Melinda Henneberger is an editorial writer and columnist who, reporting from Rome, used to cover Catholic issues for the New York Times. On September 8, 2018, CRUX published and interview with her by Charles Camosy, Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University. I open this week's reflection with a citation from that interview.
When asked about her opinion of Catholic Church reform after six years of Pope Francis, this was Melinda's reply:
"Until recently, I would have given a nice mixed answer. But in the current context, the ship is on fire and sinking while the captain chooses this of all moments to stay silent, the crew argues on like nothing has changed, and the passengers are jumping into the lifeboats. Bye!
"I've been very supportive of Francis, but doesn't he have anyone around him who will tell him how serious this crisis is? Bottom line, the last three popes and who knows how many before that have failed to protect children. They haven't seen how central a failing that's been, either, or why if the Church can't get that right, nothing and I mean nothing else matters."
Sorry to say, I do believe the Catholic ship is on fire and sinking; and the passengers are jumping into lifeboats, or just jumping to get off. The Catholic crisis is serious and world-wide; and I fear we are only seeing the beginning of a major institutional breakdown. The Protestant Reformation was small stuff in comparison to what is now happening.
Constructive change and rebirth are possible; but it will require some major changes and a born-again Christian faith experience.
This week end I have three sets of observations: Ethical, Structural, and Theological.
(1)Large numbers of Catholic ordained ministers - priests and bishops -over a period of several years have engaged in or supported gravely sinful behavior, sexually abusing children, adolescents, and adults. It continues today: a pernicious moral malignancy. The most recent revelations have been shocking, sickening, and terribly demoralizing.
So now we have the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report about sexual abuse and the episcopal cover up of sexual abuse in six Catholic dioceses. You can be sure that more disturbing reports will be coming out from the remaining nearly two hundred dioceses. Several state attorneys general have already launched investigations in New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and New Mexico. More will come. We still see just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Then we have the case of (former-cardinal-still-archbishop) Theodore Edgar McCarrick. There is now bonafide proof (I am not writing about the questionable observations from the disgruntled old papal nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.) that the Vatican was informed in 2000 that McCarrick, AKA "Uncle Ted,"was fond of playing sex games with seminarians and young priests. The Vatican was informed in 2000........ That means reports were available to the "saintly" Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis.
Finally, the scandal and the scourge of clerical sexual abuse is hardly limited to the United States. In India Catholic sisters have broken ranks with the church by openly protesting in the streets of the Kerala state capital against a bishop accused of raping a nun. Former nuns have raised allegations of sexual exploitation by priests and other male clergy in the state's church; but the latest case has prompted unprecedented publicity and calls for investigation. It is like a long-ignored virus. In Germany a new report reveals that more than 3,600 children have been sexually abused by Catholic clergy over the past 70 years.
(2) For me the big ethical issue is a morality - and an immorality - based on a distorted understanding of human sexuality. (I wrote about this on August 17th.)
Perhaps if we had had married priests and bishops as well as women priests and bishops the situation would have been better? A healthy understanding of human sexuality is not based on power over people to achieve personal gratification. Healthy human sexuality is about intimacy, mutual respect, shared pleasure, love, affection, and an openness to new life in a variety of ways.
I still recommend a book that came out in 1977:
Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought, a study commissioned by the Catholic Theological Society of America and edited by the Reverend Anthony Kosnik. Yes this book was condemned by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1979. The problem here was not the book but a flawed understanding of human sexuality within the CDF.
3) Yes indeed, the hierarchical homophobic rhetoric is strong these days. Prominent bishops are condemning and scapegoating gays as the source of sexual abuse. This explanation is unfair, unfounded, and rejected by professionals researching sexual abuse. Heated homophobic rhetoric always makes me wonder. Of course I would never make any personal accusations; but, from what I have read and seen over the years, those who so often are publicly condemnatory and homophobic are often privately very actively gay. Some people protest too much..
4) The Catholic Church needs to humbly acknowledge, confront, and do penance for gross immorality and decadent behavior. The guilty priests and bishops should he defrocked and sent to jail.
5) At all levels, Catholic Church leadership is in dire need of remedial sex education. I would suggest that the Catholic Theological Society of America take on the project of re-educating U.S. bishops about "Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought." They could organize workshops, conferences, and produce contemporary study guides that could be used across the country for ongoing education programs for lay and ordained.
The Catholic Church still has an imperial monarchical structure, with the pope at the top of the pyramid. Power and obedience are key ecclesiastical values. As the Franciscan spiritual writer, Richard Rohr, stressed not so long ago, it all began in Rome!
"Before 313, the church was on the bottom of society, which is the privileged vantage point for understanding the liberating power of the Gospel for both the individual and for society. Within the space of a few decades, the church moved from the bottom to the top, literally from the catacombs to the basilicas....When the Christian church became the established religion of the empire, it started reading the Gospel from the position of maintaining power and social order instead of experiencing the profound power of powerlessness that Jesus revealed.....
"An imperial system needs law and order and clear belonging systems more than it wants mercy, meekness, or transformation. Much of Jesus' teaching about simple living, nonviolence, inclusivity, and love of enemies became incomprehensible."
Today, much of the old imperial Catholicism is crumbling; and some Catholic traditionalists are working feverishly to resuscitate it - and dump Pope Francis in the process. Reuters reported this week that former Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon is helping to draw up the curriculum for a leadership course at a right-wing Roman Catholic institution in his efforts to promote conservative thinking in the church. Benjamin Harnwell, director of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, not far from Rome, told Reuters Bannon had been helping to build up the institute for about half of its eight-year life.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, a leading Catholic conservative, who is president of the Institute's board of advisers, told Reuters he looked forward to working with Harnwell and Bannon "to promote a number of projects that should make a decisive contribution to the defense of what used to be called Christendom." Bannon and Burke of all people.
Nevertheless, there are some healthy structural steps people can begin to take right now:
1) Starting at the local level, let our parishes be genuine communities of faith in which male and female equality is our ministerial practice, and shared decision-making our rule of pastoral life. For our leaders there should be clearly agreed upon ministerial goals and objectives. Based on these goals and objectives, there should be annual performance appraisals. Perhaps we should return to the early American Catholic practice of lay trustees, which Catholics learned from Congregational churches.
2) In every diocese there should be a pastoral leadership council, composed of lay and ordained representatives from each parish. Their role would be to oversee diocesan ministerial projects, finances, and performance appraisals of their bishop. The prevent their becoming too anchored in their own power machines, bishops should be appointed for a six year term, with the possibility of a second six year term. After that a new bishop should be appointed, based on recommendations from the pastoral leadership council.
3) To clearly demonstrate that church leadership is about service to people and not paternalistic power over people, all medieval ecclesiastical titles should cease immediately. Just stop using these titles. I did years ago. No more "monsignor," "your excellency," "your eminence," etc. Certainly no more "princes" of the church. When I write to a bishop, I say "Dear Bishop," or if he was one of my friends or former students, "Dear Ed, Dear Paul, etc."
4) The dress and comportment of church leaders should be contemporary and simple. No more crushed silk cloaks and gowns in purple and red. No more colorful slippers. No more fancy episcopal walking sticks (croziers) that cost thousands of dollars. When Cardinal Raymond Burke dresses-up for a Pontifical High Mass, it costs about $30,000 to outfit him......... But on the other hand, plain old bishops can be much less expensive.
(5) How about the Jesus perspective? "Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples: 'The religious authorities (scribes and Pharisees) sit in Moses' seat but their deeds are done for people to see. They broaden their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love the places of honor at banquets, the chief seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces....Woe to you religious authorities (scribes and Pharisees) you hypocrites! You pay tithes of mint, dill, and cumin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness.'" (Matthew 23)
(6)These days the church needs not just a face-lift but a heart transplant. Getting back to the heart of what we should be about: Jesus and the Gospel
7) The bigger institutional church needs of course a major restructuring. The old Roman imperial model is finished. Reform and restructuring do take time. In our USA history we know, by way of example when the founders rejected monarchy, that the Declaration of Independence came in 1776; but the United States Constitution was not ratified until 1788. Our first president, George Washington, was inaugurated in 1789.
(8) I strongly suggest that the Catholic Church needs not a Third Vatican Council of bishops from around the world. It needs a THIRD MILLENNIAL CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION.
This Catholic constitutional convention, with lay and ordained theologians, historians, pastors, and sociologists must (1) draw up a constitution for the Catholic Church and (2) delineate a new administrative structure that covers all aspects of ecclesiastical governance and (3) clearly establish that the pope - elected for a limited term of office by an international body of lay and ordained representatives - is not a monarch but the chairperson of the board of directors.
Yes, I think "cardinals," as the papal electoral college, are a relic of the past. The old gentlemen should be retired, and the College of Cardinals permanently abolished.
(9) The new process for electing the pope should rely on lay and ordained representatives from every diocese around the world. No need to use the Sistine Chapel and the smoking stove. These can remain historic tourist attractions.
Votes can be cast around the globe by secure Internet connections.
Later, papal performance appraisals could be done the same way. The days of papal monarchy should be brought to a close.
The big theological issues will only be resolved by a broad-based implementation of an historical-critical understanding of Sacred Scripture, church teaching, and church history.
(1)Catholics need to move away from their barrel-vision self understanding as the only "one true church." The Church of Christ is large indeed with many traditions: Christians as a broad-based community of faith under "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God who is Father of all." (Ephesians 4:5-6) In the 1950s, I attended a Catholic grade school in SW Michigan. Our local priest regularly told my religion class that Protestants were members of a "false religion." Once we were even told to search our homes for "heretical Protestant Bibles" and to "throw them in the trash." My Mother was Catholic but my Father was Protestant. I never thought of my Bible-reading and prayerful Dad as belonging to a false religion. When I told him that the parish priest told us kids to rid our homes of Protestant Bibles, my Dad replied "Father C. Is a kind but stupid old man. You will not throw God's Word in the garbage can."
(2) Catholics have said for centuries that only their priests were validly ordained through an imposition of hands going back to the Apostles. "Apostolic succession" was a big issue. Today of course we know that Jesus did not ordain anyone in his group of disciples. We know that ordination was a creation of the Christian community many decades after Jesus' death and Resurrection. Apostolic succession has nothing to do with a tactile imposition of hands. It is succession in the faith, witness, and ministry of the Apostles. Yes, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans, etc., along with Catholics, have apostolic succession.
3) The historical Jesus did not establish or lay down ANY pattern or plan for church structure. He did not establish the papacy nor the first pope. Christians can and must adjust their institutions to meet contemporary needs. And as I said above there is absolutely no virtue in copying the long-dead and not-so-holy styles and structures of the Roman Empire.
Well friends these are my thoughts right now. The situation is grave. Big steps are needed. Let's move ahead.....