Friday, March 12, 2010

The Roman Catholic Pyramid is Crumbling . . .

. . . under the weight of its own
corrupt and dysfunctional clerical system.
All the more reason then for Catholics to start conversing
about ways of being Church that actually emulate the gospel of Jesus
and offer the world a radiant and inviting sign of
God’s compassion, wisdom, and justice.

A fellow progressive Roman Catholic recently told me that he doesn’t feel compelled to be part of the upcoming Synod of the Baptized being planned by the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform as he feels it’s basically a waste of energy. He’d rather work “under the radar” of the hierarchy within his parish community as together they quietly dissent from various official positions and be for one another and the people they serve in the wider community, a more Christ-like presence than that which they see the “official” Church embodying.

And the clerical leadership of this “official” Church?

“Oh, I have no time to worry about trying to reform that part of the Church,” my friend said. “Why bother? It’s in a state of self-implosion. It’s not going to last.”

Although I’m not quite as prepared to write-off the idea of reform at all levels of the institution – including the clerical leadership, or the “hierarchy” as it’s often called, I nevertheless think my friend has a point. And it’s one that is brought vividly home in the latest op-ed by Catholic author and commentator James Carroll.

In this op-ed, Carroll documents the global unraveling (or self-implosion) of Roman Catholicism’s clerical caste system. It’s a profoundly disturbing and shocking tale of hubris, corruption, exploitation, and abuse. I think one of the most disturbing aspects of it all is that such totally unChristlike activities have for decades been known about and covered-up by the most powerful and influential within the Church's clerical leadership structure. Yet, as Carroll notes, “if protecting [this] clerical structure meant protecting the abusers, too, so be it. To ‘avoid scandal’ was to avoid anything that would call the pyramid into question.”

Thankfully, the “pyramid” that is the Roman Catholic clerical caste system is being called into question. And as a result, many see it as crumbling or, as my friend says, imploding. From my perspective, it’s a collapse that’s long overdue. It also makes the work of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform’s 2010 Synod all the more important, as from this gathering of Catholics will emerge recommendations for “best practices” that, while mindful of the grievous mistakes and errors of the past, nevertheless aim to bring our local church culture more in line with the gospel message of compassion and justice. Those in attendance at the synod will therefore be involved in discussions around key areas of current “disconnect” (areas that perhaps could be thought of as fault-lines of implosion) in our Church. These include Bishop Selection, Church Authority and Governance, Mandatory Celibacy/Clericalism, Church as a Community of Equals, Emerging Church, and Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. We may not change the entire clerical system, but we can offer a model of dialogue, action, and renewal that others may adapt and emulate in their own Catholic settings.

Yes, the clerical leadership as we know it may well be in the process of being forced to change as a result of its own deplorable behavior and dysfunctional structure. I think Carroll’s piece makes that clear. All the more reason for Catholics of conscience to start discussing, envisioning, and planning the structures and practices that better emulate Jesus and which will be for the world a truly radical (in the best sense of the word) sign of God’s compassion, wisdom, and justice. And who knows . . . maybe if we start the conversations and modeling the changes at the grassroots, some within the battered hierarchy may catch on and join us in the much-needed renewal efforts. After all, my Catholic Christian faith tells me that no one is beyond recognizing and embodying the transforming love of God. And isn’t that what reform is? The changes that result from the breaking through of God’s transforming love in and through our lives, our relationships, and our communities?

I believe it’s this hoped for change within and of us all - whether we’re at the grassroots, within the hierarchy, or anywhere in between - that keeps me doing what I do, and identifying as Roman Catholic, despite the ugly realities that seem to currently define the Church for many, and which are documented by James Carroll below.


The Vatican Sex Conspiracy

By James Carroll

The Daily Beast
March 11, 2010

Europe is now being wracked by fresh priest-abuse scandals,
much like the United States was 10 years ago.
James Carroll on how the Catholic Church
aided and abetted the offenders.

The sex-scandal drumbeat of the Catholic Church approaches cacophony. Last month’s Murphy Report devastated Irish Catholics (and Irish-Americans) with its findings of massive abuse and coverups in Ireland (with numerous abusers shipped off the U.S.). The Netherlands and Austria had similar revelations. In Germany, widespread sexual abuse of children in Catholic schools was exposed, including at a choir school that was run for three decades by Rev. Georg Ratzinger, the brother of Pope Benedict XVI. Father Ratzinger denied knowledge of the sexual abuse at his school, but was quoted in a German newspaper as saying that his own use of corporal punishment against the choirboys left him “a bad conscience.” The Vatican, meanwhile, was rocked by the exposure of a gay-prostitution ring run by a papal aide and involving a Vatican choir.

Such revelations seem like the dream come true of know-nothing anti-Catholicism. Yes, the depravities of the guilty priests are crimes—but they are also evidence of a broader dysfunction, a depth of systematic corruption that the old bigotries never imagined. The nearly universal response of church authorities to these crimes, rising to the level of the papacy itself, is so consistently to protect the abusers and re-victimize the victims as to qualify for the crime of co-conspiracy. Bishops and other leaders have not only obstructed justice, shielding perpetrators from civil law, but they have also become criminal abettors by enabling these perpetrators to continue their abusive behavior. And it has been happening everywhere.

To people who follow the church closely, none of this is a surprise. The Vatican has long sought to shield Catholic clergy from the legal consequences of their sexual offenses. The church declared a priest’s abuse of a child to be a horrific crime in both 1867 and 1962, but, more to the point, it was also “a secret of the Holy Office.” Church officials were forbidden to refer such criminal behavior to civil legal authorities. After the scandals began breaking a decade ago in the United States, that tradition was explicitly (if secretly) continued by an order issued in 2001 by Joseph Ratzinger, then the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Crimes “perpetrated with a minor by a cleric” fall under church jurisdiction, not civil law enforcement. “Cases of this kind,” Ratzinger warned, “are subject to the pontifical secret”—the violation of which is punishable by excommunication. When Ratzinger was elected pope in 2005, a Vatican spokesman was asked about the 2001 pronouncement. “This is not a public document,” he replied, “so we would not talk about it.” No way, no how.

The practical effect of this code of silence has been to allow the priestly abusers to become serial rapists, as they have been shipped off from one assignment to another. A most egregious case of this involved Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law, who enabled the notorious sex sprees of then-Father Paul Shanley, who is now in prison in Massachusetts for raping a child. Even after authorizing secret payments to Shanley’s victims, Law kept him in the parish ministry, and ultimately recommended him for the position of director of a Catholic homeless shelter. The Massachusetts attorney general’s finding said that, but for technicalities, Law would have been indicted as an accomplice to Shanley’s crimes. Law, too, should be in prison. When another victim, Tom Blanchette, approached Law to tell of having been abused by a priest, Law, as Blanchette later reported, “laid his hands on my head for two or three minutes. And then he said this, ‘I bind you by the power of the confessional never to speak about this to anyone else.’” Blanchette was shattered, but he broke the secret. In 2002, Catholic outrage forced Law’s resignation as Archbishop of Boston, but to the Vatican he had behaved nobly. Pope John Paul II named him as Archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome, one of the most prestigious appointments in the church. Law still exercises wide influence at the Vatican, including a key role in the selection of bishops for the United States. “I am deeply ashamed,” Pope Benedict told reporters on his trip to America in 2008, and the Vatican now resounds with expressions of regret — but such mea culpas are meaningless as long as Rome continues to protect and glorify Bernard Law, the enabler-in-chief. His ongoing status is the ring of truth — loud and clear.

There are two lessons here. First, across a long period of time, the culture of an all-male celibate clergy included an at least passive expectation that sexual frustration would drive some priests to behave badly. Pastoral relationships with girls and adult men and women could be betrayed, too, but the priest predators seem mainly to have exploited the boys who were vulnerable to them. The church is far from the only setting in which children are sexually exploited, but the church has a special problem, tied to the clergy’s lifelong renunciation of sexual expression. The system anticipated exploitative sexual behavior, which is why there are procedures for dealing with it that go back beyond the 19th century. In effect, the Catholic Church compensated for stresses attached to celibacy by adopting a mode of looking-the-other-way—a kind of clerical version of “boys will be boys.” What the hell. Father Bob is a little bent. That it actually was boys came to seem normal.

And, second, the nearly universal response both of church authorities and of non-abusive priests, as they looked the other way, aimed to protect not so much the perpetrators but the whole pyramid of Catholic hierarchical power on which they all depended. If protecting the clerical structure meant protecting the abusers, too, so be it. To “avoid scandal” was to avoid anything that would call the pyramid into question. Abusers could simply not be exposed without having the whole malign structure brought into the light—its sexual repressiveness, contempt for women, authoritarianism, and dishonesty. Subtly homoerotic and officially homophobic. A hidden structure of malevolence that is now perfectly named as the Pontifical Secret. As these news stories suggest, the secret is out. The pyramid is crumbling.

James Carroll's recent book is Practicing Catholic, a story of American belief. He is a columnist for the Boston Globe and Distinguished-Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University. His other books include An American Requiem, which won the National Book Award, House of War, winner of the PEN-Galbraith Award, and Constantine's Sword, now an acclaimed documentary.

Recommended Off-site Links:
New Catholic Sex Abuse Findings: Gay Priests Are Not the Problem - David Gibson (Politics Daily, November 18, 2009).
Pope Under Fire for Transfer, Letter on Sex Abuse - Nicole Winfield (Associated Press, March 12, 2010).
Sex Abuse Requires Rethinking of Mandatory Celibacy Rules - Hans Küng (National Catholic Reporter, March 12, 2010).
Abuse and Celibacy: Austrian Cardinal Opens the Can of Worms - Terence Weldon (The Open Tabernacle, March 12, 2010).
Pope Defends Celibacy Rule Amid Sex Abuse Scandals - BBC News (March 12, 2010).

For more of James Carroll at The Wild Reed, see:
On, Give It a Rest, Papa!
James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth (Part 1)
James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth (Part 2)
James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth (Part 3)
James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth (Part 4)
James Carroll on Catholic Understanding of Truth (Part 5)
The Catholic Embrace of Americanism
A Brave Hope
James Carroll on Roman Catholicism's Next Big Scandal
A Christmas Reflection by James Carroll

See also the related Wild Reed posts:
Rome Falling
Eugene Kennedy on Roman Catholicism’s “Post-Hierarchical Blues”
No Patriarchal Hierarchy, No Rigid Conformity
Trading with Frozen Truths
The Holarchical Church: Not a Pyramid But a Web of Relationships
In Matters of Sexuality, Has the Roman Catholic Clerical Leadership Lost It's Moral Authority?
Report: Homosexuality No Factor in Abusive Priests
Weakland, the Clergy Sex Abuse Scandal, and Homophobia
Genuine Authority
What Is It That Ails You?
Officially Homophobic, Intensely Homoerotic

Image: A still from the film 2012.


Terence Weldon said...

Michael, I firmly agree that the pyramid is crumbling, Once again, I feel uncanny resemblances to the final years under apartheid South Africa,when most people were concentrating on how the authorities were relentlessly tightening up on military "control" over dissent - but in so many ways, the people themselves were simply disregarding more and more of the unjust laws.

I have been staggered at how much the tenor of press reporting on the church has changed very suddenly. The stories coming from Germany B16's own stomping ground, have not helped his position at all. Press comment here in the UK is that this could well be the defining moment of his papacy. If, in spite of his lack of serious action so far, he still rises to the challenge, it could be the making of him.

If he doesn't, it could be the breaking of the (institutional) church.

Unknown said...

Agreed! Wow...

Mareczku said...

Excellent articles here. I don't know if things are crumbling. In some places yes. In other places, India for example, and some other places in Africa and Asia, the Church is growing. It would be good if Pope Benedict could finally address the abuse issue more strongly. Hopefully the Spirit can guide him. It still amazes me how Cardinal Law is so powerful. He sure made out well, didn't he? Better then a lot of his victims.