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Entries from May 2019

Polemic, Patience and Perseverance

The results of the recent Vatican summit on sexual abuse have been published; we await the document on Curial reorganization; and it is reported that the group studying the possibility of female deacons is deadlocked. Where stands the change agenda of the Catholic Church?

In his programmatic Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis called for a root and branch reform of the Church. This reform, he argued, was necessary if the Church was to fulfil her mission of bringing Good News to the world based on her faith encounter with Jesus Christ. So far, so radical.

However, Francis made clear from the start that he did not believe in any quick-fix approaches to this reform: his ‘time is greater than space’ aphorism noted the superiority of processes that took time over short-term imposed solutions. This was the then – to Roman Catholic ears- strangely sounding ‘synodal’ approach, now commonly referenced, a radical paradigm shift from the practice of the previous millennium.

Patience and perseverance are not popular notions in a culture saturated by the consumerist drive to instant gratification which, in varying degrees, affects us all. In this context we are more attuned to the call of polemic: in particular we resonate with the notion of ‘speaking truth to power’ and, in a less healthy mode, we revel in an anger at injustice that threatens to become destructive and self and other-devouring. Our political leaders are often in the vanguard of this kind of narcissistic and negative anger.  

Of course, polemic, anger and lamentation have an honorable place in the Christian lexicon. Without them, we would not have had the realization, under Benedict XVI, of how dysfunctional the church had become in these days, nor, in the Scriptural times that we contemplate post-Easter, would the Gentiles have come to enjoy access to the Good News. That access, telescoped in the scriptural accounts into a seemingly short time, was as full of conflict and ‘speaking truth to power’ as any of our modern issues, and its solution (admission to baptism but with certain ‘terms and conditions’) was subject over time to further development.

In a May 17, 2019 posting on the Association of Catholic Priests web-site in Ireland, Phyllis Zagano comments on the recent stalemate with regard to the ordination of women deacons by urging: ‘let the discussion continue!’ and going on to say: ‘…Polemics only go so far.’ This is an impressive response from someone with such a long track record of scholarly advocacy on behalf of admission of women to the diaconate.

Zagano’s response is warranted within the strategic, synodal approach to reform initiated by Francis. At the heart of his proposal is the development of a culture of open debate and discussion, with appropriate structures and institutions to allow this to happen, involving the faithful, women and men, in teaching and governance. This will lead in time to changes in law and even doctrine. In this new environment, as Michele Dillon (Postsecular Catholicism, Oxford University Press, 2018, p164) has pithily observed, “…the cat is out of the bag: once one authorises an effective listening to the ‘sense of the faith/faithful,’ then the integration of tradition, new realities and ideas is processual, a continuing dialogue, not achieved by simple fiat or decree. And so, any lost opportunity, such as the stalemate over ordination or limited progress on the position of gays within the Church is not lost forever; it can be recovered.”

Polemic, anger and lamentation will continue to have honorable roles within this evolving drama. One recalls St Augustine’s observation that hope has two beautiful daughters, anger and courage. Anger, rooted at its best in love, gives energy to tackle injustice, and it requires a courage that translates into purposeful patience and perseverance when it takes on the considerable task of the ‘long march through the institutions’ involved in church reform. We get the balance right when we submit our efforts at ‘holy impatience’ to discernment, individually and communally, under the guidance of the Spirit.    

There is a crucial role for theology and critical thinking in all this, not least in exploring the notion that change is entirely compatible with respect for tradition, and that development is not simply a pastoral reality, but is also deeply doctrinal.

Francis has proposed a roadmap; it is our job to start and continue walking, conscious that from time to time we will go down cul-de-sacs, ‘make a mess,’ face seemingly insuperable obstacles. Can we keep our nerve, not lose faith?

Gerry O’Hanlon is an Irish Jesuit theologian and author.

Responsibility in Ministry and Vulnerability

In the Middle Ages, the jurist Gratian compiled a compendium of papal decrees and acts of various synods and councils that became the basis for ecclesiastical law, the Condordia discordantium canonum. This influential work fostered an approach to understanding the church and its ministries in terms of power – often to distinguish them from the powers of rival secular authorities. This legalistic approach dominated in Catholic thought into the 20th century when Pope Pius X, borrowing Gratian’s language, described the church as an “unequal society.” He distinguished the hierarchy as those who govern and direct from the “multitude of the faithful” whose only task it was “to allow themselves to be led.”

The Second Vatican Council opted to prioritize a more biblical language, describing the church from the perspective of grace, including the image of the priestly people of God, all of whom share in the divine life through baptism and participate in the Christ’s threefold office as priest, prophet and king. Its teaching underlines the fundamental equality and co-responsibility of all the faithful – lay and ordained – for the life and mission of the church. Vatican II frames the role of ordained ministry as the service of – not power over – the baptized community, emphasizing sacred trust over “sacred power.”

Without losing sight of the equal dignity of all the baptized, the present crisis of the church calls for a deeper understanding of pastoral responsibility. Existing guidelines and canon law have yet to capture the basic inequality and imbalance of power that characterize relationships in the context of pastoral care. Until recently, most efforts to address the crisis of sexual abuse have centered on the abuse of children and “vulnerable persons,” narrowly defined. The cases of Marcial Maciel, Theodore McCarrick and others have brought to light the systemic abuse of young adults within the context of seminaries and religious communities. Pope Francis has admitted publicly the long-supressed reality of the abuse of religious women by priests and bishops. There are surely more cases of the sexual abuse of adults by clergy that have yet to surface.

The new legislation, Vos estis lux mundi, issued on May 7 by Pope Francis, is an important sign of progress. Acknowledging frankly the “physical, psychological and spiritual damage” done to victims and the “harm” that abusive behaviors inflict upon the whole church, Francis has introduced an obligation for all ordained persons and members of religious communities to report promptly any and all abuse and mandated the establishment of appropriate structures and procedures for investigation. This includes a responsibility to report to appropriate civil authorities. Even critics, who lament a lack of clear penalties or the potential for less than transparent procedures, willingly concede that these measures are important steps toward ending a culture of silence, cover-up and impunity.

Francis moves the dial somewhat on the definition of “vulnerable persons.” Until now, a vulnerable adult has been defined as a person “who lacks an adult mental capacity or who, by reason of advanced age, physical illness, mental disorder or disability at the time the alleged abuse occurred, was or might be unable to protect himself or herself from significant harm or exploitation” – essentially, as the equivalent of a minor (CIC c. 99; CCEO c. 909).  All other “misconduct” between members of the clergy and other adults is generally treated as a consensual relationship between equals. In such cases, bad actors are charged with a “delict” against the sixth commandment, which forbids adultery. This arcane language places the focus on the breaking of a clergyman’s promise of celibacy and completely neglects adult victims of the crime of abuse. Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter defines the vulnerable person as “any person in a state of infirmity, physical or mental deficiency or deprivation of personal liberty which, in fact, even occasionally, limits their ability to understand or to want or to otherwise resist the offense.” It describes the act of abuse more broadly as “forcing someone, by violence or threat or through abuse of authority, to perform or to submit to sexual acts.” This moves us closer to the dynamic of abuse by clergy of those who depend on their judgment and care. Still, it fails to capture fully the essential inequality between pastoral caregivers and their charges – whatever their age.

Any professional caregiver today knows (or ought to know) that it is entirely unethical to transgress the boundaries of sexual intimacy with those entrusted to their care: doctors, nurses, personal care workers, psychologists, counselors, social workers, professors, teachers coaches ... Most are bound by a code of ethics founded on the basic recognition that those entrusted to their care – including adults – are in a position of vulnerability. Given their position of authority and responsibility of care, they ought never to presume to be in a relationship of equals with their patients, counselees, students, athletes. Any transgression of boundaries is experienced by victims as a profound betrayal of trust – a manipulation and exploitation of one person’s vulnerability to satisfy the other’s selfish need.

Is it too much to hope that the law and practice of the church might be further revised to better reflect the fundamental imbalance of power and the burden of trust implied in the call to ministry? A fuller implementation of an ethic of care must be applied to all those in ecclesial ministry – be they ordained, religious or lay pastoral workers. Until this happens, the church will continue to treat the symptoms of a malady without addressing its root cause.

Catherine E. Clifford, is a professor at Saint Paul University, Ontario.


“Clericalism! Clericalism! Clericalism!”

This is the cry of the People of God, resounding seemingly everywhere in the Catholic Church in the wake of the latest explosion of the clergy abuse scandal as we look for culprits and causes to vanquish in order to finally put an end to this eternal crisis.

Clericalism is certainly an easy target. The scandal is about clerics, after all, and just attach an “ism” to the word and you describe the kind of cultural ideology that would seem to create and justify the “old boys network” – a phrase I myself have often used – that undergirds this self-protection racket. “Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today,” as Pope Francis wrote in his “Letter to the People of God” on the abuse crisis last August. “To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism.”

But how well do we understand what “clericalism” really is and how it has infected our ecclesial life? Fed up with the halting progress toward transparency and accountability, we long for speedy and easy solutions – a “magic bullet” to resolve the problems and move ahead.

The difficulty is that there is no single cause, or solution, to the problem of abuse and the greater scandal of episcopal concealment and dissembling. Single-issue advocates naturally like to focus on their favorite hobbyhorse as the cause: It’s gay priests! No, it’s too much celibacy! No, it’s not enough women!

Clericalism is, in fact, a potentially useful category for engaging the wider ecclesial reform that is required, because it is really an umbrella term that encompasses so many of the various fields that feed into the abuse dynamic. Seminary formation, the theology of the priesthood and the sacraments, ecclesiology, the office of the bishop and the role of lay people must all be reviewed and perhaps recast or reinterpreted. Sex abuse is not just about sex, not even mainly about sex, but is always tied, as Francis says, to “the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience.”

“Sacramental power,” as Francis wrote in The Joy of the Gospel, should not become “too closely aligned with power in general,” he said. “Jesus did not tell the apostles to form an exclusive and elite group.”

The dysfunctional power dynamic has been the entry point of most of the insightful critiques and examinations of the clericalism phenomenon. I would note in particular a conference organized by the Strasbourg Faculty of Theology in April. One of the main themes to emerge there was the historical contingency of clericalism, which largely grew from the reforms of the Council or Trent and was then intensified by reactions against the challenges of the modern world.

The lesson of history is encouraging: If the Church was able to foster clericalism, then the Church could also be able to root it out. But it’s also worth thinking about the internal social and political dynamics that have grown up around clericalism, and which may not necessarily yield to theological rethinking.

For example, the counterpoint to the standard explanation of clericalism that always stands out to me is that so many of the clerics – bishops and cardinals, really – who have been either accused of abuse or of covering for abusers were not so much co-conspirators as they were deadly rivals who would have done almost anything to destroy a competitor. And they often did so, as well as derailing the promise of many good priests and bishops who declined to take part in the game or just weren’t good at it. Most of this venomous infighting takes place in secret, but it also spills into the public arena on occasion. This isn’t just covering for each other; it is a vicious competition among those who see the church as their playing field and power as a prize to be won.

From that point of view, Archbishop Vigano’s famous j’accuse against Francis last year was really an instance of clericalism on display rather than a brave act of whistleblowing. He told only half-truths, concealing much about his own sins and those of his friends, while trying to bring down his foes.

Whether in secret or in public, clerical culture corrupts those who indulge in it and damages the ecclesial body politic in insidious ways that we don’t always see. Think of the good bishops who never gain influence because they won’t play the game, or the good priests who will never become bishops, or the good men who will never become priests because they are turned off by it all – or others who enter the priesthood because they are drawn to ecclesial power. And think of the lay people who can also be tempted by the lure of playing a role in the clerical game – or those who would be disgusted and dissuaded from entering ministry.

I was reflecting on all this a few weeks ago in a conversation with my friend David Cloutier, a theologian at the Catholic University of America, who said he was intrigued by the “village mentality” of clerical culture and how “these relationships were less bureaucratic/impersonal and more personal/reciprocal – in the same ways that relations in small towns are both good and bad because they are ‘small town relations.’” That bears exploring, David said, as we try to “demystify” clericalism and move beyond simple power structure explanations and toward an examination of “informal relationships” that can be the lifeblood of a true community – but also poison in the bloodstream.

The Vatican, certainly, and by extension the 5,000 or so members of the hierarchy, is nothing if not a global village. Clericalism has existed since the beginning, when the Apostles began arguing among themselves as to which of them was the greatest. According to Luke, Jesus didn’t try to pacify them with a power-sharing agreement or throw up his hands and walk away (much as he would have been justified in doing so). Instead, he showed them a child and said: “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is the greatest.”

That didn’t end the jockeying for power and position, of course. But it’s a simple precept that should guide us as we rebuild our Church.

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

A Church of Humility and Hospitality is Our Solution

The Church’s current state is a crisis of our own making. We have allowed a distorted understanding of the Gospel and of God to fester within the body of the Church to the extent that Pope Francis acknowledges the need to “combat the culture of abuse” now so evident. An underlying disease of power dominating Christian (not just Catholic) structures for centuries accounts for the prevalence of this culture.

I write as a member of an Eastern Catholic Church, for most of its history forced to live as a powerless minority under differing regimes. My Church has not been immune to the enticements of power and concomitant corruption. Yet, it has sustained alternate images and voices, such as the passion-bearer saints Borys and Hlib, martyred for refusing to raise their swords against their brother; or Andriy Sheptytsky, who, in the 1940s, in the name of Catholic-Orthodox unity, offered to surrender his title of Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church (UGCC) to the Orthodox claimant of the see, should there be a restoration of the entire Ukrainian Church’s communion with Rome.

Despite suffering caused by foreign regimes as well as fellow Catholics, the UGCC has endured as a Church of hospitality with a vision of serving in humility and openness to others.

As I write we are in the midst of Easter Week—Bright Week, as we call it. A week of intense celebration of the Resurrection: Christ’s descent into Hades raising Adam and Eve and all humanity with Him. God has become one of us so that we may become one with God. God became one of us, in order that we may rise NOT to the power of monarchs, but to the humility of the One who washes the feet of his followers. The time is of welcome: all the doors of the iconostasis (icon screen) are open, symbolically inviting EVERYONE to join the feast. John Chrysostom proclaimed in his Easter homily: “Come you all: enter into the joy of your Lord. You the first and you the last, receive alike your reward; you rich and you poor, dance together; . . .” Humility and hospitality are the hallmarks of the season: they reveal the truth of our God, who humbles Self to invite us into an intimate relationship with divinity and with each other.

This vision of Church cannot be reconciled with the current Church in crisis, but this vision can revive the Church. A Church dominated by structures of power and streamlined for efficacy by canonical strictures does not nurture humility. An ethos of certainty and exclusivity does not make room for those marked by otherness to imagine themselves invited into the divine embrace. Humility means that we all must stand before the Holy Spirit in the hope that together, whether we are progressives or traditionalists, male or female, rich or poor, Divine Wisdom will make herself known to us. Humility entails that those with privilege must listen to those on the margins of mainstream society and actively allow their voices into our souls. Hospitality, rooted in the Divine embrace, calls us to welcome “saints and sinners” alike – remembering that the degree to which I open myself to the other is the only marker by which I will be known as a follower of the One who welcomes all. Building a Church of humility and hospitality is the path out of our current crisis.

A Church of humility and hospitality must renounce structures of power in favor of leaders with spiritual authenticity, venues of heartfelt dialogue and opportunities to experience solidarity. Every community’s mission must make power and efficiency secondary to service and compassion. Local communities should see themselves freed to place their uncertainty, challenges and fears before the Holy Spirit in prayerful expectation of insight, rather than assuming that office holders are the enlightened ones. Office holders must cease to see themselves as divinely ordained to provide all answers or protect the community from a “dangerous” other without recognizing their own fallibility or admitting their own humanity. A Church of humility and hospitality is both the pilgrim Church on the way to the Kingdom and the community aware of its responsibility in ending the desecration of the most precious gift we have been given: divine creation. It is a Church where everyone, especially its leaders, are in a constant process of metanoia: conversion to a fuller living out of the Gospel.

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

The Church Is Not Western Civilization

Two recent events have, in different ways, called to mind an influential yet deeply problematic strand of thinking – the equation of the church with a civilizational strand sometimes described as Western civilization, sometimes expanded to include “Judeo-Christian civilization” to avoid the appearance of Christian chauvinism. The first of these events, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI’s letter concerning the sexual abuse crisis, described a civilizational decline of morals beginning in the 1960s that bore terrible fruit in the sexual abuse crisis. The second, the terrible fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris that damaged but, thankfully, did not destroy that great edifice inspired a number of Internet “hot takes” ruminating on the confluence of the cathedral’s fire with civilizational decline. Both of these perspectives, I would like to argue, overdramatize and yet undersell the challenge of the present moment, and both play into dangerous political narratives.

Pope Benedict’s letter situates the sexual abuse crisis within a broader narrative of excess and decline beginning in the 1960s. The details he uses are sometimes lurid, such as pandemonium on airplanes resulting from the showing of sexually explicit films, but they point to a civilizational uprooting that bore bad fruit in the crisis, and the damage it has wrought to the church. Much has been said about this letter, rightly pointing out Benedict’s own blind spots on this set of issues, but the concern about civilizational decline and particularly Christianity’s deep connections to Western civilization more broadly, have been through-lines of Ratzinger’s work going back at least to the 1980s. Most famously, in his Regensburg lecture that became better known for its discussion of Islam, Benedict argued that Christianity is tied up inextricably with Greek philosophical concepts so that attempting to adapt it to another philosophical apparatus – such as Indian or other Eastern philosophies – is a fool’s (or a heretic’s) errand. This worldview has influenced other decisions and positions, such as support for the exclusion of Turkey from the European Union.

Less than a week after the release of Benedict’s letter, the fire that broke out at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris inspired its own slew of commentaries – pro and con – about the church as an icon of “Western Civilization.” Many of these takes, in my opinion, were overwrought, both in terms of policing grief (for example, pointing out the religious significance of the church to those commenting on its art – as if these two were really separable) and in terms of putting metaphorical weight on the disaster. The focus on “Western Civilization,” however, follows a trajectory laid out by the “alt-right” – led by Stephen Bannon – of weaponizing Christianity for secular cultural ends in ways redolent of Charles Maurras and Action Française a century ago. On this reading, traditional Christianity – including Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and various forms of Protestantism – provides grist for resistance and bigotry against Islam, immigration and various real and perceived ills of late Western modernity. While seemingly a protest against the excesses and decadence of a secularized West, the “Catholicism without Christianity” of such an approach is, in fact, a product of that very secularization. 

As the title of this forum indicates, the Church, particularly in the “Western” world of Europe and North America, is in need of rebuilding because of largely self-inflicted wounds.   The cultural and artistic treasury built up by the Church in Europe is certainly an important part of that task, reminding us of the Church – and indeed of humanity – at its best. At the same time, however, they must not become an idol.  Even as we embrace the repository of our heritage, we cannot mistake it for the ultimate good but rather as a pointer toward the Gospel values that inspired its authors.  We must also be attentive to new stirrings of the Spirit and culture in places whose voices (including many Christian voices) have been stifled or forgotten by Western hegemony.

The Church has given much to, and received much from, Western Civilization. But one of the lessons from that intellectual heritage is also its very openness, derived precisely from the focus of the Greeks on questioning and inquiry, and the openness of Second Temple Jews and early Christians to engagement with Greek philosophies. It is our task to continue modelling that openness, avoiding the dichotomy of, on the one hand, reducing our beliefs to supposedly universal ethical concepts as some tried in the 20th century or, on the other hand, raging against secularization and styling ourselves as victims (an insult to real victims such as those died in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday). The church cannot be any one civilization or philosophy, but a pilgrim people seeking to live the Kingdom in whatever land and with whatever philosophy they have available to them.

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