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Entries from January 2019

The Real Scandal

The “clergy sex abuse scandal” has been something of a misnomer in that, according to the First Law of Media Dynamics, the public always views the cover-up as worse than the crime. Every case of abuse is a crime, a horror and a tragedy. But it is the concealment of those acts, by bishops charged with overseeing priests, that infuriates the flock.

The problem is that the church’s “doctrine of scandal” has, by tradition and by canon law and by some readings of Saint Paul, gotten the formula exactly backwards: sins must be concealed to preserve the faithful – “the faithful” taken here to mean a flock too weak-minded to be trusted – from having their faith undermined by the discovery that some of their shepherds are not all they’ve been cracked up to be. Time and again we heard bishops say they did not want to “give scandal” by publicizing the real reason a pastor was suddenly yanked from the pulpit or sent into retirement or transferred elsewhere, or they claimed they did not want to bring the church into disrepute before a hostile world by airing the clergy’s dirty laundry.

That attitude is, as Victoria Gaile Laidler rightly put it, an “infantilization of the laity” and “an outgrowth of clericalism, which perceives clergy as a class as holier, closer to God, stronger in faith and wiser in judgment than laypeople as a class, purely by virtue of their clerical status.” While some churchmen may have come by this condescension honestly, the sacred rationale for covering up crimes also tended to dovetail suspiciously well with institutional preservation and career advancement.

Until it didn’t.

“The irony, of course, is that all this avoidance of scandal has resulted in the greatest scandal in the Catholic Church since the Reformation,” as Mark Silk, professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, put it in a Religion News Service column.

Silk suggested that Pope Francis needs to change canon law to make it clear that the sins of the fathers cannot be hidden on the obviously false pretense that exposing them would shake the faith of the flock and drive them away.

That’s a perfectly fine idea, but while the canon lawyers are sharpening their quills, I’d be happy if the church – starting with the Vatican – simply began telling the whole truth about what it knows about a particular case, and why. “The papacy must be a glass house,” John Paul II told reporters back in the early years of his papacy, in the 1980s. Yet if John Paul himself was happy to be out and about for all to see, he succeeded in constructing an impenetrable edifice around the rest of the church, ostensibly to defend her from a hostile world and the contagion of secularism and moral relativism. What that wall also shielded, however, was the church’s own relativism when it came to the sexual abuses of minors, a scandal that went virtually unaddressed throughout much of his papacy.

Francis, after many missteps, has been much better when it comes to transparency. But again, the bar was low and much more needs to be done. Hopefully the Vatican summit on combating abuse at the end of February will be another step forward in this regard, but one simple step – and one that should hardly be controversial – would be for the Vatican to explain why a bishop has been forced to resign, or indeed why he is allowed to resign at all and has not been dismissed. It hardly saves face, or protects the sensibilities of a flock that now assumes the worst, to have a bishop who has shielded an abuser or committed some other act of misgovernance to retire without an adequate explanation beyond the citation of a generic passage from canon law (and even that is not always forthcoming these days).

Similarly, that all dioceses in the U.S. have not published lists of credibly accused clerics (“credibly accused” or “substantiated allegations” being terms that also need some clarification) is confounding, to say the least. Before the publication of the Pennsylvania grand jury report last August, only about 40 out of 187 Roman Catholic dioceses in the United States had revealed the names of clerical abusers; as of January that number has more than doubled, but it still accounts for just about half of all dioceses. And some still aren’t getting the message.

The Diocese of Charlotte, N.C., for example, is hesitating to join what it calls a “stampede” toward transparency, with a spokesman for Bishop Peter Jugis telling the Charlotte Observer that doing so might re-traumatize victims. “There is no empirical evidence that publishing a list brings comfort or aid to a victim,” said David Hains. “(Some Catholic priests) have obviously done a lot to harm victims. We don’t want to pile on and do more.”

Victims themselves say that’s empirically not the case, and indeed publishing names of alleged abusers has been shown to be the most effective way of empowering victims who have not stepped forward to speak up.

There’s an important corollary to this appeal for transparency, namely the responsibility of Catholic media to investigate and report the truth. No account of the arc of this scandal narrative is complete without noting the groundbreaking efforts by National Catholic Reporter starting in the 1980s and continuing over the decades. NCR, along with journalists in secular media who pursued these stories, were subject to relentless criticism, stonewalling and worse; yet they persisted.

The role of Catholic media today is even more important for two reasons: One, the abuse crisis has grown more complex as we are moving forward from viewing it as a simple, and simplistic, problem of bad priests and zero tolerance solutions. It’s now becoming clear that this is a problem of a distorted clerical culture, of episcopal malfeasance and improper priestly formation – and these issues will require deeper and more far-reaching global solutions involving theology and ecclesiology, governance and ministry. These are the kind of topics that Catholic journalists should be able to tackle better than anyone.

But the other reality is that Catholic media must step up because secular media are facing tectonic shifts in the industry that are dramatically reducing the number of reporters available to cover a growing number of pressing issues, from politics to economics. Religion is often left behind.

Unfortunately, even as the Internet provided more points of entry for Catholic journalism at a lower cost, the price has been to open the door to well-financed, ideologically-oriented outlets and social media mavens on the right that have suddenly discovered the clergy abuse crisis – and are weaponizing it to advance their agenda on behalf of their pet political issues, against what they see as doctrinal lassitude, against gays in the priesthood (and anywhere else in the church) and, above all, against Pope Francis and his allies who are seeking a more inclusive, pastoral and dynamic church. The faux journalism of these Catholic media and their like-minded secular counterparts ultimately winds up taking the focus away from reforms to make children safe and the church a credible witness to the Gospel.

A secular media that has fewer religion writers, and fewer reporters with experience on the Catholic beat, relies more than ever on Catholic outlets to provide leads on church news. What they too often find are stories promoted by self-styled Catholic journalists who display little knowledge of the practice of journalism or the ethics of Catholicism.

If, as the sobering aphorism has it, “The first casualty of war is truth,” then a Church that sees itself at war with the world – and a Catholic media waging a civil war inside the Church – are going to produce yet another victim in a tragic crisis that has already seen far too many.


David Gibson is a journalist and author and director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University. 


A Listening Church

In the midst of crisis, the most common human reaction, understandably, is an impulse to DO SOMETHING. As our Church reels from long overdue revelations of clerical sexual abuse and corruption, there is an overriding, incontrovertible need for action. When one receives a diagnosis of a serious ailment, the response is often two-fold: amelioration of symptoms and attacking the underlying disease. The vile symptoms of this disease afflicting the Church are clear. Abuse in the Church must always be condemned and rooted out. But when abuse is aimed at the most innocent, the need to address the severity of the symptom predominates, occluding further action. However, this abuse must be addressed not only symptomatically but also causally. We must acknowledge and treat the underlying disease.

All forms of abuse are rooted in cultures of power and self-aggrandizement. Regretfully, our Church has persistently created and preserved hierarchies of power validated by spurious absolutist claims to superiority: male over female, those ordained over laity, etc. A Church called to witness the love and compassion of the Tri-Une God too often has exercised judgment and exclusion instead, purportedly in the name of preserving Truth. Church leaders have become comfortable as elite teachers more than companions and co-disciples. As a result, they fail to attend to the voice of the Spirit amidst the People of God.

It cannot be said that listening is absent. Catholics are well practiced in the art of listening, in one sense. Papal pronouncements are listened to, after which everyone from across the spectrum (whichever spectrum you choose) responds within their own echo chamber. Similarly, hierarchs, clergy and laity may listen to alternate voices, only to explain, within their own networks, why the alternate voice is misguided, in error or naïve. While listening occurs, it fails to convert to a new understanding of the movement of the Spirit in our lives and in our world.

However, a listening Church necessarily is a Church of conversion. Pope Francis has frequently called the Church, specifically bishops, to become better listeners. In his 2018 document “Episcopalis Communio,” Francis reminded us that a bishop must “simultaneously be a teacher and a disciple.” Francis has indicated that bishops must listen to the People of God to more fully discern the movement of the Holy Spirit. In other words, a bishop’s listening must lead to his conversion, just as the Pope’s listening must lead to his fuller understanding of how he is to exercise his charism of leadership. However, listening cannot be limited to special occasions such as the Synod of Bishops. Listening must become the very lifeblood of the Church. This is the medicine for the disease of power devastating the Church—a remedy that is not so easy to swallow. This listening demands a new humility. It is listening to the other not simply to be informed of their reality. Rather, it means listening in silence and asking how what I hear reveals the Spirit to me. Clerics who listen to laity in humility do so not for politeness or even respect, but rather with a willingness to hear truths that may change how they minister. The voices of others, especially the victimized, excluded, marginalized and denigrated can restore the Church from its disease of power, but only when we, with power, internalize this process of listening. Requiring historical “unlearning” of privilege, this process demands nurturing and careful practice. To become a Listening Church of conversion, we need to create structures of dialogue at every level. We need to accept our own personal fallibility and so enter into any dialogue with a little less certainty of our positions and a little more openness to the other. We need to prepare ourselves for the uncertainty that being a Church of listeners will bring, because discernment seldom takes a quick route. We need to be prepared to live in the tension of seeing “through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12) with only the certitude that, through our openness and humility, the Spirit will speak and “lead us to all truth” (Jn. 16:13).

Along with causing pain and outrage, the acknowledgment of the betrayal of the Community of Faith, of its Christian mission presents an opportunity for decision/conversion. This time of crisis is a time for us, all members constituting the Church, to move from illness to health, to re-build the Church as a community of listeners perpetually converted by the gift of the Holy Spirit.


Myroslaw Tataryn is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University, Canada, and a Ukranian Greco-Catholic priest.


We Need to Reflect on Our Complicity in Racism

The ongoing crisis in the church surrounding the sexual abuse scandal and the loss of confidence in authority has been rightly unsettling for many Catholics. As we reflect on this reality of years-long evil and complicity, we ought not to let it distract us from other injustices in which many Catholics – clerical and lay alike – have sadly been complicit. In the United States, this manifestly includes the nation’s “original sin” of racism rooted in centuries of racially based chattel slavery. In so reflecting, we turn our attention to Martin Luther King, Jr., whom the national calendar in the U.S. commemorates on January 21.  King’s example has much to offer us both on this question of racial injustice and on the classic Catholic question of sainthood and its implications.

Growing up as an “old millennial” in the 1980s and 1990s, I was part of the first generation of American schoolchildren for whom the Martin Luther King Day holiday in January, and concomitant lessons in school, were a “given” part of the calendar. Little did I know at the time of the complicated history of the holiday’s passage into law or the controversial nature of King’s life and work up until and even after his death. King’s secular “sainthood” – centered around the Montgomery bus boycott, the Birmingham protests of spring 1963 and the “I Have a Dream” speech – seemed safely a part of the American mythos on which I was raised.

Dorothy Day, herself likely on the path to sainthood in the church, famously commented, “Don’t call me a saint – I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” The thrust of Day’s comment was that it is all too easy for sainthood – whether official church canonization or other kinds of sainthood such as that surrounding King (who is also commemorated on the calendars of some church bodies) – to reduce people to facets of their lives that are most comfortable for those who are themselves comfortable or powerful. In so reducing complex figures to flatter, easier versions, we refuse the challenge that made the person a saint in the first place. 

King’s veneration is well deserved and yet, as Day’s comment about sainthood indicates, has in certain respects oversimplified King’s legacy, particularly among white Americans. Michael Eric Dyson, Jeanne Theoharis and other thinkers have explored the ways in which the legacy of the Civil Rights movement has been utilized to obscure present-day injustices and the movements that combat them. This is particularly and ironically the case for the Black Lives Matter movement and the way it has been vilified by many whites who view its simple slogan, and demands for acknowledgement of equal Black humanity by law enforcement and other societal institutions, as a threat.

King himself did not die a popular or sainted figure among white Americans. His 1967 announcement of opposition to the Vietnam War did not sit well with many whites, particularly middle-class northern whites (many of them Catholics). His later speeches also more explicitly named racism as the root of the problems the Civil Rights movement sought to remedy. This shift in emphasis came very much from his experiences fighting housing discrimination in the urban and particularly suburban north. This is apparent if one watches the raw footage contained in the 1970 documentary film King: A Filmed Record, particularly the 1966 march for integration in the Chicago suburbs. This campaign – which King described as one of the most difficult of his career – was met by a vociferous white (and again largely Catholic) backlash that might be shocking to some, but sadly should not be in light of some of the things we have witnessed in Charlottesville, Virginia, and elsewhere recently.

Worthwhile reading for this Martin Luther King Day would be King’s great sermon “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” delivered in Washington National Cathedral on March 31, 1968 – mere days before his death. In that sermon, King attacks the evils of racism, poverty and war in bracing language that acknowledges the unpopularity of his stands. He also raises the problem of the unique injustice to Black Americans as the only group that has been subjected to slavery on American soil. This is a fact that we as a nation still struggle to reckon with, and is particularly trenchant for American Catholics, many of whom traditionally have been “white ethnics” who faced discrimination early on but later gained acceptance through assimilation to a whiteness that was unavailable to Black Americans. Just because one’s ancestors did not personally participate in slavery does not exempt one from its long-term benefits and consequences.

Saints are there to challenge us, to unsettle us from our usual ways of thinking and doing. If our image of a saint – whether a saint of the church, a “secular” saint or both – is not doing this, it usually is a judgment on us, not on them (which is not to say saints have to be “perfect” and free of error, as one has only to peruse the list of saints to realize). Martin Luther King and the causes for which he lived and died – racial equality, economic justice, peace – deserve better than simplistic hagiography. We have witnessed in the past few years the dangers that arise from a failure of vigilance and memory concerning hatreds that we naively assure ourselves were limited to the past or to “other” people (1930s Germans, bigoted Southerners). Let us honor King’s memory by remembering it more fully and dedicating ourselves to the causes he embraced – not just the ones we find convenient.

Renewing the church does not just meant cleaning up the internal messes of malfeasance by Catholic leaders, much needed as this is. It means finding a prophetic voice against injustice that has been too often silenced or selectively exercised, and which is now – at least in the case of the hierarchy – rendered void of moral authority. It means listening to the voices of black Catholics, too often neglected in histories as well as discussions of contemporary American Catholics. And it means acknowledging and repenting of the sins of commission and omission by white Catholics, including “white ethnic” Catholics, putting property values above justice in the era of “white flight” and those who are indifferent or complicit (whether directly or through willful ignorance of their own complicity) with racial hatred today. Turning for guidance to King and other saints – Catholic and not – would be a worthy starting point for this effort.


Daniel A. Rober is a systematic theologian and Catholic studies professor at Sacred Heart University.


Culture Wars and Women’s Bodies: Why the Catholic Church is Implicated in the Politics of the Far Right

In 2017, Antonio Spadaro SJ, editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, and Presbyterian pastor Marcelo Figueroa, editor of the Argentinian edition of L’Osservatore Romano, co-wrote an article on America’s culture wars titled “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism.” The article provoked widespread debate, but today it seems even more relevant and accurate in its analysis than when it was first published. It refers to “an ecumenism of hate” expressed in a “xenophobic and Islamophobic vision that wants walls and purifying deportations” that finds common ground around issues such as “abortion, same-sex marriage, religious education in schools and other matters generally considered moral or tied to values.” Over and against this “ecumenism of conflict,” the authors posit Pope Francis’s “ecumenism that moves under the urge of inclusion, peace, encounter and bridges” in which “the contribution of Christianity to a culture is that of Christ washing the feet.”

The American Right enjoyed inordinate influence in the Vatican under the last two popes. Notwithstanding significant disagreement when it came to American military interventionism, from the early 1990s, America’s culture warriors successfully focused all the hierarchy’s moral energy on opposition to abortion, homosexuality, feminism and gender theory, just as in the 1980s they had successfully focused its energy on opposing liberation theology. Francis has done much to change this power imbalance, and the hierarchy is becoming increasingly representative of the diverse cultures and contexts that make up global Catholicism. He has revived the vision of Vatican II and shifted the emphasis away from doctrinal absolutism around issues of sexuality and gender to focus on social and environmental justice and a more pastorally sensitive approach to the existential realities of living and loving. It is clear from the hate-filled campaigns they have launched against him that the erstwhile power brokers of American Catholicism are not pleased.

However, in one important area nothing significant has changed, and that is in church teachings relating to female sacramental, sexual and reproductive embodiment and the role and representation of women in the Church. Catholic teaching remains rooted in the belief that men have God-given authority to exercise control over women’s bodies, including the exclusion of the female body from the sacramental capacity to represent Christ. An exclusively male hierarchy continues to promote its teachings on sexuality, abortion and family life without any public engagement with women. Francis seeks a church whose guiding model is that of dialogue, but we have yet to see any meaningful dialogue between the Catholic hierarchy and women.

It is hard to overestimate the extent to which this plays into the hands of those who seek to co-opt the Catholic Church into the service of the nationalist and racist ideologies spreading through the western democracies. The control of the female body underlies every quest for racial, religious or national domination, for it is through women’s bodies that genealogies of race, religion and nation are perpetuated and the “purism” to which Spadaro and Figueroa refer is promoted. The recent television series based on Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, is a chilling reminder of the association between political tyranny and reproductive control.

Some years ago, I wrote a journal article analyzing the influence of the Holy See on the United Nations around issues of gender and sexuality. I pointed out how a powerful alliance of conservative Catholics and evangelicals, improbably supported by some Islamic theocracies, exploited the Holy See’s membership of the UN to block the promotion of sexual and reproductive rights. These attempts by the Holy See to inhibit international development policies relating to women’s rights are symptomatic of the extent to which the Catholic Church is implicated in the rise of a global political agenda of the Right that finds common ground in the impetus to control female bodies through its opposition to reproductive rights.

The Church’s moral teaching on abortion could find a coherent place within a wider pro-life ethos if women were full participants as active agents and not simply passive recipients of church teaching, particularly around reproductive and sexual teachings that impact directly upon female lives in complex and sometimes tragic ways. Church teaching shows a shocking disregard for the many ways in which women and girls suffer as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. Abortion is still too often presented in absolutist language which takes no account of factors influencing abortion decisions, including consideration of the social and economic conditions needed to promote maternal and infant flourishing. Nowhere in church teaching is there any sustained discussion of maternal mortality, despite the fact that nearly 300,000 women and girls die every year as a result of complications arising from pregnancy and childbirth (including unsafe abortions), 99 percent of them in the world’s poorest communities.

No matter how much Francis changes the men at the top, no matter how passionately he promotes his vision of a poor church of the poor in the context of the all-encompassing environmentalism of Laudato Si’, his efforts will fail as long as the Church in its institutions and teachings continues to uphold the idea that men are divinely authorized to rule over women’s lives. Remove that distorted ideology, and the collusion between Catholicism and the demagogues of the Far Right will become more difficult to sustain. Only through gender inclusivity can other forms of inclusivity be truly embraced and expressed.


Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London.