Truth to Power

truth

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples how to settle their disputes. Jesus explains that they are to deal with conflicts between two parties and, if that does not work, then to address it openly in the company of others. The final step is to bring it to the church.

I’ve written many times on this blog about domestic abuse and how it has impacted my life. I’ve written about how it has affected my relationship with my former Catholic parish. I’ve called out the Catholic Church’s lack of response to domestic abuse. While the Catholic Church doesn’t openly condone domestic abuse, it doesn’t openly work to end it either. Imagine if the efforts to end domestic abuse rivaled that of the efforts to end abortion. And I’ve pointed out the missed opportunities that the Church has had to be supportive of empowering women in general. For a recap, you can read Accountability, Reading the Synod, Life Reclaimed, Love In The Ashes or Morning After Reaction: Like A Girl. 

So great, we all know I have a big mouth and a small but loyal readership. Is the leadership of the Catholic Church really knocking themselves out to see what I have to say? I somehow doubt it. So I did what Jesus told me to do. I brought it to the Church directly. Speaking truth to power, I took it directly to the bishop in the form of a letter that I fully expected to go unanswered. When his secretary called me ten days later and told me he wanted to meet with me, I almost keeled over.

Between my own experiences and some of the research I had done over the last semester, I had learned precisely how unprepared the parish priests are to deal with domestic abuse situations. There is no training on domestic abuse or the cycle of violence – none at all – not in seminary and not beyond that. And yet, they’re responsible for preparing couples for marriage and counseling those whose marriages run into difficulty. There’s a USCCB document about domestic abuse that offers some thoughts on the subject but most of the priests I’ve talked to don’t even know it exists. This lack of training is precisely what I called out in my letter to the bishop.

I requested that the Church begin addressing a number of things on a parish level.

  • To recognize abuse victims when they present themselves and to assess their immediate safety. When a victim makes any sort of indication that there are abusive behaviors in the home, they have to be told they have an option to leave if they don’t feel safe. The initial response can’t be to try to salvage the marriage.

 

  • Knowing where to refer victims for the specialized counseling they need and how to help them contact the local domestic violence shelters. This type of crisis counseling is highly specialized and it can’t be up to the parish priests to handle it. But they must know where to send victims to ensure they get the help they need to recover. Also knowing how to help a victim get in touch with a shelter can be the difference between life and death.

 

  • Knowing where to refer abusers for the specialized counseling they also need, which is not simply anger management classes. Anger is an emotion. Abuse is a choice. Abusers have their own unique issues and they also need specialized long-term counseling. Their need for power and control is not all that different from a drug addict seeking their next high. And until they are ready to accept full responsibility for their actions, nothing will change.

 

  • Accountability for abusers. Far too often, abusers escape any real consequences from the civil authorities. In the Church, there are no consequences whatsoever. A known abuser should be held accountable for their actions, up to and including moving an abuser to a different parish to prevent contact with the victim.

 

  • Safe sanctuary for victims. The sacraments offer healing and grace. Victims need to be able to access the sacraments, without fear, in order to heal. The ability to be active in parish life should not be contingent upon trying to avoid contact with their abuser.

 

  • Raising awareness. The Catholic Church devotes a lot of time and energy to raising awareness of causes it cares about: abortion, religious freedom, immigration etc. Domestic abuse is a sin against the basic human dignity we all share. And it’s time the Church started talking about it openly.

 

I spent nearly an hour with the bishop going over where things fall far short of what is needed, both in general and in my specific situation. We talked about solutions, including the way the Lutheran churches handle situations where the abuser and victim are in the same parish. Ultimately, he promised me that he would address this with all the priests of the diocese at the convocation of priests and they will work to find ways to address each of the concerns that I raised, including some form of accountability for abusers.

And so now I have brought the issue to the Church. I have done what is within my power to do and it is now out of my hands. I will be watching closely to see what happens. I’ve made a conscious effort to keep my jadedness in check and to take this one bishop in this one diocese at his word. Seeing the Church, even on a local level, finally address the issue of domestic abuse would bring a great deal of healing to survivors like myself.

A Woman Like Me

butterflyToday’s gospel is one that I have hated for years. I realize how horrible it sounds to say that about sacred scripture but, God knows, it’s the honest truth.

Most people hear Jesus say, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Ask them what this gospel passage is about and they’ll tell you Jesus saved her daughter from the demon. Yay! Go Jesus! Or they’ll tell you about the faith of the mother. Yay! Go Mom! Be persistent in your faith!

They don’t hear, or they deeply discount, the lines prior to it in which Jesus compares a woman, desperate for His help, to a dog. I’ve heard a lot of explanations for that. The two leading favorites are that He was trying to show those who with Him their own prejudices and/or that He was testing the mother’s faith.

A woman like me has learned the hard way that a man who will call you a dog, humiliate you in front of his friends, and essentially make you beg for what you need is not a man who loves you, nor is he to be trusted.

A woman like me. That’s a perfectly awful term to use. Like I’m a freak of nature or an alien creature. I am a domestic abuse survivor. I was brutalized by a man who stood at the altar and swore to love, honor and protect me. And then did the exact opposite.

The textbooks will tell you that repeated trauma rewires the brain, causing victims to be hyper-aware and hyper-vigilant. In plain English, a woman like me sees and hears everyday things differently and I do it all the time because my brain is on constant alert for threats to my safety. I’m keenly aware of the distance, body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, choice of words, and any and all movements of those around me. So, yeah, when Jesus starts sounding like my ex-husband, I have a problem with it. A big, big problem with it. Trusting a guy who calls a woman a dog is the exact opposite of what my brain wants to do. Because I’ve been down that road and it gets damn ugly. But…

But long, long before I got married, I was schooled in the twin arts of sarcasm and gallows humor. One of the important lessons I learned early on is that not everyone will get the joke. As the saying goes, in that huge overlap between the things I find funny and the things that should not be joked about lie the reasons I’m going to hell. But there are those people with whom I have a good relationship, with whom that I know the banter back and forth is not insulting or harmful and with whom I can be pretty sarcastic. No harm. No foul.

My favorite client routinely answers the question ‘How are you?’ with a deadpan ‘Meh, I’m still this side of the grass, if that’s what you want to know.’ It goes without saying that we both know I really want to know if he’s doing okay and we both know he’s not seriously implying that I’m just checking to see that he’s not dead yet. There is an assumed level of safe relationship there.

What if the back and forth between Jesus and the Canaanite mother wasn’t as harsh as I hear it? What if there was an assumed level of safe relationship there also? Perhaps, instead of hearing this in abusive tones, I can learn to hear it in the sarcastic tones of safe relationship, one where both sides understand what goes without saying.

For a woman like me, that is a tough, but necessary, leap of faith. Because if I keep hearing this in abusive tones, I’m stuck trying to balance a Jesus I can’t trust with the Jesus I do and that will never, ever balance.

 

 

Accountability

Some recent comments from a Catholic archbishop in Spain made a bit of a splash earlier this week on the internet when he spoke in his homily about domestic violence and how women draw a macho reaction by rejecting their partner’s demands or by asking for a separation. You can read the story here or here.

In these modern times, when more attention than ever has been focused on women and their roles in society, domestic violence has been hauled out into the light and exposed for the widespread, insidious evil that it is. We can read more than ever before about the various forms of abuse and its short- and long-term effects. Articles abound which detail the ways in which abuse is often perpetuated in other forms long after a woman exits a violent relationship. There is plentiful research, much of which has been translated into layman’s terms, that demonstrates that not all abuse is physical and psychological damage from abusive relationships can last for years.

So that brings me back to church. As one who is actively dating other churches, I spend a serious amount time reading official statements and following various synod gatherings, especially from Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, and Episcopal churches. Back in November, a document was issued from the ELCA which specifically addressed gender-based violence. It contained a confession of individual and corporate sin in which the church admits to failing in the past to address such violence and for its role in not doing enough to counter bad theology which allowed for a misinterpretation of scripture in such a way as to promote patriarchal systems based on the view that women are ‘lower’ than men in creation. It went on to address the practicality which every congregation is likely to face at some point: having a woman and her abuser both as members of the congregation. In this situation, it was stressed that the safety of the victim is to be the greatest concern. Abusers, while they must be cared for, must also be held accountable not only to the victim but also to the community of faith. Congregations are strongly encouraged to have specific guidelines and plans of action to cope with such situations.

As a domestic violence survivor, I read it with great interest when it was issued but I didn’t do much of a real comparison with Catholic statements at the time. The comments this week from the Catholic archbishop touched a very raw nerve and so I decided to dig a little deeper. As I had written on this blog previously, the recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family in Rome did not have much to say about domestic violence except as it explicitly related to women’s role as mother. As I scoured the internet now, I did manage to find a relatively new document from the U.S. Catholic bishops on domestic violence that was long on scripture and short on any real practical guidance. Accountability is mentioned only once as a bullet point with no specifics whatsoever.

When a woman finds herself under attack at home and seeks the help of the Church, the clergy especially have a responsibility to not only refer her to specialized counseling services but also to ensure that she has a safe haven within the community. Abusers can, and should, also be referred to specialized counseling but they must also be held accountable for their actions.

This leads me to ask the questions of my Catholic brothers: what does real Christian accountability look like? When do we need to move beyond pastoral care to exercise the pastoral authority we claim to have been given through apostolic succession?

Perhaps it means the messy work of assisting an abuser in transitioning to a new parish away from their victim.  Perhaps it means putting safeguards in place that allow a victim new to a parish to ensure that their abuser does not follow them. But for as long as accountability remains an undefined bullet point, victims will continue to suffer needlessly and for this the Catholic Church is accountable.
ELCA Foundational Document & Related Social Message

USCCB Statement When I Call For Help

The People-Watching of a Catholic Cynic

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The past few weeks have been heaven for those of us who are shameless people-watchers. I’m not sure what was more interesting: watching Catholics watching the Pope, watching non-Catholics watching the Pope, or watching Catholics watching non-Catholics watching the Pope. A personal favorite was the Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. We watched half of it in the local diner. Everyone there was exceptionally quiet, watching and listening to the Mass. We got home in time to watch the end of it. After the Mass was over, as the Pope making his way through the crowd, the commentator stated, “We heard the Pope at the end of Mass say ‘Go in peace.’ Very much keeping with his message throughout this visit…”

My younger son laughed. “Obviously he’s not a Catholic. They say that at every Mass. That’s Jesus’ message not the Pope’s.”

And as if all that wasn’t enough fun to watch, now that Pope Francis is back in Rome, we have the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. I’m curious to see what will come out of it all. So much talk about divorce, remarriage and annulments certainly pricks up my ears. My longtime Twitter nemesis, Fr. Paul is in Rome observing the Synod from the outside. I asked him if he knew if the topic of domestic abuse was on the agenda for discussion. He hadn’t seen anything at that point and at his suggestion, I read through the Instrumentum Laboris (working document of the synod) and found not a single mention.

***sigh***  Why am I not surprised that a room full of celibate men wouldn’t even think to include an issue that effects 1 in 4 women, 1 in 7 men, and certainly impacts the entire family. I have searched periodically for the last eight years and I have yet to find any official Vatican document of any sort that deals with violence in the home. Plenty to say about what is or is not acceptable in the bedroom but abuse of a spouse is never mentioned.

Yes, I know, I’m a cynic. And yes, I know, the Church in no way condones violence. But if you’re going to gather to discuss the pastoral issues facing families, particularly divorce and remarriage, don’t you think it might be common sense to discuss WHY people get divorced in the first place? Domestic abuse is certainly high on the list of reasons.

Then the bombshell hit. Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher of Gatineau, Quebec proposed discussion of ordaining women the diaconate. I almost dropped my tea when a friend texted me that newsflash. Finally! Someone with a little authority making the same argument I’ve been making for the last few years. Now the people-watching gets really interesting. The traditionalists immediately started howling that women can “just go be nuns” and “they don’t need to priests to serve”, even though the discussion was clearly about the diaconate not the presbyeriate. The moderates hemmed and hawed and clucked their tongues while making the usual patronizing, non-committal statements about the need for the “feminine genius” and “expanded roles for women”, neither of which are ever defined. Then there are the liberals, who went wild with hope that there was finally a real discussion of women having a role in liturgical ministry and some sort of real voice in the Church.

From the cynical outsider perspective, I see a whole lot of posturing. And it makes me wonder which message these men are keeping to: their own or that of Jesus. Because Jesus was certainly talking to the women about their situations rather than telling them that this is how it was going to be. Jesus addressed the pastoral realities of the people he met, not just the theological ideal. It seems like the Vatican forgot that centuries ago and is too entrenched in its own traditions to admit that it may need a course correction. The Catholic Church is missing half the of the voices and half of the reality. The theologically ideal Catholic woman is a either nun or married (once, forever) with children. That is not the pastoral reality. And let’s not forget that a woman’s perspective on the Gospel is not heard from the pulpit on any Sunday, ever.

Finally, I ventured into the online debate on women’s ordination and the anger, hostility, insecurity and general nastiness of some of the Catholics I encountered was really sad to see. The Vatican has firmly established in the laity, and a majority of the clergy, an accept-everything-or-get-out mentality.  I suppose that seemed wise in light of the Reformation, but with the 500th anniversary of the Reformation approaching, I have to wonder if that mentality isn’t going to eventually suffocate the Catholic Church.