An 'Illusion of Scholarship'
By Bishop Thomas J. Curry
The Tidings [Los Angeles CA]
April 28, 2003
Editor's note: On April 15, the University of California at Santa Barbara scheduled a "Community Lecture" under the auspices of the Walter H. Capps Center entitled, "The Unhealed Wound, Still Unhealed" to be delivered by Eugene Cullen Kennedy.
Because the lecture was advertised as a solo performance with no formal response, the following will offer a critical perspective on Eugene Kennedy's recent work, "The Unhealed Wound: The Church, the Priesthood, and the Question of Sexuality."
The tendency of some Catholic critics to fall into the anti-Catholicism that so marred the American past represents a tragic irony of contemporary Catholicism.
The author resembles much of what he condemns. His approach can be seen as indebted to the old seminary manuals that predated Vatican II. In them, the church could do no wrong; for Kennedy, it can do no right.
In his book, "The Unhealed Wound: The Church, the Priesthood, and the Question of Sexuality," Eugene Kennedy writes of "a once totally passive Catholic community conditioned to receive and accept as God's will whatever the official Church bade its members do" (p. 101).
Nineteenth century anti-Catholics would have concurred with him. As Philip Hamburger documents so thoroughly in his recent "Separation of Church and State" (Harvard U.P, 2002), that was precisely the stereotype they used to advocate the exclusion of Catholics from the franchise and political life.
The very people Kennedy so denigrates faced constant and malignant prejudice, and by their courage, faith and resistance, they contributed enormously to the transformation of America into a pluralistic, open and diverse nation. In the church that they built for themselves, they found a refuge from their sufferings, and they created one of the most vibrant expressions of Catholicism ever.
The book begins with and proceeds according to what amounts to a travesty of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. Kennedy writes that the "hierarchical culture of the church -- not to be confused with the Church of the People of God -- is fragmenting before our eyes" (X111, 24). Throughout, he separates the "organizational" and the "institutional" church from the church as mystery and the People of God.
In reality, these are different images of the one church. However, sundering them and isolating the parts allows him to demonize the "institutional" church and idealize the "People of God."
The depth of his confusion and lack of understanding of contemporary Catholicism appears in his astonishing and unsupported statement: "Distracted from or forgetting it, the church misses entirely the meaning of its central teaching that God took on our flesh in Jesus, sparing Himself none of our experiences, save sin, in order to heal our wounds and make us whole" (10).
Kennedy emphasizes the importance of myth and story, but forming a coherent approach based on either is precisely what this author cannot do. He focuses on the myth of Parsifal and the healing of the unhealed wound, but in this author's hands, the myth is only a weapon to wound, demean and condemn.
Nor can he tell a story, because his view of history and life is based on crass conspiracy theory and reductionism. The Catholic people are seen as mindless sheep, manipulated by conspiring "hierarchs," or just long-suffering martyrs to the same. He reduces the whole tradition of celibacy in Catholicism to the desire of the 11th century pope Gregory VII to protect church lands (IX).
Alternatively, he more mercifully sees the Catholic community as a "reliable guide to belief, decision, and action" (105). Nevertheless, when it suits him, as it does in the case of the Virgin Birth, he dispenses with that community in favor of Joseph Campbell as the authoritative interpreter of Catholic belief (130). The more problematic topics that raise the issue of the people as guide -- the death penalty, war and peace, the social teaching of the Church, the preferential option of the poor -- he passes over in silence.
In what seems to be a questionable methodology, Kennedy uses a multi-source approach that blends fact and fiction (50-54). References to popular culture substitute for study and research. For him, the "fey and self-centered priest of the 1990s" created by TV's "The Sopranos" is sufficient to represent the modern priesthood (154).
Indeed, "The Unhealed Wound" is littered with a scattershot pattern of cultural references that serve only to provide the illusion of scholarship. For example, the author's reference to the Code Napoleon illustrates how little he understands much of the history he employs (146).
Kennedy laments the "divided self." Paradoxically, division is precisely what forms the heart of this book -- division between the different images of the church, between the church and the larger culture past and present, between the good and the bad, between the guilty and the innocent, the manipulators and the manipulated.
Moreover, the author resembles much of what he condemns. For example, he writes of the Modernist Controversy in Catholicism with a virulence and vehemence that matches what he opposes. His approach can be seen as indebted to the old seminary manuals that predated Vatican II. In them, the church could do no wrong; for Kennedy, it can do no right. Like them, this work is insular and closed off from the larger cultural context, and his references are usually merely vehicles for condemnation. He appears to be so isolated in his absorption in the condemnation of Catholicism that he thinks the ordination of women would address the problem of abortion (179-190).
Although Kennedy certainly raises the problems of the modern church and its sins of the past, in his eagerness to condemn, he only manages to compose a 200-page rant and a rather crude prosecutor's brief. To my way of thinking, the community will find in this book no adequate presentation of the church as it exists. Rather, an understanding of his approach can be better found in the classic works on anti-Catholicism by Ray Billington, John Higham and now Philip Hamburger.
My purpose is hardly to deny the existence of many problems and challenges in contemporary Catholicism. However, those problems co-exist in a community that for more than a generation has exhibited enormous vibrancy. People, priests, and Religious have managed to negotiate perhaps the most extraordinary changes in Catholicism in its whole history, but certainly since the Reformation. They have exhibited good sense, enthusiasm, dedication, and a sense of unity that Kennedy seems to miss.
In addition, particularly in the West, they have responded with enormous effort to the third great immigration in American history that has brought with it huge numbers of Catholics diverse in language and culture. Much remains to be done, but I lament that Kennedy appears to know little of these developments. The People of God in the church I know are neither mindless nor persecuted victims.
Reality always comes off second best when measured against an idealized future. Like a modern-day Gatsby, Kennedy believes in the "orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us." However, in his determination to present such a skewed and partisan version of Catholicism, he joins himself to an old tradition of American anti-Catholicism and is himself "borne back ceaselessly into the past."
Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Curry is the Santa Barbara Pastoral Region Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. His most recent book is "Farewell to Christendom: The Future of Church and State in America" (Oxford U.P., 2001).
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.