May 4, 2012

Following Orders: The Vatican and Beyond

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

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“Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

The trial of Monsignor William Lynn is bringing some fascinating insight into the internal dynamics that have driven the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. I say that because the Philadelphia diocese is by no means an anachronism. If anything it's emblematic of the top-down authority structure that has allowed these wounds to fester in parishes all over the world. I found this tidbit particularly juicy.

Monsignor Michael Picard was punished for complaining when the priest was assigned to his Newtown, Pa., parish in 1996. Picard said he had heard disturbing information about the priest from reliable sources — and acted for the sake of his parish.

The late Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, angry that Picard was rejecting his decision on the placements, ordered him to apologize and take a two-week retreat to reflect on his actions.

"Cardinal Bevilacqua noted that he will not tolerate even the appearance of disobedience by any priest," states a memo of a disciplinary meeting read in court Wednesday.

So a priest questions the placement of a suspected pedophile in his parish and the response from higher is to stop being disobedient. And his response was to plead that he was not being disobedient. He even accused Lynn of "falsifying the disobedience charge." He was merely raising a reasonable question. Silly priest. Doesn't he know that questioning the absolute authority of the Church is disobedience?

Monsignor Lynn, for his part, has defended his actions -- and inactions -- by claiming that he was simply following the orders of Cardinal Bevilacqua.

This was not the first time this week that I was brought up short by the very concept of obedience.

The other evening my husband and I were watching this interview on the Daily Show and were struck by a peculiar irony -- one not addressed at all by Jon Stewart, or anyone else that I'm aware of. I have no quarrel with Zach Wahls but I did find it fascinating that he structured a book on being raised by a lesbian couple around the Boy Scout Law.

A Scout is:
  • Trustworthy,
  • Loyal,
  • Helpful,
  • Friendly,
  • Courteous,
  • Kind,
  • Obedient,
  • Cheerful,
  • Thrifty,
  • Brave,
  • Clean,
  • and Reverent.

Why do I find this odd? Because the Boy Scouts of America strictly prohibits gay people from participating in the organization. So right off the bat, Eagle Scout Wahls has proved himself to be at least a little disobedient to the spirit of the organization. And good for him. No, really. Good for him. But you gotta wonder how the parent organization feels about being thematically tied to a book called My Two Moms.

So how's all that moral prohibition working out for the Boy Scouts? Not so well, really, as discussed here:

Stealing attention from the Catholic Church's problems, allegations recently came to light of similar incidents within the Boy Scouts of America under the patronage of the Church of Latter Day Saints (aka the Mormons). The Catholic and Mormon churches are two of the most vociferous arbiters of morality. Both invested heavily in promoting the passage of Proposition 8 which rescinded the law allowing gay marriage in California. Both are sponsors of Boy Scouts of America and have campaigned against allowing gays and atheists to participate. The Mormons threatened to pull their memberships if the Scouts changed their rules, which would have devastated the bottom line for the organization.

When it comes to sexual abuse in their own midst, these moral authorities have been strangely silent. Mormon Bishop Gordon McKewn withheld the identities of 17 boys, who Scoutmaster Timur Dykes admitted molesting, from police investigators. The "morally straight" Boy Scouts now stand accused of secreting away at least 1000 such "perversion files."

That I would choose tolerance of gays and atheists over tolerance of sex offenders kind of goes without saying but I'm not making the rules for the Boy Scouts of America. The Mormon and Catholic churches are, apparently. And that concept of obedience to insane rules that enable child abuse is overdue for scrutiny.

The concept of obedience, I think, gives rise to abuse in a much broader sense. Right off the bat, when children are taught to obey their elders without question, what are they supposed to do when confronted by an authority figure who insists on sexually abusing them? What a conundrum for the child faced with that horrible reality.

While many of the principles on that list that Wahls has highlighted with his strangely ironical book are lovely, any list like that is a double-edged sword. Such words and phrases can also be used as thought-stopping maxims and as such are bludgeons in the hands of abusers of power. I wrote a great deal about thought-stopping maxims and the psychology of influence when I was covering the James Ray sweat lodge trial. In that horrible for-instance, an adherence to buzzwords instilled by a charismatic leader were a primary factor in preventing people from leaving a human kiln that killed three of them and permanently injured many more. And as discussed, an understanding of the lessons of the Milgram Experiment could prevent so many of these disasters. To review: A staggering number of people proved so obedient to authority that they were willing to kill people rather than question anyone with a lab coat and clipboard.

"Well-behaved women seldom make history." ~ Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (Self described Mormon feminist. Yes. They exist.)

My husband and I have committed ourselves to raising a disobedient child. No, really. Not a child who doesn't have responsibilities or keep commitments. Structure and boundaries, yes, but mindless adherence to our authority, never. She has been taught since she was very young that we have good reasons for our rules and have always been willing to hear her questions about those rules, even though we are often at pains to put them in terms a child can understand. We consider the alternative terrifying in its potential to leave her vulnerable. As you might expect, it has repeatedly put her -- and us -- on a collision course with some educators. Fortunately, we have also been lucky to find a number teachers and administrators who, more or less, share our viewpoint.

Schools are in many ways conformity factories and even the most well intended educators are faced with a difficult balancing act. It's a microcosm of the ongoing social struggle to support the individual and the common good at the same time. A recent study found, for instance, that teachers, usually inadvertently, squelch creativity because creative people tend to be disruptive.

From Creativity: Asset or Burden in the Classroom?, a good review paper. What the paper shows is that the characteristics that teachers use to describe their favorite student correlate negatively with the characteristics associated with creativity. In addition, although teachers say that they like creative students, teachers also say creative students are “sincere, responsible, good-natured and reliable.” In other words, the teachers don’t know what creative students are actually like.  (FYI, the research design would have been stronger if the researchers had actually tested the students for creativity.)  As a result, schooling has a negative effect on creativity.

In other words, creativity and obedience are kinda like oil and water. And whenever I hear that word thrown around my hackles go up. Also, when I hear teachers or parents requiring children to call them sir or ma'am. Because it's all about getting children to submit to adults as unquestioned authorities, which sets them up for inconceivably horrible abuses. And it creates whole new generations of adults who don't question authority or the most authoritarian of structures. It fosters the notion that we should shock heart patients until they die because the man in the lab coat says to, or leave people who've stopped breathing in a tented inferno so as not to upset Mr. Ray, or stop whining about the priest who's molesting children because the Vatican tells us to. It's dangerous. Obedience to authority is dangerous.

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