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Church in Crisis

Some see big reforms on horizon


Less than a month after the bishops’ June conference in Dallas in which they hammered out a national policy to protect children from abusive priests, a range of Catholic thinkers say they agree that the Catholic church in the United States has reached a unique moment in its history that could lead to significant reform.

Surprisingly, representatives of liberal and conservative points of view in many instances find themselves in agreement about bishops’ culpability in the cover-up of sexual abuse by their priests and about the need for more involvement of the laity in the church, even as they disagree over the kinds of reform the church’s hierarchical structure needs.

Now that the bishops’ zero-tolerance policy is in place, the extent of further change in the church and the forms it might take are foremost in the minds of many reform-minded Catholics. One of the central questions is whether the energies for change witnessed in such groups as the Boston-based Voice of the Faithful (NCR, June 7) will lead to substantial reform.

Boston College theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill, noting, “it seems that the episcopacy is being somewhat more responsive to change than they have been in the past,” said the crisis in the church has led to an “unusual and even remarkable situation.” Cahill, who in a March 6 New York Times piece recommended that Catholics withhold contributions to diocesan and Vatican organizations to pressure the church hierarchy for reform, said, “Whether the momentum will continue is an issue.”

“The tricky part is going to be for laity organizations to sustain the energy that they have thus far built and to keep looking for change” even after some adjustments were made at the bishops’ conference, she said.

Said Chester Gillis, professor of theology and church history at Georgetown University in Washington and author of Roman Catholicism in America, “It could be a watershed moment.” He said that a comparison could be drawn to the time of Vatican II, but noted that the church was proactive then. “And this has been much more reactive.”

‘Beginning of a reformation’

A.W. Richard Sipe, a researcher and former Benedictine monk whose latest book is Sex, Priests, and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis, was more certain that substantial reform of the church is coming. “We are at the beginning of a reformation,” he said. “It can’t be stopped. … It is the illegality that has brought this to a focus. It opens up the whole question of sexual activity within the celibate structure of the church.

“The bishops are quite frightened of this because it is a monumental move. It is like a Midwest tornado. You can see it gathering but you cannot control it. All you can do is get out of its way and pick up the pieces afterward. There’s nothing the bishops can do to stop this stirring up of the reality of celibacy and noncelibacy in the U.S.

“The implications are going to be church-wide and worldwide.”

Sipe, a psychologist, has been a consultant in more than 90 legal cases in which priests have been accused of sexual abuse of minors and has been asked to consult in 25 more in the last 6 weeks. He has spent much of his professional life counseling abusive priests and those they have victimized.

He said that a substantial reform is inevitable because the questioning that has begun by Catholics won’t stop until priests and bishops become accountable to their flocks for their behavior. “Are you going to not ask about clergy having sexual relationships with men, with each other? with women? How can you stop that?” he asked. He noted that bishops have resigned over such activity already and cited Auxiliary Bishop James McCarthy in New York, who stepped down in June after admitting to multiple affairs with women.

The first step toward changing the hierarchy, he said, is an end to secrecy. “You know, honest discussion is such a wonderful vehicle for the solution of difficult problems,” he said.

Professor Sandra Schneiders of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., expressed hope that dramatic change in the fabric of the hierarchy could occur as an effect of the crisis. “Essentially, ordained ministry in the Catholic church must be rethought from the ground up. At the present time it is a very dysfunctional system with a culture that is inevitably producing the sort of problems we’re seeing now.”

Schneiders said that in a basic way change could begin if the church were simply to begin implementing all the reforms approved at Vatican II that provide for a larger role for the laity in the operation of the church. For instance: “Make fully functioning diocesan councils,” she said. “However,” she continued, “it is still not the case that there is provision for a real influence by lay people. Their input must be reflected in what is done. The laity has no power at all to affect change. That must end.”

Underscored inadequacy

Schneiders, Sipe, Cahill and others who see the crisis providing a moment for deep reform would represent, for lack of a better term, the liberal point of view. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, a former Lutheran minister who edits the magazine First Things and who has become a widely recognized spokesman for a more conservative point of view, also said that the role of the laity in the church could change. Neuhaus, however, voiced concern about a diminished role for the hierarchy. “Of course [the crisis] will work some changes. It will clearly underscore the inadequacies of the episcopal leadership in very dramatic ways. There will be people who will and already are trying to use this to push an agenda for greater lay participation in decision-making,” he said. “I think slowly and reluctantly the bishops will respond to that concern as long as they are convinced that lay participation will be by laypeople who want them to be better bishops and not by people who want to reduce the integrity and influence of the episcopal office.”

According to Gillis, liberals and conservatives do often disagree over the underlying causes of the failure of the bishops to protect its children. He explained those differences this way: “The conservatives,” he said, “have a certain agenda: rout out homosexuals, go back to a pay-pray-obey attitude. The liberals say open ministry to women, open ministry to married men, shared governance democratic-style even to the election of bishops. They’re trying to use this as a fulcrum to get their agenda in. All are dissatisfied with the lack of leadership. They’re using that as a wedge to say that it wouldn’t have happened if … That’s where they’re pressing different kinds of agenda.”

Yet, Neuhaus, whose past support for the bishops had been unflagging, said the crisis has also drawn unusual points of agreement between conservatives and liberals. “It’s true that some of the old alignments of right and left are shifting,” he said. “There are some interesting new ways in which questions are being framed.”

Nuehaus placed blamed for the crisis squarely on the bishops. “This crisis has come about because the bishops have failed to do the job that is theirs,” he said. “When the Holy Father met with the cardinals in Rome, he said any renewal has to begin with the confidence that bishops and priests are completely committed to the church’s teaching on human sexuality and completely committed to being faithful to their vows. That commitment is clearly lacking. … Otherwise there wouldn’t be a scandal.”

System is the problem

Schneiders’ position is that bishops who failed to remove abusive priests after 1993, the year bishops announced that they had agreed to set up diocesan policies to deal with such abuse, should resign and, in some instances, face prosecution for obstruction of justice. Her disagreement with Neuhaus’ position lies in her belief that the root of the problem is in the hierarchical system. “You simply cannot have a dictatorship and not have deep and pervasive abuses of power,” she said, “which is what we are dealing with right now.”

Neuhaus and Schneiders shared criticism of the bishops’ efforts to resolve the crisis at their June meeting. Schneiders told NCR that she thinks the document produced by the bishops after their conference was the product of a misguided ambition: “They responded to the real, absolute outrage that demanded zero tolerance [of priests who have ever committed abuse against minors].” They were trying to save themselves from a rage that could bring down the system. Their goal, she said, shouldn’t have been to preserve the hierarchy but rather to protect children, she said, a goal that won’t be reached with “a single one-size-fits-all policy.”

Neuhaus’ criticism of the bishops’ conduct at the conference in Dallas was not unlike Schneiders’: “The great tragedy of Dallas is that here and in a truly unprecedented way the eyes of the world were fixed on the bishops of the Catholic church in assembly, and nowhere in that assembly was there a clear statement of the gospel of Jesus Christ, particularly of the transforming power of Jesus Christ. The language could have been the language of Enron or whoever could have been the latest instance of corporate scandal.”

Cahill expressed concern that the conference could work to “defuse reform efforts,” a concern shared by Schneiders, who said, “I think what the hierarchy would like is for everyone to conclude that the problems were fixed [at the June Dallas bishops’ conference] and have everyone return to business as usual -- a reinstallation of the mythology that allowed this to happen.

“I would like it definitely not to be over. As the anger calms, I hope that it will not go away but remain a prophetic power for change. A change in very fundamental ways of the structures that allowed this to happen,” she said.

If Cardinal Law goes

Though Cardinal Bernard Law’s mishandling of a string of abusive priests has been widely publicized and led to repeated calls for his resignation, Cahill said that it would probably be in the interests of those hoping to bring about meaningful reform if Law stays in his office for now. “All of the energy might back away and everyone would be adjusting to a newcomer. In a way, it’s good for the church in Boston if we stay in the present situation a little longer at least,” she said.

Gillis said he has already seen changes in the basic operation of Catholic dioceses. “It is changing,” he said. “Accountability and transparency are necessary for the bishops. They have re-ignited the laity. Not only do [the laity] want to participate, but I think they see a wide opening for this, for their participation to be invited and counted.

“The invitation to participate has declined in the past decade, and now this has re-ignited that and given them opportunities for genuine participation and a significant voice. That’s the positive side. The negative side is that anyone who anticipates dramatic changes imminently will be disappointed. Partially it’s because the church generally moves slowly, and the culture of Rome is different from the culture of America.”

Besides a greater role for the laity, the sort of dramatic changes Gillis said will increasingly be called for include an end to mandatory celibacy and support of women’s ordination. He hopes, however, that reformers don’t set themselves up to be disappointed by the result.

“I think this could be a moment of metanoia -- significant change,” he said. “It could be. There’s no guarantee of that. I’ve heard people say it’s going to be a whole new church. It’s going to be democratized. But I just don’t believe that, as much as I might want that to be true. It’s still a hierarchical church.”

Gill Donovan is a writer for NCR. His e-mail address is gdonovan@natcath.org Margot Patterson, NCR senior writer, contributed to this report.

National Catholic Reporter, July 19, 2002