“A House Divided” in Catholic Bishops’ Masculinities (cf. Mark 3:19-27)

Posted on June 6, 2012


A few weeks ago a group of three former Catholic priests sent a letter to the Minneapolis Star Tribune stating their opposition to the upcoming constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. And, while it received substantial news coverage, I found the response from the Archdiocese of St. Paul more significant insofar as it assumed a sort of unity among Catholics while simultaneously alienating self-identified Catholics who dissent from what the Bishops consider “correct Catholic teaching.” This contradiction within the identity of these bishops is the subject of this week’s post.

This week the Revised Common Lectionary takes up Mark’s Strong Man parable, wherein Jesus is confronted by his family and scribes from Jerusalem. Notably, the scribes accuse him of being possessed by “Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons” (Mark 3:22). Jesus’ response to their accusation, however, raises an important point, one to which his accusers must take note: “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand” (vv. 23-24). Indeed, what appears to be happening here is an exposure of not only the inconsistencies within the scribes’ accusation, but a tension present within their own identity. In other words,   Jesus poses the question of where their priorities lay if not simply with defeated evil in the world. Clearly, both they and Jesus desire to defeat demons, as he too has been casting them out, but the scribes still persist in their desire to prosecute.

In much the same way, the Catholic Bishops also seem to be lashing out at fellow Catholics as of late on issues of same-sex marriage and women’s reproductive rights. While presenting a united front, they continue to pursue a program of censorship against their fellow believers. The result is a “house divided,” which itself seems to be the only place in which these bishops can safely maintain their identity of  control.

Before proceeding, it seems only right to present the biblical text in question

19b Then he went home;
20 and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.
21 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”
22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”
23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan?
24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.
25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.
26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.
27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

Mark 3:19b-27, NRSV

Where do power and theology meet?

Jesus as a Threat to Those Who Would Identify Themselves as Authorities

While I in no way mean to make a one-to-one comparison between the scribes in this passage and that purportedly unified front that is the Catholic Bishops, the message sent by Jesus in his response to his opponents provides striking clarity to our contemporary situation. Indeed, Jesus recognizes the problem presented to him by the scribes: they seek both to alienate him as an outsider and establish their own authority by invoking a common enemy in the demonic. On the one hand, by accusing him of having allegiance to Beelzebul they assert their own opposition to the demonic. And, judging by the crowd following Jesus (3:20), this can be deemed a favorable identity. Who wouldn’t be against the leader of demons?! On the other hand, they also declare Jesus’ otherness. The authority with which he has been teaching (1:27) has become a threat and therefore by “othering” Jesus, the scribes cement their own authority over-against the power of this upstart preacher.

In short, these authorities are presented with a man who would threaten not just their authority, but their very identity as authorities. This is then the very phenomenon that Jesus exposes in this passage. He recognizes that the scribes present a solid identity, that identity being “against the demonic.” However, the solidity of their identity is called into question by their very claim that Jesus, one who “casts out demons,” could himself be of the demonic. By endeavoring to paint Jesus as “other,” these authorities have in fact othered themselves and created a contradictory identity which calls itself into question.

The Catholic Bishop: An Identity Dependent Upon Control of the Other

This April, the Washington Post reported, “A Vatican investigation of the Leadership of the Conference of Women Religious (LCWR),” a group of nuns in the U.S., “found serious theological errors in statements by members [over-emphasizing feminine attributes of God], widespread dissent on the church’s teaching on sexuality and ‘radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith. . .'” Much like the St. Paul Archdiocese’s response to those former Minnesotan priests, the Vatican responded to “radical feminist” nuns with an appeal to an indivisible order: the Catholic faith. Even so, just a couple days later, the Post again reported on this issue, this time presenting a nun’s perspective, who argued profoundly, “Whatever we engage with in ministry . . .we check in with others about it, and together as a sisterhood we make decisions.” What, then, does “Catholic faith” mean? Furthermore, why is the empowering of nuns so threatening to the male bishop establishment?

The very problematic here seems to rest with the fact that when these nuns emphasize “feminine attributes of God” or when former priests support same-sex marriage, the Catholic hierarchy is disturbed. This occurs not because they disagree with their superiors in the church, but because “correct Catholic teachings” as they exist today serve to legitimize the identities of these bishops. Thus, when they are circumvented, the hierarchy is delegitimized. What we see, therefore, within this debate over women’s rights and same-sex marriage is not simply a conflict over doctrine or morality, but on the stability of the identities of those in power, who in this case happen to be exclusively men with exclusive control over those they call “other.”

Special Thanks to Broad Blogs and Their Post on Religious Intolerance among the Catholic Leadership: http://broadblogs.com/2012/06/01/whose-religious-freedom-left-lets-right-decide/