Consent, Obedience, and Philadelphia

Charles Chaput was installed last week as Archbishop of Philadelphia, and Rocco Palmo has posted his installation homily.

Philadelphia, as you may recall, has been the US diocese most recently and intensely convulsed by the sex abuse scandal.

My first reaction to this homily was to be disturbed by his discussion of Mary’s response to the Annunciation as “obedience”. Although this is the language I was first taught — Mary’s obedience over against Eve’s disobedience — I have over the years, and especially since reading Denise Levertov’s breathtaking poem Annunciation, come to understand Mary’s response not as obedience, but as consent.


What’s the difference? Maybe it’s just semantics, but I don’t think so. Obedience has connotations not only of submitting one’s will, but of abdicating one’s moral agency, at the direction of another. Consent has connotations of aligning one’s will, of voluntarily allying one’s moral agency with that of another.

The molested children of Philadelphia obeyed their abusers. They did not consent.

This is especially disturbing given that it works with the metaphor of bishop and church as arranged marriage. Marriage as the metaphor for this relationship is common ecclesiological parlance, so arranged marriage is not too big a stretch. But with obedience as a lead-in theme, I found this passage disturbing:

So, what we embark on today is a marriage, where someone who loves you, the Holy Father, is also someone who loves me. And the Holy Father knows in his wisdom that we will make a good family together. So we should see each other as gifts. I receive you as a gift from the Holy Father; and this requires that you receive me and my service as a gift from him, too.

“Requires” is the language of obedience, not of consent. There’s no possibility for the church of Philadelphia to consent to this marriage, because where it is impossible to say “no”, it is equally impossible to say “yes”.

It’s not that I’m a die-hard proponent of churches electing their own bishops. It’s the combination of the themes of obedience, arranged marriage (which, let us not forget, is historically about a man handing over his daughter to another man for a sexual relationship), sexual abuse, and episcopal coverup that is profoundly disturbing here.

Re-reading the homily, I particularly noticed the phrases that would fall painfully on the hearts of the abuse survivors. Imagine yourself to be such a person hearing these words proclaimed by your new bishop:

All the events of a believer’s life are shaped by the will of a loving God.

Saint Jose Maria Escriva said this about the struggle with fear and anxiety that all of us sooner or later face: “Have you forgotten that God is your father? Or [that God is] powerful, infinitely wise, full of mercy? [God] would never send you anything evil. The thing that is worrying you is good for you even though those earthbound eyes of yours may not be able to see it now.”

Finally, I noticed these words, near the closing of the homily:

But it’s important to remember and to believe the Church is not defined by her failures. And you and I are not defined by our critics or by those who dislike us.

Bishop Chaput, the young people who were abused by Roman Catholic priests while their bishops failed to protect them, these people and their friends and families, are not “critics” of the church, nor people who “dislike” the church. They are victims of the church. And Christ himself tells us that we will be defined by our victims. “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me.”

Gracious God, we pray for your holy catholic church, especially the church of Philadelphia.
Fill it with your truth;
Keep it in your peace.
Where it is corrupt, reform it.
Where it is in error, correct it.
Where it is right, defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, reunite it;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Amen.

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One Response to Consent, Obedience, and Philadelphia

  1. Mark Silk over at Spiritual Politics also comments on the consent issue in the marriage metaphor, taking a look at it in its historical context.

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