two movements sometimes come together, such as in the Kyivan Church Study Group in which our more radical theologians who support our church’s autonomy while in communion with Rome came together with those in the Ecumenical Patriarchate who favor closer relations with Rome. The best way, I think, to defuse the colonization bomb is to enter into a relationship of conscientization with the Latin Church (John Madey’s words, not mine), so that our constant conversation with our sister church will help our sisters and brothers there to understand who they truly are in relation to the churches and therefore discover more fully the meaning of catholicity. Friendship, after all, is so much better as a relational approach than colonization on the one hand and hatred on the other, especially in relation to a church that no Christian can escape – and arguably, no secular person either, as secularization implies that the institutions circumscribing secular life are in many ways derived from Latin institutions.

But such words – friendship, maintaining our autonomy, resisting colonization, practicing democracy in our liturgical life and even church governance – are only as good as we practice them. One of the first texts I read on my way into the catechumenate was Anthony Kaldellis’s Byzantine Republic. I remember telling my bishop about reading it while I was still a catechumen, to which he responded that I was the second person after our brilliant theologian Brian Butcher that he’s ever spoken to where he understands every word coming out of our mouths but not how and why they can be strung together. I took that as a compliment and kept reading. I even blogged about it once.

Kaldellis makes a number of fascinating arguments about modern misunderstandings of Byzantine polity. The Byzantines, he contends, understood themselves to be the Roman Empire. However, the appearance of a top-down imperial structure was actually dependent on the practice of the politeia, the ostensibly governed people whose reception of the governance was what gave the emperor his legitimacy. In Latin translation, that word politeia becomes res publica – or republic, as he provocatively presents it. The main takeaway that I got out of the book was that structure is not everything. Kaldellis criticizes the entire field of Byzantine Studies for its obsession in how the Byzantine Empire looked in terms of its structure – there is an emperor and an empire, so of course it must be top down and authoritarian – and not how politics in Byzantium worked in practice. In this way, Kaldellis’s arguments are a bit of a homage to Edward Said, for whom this ‘textual attitude’ – the idea that a civilization’s texts tell you all you need to know about how they did things – was also textbook orientalism, a framing of anything ‘east’ of the West as static, passive, and despotic. Avoiding the orientalist trap requires much more attention to praxis, to the stories that practices themselves tell, not just texts that tell you about structures in their ideal senses. In Kaldellis’s argument, the implications are massive: if it is true that the Byzantine Empire saw themselves as Roman and they were governed via politeia, then doesn’t that also mean that there is also a democratic streak in the Latin tradition too? Doesn’t this mean that, contrary to popular opinion, the authoritarianism in the Latin Church is a development, which means that newer developments could also be had?

What I am saying is that what I said about Byzantine polity advancing a réssourcement about the meaning of Catholicism for the laity requires a kind of anti-orientalism too. Byzantine polity is not about advancing an ideal structure that is plain from its texts; it is about how the practice of politics generates a political order. Those practices, I said in that last post, begin at the liturgy. The lay people, who are in the sanctuary in front of the icons, have to understand that because their bishop and presbyters are behind the icons for most of the service, it is the people who have to organize themselves. In fact, they also have to understand that in the kiss of peace before the Creed, they say Christ is among us among themselves, not with the laity. Certainly, this liturgical sensibility is in sync with what’s going on at the altar; after all, much of the people’s singing of antiphons, irmosi, troparia, kontakia, and so on and so forth is to provide a kind of blanket of sound to cover the prayers of the hierarchy. What that implies is that the hierarchy are not the church independent of the people, and it is also the people who have to do their own organizing because the clergy have other things to do. This is, in a word, an ecclesiology with people – indeed, of the people, because the point of it is that people are doing things, and the doing of the thing is what makes the polity work. In fact, the polity doesn’t work if nobody does anything, and the messiness of it all – people singing out of tune, people getting mad at each other during liturgy, people distracting other people, people throwing each other off, people having to organize themselves into cantors, readers, and servers in order to maintain a semblance of decency and order – is usually a sign that the democratic practice is actually being done.

I say all this because in the case of clergy sex abuse, things would be a lot easier to handle in such a democratic polity. For one thing, there would be the phenomenon of lay people gossiping about who the perverts are among the priests and bishops, which would make those guys easier to identify, throw out, and jail. But for another, these practices do not lend themselves to the substitution of somebody else’s agency for one’s own actions. With such a way of doing things, there is no reporting clergy sex abuse to the clergy and waiting for the diocese to do something about it. If you know about it, then you go to the police directly. It won’t hurt the church if you do that because you are the church, and it is clear in this scenario that it’s the sex abuse that is hurting the church, not the reporting. In fact, with such a praxis, we’d be good at reporting a lot of other things in addition to clergy sex abuse: fake starets, peeping tom spiritual fathers, fraud scholars with fake degrees, fake monks, people seeking to use our churches as platforms for ethnonationalist causes and white supremacy, and so on and so forth. I wouldn’t even mind if all that filth were aired out publicly – as it currently is online, in fact – as the public sphere is the best way for lay people to share their findings in an efficient way.

Alas, all of what I’m saying is only as good as we practice it. Again, the Byzantine churches have their fair share of sexual abuse and cover-ups too, and some of that has to do with a kind of homegrown authoritarianism in which our liturgical practice has been perverted. What’s more, an intrinsically disordered relationship with the Latins – whether uniatism or anathematization – can exacerbate the problem. But why I am saying that it’s still Byzantine is because the liturgies that I’m describing as the site of possible democratic practice are Byzantine ones. They are the ones practiced in my church, which is why I am reflecting on them. I am not familiar enough with the other churches’ liturgies because I do not participate in them regularly enough to know what resources they might rediscover if they reflected on their praxis. But given my reading of Kaldellis, I wonder whether my Byzantine reflections might be a little more Catholic than expected if the practices of the church were given more serious theological reflection.

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