The church’s leaders should be open to at least discussing thorny issues around its patriarchal culture and its teachings about human sexuality and gender.
By John Gehring
Several hundred Catholic bishops from around the country have gathered in Baltimore for a national meeting at a time when many of us faithful are grieving, angry and running out of patience. The horrifying scale of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, as chronicled by a Pennsylvania grand jury report in August that revealed widespread abuse and cover-up over several decades, underscores an obvious but essential point: Bishops can’t be trusted to police themselves.
Moreover, a recent investigation by The Boston Globe and The Philadelphia Inquirer found that more than 130 bishops — nearly one-third of those still living — have been accused of failing to adequately respond to sexual abuse in their dioceses. New explosions are still coming. Last month, a former assistant to Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo released hundreds of secret documents that showed how the bishop continued to send predator priests back into parishes. Bishop Michael Bransfield of West Virginia resigned in September after claims that he had sexually harassed younger priests.
It’s not the first meeting of its kind: 16 years ago, after The Globe’s groundbreaking “Spotlight” investigation, bishops met in Dallas to adopt zero-tolerance policies. Any priest who had abused a minor would be removed. Civilian review boards would investigate claims of clergy misconduct. Those policies led to the removal of hundreds of priests, but the bishops didn’t implement procedures that held themselves to the same standard of accountability.
The Vatican, including Pope Francis, has also not done enough. A proposal to create a Vatican tribunal to evaluate accusations against bishops — an idea floated by the pope’s own Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors — has gone nowhere.
Marie Collins, an abuse survivor who resigned in frustration from the commission, rightly observed that “history will judge Pope Francis on his actions, not his intentions.”
The failure to hold bishops accountable perpetuates a privileged culture of clericalism that lets the hierarchy operate under different rules.
Bishops were scheduled to vote on policies to address the abuse crisis in Baltimore. But in a surprise move, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, stunned his fellow bishops and media by announcing that the Vatican wanted those plans put on hold until after a February meeting in Rome called by Pope Francis that will bring together bishops from around the world. That could prove to be prudent for the final outcome, but it’s hard to overstate how tone deaf the timing is given the growing Catholic anger in the pews.
Whatever credibility the Catholic Church has left as a voice for justice in public life, the clock is ticking down fast.
Standards and systems that prioritize transparency and accountability are essential. But church leaders should also recognize that technical or bureaucratic responses are insufficient to address the urgency of this moment. The Catholic Church faces a profound crisis of legitimacy. This crisis is not only the product of sexual predation. Moving forward, Catholic leaders should be more open to at least discussing a host of thorny issues. The church’s patriarchal culture — most exemplified in excluding women from the priesthood — and its teachings about human sexuality and gender are rejected by not only many Americans but also a sizable share of faithful Catholics in the pews.
How does the church hope to influence the wider culture when pastors are ignored by many of its own flock?
At this dark crossroads for the Catholic Church, there is an opportunity for Pope Francis and the bishops to take a fresh look at the church and begin a prayerful discernment about the limits of patriarchy, human rights for L.G.B.T. people and the exclusion of women from the clergy. These will be uncomfortable but necessary topics to explore if the Catholic Church wants an era of renewal and its leaders hope to reclaim the ability to speak more persuasively to a diverse public square.
The final report from a recently concluded monthlong meeting at the Vatican that brought together young Catholics and hundreds of bishops from around the world acknowledged the need for a broader conversation about the church’s teachings on sexuality. There are questions, the report noted, “related to the body, to affectivity and to sexuality that require a deeper anthropological, theological, and pastoral exploration.” While conservative bishops such as Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia led the charge to make sure the descriptor “L.G.B.T.” was not included in a final report — a pre-synod working document used the term for the first time in Vatican history — that subtle but significant opening is an invitation for a long-overdue conversation.
Church teaching isn’t set by a poll or the shifting winds of popular opinion. At the same time, the church is not a static institution. Doctrine does change and develop. The Second Vatican Council met from 1962 until 1965, a time when bishops opened the windows of the church to the modern world. The council brought historic changes in the way Catholicism understood democracy, the Jewish faith, the role of lay Catholics, interfaith dialogue and liturgy.
The question isn’t whether the church should stay the same or change. Paradoxically, the church has always done both. The more essential question is whether a 2,000-year-old institution that thinks in centuries can once again stand with a foot firmly planted in the best of its tradition while stepping into the future renewed and relevant to a new generation.
Ten years ago, I believed a myth. In the beginning, there was Vatican II. It was good but messy, and the Bad Catholics hijacked it to undermine doctrine. They took over seminaries and turned them into cesspools where heresy was mandatory and depravity rampant. Then Pope John Paul II came along. He drove out the Bad Catholics and cleaned up the seminaries. Too late! The Bad Catholics had already committed terrible crimes, which were covered up without the pope’s awareness. In 2002, their abuses exploded into public view, and the JPII Catholics got blamed for crimes committed by a dying generation of clerics. The JPII bishops took it on the chin, but they fixed the problem with the Dallas Charter. Then Benedict XVI, the great theologian, appointed orthodox bishops who would carry forward the renewal. The horrors of the Scandal were behind us. The two primordial forces of the postconciliar church, orthodoxy and heresy, had fought a great battle, and orthodoxy had been vindicated.
My diocese, the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, was proof. In the 1980s, we were led by Archbishop John Roach. Appointed by Pope Paul VI, Roach fit the “Spirit of Vatican II” archetype to a tee. Under Roach, Saint Paul Seminary was taken over by dissenters, one of whom described the Eucharist as “cookie worship” that he had “moved beyond.” There were open homosexual affairs. Those who dared adhere to church teaching were punished.
Saint Paul soon experienced one of the first abuse scandals in the American church. For years, Roach and his cronies had secretly shuffled abusive priests between parishes. When this came out and the diocese was sued, Roach found himself under oath, where he became conveniently forgetful. The diocese lost, with the victim awarded $3.5 million—paltry by today’s standards, but shocking at the time. In response, Roach imposed “tough policies,” which won praise from newspapers. Privately, he declined to enforce them.
Finally, in 1995, Roach retired. John Paul the Great—as we called him—appointed Archbishop Harry Flynn. Flynn was a kindly Irishman with an adorable accent. He came from the Diocese of Lafayette, where he’d handled another early abuse scandal. He’d healed the victims of Lafayette, and he’d largely written the USCCB’s new abuse policy. Flynn was a JPII man. He loved prayer and took strong stands. He turned the feeble St. John Vianney College Seminary into the biggest minor seminary in the country. After Archbishop Flynn’s arrival, the sex-abuse story finally faded from the headlines. We were so proud when Flynn led the American church in drafting the Dallas Charter.
In 2008, Pope Benedict appointed Archbishop John Nienstedt, an orthodox leader who led the campaign against redefining marriage in Minnesota. While much of the country was roiling from Boston and its aftershocks, we enjoyed a palpable sense of peace. The Good Catholics had saved Vatican II from the Bad Catholics, and our Charter would keep it from happening again.
Our myth—their lie—collapsed in 2013. Archbishop Flynn was no healer, we learned. He was the USCCB’s damage-control guy. In 1986, Flynn went to Lafayette and killed the bad publicity. He said he’d visited all the families of the abused there. He hadn’t. He said he’d got the abusers out of ministry. He hadn’t. He got the media to think he had, but focused on getting the records sealed by court order. The scandal went quiet—but it was the quiet of a muzzle, not of healing.
When Flynn came to Minnesota, he did the same. We pew-sitters were led to believe the scandal ended here because Flynn’s policies solved the problem. In fact, it ended because Flynn’s legal team convinced a court that Minnesota’s statute of limitations on sex crimes barred most lawsuits. Flynn drafted the Dallas Charter, but he never bothered much with following it. In 2004, the diocese found pornographic images on Fr. Jonathan Shelley’s computer. To some, it seemed to be child porn; others considered it only “borderline illegal.” The borderline caucus won, and Flynn kept Shelley in ministry. That same year, Fr. Daniel Conlin provided marriage counseling to two of his parishioners, then fathered a child with the wife. Flynn removed Conlin from the parish…and transferred him to the marriage tribunal, where he came into contact with more vulnerable women. All of this and more was covered up.
Archbishop Nienstedt mostly continued the lax practices of his predecessors. While more proactive than Flynn, Nienstedt still fell far short of church policy and law. Nienstedt made one excellent choice: he appointed Chancellor Jennifer Haselberger, a canonist devoted to interpreting ecclesial law as written—not bending it to favor Roman collars. When Haselberger rediscovered Fr. Shelley’s “borderline illegal” porn in 2011 and showed Nienstedt, chancery officials spent more than a year debating what to do, instead of just calling the police. As similar cases mounted, Haselberger resigned and blew the whistle.
Our beloved myth exploded. Twin Cities Catholics like me came face-to-face with an unpleasant fact: the orthodox Good Clerics hadn’t taken over from the Bad “Spirit of Vatican II” Clerics and cleaned house. The Good Clerics were buddies with the Bad Clerics. They did everything in their power to protect the Bad Clerics—even violating moral, civil, and canon law on their behalf. We’d believed there were two sides in the Church: orthodoxy and heresy. We often cheered for the clerics on our “team” and booed the other guys. But we were wrong. Everyone in the chancery was working together…against us.
I know there are good priests. There may even be good bishops. But don’t trust your instincts. I knew most of the people in our diocesan crisis. Reading the depositions, I saw old family friends pitted against each other. My childhood babysitter called the priest who used to be so sweet to us kids at the big parties a liar and an obstructionist. The man I worked for in college closed ranks with my wife’s childhood pastor to protect the priest who celebrated my wedding from the scrutiny of my alma mater. I never saw any of this coming. Their orthodoxy (or lack thereof) had nothing to do with it. My judgment of their character (or lack thereof) missed the mark. There was only one consistent pattern: the closer they were to power, the more my shepherds collaborated to keep the sheep deaf, dumb, and victimized.
One could blame all this on some kind of network of unchaste priests and their allies, who supposedly work to shield one another from accountability while undermining Catholic teaching on sexuality—a so-called “lavender mafia.” Or one could blame it all on clerical celibacy and sexual repression. A rumor circulated for years that Archbishop Nienstedt cruised for gay sex and punished priests who refused his advances. Most of us scoffed at this rumor as an obvious smear. But a 2014 investigation into Nienstedt’s past revealed so much evidence that Auxiliary Bishops Piché and Cozzens concluded Nienstedt should resign and immediately flew to Washington to confer with papal nuncio Carlo Viganò. Instead, the nuncio ordered the investigation be drastically narrowed. (Viganò fiercely disputes suggestions that this was tantamount to ending the investigation.) Fr. Christopher Wenthe, while serving as my associate pastor, told a vulnerable woman about the difficulties of his vow of celibacy, just before abusing her in my childhood parish’s rectory. Yet when A. W. Richard Sipe articulated how a priestly culture of secret unchastity created space for child abuse, people like me dismissed him as an anti-Catholic kook.
So, yes, in our scandal, as in many others, you can point to some malefactors who fit the “heresy” narrative and others who fit the “repression” explanation. But there are many more who don’t fit either. I’ve never heard anyone suggest that Archbishop Flynn was unchaste, yet his indifference toward victims was depraved. Likewise the nuncio. Vicar General Peter Laird was an up-and-coming communications-savvy “John Paul II” priest, an exemplar of the new generation. Yet, like so many other chancery clerics (the “transitional presbyterate,” as Haselberger memorably put it), Laird consistently downplayed the risks of keeping problem priests in circulation.
They were Team Chancery. We were Team Lay. They played to win.
Modern priests live with priests, learn with priests, work with priests, die with priests. They’re expected to form no permanent ties with any single parish or community, because reassignment looms. They vow celibacy, so other clerics become their (dysfunctional) family. The bishop can cut their pay, give them vacation, reassign them to Siberia, put them up for promotion…anything, for any or no reason, without recourse. Priests have relatively few rights, often lack means to exercise them, and are conditioned in seminary to accept indignities, even evil, as “holy obedience.” Absolute power over priests corrupts the bishops, and absolute submission does no favors to priests.
Theoretically, the Holy See is supervising, but there are more than three thousand ordinaries reporting directly to the pope. I don’t know about you, but in my workplace no one person is allowed to manage more than a dozen direct reports. More than that, and management becomes distracted and ineffective. With so much on its plate, Rome won’t intervene, and probably won’t even notice, unless someone is convicted of a crime. Besides, a few well-cultivated contacts in today’s Rome will get you a lot further up the career ladder than holiness. Power flows from the top of the hierarchy down through overt and covert cliques. Powerful clerics are accountable to those cliques, not to the faithful. The laity are needed only for their wallets.
The structure I have just described could hardly be better at catalyzing abuse. Look at Cardinals Egan and McCarrick. One was considered conservative, the other liberal, but both were notorious on abuse—and St. John Paul gave both the red hat. How about Cardinal Mahony and Cardinal Pell? Archbishops Finn, Wilson, and Bruskewitz? Or Cardinal Law, the great conservative prelate whose punishment was promotion? The same story unfolds today in Honduras, Chile, and Australia. Now we’ve learned from Pennsylvania that dozens of bishops, perhaps a cardinal, are implicated in a broad, deep, clerical conspiracy—a conspiracy that was well established years before my old scapegoats, Vatican II and the sexual revolution, were around to take the blame. This crisis was not caused by Marty Haugen tunes and the Land O’ Lakes statement. At the root of this crisis is structure—the particular way church governance has calcified in the past couple of centuries. That structure has to go.
Portions of the church’s structure are divinely instituted, so their reform is neither possible nor desirable. But most of the details were dreamed up by humans. Those can change. Consider the College of Cardinals. It evolved from political contingency, not scriptural necessity. Pope Francis could dismiss it tomorrow and ask half-a-dozen ordinary Catholics to choose his successor instead. Three consecutive papacies have run aground trying to reform the Curia, which grew in parallel with the College of Cardinals. Perhaps it is time for the Curia to simply dissolve.
Consider mandatory clerical celibacy. It’s only a thousand years old. As recently as 867, Pope Adrian II’s still-living wife and daughter accompanied him to the Lateran Palace upon his election. Or consider the seminary, den of so many recent iniquities. The modern, insular seminary was born at Trent, a mere five centuries ago.
Consider the auxiliary bishop, who “leads” the flock of a fictitious “titular see” while actually assigned to help another bishop lead his flock. This novelty was invented under Pope Leo X just before the Reformation. The idea of a bishop leading a non-existent see would have baffled the fathers of the church. But it helped dioceses get very, very big. In England, in 1086, the entire country had around 1.7 million residents, and, by my count, twenty dioceses: about 85,000 people per diocese. Today, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis alone has 3.1 million residents, of whom nearly 850,000 are Catholic. In medieval times, our diocese would be split into ten, twenty, even forty smaller dioceses, with scaled-down bishops who’d have no choice but to share “the smell of the sheep.” Instead, with help from the auxiliaries, the archbishop is able to run his unthinkably large and unaccountable archdiocese more like a corporation—a corporation desperate to protect its assets. And the Twin Cities is not even close to the worst of the mega-dioceses.
Consider, finally, the appointment of bishops. They have always required the consent of the pope, but have typically been selected by others. Bishops, especially in the patristic era, were often elected by their own dioceses or by their brother bishops (a practice that continues in the East). St. Ambrose was made bishop of Milan by acclamation of the laity before he was even baptized! Even in the nineteenth century, the first terna used by the pope to select American bishops came from the priests of the diocese. Direct papal selection, mainly on the advice of the nuncio and the Congregation of Bishops, is pretty new—and clearly isn’t working well. Among other things, the older system encouraged bishops to be promoted from within the diocese to serve the diocese for life. The new system sees far more bishops imported from a thousand miles away, then exported again when a job in a more prestigious diocese opens up.
I note these changeable things not to endorse any one of them in particular, but rather to make clear that structural change is possible. Moreover, some structural change is necessary. This crisis calls for radical changes like those of St. Gregory the Great. The mechanisms that turn clerics against their flocks cannot be broken otherwise. New policies, new preaching, and new personnel aren’t enough. They would help, but the Saint Paul Archdiocese is proof: if we do not reform the church’s fundamentally clericalist structure, the abuse scandal will just happen again, and again, and again.
The church has always been a place where sinners are welcomed and offered refuge.
By William McGurn
What might Oscar Wilde have made of the new exhibit meant to honor him as “one of the earliest forebears of gay liberation”? The Oscar Wilde Temple opened last week in a former Methodist chapel in South London, complete with an altar featuring a statue of the Irish playwright.
Wilde’s own life and tastes, after all, were more complicated. When he arrived in Rome in 1900, he found himself attracted to both the Eternal City’s pagan past and its Catholic present, extolling the beauty of the young men he paid for even as he haunted the Vatican for a blessing from the pope. Six months later in Paris, on his deathbed, he was welcomed into the Catholic church.
Wilde wasn’t unusual for his time. To today’s generations, Catholicism may be the Church of Intolerance. But in Wilde’s day, the church was still the Scarlet Woman, home for the disreputable and deplorable. In his play “A Woman of No Importance” the title character, who has a secret past—an illegitimate son—explains why she spends so much time in church.
“Where else could I go?” she asks. “God’s house is the only house where sinners are made welcome.” Sin and grace in a broken world. How many who shared Wilde’s sexual attractions found similar refuge and equality at the altar rail of Rome?
Wilde was no stranger to sexual scandal. Nor, for anyone familiar with its history, is the Catholic church. Today the face of scandal is Theodore McCarrick, the former cardinal accused of molesting an 11-year-old boy as well as regularly inviting seminarians to his bed.
Notwithstanding its unpopularity, church teaching on homosexuality hasn’t fundamentally changed since St. Paul. What has changed is that the orthodoxy dominating civilization is no longer set by even a residually Judeo-Christian ethos.
This new orthodoxy comes with a new enforcer, too. When it comes to rooting out heresy and dissent, what the Inquisition once accomplished with torture and dungeons today’s media does far more efficiently with relentless promotion of voices and ideas it wants amplified, and equally relentless neglect of voices and ideas it wants ignored. Mockery and contempt are reserved for anyone who won’t sign on.
It isn’t without its contradictions. On the one hand, the keepers of the new sexual orthodoxy are rightly indignant at the lack of consent and exploitation inherent in the sexual abuses by priests, bishops and cardinals who preyed upon those to whom they were supposed to be fathers and shepherds. On the other hand, this same orthodoxy continues to play down that most of the abuse has been committed by men against other men and boys.
Take former Cardinal McCarrick. We’re told “everyone knew” what “Uncle Ted” was up to. Yet knowledge of his behavior didn’t stop him from attaining the archbishopric of the nation’s capital, a cardinal’s hat and welcome in the highest and most fashionable circles.
Even now, it’s illuminating to compare his treatment with the vitriol directed at John Nienstedt, who resigned in 2015 as archbishop of Minneapolis after prosecutors charged the archdiocese with failing to protect children from a sexually abusive priest. Archbishop Nienstedt has also been investigated for inappropriate sexual behavior, though nothing has been proved, no charges were ever filed, and he maintains his innocence.
Certainly no one could claim that Archbishop Nienstedt’s handling of reports of sexual abuse in his diocese was anything but a disaster. And if credible proof emerges he himself was an abuser, by all means let him answer for it. Still, it’s hard not to notice that what really seems to distinguish Archbishop Nienstedt from former Cardinal McCarrick is that the former spoke out publicly for his church’s teaching by supporting a Minnesota ballot measure to ban same-sex marriage.
In so doing, Archbishop Nienstedt challenged the prevailing secular orthodoxy in a way Cardinal McCarrick never did. Which may explain why until recently a media that otherwise delights in bringing down Catholic prelates was decidedly uninterested in investigating the many rumors that swirled around Cardinal McCarrick while he was still active in church life.
It should go without saying that not every gay priest is a predator, that many are holy men, and that the church doesn’t need a witch hunt to root out anyone suspected of being gay. But when the main study on sex abuse by American clergy reports that 81% of victims were male—and largely postpubescent—how tenable is the proposition that homosexuality hasn’t a thing to do with priestly sex abuse?
“I can resist everything but temptation,” Wilde once quipped. What might he have made of the new orthodoxy trying to impose itself on the church he ultimately called his own—and of pope, cardinals and bishops so plainly embarrassed by their own teaching?
With the sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church reaching a critical mass, Pope Francis has issued an unprecedented call to the world’s top bishops to meet with him in Rome, next February, to discuss “the protection of minors.” But the pressing question for leaders of the Catholic Church no longer concerns abusive priests or complicit bishops, because the Church has forfeited the credibility necessary for such investigations, and has been replaced by civil authorities, such as the state attorneys general—six, as of last week—who are following Pennsylvania’s lead into this morass.
The question for the Church now, given the astounding scale of the dysfunction, arching from the Americas to Europe, Africa, the Philippines, and Australia, is: What in Catholic culture caused this debauchery? The proximate cause concerns essential mistakes of moral theology, including the stigmatizing of normal erotic longing and the sanctifying of prejudice against women and homosexuals. Those errors have roots in the ancient Church, when fundamental options in favor of male power and against sex for pleasure and love were made.
But the immediate cause of the crisis is more recent. The Second Vatican Council, which met in the course of three years, beginning in October of 1962, began as an attempt to redress the old problems. The Council fathers seriously undertook to empower the laity, replace the negative attitudes toward sex that underwrote a deep-seated Catholic neurosis, reform the doom-laden moral theology, democratize the form of the Mass, and transform the self-protecting clerical culture. The pushback began even before the Council adjourned, especially once Pope John XXIII died, in 1963. It is likely that Church disciplines on contraception and priestly celibacy would have begun to change were it not for the panicked intervention of the new Pope, Paul VI, in the Council’s procedures.
After the Council ended, in December of 1965, a full rollback of the reforming impulse was quickly launched. The laity were never meaningfully empowered. The clerical culture was protected. The natural pluralism of theological inquiry was stifled. Women were kept in their place. Perhaps most symbolically, in 1968, Pope Paul condemned the use of birth control among Catholics. The centralized authority of the papacy became stronger than ever. The avatars of this conservative reaction were John Paul II and his enforcer, Joseph Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI, but the agents of backlash, shaping Catholic attitudes for the past generation, have been the very bishops whom Pope Francis has now summoned to Rome. Even the so-called liberals in the hierarchy would not have been promoted if they had not readily accommodated Ratzinger’s squelching of reform.
One wishes that, in this critical hour, the Church could turn to a cohort of independent-minded Catholic lay people, women and men alike, who have experience in Church administration at the senior-most levels, but there is no such cohort. A devoted legion of volunteers serve the Church, but they exercise no meaningful authority. If the promise of the Vatican Council had been even minimally fulfilled, this would not be the case. Abusive priests would not have been blithely set loose, and the enabling bishops would not have been able to absolve them—or themselves.
It is deeply ironic that the dilemma facing Pope Francis, while caused in part by his own clerical myopia, is made exponentially more pressing by his conservative opponents’ weaponizing of Church confusion about homosexuality. They are doing this precisely to eliminate, once and for all, what little remains of the reform impulse that began at Vatican II. The alarm signal of danger that Francis posed for conservatives was his early refusal to condemn homosexuals. That a bishop like Theodore McCarrick is credibly alleged to be a homosexual harasser—he is accused of, among other things, using his power to prey upon vulnerable seminarians, a charge that he has denied—has given the Pope’s critics the opening that they need. This is in addition to the fact that leading figures among the disgraced have been supportive of Francis, including McCarrick and Cardinal George Pell, of Australia, who will be tried for “historical sexual assault offenses,” to which he has pleaded not guilty; and Cardinal Donald Wuerl, of Washington, D.C., who last week announced that he will ask Pope Francis to accept his resignation following accusations that, when he was the bishop of Pittsburgh, he was involved in the coverup of the abuse in Pennsylvania. With this lethal brew being stirred by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who has called on Francis himself to resign, the charges are flying, and homosexuals as a group are being scapegoated. Among conservatives, to have tolerated gay priests is now being equated with having tolerated sexual harassment and, in some cases, the rape of children. But even this murkiness is a mark of an incoherent Catholic morality about all kinds of sexual expression.
It once seemed certain that Pope Francis, grounded in the spirit of Vatican II and possessing an ample trove of common sense, was equipped to lead the Catholic Church in its recovery from this disaster. Two things have dimmed that prospect. The first is Francis himself. He is woefully in the grip of male-dominated, celibate clericalism, even though he criticizes it. He still puts his trust in gestures of good will and in bromides of shame, as he did last month, on his trip to Ireland, instead of launching the massive institutional reform that the crisis demands. He seems to think that a meeting of bishops is a solution when, as a class, they are themselves the problem. And, apparently, he regards next February as a timely response to a bankruptcy that has already been declared.
The second factor is the recent accumulation of new evidence showing that the depth of Church corruption wildly surpasses any previous estimate. Every week brings a new bolt of accusation. Last week, the Pope accepted the resignation of Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, of West Virginia, amid allegations that he had sexually harassed adults (he has denied allegations against him), and the news that a report to be issued by the Church this week will reveal that more than three thousand minors were abused by more than a thousand priests in Germany. On Saturday, a Dutch newspaper investigation found that, between 1945 and 2010, more than half of the bishops and cardinals of the Netherlands had protected priest abusers instead of victims.
This cascade of accusation, revelation, and indictment will keep flowing. That Pope Francis responds with a business-as-usual meeting of bishops next winter shows how far he is from grasping the stakes of this crisis. His enemies exploit it, while Catholics and non-Catholics alike recognize the utter collapse of Church morality.
As a Jesuit, a Roman Catholic priest — as somebody who lives and breathes the church — I should have understood already how broken the institution of the church can be. After all, the scandal of child sex abuse and its cover-up by the church hierarchy broke in Boston in 2002. Then it happened again in Minnesota in 2012. That list could go on. I read about those scandals years ago with both anger and sadness. But in reading the recent Pennsylvania reports detailing yet another cover-up of clergy sexual abuse, I found shock giving way to shame.
I am ashamed at the crimes recorded in the Pennsylvania grand jury report and ashamed by the apparently well-known abuses of power by former Cardinal McCarrick. I am ashamed not because there is anything new in these reports, but because it means that in yet another place, the hierarchy of the church has chosen to protect the institution over the vulnerable. And I am ashamed because, though I have not committed these acts myself, I am by my own choice a part of this system. It is because others who have this ministry have caused such pain that I feel compelled to say how sorry I am.
But even saying that feels uncomfortably like a power grab, a use of the very authority of the priesthood — the expectation that people will listen as I narrate the experience of faith — to make an inadequate apology for the way that same authority has been so grievously misused. But it will take a few more words to explain why I became a Catholic, why I am a priest, and why all of this matters.
Why I became a priest
I became a Catholic in April 2001 during my junior year of college. I was 20 years old, and deeply convinced in the way only a 20-year-old can be that I was becoming part of something much bigger, much holier, much truer than I could be alone.
Extremist that I am, 18 months later I became a Jesuit, and 11 years after that a priest. What I wanted — and what I have found — was a way to give my whole life away in service. I wanted to think toward such a God, help women and men experience such a God, and serve such a God among the poor. I wanted to speak about what such a life was like and, in speaking about it, make it a little more imaginable for others. Being a priest has been the greatest gift of my life.
Which explains something of why it is so heart-wrenching, in light of these continuing scandals, to feel this greatest of gifts become a source of pain.
Still, for many years, even as vocations to the priesthood and religious life have declined and laypeople have taken on more and more leadership positions, there has been an expectation that it is the role of the clergy to speak and that of the laity to listen
Which is why I feel that in the midst of such a scandal, more words from yet another priest verge on the scandalous. Instead, what we priests need to do is to renounce the expectation to be listened to in favor of listening to those we serve
Trying to do that led me to ask a handful of lay leaders across the country not just what they thought of these scandals but how it was affecting their ministry and what they hoped for the church in its midst. Each of them labor full time in the church, ministering as teachers, retreat leaders, and spiritual directors. I preserved their anonymity so they would feel free to speak.
“I actually don’t feel that the bishops betrayed my trust, because they’ve never had it.”
“I am angry,” said one campus minister at an all-girls high school in the Midwest. “I’m now at the point where I’m going to lean into the church one more time, and this is either going to get better or I’m leaving. I want this to get better,” he told me, “but it’s not going to unless we demand a change in the way the church functions. I think we have to use the anger we feel for good because anger without action is selfish. We, the laity of the church, are also responsible for maintaining the status quo — now that we know about these abuses, we must act.”
“I actually don’t feel that the bishops betrayed my trust,” said a theologian at a Catholic university in the West, “because they’ve never had it. But the church is not the bishops. Most of my students don’t feel betrayed for the same reason. They never trusted the institution in the first place.”
A director of formation for a large, suburban parish told me that it’s “only after working within the church for more than a decade” that she’s actually felt like she has some influence on the governance of her parish. “What this scandal has really shown,” she said, is “how deep the chasm between the clergy and the laity really is. It cannot be that the only time we have intimate conversations with priests is behind the wall of the confessional.”
For her, this means involving women, who have for so long done so much of the church’s ministry. As she put it, “women are the ones leading the relational ministries of the church. We have to be included in the leadership of our dioceses, but right now it feels like we are expected to stand on the sidelines and be cheerleaders. Women need a seat at the table.”
Another minister, a liturgist and chaplain at a large Catholic university, told me: “I want us to talk more openly about sexuality in ministry. We have to actually talk about it because the reality is that the sexual identities of the church ministers have been stifled.” When I asked him what was preventing such conversations from happening, he replied, “I believe that the hierarchy is afraid. I’m afraid of having these substantive conversations, too, but fear undermines even the possibility of intimacy. And all of us who minister in the church need mutuality — it is too lonely otherwise.”
Structural reforms alone won’t fix the church
It is practices that sustain communities: throwing a baseball, sitting down for dinner, bowing before the Eucharist. But it is people that sustain practices. Without people who freely give their lives to sustain the practices that make up the Catholic community, there is no church. This is part of what I heard in my conversations with these lay ministers.
In order for the clergy to continue our work, in order for them to be credible to a world that has been so well-trained in reasons not to believe anything said by anyone in ministry, both ministry itself and the culture of the church need to change. For too long, clergy have claimed, and the church has granted, authority simply for being ordained. We must sever the connection — the clericalism — that mistakes a ministry of service for a grant of privilege.
Structural reforms are necessary but not sufficient to begin making this change. At a minimum, as Cardinal DiNardo, the current president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, recently said, the church must welcome lay oversight at the parish, diocese, and national levels. We must implement transparent protocols for the supervision not only of priests but of bishops and cardinals. Lay leaders, especially women, must be included in the formation of Catholic clergy. But for any of this to be more than empty procedures, the church will have to unlearn one culture and relearn another. This will mean changing our identities. And it will cost.
For the clergy, the cost will be learning not to expect automatic, exclusive authority. This might mean that becoming a priest no longer carries with it the expectation of leadership of a parish or a high school or a university. For bishops, this must mean real partnership with laypeople in the governance of their dioceses.
For the whole church, this means unlearning the instinct to try to repay people for the gift of their lives by giving them titles, powers, offices — even by automatically calling them holy. It means constantly remembering that it is service that grounds authority and teaches us how to use power.
In such a church, there would be less need to have a priest write an article in which the voices of the laity — in their anger, their attention to the poor, their tears, and their courage to confront what causes fear — are raised up, because ministers would be listened to because of their authentic service rather than their titles.
Ministry in such a church — one much bigger, much holier, much truer than any of us can ever be alone — can still be a gift, not just for priests but for all.
The grand jury report of Catholic priests’ predations in Pennsylvania is enough to make one vomit. The terrifying fact that hundreds of priests were preying upon over a thousand victims in that state alone makes one shudder at the thought of how many hundreds and thousands of abusers there are elsewhere in the nation, elsewhere in the world. It is time to stop waiting for more reports to accumulate, hoping that something will finally be done about this. Done by whom? By “the church”? If “the church” is taken to mean the pope and bishops, nothing will come of nothing. They are as a body incapable of making sense of anything sexual.
A wise man once told me that we humans are all at one time or another a little crazy on the subject of sex. A little crazy, yes. But Catholic priests are charged with maintaining The Big Crazy on sex all the time. These functionaries of the church are formally supposed to believe and preach sexual sillinesses, from gross denial to outright absurdity, on the broadest range of issues—masturbation, artificial insemination, contraception, sex before marriage, oral sex, vasectomy, homosexuality, gender choice, abortion, divorce, priestly celibacy, male-only priests—and uphold the church’s “doctrines,” no matter how demented.
Some priests are humane or common-sensible enough to ignore some parts of this impossibly severe set of rules, which gives them reason to be selective about sexual matters. Since scripture says nothing about most of these subjects, popes have claimed a power to define “natural law.” But the nineteenth-century English theologian John Henry Newman was right when he said, “The Pope, who comes of Revelation, has no jurisdiction over Nature.” That would be true even if the natural law being invoked had some philosophical depth, but Catholics are asked to accept childish versions of “natural law.” For instance, since the “natural” use of sex is to beget children, any use apart from that is sinful, and mortally sinful. Masturbate and you go to hell (unless, of course, you confess the sin to a priest, which gives an ordained predator the chance to be “comforting” about masturbation).
Contraception prevents the “natural” begetting? Condoms are a ticket to damnation. Homosexuality gives no “natural” progeny? Straight to hell! This is like saying that the “natural” aim of eating is for maintenance of life, so any eating that is not necessary for bodily preservation is a sin. Toast someone with champagne and you go to hell. “The church” adopted this simpleton’s view of natural law only after it had to abandon an equally childish argument from scripture. Pope Pius XI in his 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii noted that Onan was condemned to death for coitus interruptus with his brother’s widow, when “he spilled it [his seed] on the ground” (Genesis 38: 9-10). Dorothy Parker said she called her parrot Onan because it certainly spilled its seed on the ground. When Bible scholars pointed out that the Genesis passage concerned levirate marriage, later popes had to invent a lame natural law argument to replace the lame scriptural argument.
Priests are set apart, by celibacy, by sacramental powers. They are privileged, and they do not want to give up such influence. When dangers to their status come up, they must mute or minimize the dangers. After all, they do perform good work. Catholic charities are impressive. Priests cannot give people counsel and comfort if their position is compromised. This leads to a long-tacit bargain, a devil’s deal. If you do not challenge the priestly mystique, which bishops mean to use for good purposes, they will not reveal the vile treatment of boys. The priesthood itself is at stake.
And other things are at stake, too. Property, for instance. The first thing bishops have done when charged with abuse is to lawyer up. And lawyers advise their clerical clients not to show sympathy for victims, since that will strengthen their claim. If one has to recognize some responsibility, by all means do it quietly, paying victims but with an agreement that the victim will not talk about the payment. In order to buy this silence, church property must be protected.
To be a priest is to be a company man, the company being the pope and the hierarchy. The farther one rises in the hierarchy, the higher the stakes. Pope Francis probably does want to do something about the priest mystique; but he is surrounded by loyalists of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, and he is trammeled by his predecessors’ many years of priest-mystique maintenance, which is the principal task of many in Rome. Waiting for the pope to do something is to hope that the protector of the mystique will forswear the mystique.
Many victims of abuse by priests have made the mistake of reporting their charges to a bishop. They should have gone straight to a secular authority. To expect from the celibate clergy either candor or good sense on sexual matters is a fool’s game. The Vatican II Council proclaimed that the church is the people of God, not their rulers. The hierarchy, when it opposes the laity, makes itself the enemy of the church, not its embodiment. There are no priests in the Gospels (except Jewish priests at the Temple). Peter and Paul never called themselves or anyone else a priest. Jesus is not called a priest in the New Testament apart from a goofy claim in the late and suspect “Letter to the Hebrews,” in which Jesus is said to be a priest not in any Jewish line, but in that of a non-Jewish, so-called priest named Melchizedek, who can never die.
The laity should reclaim its centrality in the church. It has begun to do that in silent ways: for instance, by widespread disuse of the confessional (a medieval invention), by ignoring the ban on contraception (how otherwise could the birth rate of Catholics have declined so far, so fast?), by the number of Catholic abortions (registered by the Kinsey Institute), and by the drop in church attendance (after the pedophile scandals). Some Catholics, of course, have abandoned the church over one or more of these matters—as can be seen in the decline of the church in Ireland. But people like Bill Donohue of the Catholic League are upset at those who still consider themselves Catholic while ignoring “church teaching” on sexual matters, who go to communion without going to confession, who mock the absurdities called “natural law.”
Those who still want to stand with their Catholic brothers and sisters should not merely dissent in private ways, but should also speak up and demand what opinion polls show they really want for the church as the people of God. It is mandatory celibacy and male-only priesthood that is “unnatural.” Even an admired spiritual leader like Thomas Merton, who thought he could get away from temptation by sealing out “the world” in a monastery, fell madly in love with a young nurse when he had to go to a hospital. It was a love that Kaya Oakes, in a new book of tributes to Merton, thinks made him fully human for the first time.
That story is worth contemplating when we think of all the gay priests studied by the late monk, psychotherapist, and author Richard Sipe who were forced into a dishonesty by the church teaching against homosexuality that condemned them and sometimes made them cover up for other, pedophile priests committing vile acts against children because they had their own little hierarchy-imposed secret. They could resort to dodges like the claim that priests could not be bothered by the married life, with the problems of children, when their whole attention was on spiritual matters. We do not ask whether a surgeon or a pilot or even our family doctor is celibate for fear that, if not so, he will pay us less attention than he ought. In fact, it may be a recommendation for a family doctor that he knows what we all go through.
Rot and dishonesty are hard to claw out, especially when given centuries to embed themselves in the traditions of the church. We can only hope that, this late in the game, they can be cured. There is no way of knowing but to try.
No text has had a greater influence on attitudes toward gay people than the biblical book of Leviticus, which prohibits sex between men. Before Leviticus was composed, outright prohibitions against homosexual sex — whether between men or women — were practically unheard-of in the ancient world.
Chapter 18 of Leviticus contains a list of forbidden incestuous acts, followed by prohibitions against sex with a menstruating woman, bestiality and various other sexual acts. In Verse 22, we find its most famous injunction: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (Leviticus 20:13 repeats this law, along with a punishment for those who violate it: “They shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”)
Like many ancient texts, Leviticus was created gradually over a long period and includes the words of more than one writer. Many scholars believe that the section in which Leviticus 18 appears was added by a comparatively late editor, perhaps one who worked more than a century after the oldest material in the book was composed. An earlier edition of Leviticus, then, may have been silent on the matter of sex between men.
But I think a stronger claim is warranted. As I argue in an articlepublished in the latest issue of the journal Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel, there is good evidence that an earlier version of the laws in Leviticus 18 permitted sex between men. In addition to having the prohibition against same-sex relations added to it, the earlier text, I believe, was revised in an attempt to obscure any implication that same-sex relations had once been permissible.
The chapter’s original character, however, can be uncovered with a little detective work.
The core of Leviticus 18 is the list of incest laws, each of which includes the memorable phrase “uncover nakedness.” This is typically understood as a euphemism for sexual intercourse, so “you shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister” would mean something like “do not have sex with your father’s sister.”
Most of the incest laws are presented in a straightforward manner, but two are not. The first exception is: “The nakedness of your father and the nakedness of your mother you shall not uncover; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness” (emphasis mine). At first, this verse appears to outlaw sex between a man and either of his parents. However, the italicized explanation, or gloss, suggests that the law actually addresses only one parent: the mother. It is difficult to reconcile the two parts of this sentence.
The same thing happens again a few verses later: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s brother.” Simple enough, right? The following gloss, however, may give you whiplash: “you shall not approach his wife, she is your aunt.” By the time we’ve finished reading the gloss, a prohibition against intercourse between a man and his paternal uncle has transformed into a law about sex between a man and that uncle’s wife.
Each verse in Leviticus 18’s series of incest laws contains a similar gloss, but the others are merely emphatic, driving home the point. (For example, “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your daughter-in-law; she is your son’s wife, you shall not uncover her nakedness.”) Only in these two cases — the father and mother, and the father’s brother — do the glosses alter our understanding of what is prohibited. A law prohibiting sex with one’s father fades away, and a law against sex with one’s uncle is reinterpreted as a ban on sex with one’s aunt.
What we have here is strong evidence of editorial intervention.
It is worth noting that these new glosses render the idiom “uncover nakedness” incoherent. The phrase can no longer denote sex if uncovering the nakedness of one’s father is an act that also involves one’s mother — as the gloss implies.
But more strikingly, the two exceptional verses are the only ones that address incest between men — all the others involve women. Once the new glosses were added to the text, the prohibitions in Leviticus against incest no longer outlawed any same-sex couplings; only heterosexual pairs were forbidden.
If a later editor of Leviticus opposed homosexual intercourse, you might wonder, wouldn’t it have made more sense for him (and it was probably a him) to leave the original bans on homosexual incest intact?
No. The key to understanding this editorial decision is the concept of “the exception proves the rule.” According to this principle, the presence of an exception indicates the existence of a broader rule. For example, a sign declaring an office to be closed on Sundays suggests that the office is open on all other days of the week.
Now, apply this principle to Leviticus 18: A law declaring that homosexual incest is prohibited could reasonably be taken to indicate that non-incestuous homosexual intercourse is permitted.
A lawmaker is unlikely to specify that murdering one’s father is against the law if there is already a blanket injunction against murder. By the same token, it’s not necessary to stipulate that sex between two specific men is forbidden if a categorical prohibition against sex between men is already on the books.
It seems that with the later introduction in Leviticus of a law banning all male homosexual intercourse, it became expedient to bring the earlier material up-to-date by doing away with two now-superfluous injunctions against homosexual incest — injunctions that made sense when sex between men was otherwise allowed.
This editor’s decision to neutralize old laws by writing new glosses, instead of deleting the laws altogether, is serendipitous: He left behind just enough clues for his handiwork to be perceptible.
One can only imagine how different the history of civilization might have been had the earlier version of Leviticus 18’s laws entered the biblical canon.
[T]he most human response to the death of Scotland’s shamed cardinal came from the journalist whose articles forced his resignation. Catherine Deveney spoke with compassion and pity as she expressed the hope that Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien had found peace and forgiveness at the end. Deveney’s articles for the Observer in 2013 revealed that O’Brien had, for many years, conducted a series of inappropriate relationships with young priests under his jurisdiction.
Like others, she had been aware of a whiff of scandal surrounding this widely admired man who, unlike many of his predecessors and contemporaries, seemed to possess something that endeared him to people. It was only when O’Brien began to front an ill-advised and nasty campaign against same-sex marriage that three priests who had been in sexual relationships with him felt they had to speak out and subsequently approached Deveney with their stories.
A few months before this, I was informed by the editor of the Catholic Observer that O’Brien had chided her for publishing an article of mine in which I had criticised his attitude to gay people and the use of the word “grotesque” in describing their sexuality. Yet I didn’t derive any delight at his public outing, only a sense of deep sadness that a man with great qualities of leadership and compassion had been brought low by a lie that had probably stalked half his adult life. What misery and self-loathing must he have endured as he preached his fables about human sexuality. And yet what damage had he caused to the faith of thousands not by being revealed as a sinner but as a hypocrite.
Ironically, the term “grotesque” can be more accurately applied to a bitter and vile band of ultramontane Scottish Catholics who have been permitted to roam the country, spreading fear and hatred within the Catholic church. These haters barely deserve to be called human, such is their contempt for those who do not adhere to their distorted form of Christianity. They have conducted a reign of terror among priests they suspect of being gay by threatening to “out” them lest they recant and repent. On other occasions, they have stalked successful young single women in the church and asked inappropriate questions about the status of their relationships.
In some corners of Catholic Scotland a special level of suspicion is still reserved for Catholic women who have reached their 30s “without a man”. If Dante had existed today he would have reserved a special circle of pain and torment for this band of latterday inquisitors and social misfits.
Catholic leaders are in denial about sexuality and especially the “grotesque” form of it that they fear more than anything else. Latterly in his ministry, something caused O’Brien suddenly to begin deploying more militant and unpleasant language in describing gay people.
This would all be hilarious if it weren’t so tragic. The Catholic church is absolutely hoaching with gay priests and bishops. There are so many residing within the Vatican that they could probably form their very own order. I’ve been contacted by several in Scotland over the past few years, simply for highlighting the hypocritical oath that holds sway in the Catholic church and that has made their lives miserable.
It’s not difficult to understand why so many gay Catholics are attracted to the priesthood. In many traditional Catholic households, homosexuality is simply not allowed to be mentioned. In such an environment, a Catholic adolescent male who is encountering issues around his sexual identity might be told to take some headache pills and go for a lie down until the feeling goes away. Indeed, that pretty much sums up the entirety of Catholic teaching on this matter. These young men, already hating a part of themselves, are then drawn to the priesthood that offers them a state where they can embrace celibacy and subjugate their sexuality. It is an ecclesiastical and bizarre set-up with disastrous consequences.
Some of this has been evident in the decades of sex abuse by Catholic clergy in Scotland. Sadly, too, it has been evident in the lamentable response of the hierarchy and the reactionary praetorian guard of lay civil servants that surrounds it. The week before O’Brien’s death, Father Paul Moore, an 82-year-old retired priest, was convicted of sexually abusing three children and a student priest over a period spanning more than 20 years. Without going into the details, the abuse was as bad as it gets. His bishop knew about this many years before, yet chose to park the issue by moving him on. He was only doing what other bishops are told to do.
The principal victim who gave eight days of evidence has fought for many years to bring his violator to justice. During this time, he has been treated with a level of contempt and disdain by his own church which was astonishing to behold and utterly callous. There are thousands like him, stretching back decades, and yet the church now boasts of having the right safeguards in place to prevent future abuse. I’d be interested in examining these safeguards and asking why they were constructed without talking to any of the groups of people who survived widespread clerical sexual abuse.
Pope Francis will visit Ireland in August, where he will preach to the converted. It is a home game for the pontiff where he will encounter few protests. I’d encourage him to visit Scotland and find out for himself why tens of thousands of the faithful have abandoned the church. He might also wish to conduct a review of a hierarchy that, with a few exceptions, is no longer fit for purpose.
As we inch toward Christmas, it’s no surprise to hear that Americans are miserable. Any amount of time spent in line at a Target as the holiday approaches will swiftly reveal that we’re a mess. Not only has our happiness been steadily declining since the 1970s, we feel more physical pain than citizens of other nations. Seventy-two percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the direction our country is going in, and between anxiety disorders, depression, social phobias, OCD and PTSD, millions of Americans navigate every day in a sea of mental illness.
On top of this, women in America are alternating between relief at the outing of sexual harassers in the #MeToo movement, rage at the patriarchal thinking that enabled the problem in the first place, and worry about the inevitable backlash. And American religious institutions have their own miserable reckonings to contend with. When Boston’s Cardinal Law died this week, victims of clergy abuse expressed both relief that one of its greatest enablers was no longer a danger, and frustration that his funeral, like that of every other Cardinal, would still be held in St. Peter’s Basilica, and that during the funeral, Pope Francis would deliver a blessing.
In this epoch of unhappiness, Pope Francis has delivered unto us a new book. Happiness in this Life, a series of snippets from his public addresses, is not the in-depth sort of theological tome he’s written along the lines of his exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, or his encyclical on the environment, Laudauto Si. Instead, it’s the kind of book readers can pick up at random and pull bits and pieces from. Divided into subsections with titles like “Your Search For a Meaningful Life” and “They Who Pray Live Serenely,” this is Francis in pastoral mode rather than theological mode.
For American readers, however, the question of whether we even know how to be happy remains. And books like this also beg the question of whether or not religion can make us happy in the first place. Gen Xers like myself have increasingly turned away from institutional religions like Catholicism, Mainline Protestantism, and evangelical churches, and the Millennial and post-Millennial cohorts have done the same thing at even higher rates.
The often-quoted Pew survey on Nones from 2012 revealed that people who leave religion behind do so because American religion is “too concerned with rules” and “too tied up in politics.” Politics, and the rules of politics, have especially made us miserable lately, and our obsessive scrolling through news feeds and social media to keep up with the latest political disasters isn’t making us feel any better. Twitter use is correlated with greater rates of anxiety, and Facebook contributes to depressive mind states.
So what does the Pope tell us to do in order to be happier? Mostly, it involves praying more. To be fair, Francis’ emphasis on the marginalized comes through even in his ideas about happiness. Of the Beatitudes, which tell us the most blessed are those who suffer most, Francis says that these sayings of Jesus “are a new and revolutionary model of happiness that contradicts what is usually communicated by the media and prevailing wisdom.” For Americans trapped in a capitalist cycle of thoughtless consumerism, Francis offers some advice. “According to this worldly logic, those whom Jesus proclaimed blessed are regarded as useless, as ‘losers.’ On the other hand, success at any cost is glorified, as are creature comforts, the arrogance of power, and self-absorption.”
Francis, never shy about his critiques of capitalism, also writes that our suffering might be bound up in our notions of what liberation really means. “In our existential journey,” he writes, “there is a tendency to resist liberation; we are afraid of freedom and, paradoxically, we unconsciously prefer slavery.” In his Christian world view, this is bound up in notions about this life versus the “world without end” referenced in the Catholic Doxology. “Slavery, on the other hand, reduces time to a single moment: It severs each moment from both the past and the future, and that makes us feel safer. In other words,” he adds, “slavery prevents us from truly and fully living in the present, because it makes our past empty and cuts off our future, separates us from eternity.”
But a great deal of this book is about relationships. Joy, the pope tells us, doesn’t come from material possessions but from “encounter,” a word he often uses to talk about what the church should be doing. His Jesuit background means that Francis has both spent much of his life living in community, and that he comes from a religious order with a strong missionary background, one that goes “to the margins,” as he often repeats. But this book is not cut and pasted from his addresses to his fellow Jesuits; rather, most of these talks were given at events like World Youth Day or meetings on family life.
Francis, single and celibate, has a lot of advice for families. Marriage, for example, “is a way to experience faith in God, mutual trust, profound freedom, and even holiness.” The family of Jesus is there to “help us rediscover the mission and purpose of family.” None of this is earth-shattering advice, and in a country like America with such high divorce rates on the one hand and increasing numbers of people in interfaith and same-gender marriages on the other, very few of the families around us look a Christmas crèche.
Strawberries on a theological cake
Francis devotes an entire chapter to “The Blessings and Challenges of Womanhood.” His statement that “the role of women in the Church is more than maternal, more than being the mother of a family,” gets us off to a good start, but the repeated emphasis on John Paul II’s notion of a “feminine genius” is where the trouble begins. How can a woman be happy when her worth is reduced to her “feminine” qualities?
Women have a “special attention” that we “bestow on others” often “expressed in maternity.” “A woman who cares for every aspect of her family life,” Francis says, “is making an incomparable contribution to the future of our society,” but women are also “weary and nearly crushed by the volume of their many duties and tasks.” History, he says “is rife with an excess of patriarchal cultures,” yet in the same sentence he condemns the use of surrogate mothers. And there is a danger, according to the pope, that women who are emancipated “ignore the precious feminine traits that characterize womanhood.”
Complementarianism is often given props in Francis’ talks on the role of women in both the church and family. Men and women are “made very differently,” and therefore, we should beware of “machismo in a skirt.” And women should “try not to be angry” because it’s been proven that we are the “champions,” not men. What would solve the problem of women’s oppression would be a “profound theology of women,” but just a year ago, Francis reiterated that the door to women’s ordination remains closed. So is this profound theology of women therefore supposed to come from men?
A friend jokingly referred to this chapter of the book as “Popesplaining,” but in any patriarchal institution, the silencing and disempowering of women goes beyond rape and physical sexual harassment and into women being interrupted, treated contemptibly, or iced out of decision-making processes. Women in Argentina, Francis’ home country, have condemned its culture of machismo, which they say is connected to a rise in everything from street harassment to domestic violence to women being set on fire, chopped up, and shoved into garbage bags. Argentinian feminists even have a word for this continuum of male violence against women. They refer to it as femicido, or femicide.
Complementarianism has also infected the American Catholic church, and it can be witnessed in the American bishops’ recent letter “Created Male and Female,” which tells parents of transgender kids that they should not “sow confusion and doubt” by allowing their trans kids to take hormones in order to “uphold the truth of a person’s identity as male or female.” And complementarianism in American Catholicism may have its patron saint in Paul Ryan, who says that the solution to a robust American economy is simply for women to have more babies, and even went so far as to mansplain Catholic social teaching to a nun.
Many American Catholics can’t forget either that American Catholic orders of religious investigated for “radical feminist themes” just a few years ago were all women’s orders, nor can we forget that the most prominent American theologians censured by the Vatican have also beenwomen. Yes, those investigations took place under the previous pope, but the root causes behind them—a fear and suspicion of women—remain seemingly intractably in place.
Many American Catholic women are very often unhappy. This past summer, I attended a conference on Catholic writing at the University of Notre Dame. The speaker list was full of women and the panels were full of women, many of them remarkably gifted writers with armloads of literary prizes. At the opening Mass for the conference, a visiting male bishop led the service, assisted by four male Holy Cross priests, two male altar servers, a male cantor and several male lectors. The optics, as we like to say, were not great.
But that is the church we belong to, and until we make the same decision many of our fellow Catholics have, shake the dust off, and depart, we will remain sitting unhappily in those pews in our unhappy parishes listening to unhappy homilies from unhappy priests. And like each of us standing in line at Target burdened by the amount of shit we buy in order to find happiness, we make a choice to stand in that line, and we make a choice to show up at church.
We choose our unhappiness. But in its decision to exclude women from serving as priests and in its insistence that, at best, women can be “strawberries” on a theological cake, the Catholic church also chooses unhappiness for us. And that is something no pope, no matter how happy he might be, seems to be willing to change.