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Renewed in zone of truth


In his 1967 book, A Question of Conscience, British theologian Charles Davis explained why he had decided to leave the Roman Catholic church. In Davis’ view, the false pretense of magisterial infallibility created an atmosphere where truthful discourse was not possible. The church had become a “zone of untruth.”

In his new book, Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit (reviewed in NCR, May 26), historian Garry Wills explores a similar theme. “In what we find is a recurring pattern, truth was subordinated to ecclesiastical tactics. To maintain the impression that popes cannot err, popes deceive -- as if distorting the truth in the present were not a worse thing than mistaking it in the past.” The very claim of “special access to the truth” generates these “structures of deceit,” in Will’s view.

Unfortunately testimonies of this deceitful pattern in church directives proliferate with each issue of the NCR, precisely because the newspaper was founded more than three decades ago to be a “zone of truth” in the church, a place where truthful journalism about Catholic matters could be practiced. NCR flourishes because of its commitment to truthful and accurate journalism. But the price paid for its foundation was to be outside official church ownership and control. Founding editor Robert Hoyt broke with the church-controlled press because his experience told him that truthful journalism could not be practiced under Catholic episcopal aegis.

This doleful record of repression and deceit is reflected in an article in NCR’s June 16 issue on Jeannine Gramick’s rejection of the official order to cease to write or speak on homosexuality or on the notification or on any ecclesiastical processes that led to it.

In effect, Gramick was served with a gag order. She not only should not minister to homosexuals, but she also should not tell the world how the church had treated her in the convoluted processes of forbidding her ministry. Although Gramick has bent over backwards through the years to comply with the letter of church teaching on homosexuality and then with the ban on her ministry to homosexuals, she refused to comply with the gag order that denied her even the right to speak about what she herself had experienced from the church. In her words, “I choose not to collaborate with my own oppression.”

Gramick founded New Ways Ministry with Salvatorian priest Robert Nugent in 1977. Gramick and Nugent not only worked with Catholic homosexuals in the general population. Much of their ministry was directed toward gay and lesbian people in the priesthood and religious life. Perhaps that is why they were objects of such unrelenting ire from the Vatican. The numbers of gay priests in the Catholic church is known to be high, although exact figures are impossible to attain. Catholic church policy (and in this it does not differ from Protestant churches) is to covertly encourage hypocrisy on the issue. Gay priests should stay in the closet. The church winks at their existence and often shelters those who act out their desires with altar boys, while officially condemning homosexuality as “objectively disordered.”

Gramick and Nugent, by contrast, sought to help gay priests and lesbian nuns “come out” to themselves, to become psychologically honest and to integrate their homosexuality with their ethical and spiritual identity. This does not mean that they encouraged gay and lesbian priests and religious to be sexually active. Rather, they saw such emotional integration as helping them to stop covert abusive behavior and become emotionally mature. This kind of honest self-knowledge of gay priests is not favored by church officials. It prefers the policy of denial, thereby putting the well-being of all those ministered to by such priests, as well as the integrity of the priests themselves, in jeopardy. The well-being of the church as a whole is thus sold out to the maintenance of a cover-up on the actual extent of gays in the priesthood and episcopacy.

The gag order on Gramick is the logical consequence of this insistence on deceit. Gramick must not tell the world, and specifically other Catholics, of the dishonest machinations by which the Vatican has sought to cut off her ministry. She must not arouse them to recognize and thus to protest such machinations. She must not awaken “the faithful” from their innocent assumption that the church always acts honestly and fairly (as if the “faithful” did not already know better).

The new steps to enforce the mandatum demanded by the Vatican for all Catholic theologians are another chilling testimony to the expanding reach of the “structures of deceit.” In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, Catholic theologians in Catholic colleges claimed their rights to academic freedom and began to join their colleagues in the academy as recognized and trustworthy scholars. The mandatum would reverse this important development. It would mean that Catholic theologians teaching at Catholic colleges who write on controversial church issues would have great difficulty maintaining their employment if they are truthful and forthright scholars.

It is naïve to imagine that this mechanism will not be used to discriminate against those theologians who do not seek the mandatum. Ultimately those who do not receive the mandatum from the bishop will not be hired at all.

The upshot of these policies of repression and silencing in Catholic colleges and religious orders is to drive those who seek honest and truthful self-knowledge and public speech out of official Catholic institutions. This, fortunately, is not the same as driving them out of the church. Catholicism, as a clerical system, focuses its controls on those within its institutional structures. It seldom reaches out to repress lay people outside its official structures, judging them as not representative of Catholicism and thus to be dismissed. Yet it is precisely in this region of lay Catholicism outside official Catholic institutions that truthful discourse continues to be possible. It is here that Catholics find some signs of hope. If the church is to be renewed in truth, it is from this “zone of truth” that such renewal must come.

Garry Wills, unlike Charles Davis, does not leave the church or cease to attend his university parish Mass. On the contrary, his protest against deceit in the church is undertaken precisely as a faithful Catholic who seeks the church’s authentic self. But he teaches at Northwestern University, a secular Methodist-founded institution, not at a Catholic college. The only way to overcome the “structures of deceit” is to refuse to collaborate with them. This is what Gramick has done.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is a professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill. Her e-mail address is Rosemary.Ruether@nwu.edu

National Catholic Reporter, August 25, 2000