Was the feminism fight central to the first century church?
That’s the question a Catholic nun takes on in a piece for the Global Sisters Report, a self-described “independent, nonprofit source of news and information about Catholic sisters and the critical issues facing the people they serve.”
Asserting that the Bible “shows how the early church was a feminist movement” and that it’s time for the true “herstory” of female discipleship to be told, the piece celebrates the news that Pope Francis opened the door to expand senior roles for women in the Catholic Church, citing scriptural reasons behind such a move.
The nun who wrote the piece is Nameeta Renu, a member of the Order of Consecrated Virgins in Bombay in Mumbai, India. She compared the church to Mary and Martha, two women who were followers of Jesus.
Renu, whose bio states that she has a doctorate in theology on spiritual guidance and integral formation, writes that while Martha embodied the “relatively conservative” early church views on women’s roles, which pointed toward more “traditional roles,” Mary “represents the feminist church as envisioned by Jesus.”
In questioning these two archetypes, Renu then suggests both Martha and Mary “represent the church at different points on the wide spectrum of feminism” and cites “Martha from the Margins: The Authority of Martha in Early Christian Tradition,” a paper co-edited by agnostic atheist Bart Ehrman.
After asserting that God “wants both men and women to be liberated from patriarchy,” Renu says this can only happen “when victims are freed from domination, and when oppressors are converted and liberated from sin.”
She goes on to call Mary Magdalene the “Apostle to the Apostles,” and suggests that such a claim to apostleship holds as much weight as the Apostle Paul.
“Mary Magdalene has a very important role in following Jesus, but she is excluded from the Twelve Apostles while Paul boldly calls himself an apostle to the Gentiles even though he is not a disciple of Jesus before his death and resurrection,” Renu writes.
Christian blogger Erica Lee, whose blog “Unfiltered & Free” looks at gender and other topics through a biblical lens, told The Christian Post that filtering Scripture through feminism will only fuel further division.
“The feminist movement is nothing more than another societal ploy to divide the population against themselves,” Lee said. “Satan is the master deceiver and he is hard at work.
“All social justice movements pit us against each other when we are all one Body in Christ. Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary was the great equalizer.”
Lee also said characterizing Mary Magdalene as a type of “13th apostle” is without scriptural basis.
“It appears to me that the author is simply uplifting an already significant female from the Bible to an elevated status as to remove perceived victimization,” said Lee. “Such twisting and manipulating of Scripture is dangerous.”
Renu’s piece also pushes back against the traditional interpretation of Acts 6:3, which says the apostles told the disciples, “Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty” of distributing to widows in the church.
According to Renu, there is little documentation about the identities of “the seven” who were chosen and that church fathers often used gendered language “to represent all the baptized,” even in the Nicene Creed of 325 A.D.
Renu suggests the seven might have been either men, women, or a combination of both.
She also argues that because the head of a family traditionally receives the blessing for all family members, “some of the seven names could indirectly refer to their daughters, sisters, mothers or other relatives.”
“They could even refer to couples or all the members of their families being selected for the service,” she added.
Lee told CP that such hermeneutical teaching is “a direct reflection of the modern church” and cited a recent study that found just 37% of pastors hold to a biblical worldview.
“That is a heartbreaking indictment on the church,” said Lee. “Therefore, as a result, we see articles such as this.”
Renu’s piece appears to have been written in response to news out of the Vatican that would allow women to serve alongside all-male clergy in senior management of the Catholic Church.
Published in March, the new constitution calls “for the involvement of laywomen and laymen, even in roles of government and responsibility.”
The document, however, did not alter the role for women as it pertains to worship in the Catholic Church.
In most countries, women were already serving as lectors and catechists in the Catholic Church. However, with the official ordination, more conservative bishops will be unable to prevent women in their dioceses from taking on those roles. Francis changed the laws of the Roman Catholic church in January 2021 to formally allow women to give readings from the Bible during Mass, act as altar servers and distribute communion.
Throughout his papacy, Francis has called for women to have more formal roles in the church, but has remained firm on forbidding women to become deacons or priests. Catholic doctrine prohibits the ordination of women as priests, as those roles are reserved for men.
In April 2020, the pope established a commission to study whether women should be granted the right to become ordained deacons. In this role, women would be permitted to preach and baptize, but not to conduct Mass.
I wanted to keep him out of trouble with the Church, but he shows no evidence of wishing the same in this impassioned plea for love & justice
By James Finn
Fr. Andy Herman is a Roman Catholic priest who corresponds with me about LGBTQ issues. I have sometimes observed that Catholic priests are reluctant to publicly criticise Church teachings and practices.
Andy is a remarkable, refreshing exception. He offered to be interviewed. I asked him to write up a first-person story. This is it, after I edited and polished it. I wanted to keep him out of trouble with the Church, but he shows no evidence of wishing the same, which you’ll see in this impassioned, earthy plea for love and justice.
If this story inspires you, ask him for more, especially accounts of his youth rescue work in Los Angeles, which is hair-raising love in action.
Hi! My name’s Andy!
(“Hi Andy!” )
(“Welcome, Andy!” [Applause.])
And I have been “intrinsically disordered” for… 74 years!
([Applause picks up, whoops & shouts of encouragement and congratulations.])
I know that’s tweaked a bit, because to be honest I’m not personally familiar with 12-step meetings. But the real problem is, it’s ass backwards.
My real name IS Andy. Andy Herman. Father Andy Herman. I’m a Roman Catholic priest.
I retired myself from public ministry with the institutional Catholic Church, because many years ago I vowed to make sure my mom and dad would never have to go into a nursing home as they declined in age. Which vow I was able to keep.
I was also canonically bounced out of my religious community, because I decided not to return to them while I was taking care of my parents. It was all very friendly. Honestly. I have the documentation to prove it.
But I’m not here to talk about me.
I am here to talk about the ass backwards garbage coming out of the Catholic Diocese of Marquette, Michigan.
I’m sure those of you who keep up with Catholic news know what I’m talking about. Members of the LGBTQIA+ community in that diocese have, in essence, been told to go eff themselves.
LGBTQ Catholics are not wanted in Upper Michigan in any way, shape, or form. They will not be permitted to take part in most (or any) of the sacramental and communal life of the Church.
What I do now is try to help homeless people on the street, most especially homeless kids, and really most especially, LGBTQ kids.
The Marquette Diocese is led by a Bishop whose name I will not utter, in the manner of news organizations not repeating the name of a perpetrator of a particularly terrible crime. That’s what’s going on in Upper Michigan — crimes against LGBTQIA+ people, especially Roman Catholics.
Let’s call him Bishop ID, Intrinsically Disordered, because that’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls US. Or better yet, let me refer to him as Bishop AB. Sure you get that one right off.
I ranted about this situation in a letter to the Prism & Pen editors, when it was first reported here. I was told maybe I could pen something, but just shave off some of the rougher ranting edges. So, I think I’ve un-ranted pretty much, and also don’t want to go into some analysis that’s already been done.
I just want to present a couple of points to the people of Upper Michigan, especially those of you who may be LGBTQ+ Catholics, and, I guess, particularly to those of you who may want to remain in the Church.
I’ll also presume that latter description is one that many of you have already answered. Like so many of us, you’ve already left a place where you’re not wanted.
Let me just briefly tell you what these points are, and, if you think they’re worth something, please share them if it’s at all appropriate, especially with young people who are on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum.
I grew up in Chicago and have been out here in Los Angeles for many years. What I do now is try to help homeless people on the street, most especially homeless kids, and really most especially, LGBTQ kids.
So I am sick and tired — to put it mildly — to have to, for the 3 millionth time in my life, explain THIS to kids who are of our community:
There is not a damn thing wrong with you.
God does love you, and Jesus never said an effing thing against you.
Period. But let me not rant further.
Let me, as a trained Roman Catholic priest, make the following points:
1.) Apparently, the Bishop of Marquette, and so many others like him, have spent not one moment praying, meditating, contemplating, experiencing, talking about, or studying anything of any consequence regarding the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
What the Bishop is perpetrating is utterly opposite to that Gospel. I’m wrong about a lot of things in life, but I damn well know what I just said is accurate. The only persons who are “intrinsically disordered” here are Bishop AB and his cohorts.
To my fellow LGBTQ people, I say continue to be safe, protect yourselves, and THRIVE in all the practical ways you can, especially you who are our children. Never be the victims of this garbage, inside or outside yourselves.
2.) Pope Francis has called for a two-year process of synodality, and especially asked that people whose voices are opposite to, or never heard in the context of the Catholic Church, be given a seat at the table to discuss where the hell the Church should be going in years to come.
So, if you have the inkling to, speak up and tell Bishop AB that the Pope has personally invited you to sit at the table and give, even if that giving is seen as opposing the traditional, death-encrusted way talking about our faith that our Catholic leaders have indulged in for far too long.
3.) What Bishop AB has done is absolutely and utterly in contradiction to the morality of the Gospel, and certainly to the best pastoral practice of Catholic Church teaching. More than anything, he stands in utter defiance of Pope Francis’ attitude, which puts caring about people in front of stagnant, dormant, full-of-crap definitions of dogma and Catholic practice.
Bishop AB has declared dangerous nonsense against our community in the Diocese of Marquette, and if you want to get involved, please, you should immediately contact the Office of the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre. Ask that a canonical investigation of Bishop AB be initiated, and ask that — if the findings are as accurate as they are publicly presented now, and he is in egregious violation of the teachings of Jesus Christ — that he be removed from office immediately.
With a sigh, I would also suggest that you might recommend an investigation to determine if Bishop AB is something like a “Bishop Roy Cohn,” a name I would give him if he, sadly, is a self-hating member of our community, just like the notorious lawyer on the national scene years ago.
4.) No matter what you want to do, please always realize you don’t have to celebrate sacraments to get into heaven, if that’s the way you think about things, especially if the people who are supposed to guard the integrity of your “immortal soul” refuse you access to those very sacraments.
You can really get in contact with Jesus with the same surety as they supposedly offer, by simply sitting and praying — or gathering together with priests who have the cojones to offer Mass and celebrate the other sacraments, with and for you.
And if none of those “guys” up there in Michigan’s UP will do this, do it yourselves. Baptize one another. Confirm your kids reaching adulthood into belief that Jesus loves them. Forgive one another.
And most of all, consecrate bread and wine under the aegis that if two or three are gathered together in Jesus name, he is absolutely and uncontestedly present with and to you.
This is not BS passing for shallow theology. It is based in the Gospels.
5.) My last point is an old one from a most moldy and oldie traditional pastoral theology of the Sacrament of Penance, but it bears looking at. If a penitent is not able in some ways to recognize that he or she has sinned, or there are other confusions and concerns about whether or not the sins can be forgiven, a confessor can take upon himself the sins of the penitent, in order that the penitent be freed and given absolution.
So all of you LGBTQ people out there who make love, get married, and have great and loving sex, all of which are considered grievous sins by the Catholic Church, send the damn things over to me, because I sure as hell WILL accept them without any fear of ending up in hell myself. (If you even talk in language like that, because I don’t.)
Even if you don’t go to confession anymore, that’s my offer as a priest. Just sit down, get yourself into a state where you can think about these things, and send them over to me.
I will absorb them, and you are free to go about your normal, regular daily life. But please only do this if it really bothers you and you think that way. Otherwise, who cares?
Do you really think Jesus is sitting at the prosecutors’ table or even behind the bench as the judge, and wants to forgive you for stuff that, even to a nitpicker, isn’t worth being denied 10 nanoseconds of eternity without being completely wrapped up with God?
Remember who’s intrinsically disordered.
You may be an ass, you may be a jerk, you may be evil as hell, you may be lots of things, but you are not an evil person just because you are LGBTQ. You/We are exactly the opposite: we are the sons and daughters of a loving God, brothers and sisters of Jesus of Nazareth, the Anointed One.
If that’s how you want to phrase it.
The only kind of sex that is ever evil or sinful is coercive sex, otherwise known as assault and/or rape. That includes trafficking, but cannot include sex workers themselves, per se.
If someone is forced to do that to stay alive, or doing it for some negative psychological or emotional reason, the situation is evil, not the people forced into it. Gay, straight, or anywhere on the spectrum.
Let’s not get confused about this. Jesus never said anything about this.
Back when the early church sought to make itself more credible, it adopted certain forms of Greek philosophy, including this idea known as the “Natural Law.” Saint Thomas Aquinas adopted and pushed these ideas. He was apparently not a bad guy, but he cannot possibly stand in as a substitute for Jesus.
All that extra-Biblical natural law business, mixed up with the rather primitive prescriptions against any kind of same-sex anything, especially in the Jewish scriptures — well, that leads to the wondrously inhumane, tragically harmful attitudes and behaviors we see too often in the Church today.
Stay away from this thinking, these attitudes and actions.
Read the Gospel. Talk to people who don’t like being cruel and hateful to others, especially to kids. Band together with them. I think you’ll find that the brief analysis I’ve given here on these points is accurate.
Stay away from those who are the opposite, like Bishop AB and his followers. If you feel like telling them to go to hell, I don’t think it’s going to really matter because they may be on their way anyway.<
But everyone, even the most horrible sinners, can be forgiven. So I say, “Look in the mirror, Bishop AB.”
In the words of Pope Francis, “Who am I to judge?” I don’t know who any of you are in person, but I send you my love and my support and my prayer and I ask you, please — for me and most especially for the homeless LGBTQ youth I work with — to throw it all back at me.
In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, Son of Man, or whoever you really think he is: Love one another, unconditionally, as he loves us.
Thanks for reading.
Fr. Andy Herman ***********************
Last month, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) approved a measure that could prohibit President Biden, a devout Catholic, from receiving communion. Conservative bishops do not wish Biden to receive communion because of his support for abortion rights.
Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, general secretary of the USCCB, was a strong supporter of the measure, but he has resigned due to allegations of “serial sexual misconduct,” as reported in The PIllar, a Catholic publication. Burrill was allegedly using Grindr for sex hookups, which goes against Catholic priests’ vow of celibacy.
Use of location-based hookup apps is inconsistent with clerical obligations to continence and chastity, according to Fr. Thomas Berg, a professor of moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York.
Berg told The Pillar that “according to canon law and the Church’s tradition, clerics are obliged to observe ‘perfect and perpetual continence,’ as a reflection of what should be our lived pursuit of our spousal relationship with the Church and with Christ.”
Calling it “obviously a scandal” that a cleric would use location-based hookup apps, Berg said there is “a real disconnect between the appearance of a man who presumably is earnestly striving to live the life of chastity, when it becomes glaringly evident that he is dramatically failing at that because he’s gone to hookup apps to look actively for sexual partners — that itself is an enormous scandal.”
As Upworthy points out, you’d think Monsignor Burrill would have more empathy toward President Biden:
Burrill appears to be an even bigger hypocrite because the USCCB has opposed LGBTQ equality, same-sex adoption, and the development of an LGBTQ suicide hotline. It has also promoted anti-trans legislation.
It always seems to be that the religious folks who judge the harshest always wind up having something to hide. It’s a shame that Catholics such as Burrill are forced by doctrine to live their lives in the shadows. But shouldn’t that make them more compassionate towards fellow sinners instead of the first to judge?
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.
On August 25 Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò published an eleven-page letter in which he accused Pope Francis of ignoring and covering up evidence of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and called for his resignation. It was a declaration of civil war by the church’s conservative wing. Viganò is a former apostolic nuncio to the US, a prominent member of the Roman Curia—the central governing body of the Holy See—and one of the most skilled practitioners of brass-knuckle Vatican power politics. He was the central figure in the 2012 scandal that involved documents leaked by Pope Benedict XVI’s personal butler, including letters Viganò wrote about corruption in Vatican finances, and that contributed to Benedict’s startling decision to abdicate the following year. Angry at not having been made a cardinal and alarmed by Francis’s supposedly liberal tendencies, Viganò seems determined to take out the pope.
As a result of Viganò’s latest accusations and the release eleven days earlier of a Pennsylvania grand jury report that outlines in excruciating detail decades of sexual abuse of children by priests, as well as further revelations of sexual misconduct by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., Francis’s papacy is now in a deep, possibly fatal crisis. After two weeks of silence, Francis announced in mid-September that he would convene a large-scale gathering of the church’s bishops in February to discuss the protection of minors against sexual abuse by priests.
The case of Cardinal McCarrick, which figures heavily in Viganò’s letter, is emblematic of the church’s failure to act on the problem of sexual abuse—and of the tendentiousness of the letter itself. In the 1980s stories began to circulate that McCarrick had invited young seminarians to his beach house and asked them to share his bed. Despite explicit allegations that were relayed to Rome, in 2000 Pope John Paul II appointed him archbishop of Washington, D.C., and made him a cardinal. Viganò speculates that the pope was too ill to know about the allegations, but does not mention that the appointment came five years before John Paul’s death. He also praises Benedict XVI for finally taking action against McCarrick by sentencing him to a life of retirement and penance, and then accuses Francis of revoking the punishment and relying on McCarrick for advice on important church appointments. If Benedict did in fact punish McCarrick, it was a very well kept secret, because he continued to appear at major church events and celebrate mass; he was even photographed with Viganò at a church celebration.
Viganò’s partial account of the way the church handled the allegations about McCarrick is meant to absolve Pope Francis’s predecessors, whose conservative ideology he shares. Viganò lays the principal blame for failing to punish McCarrick on Francis, who does appear to have mishandled the situation—one he largely inherited. He may have decided to ignore the allegations because, while deplorable, they dated back thirty years and involved seminarians, who were adults, not minors. Last June, however, a church commission found credible evidence that McCarrick had behaved inappropriately with a sixteen-year-old altar boy in the early 1970s, and removed him from public ministry; a month later Francis ordered him to observe “a life of prayer and penance in seclusion,” and he resigned from the College of Cardinals. On October 7, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops at the Vatican, issued a public letter offering a vigorous defense of Francis and a direct public rebuke of his accuser:
Francis had nothing to do with McCarrick’s promotions to New York, Metuchen, Newark and Washington. He stripped him of his Cardinal’s dignity as soon as there was a credible accusation of abuse of a minor….
Dear Viganò, in response to your unjust and unjustified attack, I can only conclude that the accusation is a political plot that lacks any real basis that could incriminate the Pope and that profoundly harms the communion of the Church.
The greatest responsibility for the problem of sexual abuse in the church clearly lies with Pope John Paul II, who turned a blind eye to it for more than twenty years. From the mid-1980s to 2004, the church spent $2.6 billion settling lawsuits in the US, mostly paying victims to remain silent. Cases in Ireland, Australia, England, Canada, and Mexico followed the same depressing pattern: victims were ignored or bullied, even as offending priests were quietly transferred to new parishes, where they often abused again. “John Paul knew the score: he protected the guilty priests and he protected the bishops who covered for them, he protected the institution from scandal,” I was told in a telephone interview by Father Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who was tasked by the papal nuncio to the US with investigating abuse by priests while working at the Vatican embassy in Washington in the mid-1980s, when the first lawsuits began to be filed.
Benedict was somewhat more energetic in dealing with the problem, but his papacy began after a cascade of reporting had appeared on priestly abuse, beginning with an investigation published by the Boston Globe in 2002 (the basis for Spotlight, the Oscar-winning film of 2015). The church was faced with mass defections and the collapse of donations from angry parishioners, which forced Benedict to confront the issue directly.
Francis’s election inspired great hopes for reform. But those who expected him to make a clean break with this history of equivocation and half-measures have been disappointed. He hesitated, for example, to meet with victims of sexual abuse during his visit to Chile in January 2018 and then insulted them by insisting that their claims that the local bishop had covered up the crimes of a notorious abuser were “calumny.” In early October, he expelled from the priesthood two retired Chilean bishops who had been accused of abuse. But when he accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl—who according to the Pennsylvania grand jury report repeatedly mishandled accusations of abuse when he was bishop of Pittsburgh—he praised Wuerl for his “nobility.” Francis seems to take one step forward and then one step backward.
Viganò is correct in writing that one of Francis’s closest advisers, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, disregarded a grave case of abuse occurring right under his nose in Honduras. One of Maradiaga’s associates, Auxiliary Bishop Juan José Pineda Fasquelle of Tegucigalpa, was accused of abusing students at the seminary he helped to run. Last June, forty-eight of the 180 seminarians signed a letter denouncing the situation there. “We are living and experiencing a time of tension in our house because of gravely immoral situations, above all of an active homosexuality inside the seminary that has been a taboo all this time,” the seminarians wrote. Maradiaga initially denounced the writers as “gossipers,” but Pineda was forced to resign a month later.
“I feel badly for Francis because he doesn’t know whom to trust,” Father Doyle said. Almost everyone in a senior position in the Catholic Church bears some guilt for covering up abuse, looking the other way, or resisting transparency. The John Jay Report (2004) on sexual abuse of minors by priests, commissioned by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, indicated that the number of cases increased during the 1950s and 1960s, was highest in the 1970s, peaking in 1980, and has gradually diminished since then. Francis may have hoped that the problem would go away and feared that a true housecleaning would leave him with no allies in the Curia.
Much of the press coverage of the scandal has been of the Watergate variety: what the pope knows, when he found out, and so forth. This ignores a much bigger issue that no one in the church wants to talk about: the sexuality of priests and the failure of priestly celibacy.
Viganò blames the moral crisis of the papacy on the growing “homosexual current” within the church. There is indeed a substantial minority of gay priests. The Reverend Donald B. Cozzens, a Catholic priest and longtime rector of a seminary in Ohio, wrote in his book The Changing Face of the Priesthood (2000) that “the priesthood is, or is becoming, a gay profession.” There have been no large surveys, using scientific methods of random sampling, of the sexual life of Catholic priests. Many people—a priest in South Africa, a journalist in Spain, and others—have done partial studies that would not pass scientific muster. The late Dr. Richard Sipe, a former priest turned psychologist, interviewed 1,500 priests for an ethnographic study.
There is some self-selection by priests who agree to answer questions or fill out questionnaires or seek treatment, which is why the estimates on, say, gay priests vary so widely. But the studies are consistent in showing high percentages of sexually active priests and of gay priests. As Thomas Doyle wrote in 2004, “Knowledgeable observers, including authorities within the Church, estimate that 40–50 percent of all Catholic priests have a homosexual orientation, and that half of these are sexually active.” Sipe came to the conclusion that “50 percent of American clergy were sexually active…and between 20 and 30 percent have a homosexual orientation and yet maintained their celibacy in an equal proportion with heterosexually oriented clergy.”
In his letter Viganò repeats the finding in the John Jay Report that 81 percent of the sexual abuse cases involve men abusing boys. But he ignores its finding that those who actually identify as homosexual are unlikely to engage in abuse and are more likely to seek out adult partners. Priests who abuse boys are often confused about their sexuality; they frequently have a negative view of homosexuality, yet are troubled by their own homoerotic urges.
Viganò approvingly cites Sipe’s work four times. But he ignores Sipe’s larger argument, made on his website in 2005, that “the practice of celibacy is the basic problem for bishops and priests.” Sipe also wrote, “The Vatican focus on homosexual orientation is a smoke screen to cover the pervasive and greater danger of exposing the sexual behavior of clerics generally. Gay priests and bishops practice celibacy (or fail at it) in the same proportions as straight priests and bishops do.” He denounced McCarrick’s misconduct on numerous occasions.
While the number of priests abusing children—boys or girls under the age of sixteen—is comparatively small, many priests have secret sex lives (both homosexual and heterosexual), which does not leave them in the strongest position to discipline those who abuse younger victims. Archbishop Rembert Weakland, for example, the beloved liberal archbishop of Milwaukee from 1977 to 2002, belittled victims who complained of sexual abuse by priests and then quietly transferred predatory priests to other parishes, where they continued their abusive behavior. It was revealed in 2002 that the Milwaukee archdiocese had paid $450,000 in hush money to an adult man with whom Weakland had had a longtime secret sexual relationship, which might have made him more reluctant to act against priests who abused children. But this could be true of heterosexual as well as homosexual priests who are sexually active.
Viganò believes that the church’s moral crisis derives uniquely from its abandonment of clear, unequivocal, strict teaching on moral matters, and from overly permissive attitudes toward homosexuality in particular. He does not want to consider the ways in which its traditional teaching on sexuality—emphasized incessantly by recent popes—has contributed to the present crisis. The modern church has boxed itself into a terrible predicament. Until about half a century ago, it was able to maintain an attitude of wise hypocrisy, accepting that priests were often sexually active but pretending that they weren’t. The randy priests and monks (and nuns) in Chaucer and Boccaccio were not simply literary tropes; they reflected a simple reality: priests often found it impossible to live the celibate life. Many priests had a female “housekeeper” who relieved their loneliness and doubled as life companions. Priests frequently had affairs with their female parishioners and fathered illegitimate children. The power and prestige of the church helped to keep this sort of thing a matter of local gossip rather than international scandal.
When Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962, bishops from many parts of the world hoped that the church would finally change its doctrine and allow priests to marry. But John XXIII died before the council finished its work, which was then overseen by his successor, Paul VI (one of the popes most strongly rumored to have been gay). Paul apparently felt that the sweeping reforms of Vatican II risked going too far, so he rejected the pleas for priestly marriage and issued his famous encyclical Humanae Vitae, which banned contraception, overriding a commission he had convened that concluded that family planning and contraception were not inconsistent with Catholic doctrine.
Opposing priestly marriage and contraception placed the church on the conservative side of the sexual revolution and made adherence to strict sexual norms a litmus test for being a good Catholic, at a time when customs were moving rapidly in the other direction. Only sex between a man and a woman meant for procreation and within the institution of holy matrimony was allowed. That a man and a woman might have sex merely for pleasure was seen as selfish and sinful. Some 125,000 priests, according to Richard Sipe, left the priesthood after Paul VI closed the door on the possibility of priestly marriage. Many, like Sipe, were straight men who left to marry. Priestly vocations plummeted.
Conversely, the proportion of gay priests increased, since it was far easier to hide one’s sex life in an all-male community with a strong culture of secrecy and aversion to scandal. Many devout young Catholic men also entered the priesthood in order to try to escape their unconfessable urges, hoping that a vow of celibacy would help them suppress their homosexual leanings. But they often found themselves in seminaries full of sexual activity. Father Doyle estimates that approximately 10 percent of Catholic seminarians were abused (that is, drawn into nonconsensual sexual relationships) by priests, administrators, or other seminarians.
This problem is nothing new. Homosocial environments—prisons, single-sex schools, armies and navies, convents and monasteries—have always been places of homosexual activity. “Man is a loving animal,” in Sipe’s words. The Benedictines, one of the first monastic orders, created elaborate rules to minimize homosexual activity, insisting that monks sharing a room sleep fully clothed and with the lights on.
The modern Catholic Church has failed to grasp what its founders understood quite well. “It is better to marry than to burn with passion,” Saint Paul wrote when his followers asked him whether “it is good for a man not to touch a woman.” “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry.” Priestly celibacy was not firmly established until the twelfth century, after which many priests had secret wives or lived in what the church termed “concubinage.”
The obsession with enforcing unenforceable standards of sexual continence that run contrary to human nature (according to one study, 95 percent of priests report that they masturbate) has led to an extremely unhealthy atmosphere within the modern church that contributed greatly to the sexual abuse crisis. A 1971 Loyola Study, which was also commissioned by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, concluded that a large majority of American priests were psychologically immature, underdeveloped, or maldeveloped. It also found that a solid majority of priests—including those ordained in the 1940s, well before the sexual revolution—described themselves as very or somewhat sexually active.
Sipe, during his decades of work treating priests as a psychotherapist, also concluded that the lack of education about sexuality and the nature of celibate life tended to make priests immature, often more comfortable around teenagers than around other adults. All this, along with a homosocial environment and the church’s culture of secrecy, has made seminaries a breeding ground for sexual abuse.
There are possible ways out of this dilemma for Francis. He could allow priests to marry, declare homosexuality to be not sinful, or even move to reform the patriarchal nature of the church—and to address the collapse in the number of nuns, which has decreased by 30 percent since the 1960s even though the number of the world’s Catholics has nearly doubled in that time—by allowing the ordination of women. But any of those actions would spark a revolt by conservatives in the church who already regard Francis with deep suspicion, if not downright aversion. John Paul II did his best to tie the hands of his successors by declaring the prohibition of female priests to be an “infallible” papal doctrine, and Francis has acknowledged that debate on the issue was “closed.” Even Francis’s rather gentle efforts to raise the possibility of allowing divorced Catholics who have remarried to receive the host at Mass was met with such strong criticism that he dropped the subject.
The sociology of religion offers some valuable insights into the church’s problems. One of the landmark texts in this field is the 1994 essay “Why Strict Churches Are Strong,” by the economist Laurence Iannaccone, who used rational choice theory to show that people tend to value religious denominations that make severe demands on them. The Mormon Church, for example, requires believers to give it a tenth of their income and a substantial amount of their time, abstain from the use of tobacco and alcohol, and practice other austerities. These costly demands create a powerful sense of solidarity. The commitment of time and money means that the church can undertake ambitious projects and take care of those in need, while the distinctive way of life serves to bind members to one another and set them apart from the rest of the world. The price of entry to a strict church is high, but the barrier to exit is even higher: ostracism and the loss of community.
Since the French Revolution and the spread of liberal democracy in the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church has been torn between the urge to adapt to a changing world and the impulse to resist it at all cost. Pope Pius IX, at whose urging the First Vatican Council in 1870 adopted the doctrine of papal infallibility, published in 1864 his “Syllabus of Errors,” which roundly condemned modernity, freedom of the press, and the separation of church and state. Significantly, its final sentence denounced the mistaken belief that “the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” Since then the church has been in the difficult position of maintaining this intransigent position—that it stands for a set of unchanging, eternal beliefs—while still in some ways adapting to the times.
John XXIII, who became pope in 1958, saw a profound need for what he called aggiornamento—updating—precisely the kind of reconciling of the church to a changing world that Pius IX considered anathema. John XXIII was one of the high-ranking church leaders who regarded the Nazi genocide of the Jews as a moral crossroads in history. An important part of his reforms at Vatican II was to remove all references to the Jews as a “deicide” people and to adopt an ecumenical spirit that deems other faiths worthy of respect. After Vatican II, the church made optional much of the traditional window-dressing of Catholicism—the Latin Mass, the elaborate habits of nuns, the traditional prohibition against meat on Friday—but John died before the council took up more controversial issues of doctrine. With Vatican II, Iannaccone argued,
the Catholic church may have managed to arrive at a remarkable, “worst of both worlds” position—discarding cherished distinctiveness in the areas of liturgy, theology, and lifestyle, while at the same time maintaining the very demands that its members and clergy are least willing to accept.
Church conservatives are not wrong to worry that eliminating distinctive Catholic teachings may weaken the church’s appeal and authority. Moderate mainstream Protestant denominations have been steadily losing adherents for decades. At the same time, some forms of strictness can be too costly. The prohibitions against priestly marriage and the ordination of women are clearly factors in the decline of priestly vocations, and the even more dramatic decline in the number of nuns.
Both radical change and the failure to change are fraught with danger, making Francis’s path an almost impossible one. He is under great pressure from victims who are demanding that the church conduct an exhaustive investigation into the responsibility of monsignors, bishops, and cardinals who knew of abusing priests but did nothing—something he is likely to resist. Such an accounting might force many of the church’s leaders into retirement and paralyze it for years to come—but his failure to act could paralyze it as well. As for the larger challenges facing the church, Francis’s best option might be to make changes within the narrow limits constraining him, such as expanding the participation of the laity in church deliberations and allowing women to become deacons. But that may be too little, too late.
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.