Saturday, November 20, 2010

Does the church need to remove the wooden beam of structural violence from its own eye?

Johan Galtung coined the term “structural violence” in his 1969 journal article on peace and violence.  This article became a cornerstone in modern peace and justice work.  The article describes structural versus personal violence and their correlation.  It also differentiates between physical and emotional violence.  Social justice is the work to eliminate structural and personal violence whether physical or emotional.

Previously I mentioned that structural violence occurs when the institution threatens a broad set of people to control behavior.  The threat can be for physical or emotional violence but the threat itself is emotionally violent.  Threats of excommunication’s eternal damnation might be an example of this.

Another characteristic of structural violence is power imbalance.  An elite ruling class holds institutional power and decides who gets to enter the power circle.  The ruling elite determine the distribution of resources and opportunities, or determine who determines their distribution.  Because the ruling elite benefit from maintaining the status quo and also control institutional policy, structurally violent systems are characterized by very high degrees of stability as well. 

The Catholic Church has a strong history supporting social justice.  Twenty papal encyclicals beginning with Rerum Novarum, written in 1891, outline many aspects of human rights.  Dozens of documents written by popes, councils and bishops dating from as long ago as 1226 supplement the encyclicals.  For the full anthology, click here.   Catholic social justice teachings include statements such as:

1.  “…the measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person”. (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops)
2.  “a healthy community can be achieved only if human rights are protected” (USCCB)
3.  “…if you want peace, work for justice.” (Pope Paul VI)

The church primarily focuses on social justice in secular institutions.  However, since Jesus tells religious leaders to first remove the wooden beam from their own eye before trying to remove a splinter from another’s eye (MT 7:5, LK 6:41), it is fitting to question if structural violence exists within the church.

Let’s look at the church’s governing model first.  The power circle in the church excludes laymen and all women.  Somewhere Jesus’ directive for the apostles to heal and preach morphed into them becoming an exclusive class of governors.  Only those in the power circle of ordained men choose who may enter the power circle as well as hierarchical appointments within the power circle.  Women daring to consider entering the power circle are threatened with the structural violence of ex-communication’s eternal damnation. 

The ruling elite attribute their choices selecting power circle members to the Holy Spirit but only as it works through them.  Church rulers dismiss and disregard the Spirit’s work within women and laymen on this matter.  Rulers say women and laymen should not feel this violates their human dignity despite many laity expressing they feel it does. Invalidating another person’s opinions or emotions, in itself, violates human dignity.

The ruling elite set their policy based upon interpreting scripture but they also decreed that they alone decide if they interpret correctly.  They disregard any working of the Holy Spirit through laymen or women on this matter as well.  Again, they tell women and laymen they should not feel dehumanized.

They believe so strongly in their correctness that they declare their practices as “sacred tradition” and their policies on certain matters as “infallible”.  Furthermore, they believe so strongly in their infallibility that they created a policy preventing the overturn of “infallible” policies.  These policies and “sacred traditions” create an excruciatingly stable governing structure that maintains an exclusive ruling class of ordained men while dehumanizing women and laymen.

Does the church need to remove the wooden beam of structural violence from its own eye?  In a large part, this was the effort undertaken by the Second Vatican Council.  Are recent attempts to reverse and redirect Vatican II efforts examples of the ruling elite shaping policy to maintain their power and power circle?

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