His papacy has been a consistent rebuke to American culture-war Christianity in politics.
By John Gehring
The Rev. James Martin, one of America’s most prominent Catholic priests, is a best-selling author, film consultant to Hollywood producers and a prolific tweeter with a digital pulpit that reaches more than 250,000 followers. Father Martin is also a hero to many L.G.B.T. Catholics for challenging church leaders to recognize the full humanity of gay people. His advocacy has made him a target of vicious online campaigns from far-right Catholic groups. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia last month warned that Father Martin “does not speak with authority on behalf of the church.”
But this week, Father Martin’s ministry received an endorsement from the most authoritative of church offices. Pope Francis met with the priest, a Jesuit like the pope, during a private, half-hour conversation in the pope’s library, a place often reserved for discussions with heads of state and diplomats. In a tweet, Father Martin said he shared with Francis “the joys and hopes, and the griefs and anxieties, of L.G.B.T. Catholics and L.G.B.T. people worldwide.”
There is little doubt Pope Francis wanted the meeting advertised. Damian Thompson, associate editor of The Spectator, a London-based conservative magazine, tweeted that the pope’s meeting was “intended to taunt the U.S. conservatives that he demonizes.”
Despite that hyperventilating, Pope Francis has made it clear that he is not afraid of the small but increasingly vocal chorus of American critics who consider his pastoral efforts to reach out to L.G.B.T. people and divorced Catholics as near heretical breaks from church tradition. In September, a reporter asked Pope Francis about his right-wing critics in the United States. “It’s an honor that Americans are attacking me,” the pope told Nicholas Senèze, a French journalist who presented the pope with his new book, “How America Wanted to Change the Pope,” which chronicles efforts by conservatives in the United States to undermine the pope.
The pope’s meeting with Father Martin did more than serve as a signal of support for the priest’s advocacy on behalf of L.G.B.T. people. It was also emblematic of the Francis papacy, which has been a consistent rebuke to a style of culture-war Christianity that since the ascendance of the religious right in the United States during the 1980s has often been the default setting for American Christianity in politics.
Since his election six years ago, Pope Francis has modeled a different brand of moral leadership: engaging and persuading, reframing contentious issues away from narrow ideologies and expanding moral imaginations. Last week, a gay theologian and priest who was dismissed from his religious order for expressing disagreement with the church’s teachings on same-sex relationships wrote that Pope Francis called him two years ago, gave him “the power of the keys,” a reference to being restored to ministry, and encouraged him to “walk with deep interior freedom, following the spirit of Jesus.”
The pope’s interior freedom and humility stand in stark contrast to other religious and political leaders on the world stage. When Donald Trump accepted the Republican nomination for president, he declared: “I am your voice. I alone can fix it.” In keeping with that megalomania, Mr. Trump surrounds himself with compliant evangelical courtiers like Robert Jeffress, the Dallas megachurch pastor, who view the president in messianic terms, a political savior. Mr. Trump turned to Mr. Jeffress this week, citing the pastor’s claim on Fox News that if the president is impeached, it will cause a “Civil War-like fracture in this nation from which this country will never heal.”
Pope Francis rejects this resurgence of Christian nationalism and warns against idolizing politicians.
As right-wing populists from the United States to Europe depict migrants as menacing threats and build walls, the pope continues to challenge what he calls a “globalization of indifference.” On Sunday, during a special Mass for the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Pope Francis unveiled an artistic monument to migration in St. Peter’s Square. The work depicts 140 migrants and refugees from various historical periods traveling by boat, a powerful visual counterpoint to the nativist winds blowing across both sides of the Atlantic.
And unlike the loudest anti-abortion voices on the Christian right who are so wed to the Republican Party that they ignore assaults on life inflicted by policies that exacerbate economic inequality, poverty and climate change, the pope insists that the “lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute” are as “equally sacred” as the unborn in the womb.
Culture warriors in the United States have done enough damage to our collective political and moral imagination. More intoxicated with power than faithful to the gospel, these religious leaders demonize L.G.B.T. people, turn their back on migrants fleeing danger and ignore the cries of the poor while claiming to defend Christian values. A humble but persistent pastor in Rome reminds us there is a different path for those of us who still believe in a faith that seeks justice.
Pope Francis and his push for openness — toward migrants, Muslims and gay people — may no longer have influence on a global stage where nationalists, populists and the far right dominate the political conversation.
But inside the church is another story.
In a ceremony at St. Peter’s Basilica on Saturday, Francis will create 13 new cardinals who reflect his pastoral style and priorities on a range of issues, including migration, climate change, the inclusion of gay Catholics, interreligious dialogue and shifting church power away from Rome to bishops in Africa, Asia and South America.
The appointments are a landmark for Francis, who now reaches a tipping point of influence to shape the future church in his image. After Saturday, Francis will have named more than half of the voters within the College of Cardinals, where a two-thirds majority of those under the age of 80 are required to elect his successor.
The longer Francis lives, the more his pontificate matters.
“The longer it lasts, the more there will be cardinals in the spirit of Pope Francis,” said Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, who will be one of those made a cardinal this weekend.
Francis has by now made his agenda abundantly clear. Unlike his predecessors, who cracked down on dissent and promoted bishops and cardinals who emphasized fealty to church doctrine, Francis wants an inclusive church that welcomes back into the fold Catholics who felt geographically, pastorally and ideologically alienated. That mission has earned him the enmity of church conservatives, especially in the United States, who feel he is diluting the church’s teaching for the sake of a cheap embrace.
Francis will be 83 in December, and given his age, he has from the start of his papacy six years ago approached the role with a certain urgency, often acknowledging his own mortality.
Though his voice does not seem to carry as far in the world as it once did in an era of populist and right-wing politics, his effect within the church may be lasting.
By appointing cardinals and more than a thousand bishops on the front lines of the faith, Francis is reconstituting a church in his image. It is one that decentralizes power from Rome to the bishops around the world, that is willing to work through the challenges of the modern world together with other faiths, and with atheists.
While liberal critics argue he has not moved fast enough to reform the church — especially when it comes to the role of women — his supporters note that he is at the least willing to talk about and reconsider church policy on married priests, and its stance toward homosexuality and celibacy.
More concretely, he has reshaped the College of Cardinals, making it less white, less Italian and less representative of the Roman curia, the bureaucracy that governs the church.
Instead, he has looked to the church’s newer franchises. He has made it more Latin American, Asian and African. The new appointees among the cardinals will include prelates from Morocco, Indonesia, Guatemala and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
And tellingly for a pontiff with a tense relationship with conservative opponents in the United States, he has again passed over America’s traditional feeder schools for the College of Cardinals, especially those occupied by conservatives.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, a vocal critic of Francis, reached the retirement age of 75 in September without receiving a cardinal’s red hat. He is not expected to be asked to stay on for much longer.
Conservatives in the powerful American church have argued that Francis’ emphasis on pastoral openness is eroding the doctrine of the faith.
His backers say that at least he lets them speak out, and that under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, his conservative predecessors, theological critics were censored.
Francis has instead moved them out of power, ignored their complaints and mostly shrugged off their threats to break away.
“I pray that there are no schisms,” he said last month. “But I am not scared.”
Archbishop Hollerich, 61 and a Jesuit, like Francis, is president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union and is one of the church’s most vocal opponents of nationalism.
When it comes to Francis’ vision, he and his fellow new cardinals, “follow the same line,” he said.
He said that Francis was clearly against the traditionalist efforts to restore a Catholic society separate from the world. The attempts by his opponents to slow Francis down, he said, would backfire.
“The more he gets attacked,” Archbishop Hollerich said of Francis, “the more free he becomes.”
The day after Francis elevates the new cardinals, he will inaugurate a major meeting of bishops on the subject of the Amazon.
One of the major questions is whether to allow older married men with grown children and a strong standing in the Church — known as “viri probati” or proven men — to join the priesthood and administer sacraments to Catholics in remote areas that hardly ever see a priest.
Some conservatives worry it is a step on a slippery slope toward undoing priestly celibacy.
One of those running the conference on the Amazon is the Rev. Michael Czerny, 73, a Czech-born Canadian Jesuit that Francis will make a cardinal on Saturday.
Father Czerny, a close collaborator of Francis, declined to talk about the substance of the Amazon synod, except to say that “everything is on the table.”
But broadly speaking, he said the result of a College of Cardinals shaped by Francis was a willingness to take up difficult issues “in a way, in a style, in a spirit” consistent with the Second Vatican Council.
That landmark meeting of the world’s bishops in the 1960s spurred a spirit of openness in the church. It re-examined issues like its liturgy, the language in which people pray and priestly celibacy, which is not a question of doctrine but of church tradition dating back nearly 1,000 years.
But that opening triggered a backlash from conservatives that has lasted nearly a half-century.
Now, speaking about the possibility of ordaining married men, Archbishop Hollerich said if bishops in one part of the world say they need it, “I think the universal church should consider that request.”
While he personally considered celibacy a “great gift” for the priesthood, he added, that “does not mean it should be perhaps the only way.” He said he was far from alone in such views.
And Francis elevated other bishops considered open to change.
Archbishop Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, 64, is the only new Italian cardinal in a college Italy once dominated. His grand uncle was a cardinal once considered a candidate for pope, but the archbishop takes after Francis, dedicating much of his time to the poor.
In 2015 the pope chose him to replace Cardinal Carlo Caffarra in Bologna, a stalwart of Catholic conservatism who publicly doubted Francis’ teaching.
Archbishop Zuppi has come under criticism from the conservative wing of the church for writing an introduction to a book about reaching out to gay Catholics. On Monday, Francis infuriated those conservatives by granting a private audience to the book’s author, the Rev. James Martin, who later said the meeting showed Francis’ “deep pastoral care for L.G.B.T. Catholics.”
In an interview, Archbishop Zuppi said the pope’s new cardinals showed that Francis wanted a “missionary” church that “doesn’t close in on itself.”
The new cardinals, he said, will help the church live “in our present.”
What he and the other cardinals do now will be critical for success in the future, which the church believes lies in Africa, Asia and South America, where the competition with evangelical Christians is fierce. Francis, history’s first South American pope, has consistently sought to elevate cardinals in the global south.
“The pope wants to give his priority to the peripheries,” Bishop Fabien Raharilamboniaina of Madagascar said in Antananarivo, the capital, where Francis appointed a cardinal last year. “Because this is the future of the church.”
Francis’ visit to Africa, like much of his recent travel, has generated less interest than his earlier trips. Archbishop Zuppi acknowledged that Francis was perhaps having less effect on the global stage.
“The pope is often, unfortunately, not listened to” in the secular world, he said. “This is a problem.”
But he argued that Francis’ influence may be more long term than immediate.
Father Czerny did, too. He said that while the pope stayed committed to his core issues, as the unveiling of a new sculpture of migrants in St. Peter’s Square attested, on a global scale it was hard to see Francis’ impact.
The problems the world faced required a grass-roots mobilization that the pope led among his flock of 1.3 billion, he added.
On the issue of climate change, for example, he said churches around the world had heard the pope’s message and were changing their behavior, whether it be recycling or planting trees or saving water.
“There is more good news than appears,” he said.
But the spiritual realm remains the one where Francis has the most influence. Some analysts suggested he would change as much as he could in the church while he held office, given that, no matter how many cardinals he appointed, there was no guarantee that the next pope would follow in his footsteps.
Some of the new cardinals hail from a much more conservative African and Asian culture.
“It’s not automatic that a conservative College of Cardinals elects a conservative pope or vice versa,” said Sandro Magister, a veteran Vatican expert. “Francis was elected by cardinals who were appointed by two conservatives like John Paul II and Benedict XVI.”
Even Father Czerny, who gets his own vote next week, agreed.
“The person who is elected by the last conclave chooses the people who are probably going to be the majority of electors in the next one,” he said. “This has happened for 2,000 years and the popes don’t all turn out the same. As we’ve noticed.”
In the wake of the royal commission into child sexual abuse, Christian churches in this country need not only radical reform of their principles and practices, but also ways of recovering their integrity. For the Catholic Church, with its patriarchal structures, ordaining women to the priesthood is one way to achieve this.
In 2016, Pope Francis appointed a commission to report on women in the early church, asking the question of whether women could be ordained as deacons. (Deacons are the first level of ordination in the Catholic Church before priesthood.)
Now the pope has said the commission was divided on the issue. The commission agreed there were women deacons in the early church, but disagreed on whether they had any power. The pope has handed the report to a gathering of the heads of female religious orders, and may call the commissioners back for further input.
Note that, in all this, the Catholic Church has not even begun to debate the question of whether women can be priests (the second and more powerful level of ordination in the church). Yet if we look closely at the Bible and the history of the church, there are very good reasons why women should hold these positions of high authority.
As the mother and grandmother of Catholic children, it pains me that women cannot be ordained in the Catholic Church. I can tell my grandson that he might think about becoming a Catholic priest when he grows up, but I cannot say the same to my granddaughters.
As an Anglican priest, I have seen ordained women of extraordinary capacity working in the Anglican Church and exercising authority. I know women deacons, women priests and women bishops, and can testify to the marvellous work of ministry they are doing.
I also know scores of Catholic women who would make truly remarkable priests. They are loving, self-giving, intelligent and responsible, with spiritual depth and wisdom. They would do much to restore the church’s integrity.
LGBT Catholics from Oscar Wilde to Farm Street Jesuit Church
On 18 May 1897, Wilde was released from prison after serving two years for ‘gross indecency’ for being in a same sex relationship
by Benjamin Smith
On 18 May 1897, the writer Oscar Wilde was released from prison after serving two years for ‘gross indecency’; imprisoned for being in a same sex relationship. One of his first acts upon gaining his freedom was to write to the Jesuits at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street, London, asking for a six month retreat. Perhaps because they feared scandal, or because they were sceptical of his commitment, the Jesuits refused his request, instead telling him to ask again after a period of discernment. Wilde left for France shortly afterwards, and never returned to London. The story of LGBT Catholics doesn’t end there, however; London has been the scene of many more encounters between the Church and LGBT people; notably in recent times the journey of the LGBT+ Catholics Westminster (formerly Soho Masses) community.
The spring of 1999 was a time of mourning for the LGBT community; on the evening of Friday April 30th 1999, a neo-nazi had detonated a bomb in the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho, killing three people, including a pregnant woman, and injuring 79. The law which had been used to convict Oscar Wilde had been repealed in 1967, but homophobia was still common throughout society, and although the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had condemned violence against “homosexual persons’ in their 1986 document “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons”, many LGBT people did not feel welcome in Catholic churches. In this atmosphere of fear and distrust, the Helpers of the Holy Souls opened the doors of their convent in Camden Town to the LGBT Catholic community, and the first Mass welcoming lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics, their families and friends, was held there on Sunday 2nd May 1999.
Last Saturday (27th April 2019), the LGBT+ Catholics Westminster commemorated both of these anniversaries with a prayerful walk, beginning at the Oscar Wilde memorial and finishing at Farm Street church, which is now our home parish. Along the way we heard readings from scripture and from Catholic authors who had struggled with their sexuality, such as the priest Henri Nouwen and the poet Dunstan Thomas. We prayed for the victims of hate crime, the activists who have worked tirelessly for LGBT inclusion in the Church, and for the Pope and the Church as a whole. The stops on the route included the Admiral Duncan pub, the church of Notre Dame de France, where the first public conference on Catholics and Homosexuality was held in 1976, and two churches which have hosted our community over the years: St Anne’s Anglican Church, on Dean Street, and the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory, Warwick Street.
The Convent of the Helpers of the Holy Souls was sold in 2001, and the LGBT Catholic community moved to St Anne’s in the heart of Soho. Over time, the size of the community began to outgrow the space available, while at the same time the diocese of Westminster was looking for a way to offer outreach and support to LGBT Catholics, and in 2007 the community was invited by the diocese to attend Mass at Warwick Street twice a month. The community flourished, many members travelling long distances to attend the Masses. For many people, including myself, this was the first time we were able to openly identify ourselves as Catholic in an LGBT community that often seemed to view Catholics with suspicion, and openly identify ourselves as LGBT in a Church that often seemed to view LGBT people as a problem that needed to be solved, rather than embraced as part of God’s creation.
The news of the move to Farm Street in 2013 was met with some trepidation by the Soho Masses community: would we be accepted or shunned? Would we be swallowed up by a larger parish and lose the sense of identity and community we had worked so hard to build? However, as we discovered, both the clergy and parishioners at Farm Street take pride in the welcome they extend to all, and their response to the LGBT Catholic community was no exception. As well as worshipping together regularly as a community, LGBT+ Catholics Westminster are integrated into the life of the wider parish; serving at the Masses with music, reading and ministering, and contributing to the parish’s social and charitable activities. Our inclusion as part of the Westminster Diocese chaplaincy to LGBT people has also allowed us to start reaching out to others who may need support, with events for young people still struggling to reconcile their faith and sexual or gender identity, or for Catholic parents of LGBT people. Coming out is always challenging, and the journey of LGBT+ Catholics Westminster has been no exception, but each step we have taken has give us new opportunities to witness that LGBT people have a home in the Catholic church.
A contemporary Jesus arrives as a young gay man in a modern city with “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision” by Douglas Blanchard. The 24 paintings present a liberating new vision of Jesus’ final days, including Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, and the arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection.
“Christ is one of us in my pictures,” says Blanchard. “In His sufferings, I want to show Him as someone who experiences and understands fully what it is like to be an unwelcome outsider.” Blanchard, an art professor and self-proclaimed “very agnostic believer,” used the series to grapple with his own faith struggles as a New Yorker who witnessed the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
High-quality reproductions of Doug Blanchard’s 24 gay Passion paintings are available at: http://douglas-blanchard.fineartamerica.com/ Giclee prints come in many sizes and formats. Greeting cards can be purchased too. Some originals are also available.
As a scholar specializing in the history of the Catholic Church and gender studies, I can attest that 1,000 years ago, gay priests were not so restricted. In earlier centuries, the Catholic Church paid little attention to homosexual activity among priests or laypeople.
Open admission of same-sex desires
While the church’s official stance prohibiting sexual relations between people of the same sex has remained constant, the importance the church ascribes to the “sin” has varied. Additionally, over centuries, the church only sporadically chose to investigate or enforce its prohibitions.
Even within those, apparent references to same-sex relations were not originally written or understood as categorically indicting homosexual acts, as in modern times. Christians before the late 19th century had no concept of gay or straight identity.
It took centuries for a Christian consensus to agree with Philo’s misinterpretation, and it eventually became the accepted understanding of this scripture, from which the derogatory term “sodomite” emerged.
He could not have been delivering a blanket condemnation of homosexuality or homosexuals because these concepts would not exist for 1,800 more years.
Gay sex, as such, usually went unpunished
Early church leaders didn’t seem overly concerned about punishing those who engaged in homosexual practice. I have found that there is a remarkable silence about homosexual acts, both in theologies and in church laws for over 1,000 years, before the late 12th century.
If a man took on the passive role in a same-sex act, he took on the woman’s role. He was “unmasculine and effeminate,” a transgression of the gender hierarchy that Philo of Alexandria called the “greatest of all evils.” The concern was to police gender roles rather than sex acts, in and of themselves.
Church councils and penance manuals show little concern over the issue. In the early 12th century, a time of church revival, reform and expansion, prominent priests and monks could write poetry and letters glorifying love and passion – even physical passion – toward those of the same sex and not be censured.
Instead, it was civil authorities that eventually took serious interest in prosecuting the offenders.
The Third Lateran Council of 1179, a church council held at the Lateran palace in Rome, for example, outlawed sodomy. Clerics who practiced it were either to be defrocked or enter a monastery to perform penance. Laypeople were more harshly punished with excommunication.
It might be mentioned that such hostility grew, not only toward people engaging in same-sex relations but toward other minority groups as well. Jews, Muslims and lepers also faced rising levels of persecution.
While church laws and punishments against same-sex acts grew increasingly harsh, they were, at first, only sporadically enforced. Influential churchmen, such as 13th-century theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas and popular preacher Bernardino of Siena, known as the “Apostle of Italy,” disagreed about the severity of sin involved.
Today, the Catholic Catechism teaches that desiring others of the same sex is not sinful but acting on those desires is.
As the Catechism says, persons with such desires should remain chaste and “must be accepted with respect and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” Indeed, Catholic ministries such as DignityUSA and New Ways Ministries seek to serve and advocate for this population.
Yet gay priests are in a different category. They live and work under mandatory celibacy, often in same-sex religious orders. Pope Francis I has encouraged them to be “perfectly responsible” to avoid scandal, while discouraging other gay men from entering the priesthood.
Many fear retribution if they cannot live up to this ideal. For the estimated 30-40% of U.S priests who are gay, the openness of same-sex desire among clerics of the past is but a memory.
A string of sex abuse scandals have rocked Christian communities recently: In the Roman Catholic Church, revelations related to sex abuse by priests continue to unfold across the globe. Within the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., media reports have brought into public view allegations of sexual abuse dating back decades.
Such scandals have led to widespread doubts about church officials and institutions. And this is not for the first time. As a scholar of early Christianity, I know that in the fourth century, Christian churches in North Africa faced a similar crisis of trust in their leaders.
Known as the Donatist controversy, it caused a schism that lasted for centuries and offers a parallel for thinking about the impact of these crises on contemporary Christian communities today.
Traitors during Christian persecution
Christians in the Roman Empire occasionally experienced periods of imperial persecution. These periods were often memorialized in Christian tradition through stories of famous martyrdoms. The stories often portrayed Christians as courageous and virtuous in the face of imperial violence.
The most infamous period of persecution occurred in the early fourth century A.D. Spearheaded by the emperor Diocletian, it was also the final imperially sponsored persecution of Christian communities.
While persecutions were sporadic, local and rare, they often put difficult choices before Christian clergy and laity.
Some renounced Christianity. Others handed over sacred books or church property and outed fellow Christians to the authorities. Christians called the latter “traditores,” a Latin term meaning “those who handed over,” the root of the word “traitor.”
Whether and how to welcome such traditores back into Christian communities after the persecutions was a topic of intense debate among Christians.
Traditores were considered to have betrayed their communities to save themselves. This sense of betrayal was particularly felt with respect to clergy members who had become traditores.
The issue came to a head in A.D. 311 in North Africa when Caecilian, the bishop of Carthage, became embroiled in controversy after it was alleged that one or more of the bishops who presided at his consecration had been traditores.
In the eyes of many Christians in North Africa, Caecilian’s virtues did not matter. The presence of a traditor among those who ordained him invalidated his ordination.
The Donatist schism
Caecilian was supported politically and financially by the imperial administration. Caecilian’s opponents pressed their case in regional councils and before local magistrates.
They even appealed to the Emperor Constantine, who wrote in a letter to the Vicar of Africa in A.D. 314 that he had grown tired of receiving requests from Caecilian’s opponents.
They brought charges, which ultimately proved to be false, against Felix of Aptunga, one of the bishops that had ordained Caecilian. Charges against other bishops soon followed.
In A.D. 313, Donatus was consecrated bishop of Carthage and became the leading voice of Caecilian’s opponents. These “Donatists,” as they came to be called, created their own massive network of churches that stood in opposition to those allied with Caecilian and the Roman state.
Constantine soon grew fed up with the Donatists and the schism that they had created in the church. From A.D. 316-321, Constantine used the force of the state to coerce the Donatists back into the fold.
Constantine’s attempts to intervene led to violence that resulted in the deaths of Donatist Christians. His intervention did little to end the schism. Constantine soon gave up state-sponsored persecution of the Donatists.
In A.D. 346, the Emperor Constans, who succeeded Constantine, tried again to end the schism. His agents used imperial funds to woo clergy back, but also used violence. Macarius, one of Constans’s agents, led a campaign of suppression, in which Christians killed other fellow Christians.
Macarius became infamous among Donatist communities. The Donatists considered those who died to be martyrs. These martyrs and their memory were celebrated by Donatist communities.
Donatus was said to have questioned the very role of the emperor in the controversy, saying, “What has the emperor to do with the church?”
By the fifth century, Donatist churches were thriving and sparring with Catholics. And Donatist churches remained active in North Africa until the Islamic conquests of the seventh century.
The Donatists believed the sins of traditores risked the salvation of individual members and the health of the community.
“How,” they asked, “could sacraments administered by an offending priest be recognized by a holy God?” And if those sacraments were not effective, the salvation of the individual and the community were at risk. For the Donatists, only sacraments performed by uncompromised clergy were effective.
In their attempts to respond to Donatist critique, the Catholic Church settled on a strategy developed by Augustine, an influential fifth-century Catholic bishop in North Africa.
Augustine, who describes the sparring between Donatists and Catholics in his writings, argued that the sacraments were effective regardless of the morality of the clergy involved – a church doctrine known as “ex opere operato.” He said that as the sacraments were the work of Christ, they did not depend on the moral character of the officiating priest.
What can be learned today
Today, in the face of the sex abuse crisis, contemporary Christian communities find themselves asking questions about institutions that condoned, hid and promoted abusive clergy.
This might be a moment to revisit the Donatist critique. They created their own churches because they feared not only for the efficacy of the sacraments but also for the character of a church that made it too easy for traditores to continue to remain leaders.
Widespread sexual abuse by Christian clergy represents a very different crisis from that faced by the betrayal of the traditores.
However, I believe the Donatists offer a lesson for Christian communities about the risks to the integrity and cohesion of institutions when they shield the abuser rather than protect the victims.
The Vatican’s Sexual Abuse Summit ‘Failed Miserably’
The recently concluded Vatican summit on sexual abuse in the church was framed in the same old top-down way that’s at the heart of the problem. Lay people, both women and men, experts in the law, psychology, and theology were excluded. What could be more wrong with this picture?
Roma locuta; causa finita est, attributed to Augustine, means: “Rome has spoken, the matter is closed.” So it is. Sordid details emerging of Australian Cardinal George Pell’s conviction on “multiple historical child sex offenses” are no great shock. They only confirm the general consensus that the recent Roman summit was a dismal failure of nerve and justice at a time when only nerve and justice will suffice.
Survivors of sexual abuse, women religious, LBGTIQ advocates, and some journalists made impressive showings during the recent “Protection of Minors in the Church” meetings in Rome. Pope Francis, cardinals and bishops, not so much. The Vatican had lowered expectations going into the meeting once it became clear that Catholic people around the world demand action not just words. From all that I saw and read—talks and press conferences were live streamed; press coverage was extensive—the clerics came in well below even their own low bar.
As I surmised beforehand, the meeting was “held at the wrong time with the wrong people about the wrong issues.”
Just imagine if the meeting had been held in September 2018, right after the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report was issued with its shockingly large number of victims and offenders. That would have also been right after reports came out that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had abused countless seminarians and priests. The Vatican crowd could have saved themselves a lot of grief.
Think of what would not have been on the table. Many terrible revelations have emerged since September:
Lists of hundreds of credibly accused priests from dozens of dioceses and provinces of men’s religious orders are now public.
A report on the many children who have been fathered by the fathers, as it were, is under review.
The sordid details of the McCarrick saga are clear, including his abuse of someone in the confessional, which was a major reason for his subsequent defrocking.
Reports of clerics sexually abusing nuns in India and elsewhere are now common knowledge.
A page-turner of a study of the incidence of allegedly gay, sexually active, but most of all duplicitous priests in high positions in the Vatican entitled In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy opens another vista.
Report of the Apostolic Nuncio to France, Archbishop Luigi Ventura, under investigation for molesting a government staffer just surfaced.
In fact, all of that data was part of the backdrop of the meeting, but no one peeped about most of it. Maybe next time the clerics will learn to act faster for their own good.
Pope Francis gathered 190 heads of bishops’ conferences as well as ten women religious who lead their orders and their equivalent in men’s congregations for the summit. But the real action was in the streets and surrounding buildings, where scores of sex abuse survivors and their supporters protested, told their stories, and gave interviews.
The more the clerics droned on in endless platitudes and careful parsing in lieu of implementing policy, the more the survivors garnered credibility and sympathy. A skilled facilitator would have invited the survivors into the hall, paired them each with a bishop, and invited them together to lay out constructive next steps for the church. Alas, no such forward-looking person was in a position to do so, least of all the much-touted and deeply disappointing pontiff.
Instead, the official meeting featured videos of survivors at yet one more remove from the bishops, many of whom had never listened to survivors in their own dioceses. It’s no wonder. These stories are hard to hear. One woman in a video told of being forced as an underage teen into sex with a priest; he paid for her three abortions. Some bishops expressed genuine shock, leading observers to wonder where they have been for the last two decades.
Still others continued to externalize the problem as a Western issue, suggesting, for example, that problems like child soldiers demand equal time. No doubt, good brothers, but the stated focus of the meeting was on the protection of minors, with the implied tagline “from priest/bishop abusers.” There are many actionable forms of abuse of children, but this time the focus was on that perpetrated by and covered up by clerics. The Vatican was not trying to solve the world’s problems, but to look at its own.
By many measures it failed miserably. The gathering was too homogenous to be useful. It was framed in the same old top-down way that’s at the heart of the problem. Lay people, both women and men, experts in the law, psychology, theology, and the like were excluded. Clerics met in small groups to talk with other clerics. What could be more wrong with this picture?
Pope Francis in his final statement captured the egregious miss that was this meeting. He started off generally: “Our work has made us realize once again that the gravity of the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors is, and historically has been, a widespread phenomenon in all cultures and societies.” Then he went on to contextualize clerical abuse by talking about the high incidence of abuse at home. He’s right, of course, but the difference is that families don’t have as their reason for being the well-being of the world’s people. That is the Church’s (now empty) claim.
He painted a broader picture of pornography, sex trafficking, and other precipitating forces that make up “the mystery of evil, which strikes most violently against the most vulnerable.” There is no mystery here. His priests and bishops abused minors and some covered it up. What’s so mysterious about that? A large number of minors have been sexually abused by a large number of clerics. Period. Full stop. It’s simply the beginning of a hideous story that includes the abuse of seminarians, nuns and other women, children of priests, and more, all of whom merit summits of their own.
Francis’ discussion of power fell flat. He claimed that the sexual abuse of minors is an abuse of power. He completely passed over the structures of vastly unequal power between clergy and laity that are the bedrock of this power differential, a causative factor in church-related abuse. Without changing those structures the chances of eradicating sexual abuse of minors by clergy are nil.
Francis concluded with nothing new, concrete, or effective, using vacuous terms like “impeccable seriousness” and “genuine purification,” highly spiritualized notions that might ground new policies. I do not think so. And I know that few are going to wait around to find out.
Survivors and their supporters left empty handed while bishops toddled off to their dioceses without clear direction. On the one hand, one can applaud Francis for not imposing new laws by fiat, for inviting people to a “personal and communal conversion.” But “zero tolerance” is hardly a new idea or something around which consensus has to be built. It does not mean someone must leave the church as the McCarrick case proved, only that the person be dealt with by civil authorities and leave ministry where the possibility of abusingpower remains. Is that too much to ask in the face of mounting evidence of criminal behavior and cover-ups?
On the other hand, Francis’ approach might mean that church teachings and polity will be handled locally as abuse cases are. Catholics can rejoice that such moral sticky wickets as abortion and homosexuality, and such disputed matters of ecclesiology as the ordination of women and married men to the diaconate and presbyterate, will soon be announced as local options as well. I doubt sincerely that this is in the cards, but it follows logically. Logic was at a premium in Rome during the summit.
This dilemma, this selective use of papal power, points to the fundamental problem at hand. It’s the need for new ecclesial structures rooted in a realistic theology that would mitigate power inequities and begin to reshape the global Catholic Church into safer, more participatory communities with the full participation of women and lay men in every facet of church life.
To that end, the undisputed highlights of the meeting were the three presentations by women. Some of the clerics expressed surprise that Canon Lawyer Linda Ghisoni, Nigerian Sister of the Holy Child Jesus, Veronica Openibo, and longtime Mexican journalist, Valentina Alazraki, had such powerful and well-grounded analyses, and that they minced no words in their articulation. Apparently the men have been asleep for the last four decades when Catholic women have developed such competencies with no help from the institutional church.
Dr. Ghisoni challenged the overuse of official forms of secrecy in the Vatican, the so-called “pontifical secrets,” claiming that much of what had been hidden for the sake of protecting good names and the institution was relevant for public discussion. She knows that Canon Law can and must change. Pope Francis’ bizarre comment about feminism being “machismo in a skirt” following her talk suggests that she might have struck a little close to home.
Sister Openibo asked the clerics why they had persisted in silence for so long: “Why have other issues around sexuality not been addressed sufficiently, e.g. misuse of power, money, clericalism, gender discrimination, the role of women and the laity in general? Is it that the hierarchical structures and long protocols that negatively affected swift actions focused more on media reactions?” She concluded with the need to “be proactive not reactive in combating the challenges facing the world of the young and the vulnerable, and look fearlessly into other issues of abuse in the church and society,” marching orders for those who want to solve this problem.
Valentina Alazraki, a veteran Vatican journalist who has worked during five pontificates over four decades taking 150 papal trips, was equally frank. She left these words ringing in the ears of the assembled: “… we journalists are neither those who abuse nor those who cover up. Our mission is to assert and defend a right, which is a right to information based on truth in order to obtain justice. We journalists know that abuse is not limited to the Catholic Church, but you must understand that we have to be more rigorous with you than with others, by virtue of your moral role.”
She recommended that the clerics turn over a new leaf with the new onslaught of information about the abuse of women in the church. This time, she counseled the institution to “play offense and not defense, as has happened in the case of the abuse of minors. It could be a great opportunity for the Church to take the initiative and be on the forefront of denouncing these abuses, which are not only sexual but also abuses of power.” Nothing that emerged from Pope Francis’ finale, nor from the final press conference that included Vatican spokespeople, indicated that this would happen. Nonetheless, the women speakers pointed the way forward.
No one expected a miracle or a magic solution to the deeply entrenched problem of sexual abuse of minors at this meeting. Given that the abuse of women, including nuns, has not been addressed at all, and that the cases and lists of perpetrators continue to roll out (along withthe conviction of George Pell, Pope Francis’ handpicked leader of the Vatican’s finances), there’s little reason to expect anything at all from Rome.
There’s solace in the strength of survivors, the savvy of these women speakers, and the solidarity of people around the world. When asked for bread, the Roman Catholic Church can no longer get away with giving a stone (Matthew 7:9). Roma finita est.