Friday, June 25, 2010

Learning from the Maciel Scandal

Having reflected on the "origins" argument in "The Mission of Father Maciel," Alma Guillermoprieto's analysis of the Maciel scandal in the latest New York Review, I feel it only fair to apply similar reasoning to her conclusion. This requires my beginning with a paragraph of her text, rather than a sentence:

In the end, the scandal of Marcial Maciel, gruesome and grotesque as it is, may turn out to be a scandal of the Catholic Church. There is the distressing question of the Church's last pope, the popular John Paul II, and his relations with the demonic priest. There is the not unimportant fact that the Legionaries—along with Benedict XVI and indeed John Paul II—represent the most morally conservative part of the Church, and that they now appear enmeshed in squalid moral scandals. There is, above all, the fact that an entire large, wealthy, international institution is now under suspicion (what did Maciel's fellow Legionaries know, when did they know it, and who was complicit?) and that the greatest institution of all, the Roman Catholic Church, appears to have engaged in a cover-up for decades on its behalf. Catholics who always identified their priests with Bing Crosby films will need some time to adjust to this knowledge.

Once again I would like to proceed on rhetorical grounds. Let me begin with a minor point, which is the need to include the word "films" in that final sentence. This is a perfect example of what Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass called the "media equation" phenomenon, best summarized in the subtitle of their book whose title is the name of that phenomenon, "how people treat computers, television, and new media like real people and places." There are any number of stories about how the "real-life" Bing Crosby did not live up to the idealized standards of the priests he portrayed; so the process of identification singled out in that concluding sentence has no grounding in reality. However, since faith does not require such grounding in reality, this is no more than a minor observation.

Of far greater interest is that parenthesis, because I would like to assume that its words were deliberately chosen to evoke memories of the Watergate scandal, the only political scandal in American history to have led to the resignation of the President of the United States. The bottom line is that Richard Nixon resigned because it was very likely that, had he not done so, he would have been obliged to face an impeachment trial. The Articles of Impeachment being drawn up by a House Committee chaired by Peter Rodino may have been confined to specific issues concerned with the letter of Constitutional law; but the investigation itself was clearly driven by the question of whether or not the President was "enmeshed in squalid moral scandals."

What happened after the resignation? Vice President Gerald Ford took the Presidential Oath of Office; and, after having been sworn into the office, proclaimed "our long national nightmare is over." Unfortunately, he subsequently issued a blanket pardon for Nixon, which basically quashed all further investigation. It also left a black mark on the entire Republican Party, leading many of us with more progressive inclinations to hope that the "long national nightmare" of Republican conservatism had also ended. We were further encouraged by the election of Jimmy Carter. Unfortunately, Carter was undone by his own set of nightmares; and conservatism was resurrected (with an intentionally Christian connotation) with the election of Ronald Reagan.

Since that time progressivism has had a harder and harder time of advancing its agenda. Bill Clinton was not elected on the basis of a progressive strategy but through a cleverly managed set of tactics all based on an astute understanding of the consciousness industry. Clinton may have thought that these tactics were necessary, that becoming President with his Party in the majority in both Houses of Congress would be sufficient to then proceed with a progressive agenda; but, as they say, he quickly had another think coming. Eight years of Clinton became one prolonged Night of the Long Knives, during which conservatives embraced the conviction that winning was "the only thing." (Clinton, of course, supplied some of those knives with his own "squalid moral scandals.") By the time of the 2000 Presidential Election, it was clear that any progressive agenda was in tatters; and ten years on there is little to show for it being stitched back into a coherent fabric.

At the risk of sounding too reductive, I would suggest that the "survival value" of progressivism has been jeopardized by too much attention to ideas and too little to the significance of that consciousness industry. The conservatives learned from Clinton's tactics and pulled the judo strategy of turning them to their own advantage. The result is that we now have a "President of ideas" who is under attack on just about every conceivable front. In a similar way I would suggest that every organized religion has grown and thrived by virtue of the consciousness industry, and the Roman Catholic Church has one of the best track records for doing so. It would be nice to believe that an inherently corrupt hierarchy could be undone by the system of values it purports to represent, but I think Guillermoprieto may have missed out on the likelihood that what claims to be a community of faith is actually a highly authoritarian organization. It understands the logic of domination just as effectively as Republican conservatives have understood it and applied that understanding; and, for all intents and purposes, faith does not really signify.

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