by Michael P. Riccards
March 15, 2010
REFORMING THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
HAMILTON, N.J. -- Most recently, Pope Benedict XVI sent a special team to Ireland to review the public evidence over massive clerical pedophilia in that once devout nation. The team was headed up by Sean Cardinal O'Malley of Boston, who had won plaudits over his handling of a similar mess in Boston.
O'Malley's response was dismal - he saw the Catholic Church in danger of going over the cliff in that traditional Catholic country. Proponents of the Roman Catholic Church like to cite its endurance over 2,000 years, during good times and bad, persecutions, pestilences, and heresies.
But those periods brought with them serious declines in the Church, as it lost the eastern part of the Empire to Greek orthodoxy, northern Europe to the Protestants, and is now losing the Southern Hemisphere to evangelicals and to Islam. Pope Benedict XVI has stressed the importance of "re-Christianizing" his beloved Western Europe, but his papacy has moved too often from one public relations disaster to another, which threatens the Church's hold on even normally Catholic areas like Ireland, Spain, and Austria. Still, by 2050 three-quarters of the Catholic Church adherents will be in the Southern Hemisphere.
For years, the Curia and the modern popes have considered sexual abuse by clergy an American problem, fostered by priests who came out of a permissive seminary environment in the 1960s, and who were gleefully "outed" by the aggressive American media. Now, all across Europe and Australia, the Church has been rocked by bitter accusations, lawsuits and direct challenges to what even bishops and priests have labeled the consequences of secrecy in the clerical culture. Before his death, Pope Paul VI warned of the devil seeping into the Church, and Benedict XVI recently has noted that the real enemy of the Church is internal not external.
The patterns of cover-ups have reached even the highest echelons of the Curia, according to at least one cardinal, and to the papacy itself. There are victims, and accomplices, but few real heroes in the Church. Just before going to England and abuse-plagued Ireland, Benedict praised the 12th-Century mystic, St. Hildegard of Bingen, who emphasized not structural changes in the Church but penitence and conversion. She urged the clergy and those in monastic communities to live holy and virtuous lives. She had a woman's insight, the Pope concluded. But even he knew that was not enough, as he apologized over and over again to the victims.
Of course, the unraveling is far broader than child abuse. Local churches are being closed down, especially in the United States, because an aging male celibate clergy can not staff the openings.
A Church that is highly sacramental lacks in various locales the very people to give out the sacraments. The once powerful and proud Church in the United States is now heavily serviced by foreign clergy, dedicated men who often cannot speak English well and definitely do not understand the slang of the young.
In its treatment of clergy and the religious, the Curia and the Vatican have established a new Modernist attack mode, similar to that of the early 20th Century. Dissent is quickly reported, promising careers are side-tracked in the Church, and ambitious priests, nuns, and bishops have simply adopted a policy of appeasement of influential bishops.
But what they say to each other is very different than what they say publicly. Faced with a legion of pedophilia (and ephebophile) charges, the American bishops adopted a one-strike-you-are-out policy; supported minimal due process; and then took a quick turn to a bitter condemnation of gay people in seminaries, and later in society in general.
The latter approach, summarized as a campaign against gay marriage, was a harsh and cynical crusade, especially in a Church where about a quarter to one half of its celibate clergy is homosexual or accept this as their identity. A Church, once so inclusive in its reach, now has excluded from full membership: women, gays, divorced Catholics, those who practice birth control and a legion of other practices.
Now those loyal to the Church must admit that this is the time for a Counter Reformation, meant to reconstruct and save the Roman Catholic Church. First, the Church must begin with its own Roman hierarchy. Curial terms should be five years, with no re-appointments, and the Pope should be limited to a 10-year term.
A quick glance at recent popes will show how their ending years exhibit clear signs of serious deterioration. That is not unique to Church leadership; even the three titan leaders of the Allies in World War II all showed such deterioration. There is a facile Church admonition that the Pope is a father, and fathers don't resign. No, but papa does move over for the younger sons and daughters to take over many of his responsibilities.
Symbolically, the Pope should also give up his traditional white cassock and wear the black of a common parish priest, just like Gregory the Great and the patron saint of priests, John Vianney, did. He should put in the Vatican Museum the beautiful papal vestments, and replace them with a simple green chasuble to show the central tenet of Christianity - the hope of the resurrection of Jesus and the spirit. He should move his offices out of the huge St. Peter's Basilica to the historic church of the older tradition, St. John Lateran. The conclave that elects the Pope should include women religious superiors and also some Catholic laypersons sensitive to the challenges of the time.
Individuals in the contemplative orders should be asked in their long vocational life to give four to five yeas to working with the populace, especially the young, and not just living a life totally devoted to simple quiet and prayer. And the bishops should be allowed to resume the worker-priest movement once so prominent in post World War II France. The national conferences of bishops should be abandoned, or at least their activities severely curtailed especially with regards to political concerns.
In the United States, the conference has become highly politicized in its attitudes and statements; it looks like the Republican Party at prayer. If it were not for the tax laws, the bishops as a group would actually endorse candidates for office. Its statements on social and economic issues are remarkably na´ve to people living in the real world, and too often these meetings are just places where ambitions clergy seek to outdo each other by reciting Vatican platitudes and fostering its agenda. There ain't a St. Augustine among them.
It is also harsh, but fair to say that the Church is just too preoccupied with human sexuality, overwhelming the faithful with rules and rhetoric about interpersonal relations. The worst example of this is the collection of the poorly thought out lectures given by the late John Paul II which has somehow morphed into a "theology of the body" with its own television show!
The Church and its ministers would do better to re-explore the tenets of the faith and the dogmas of the early Council fathers. Also the Church should do away with papal bulls, proclamations and "magisterium" expressions. The Middle Ages have passed by.
The clergy, including the Pope, should teach us once again how to pray. Once they do that, careerist priests and religious will do likewise. The emphasis must be pastoral, not constant condemnations.
Even Benedict XVI recognized the image problem when he candidly told four newspapermen that the Church is seen by too many as the institution that constantly says "No!". Most of time its high ranking representatives say "No!", even when they do not understand the question.
The "No!!" is simply a reassertion of power in the closed clerical culture. For example, a Catholic couple in America cannot be married outside in a park or garden, under God's blue skies, but a pope can say Mass in Yankee Stadium while people are in the midst of conversation and are roaming the aisles looking for the bathrooms.
It is time that women were made at least deacons, and laypeople of "extraordinary character" were allowed to administer the sacraments including the Eucharist and penance. The ministers of matrimony are already under Church law the actual couple, not the chief witness who is the priest, and the most important sacrament, Baptism, can under rare circumstances be performed by lay people in dire emergencies.
If we can cut back on the clerical culture; decentralize the Church; and restore the great pastoral traditions of the Church, we can indeed make it healthier for the future. Central to that new attitude is the oldest admonition of Jesus, who insisted, "I have come not to condemn men, but to save them." His Church is meant to provide assistance to His mission, and it will require some very tough choices and a series of agonizing reappraisals to rethink power, pomp, and privilege.
Just as in the reform regimes of Gregory the Great and Gregory VII, the opposition will be most intense among the hierarchy - for it is they who have benefited most from the career paths and rewards they have created; and most frighteningly, they have done it in the name of Holy Mother Church.
Michael Riccards is a Fellow of the Hall Insttitute, which studies New Jersey politics and culture.