National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Cover story
Issue Date:  October 3, 2003

Healing the Wound

The Sacraments and Human Sexuality

Sacrament: In general, any visible sign of God’s invisible presence. Specifically, a sign through which the church manifests and celebrates its faith and communicates the saving grace of God. In Catholic doctrine there are seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance, marriage, holy orders and the anointing of the sick.

Sacramentality, Principle of: The fundamentally Catholic notion that all reality is potentially and in fact the bearer of God’s presence and the instrument of divine action on our behalf.

-- Richard McBrien, Catholicism (HarperCollins, 2nd edition)


The Sacraments Are for Human Beings

New York Archbishop Francis J. Spellman famously calmed a World War II Catholic chaplain anxious about violating church law by offering Mass several times a day for the troops, with a theological maxim, Sacramenta propter homine: The sacraments are for human beings.

That theological insight contains the pure healing waters of sacramentality, that sense of, and commitment to, ordinary human experience that defines the church’s ageless self-awareness, pastoral identity and perennial mission. Spellman’s pastoral sense that the sacraments are not to be controlled by church laws or church men but to be poured into the laps of people, full measure, shaken down, running over -- a vision older than Vatican II -- has now been supplanted by a bookkeeper’s instincts. The celebration of the Eucharist is being curtailed, churches are being closed or merged, and men and women are urged to accept pale palimpsest rites, erasures rather than engravings, and to go to bed hungering for the sacraments that reveal the universe and themselves awash in the Divine.

A Lament for Lost Sacraments

Willard Jabusch expresses the shock that follows our present loss of sacramental awe. “On both sides of the Atlantic,” he writes (America, May 12, “The Vanishing Eucharist”) “... (i)n the place of the Mass ... there are now some Bible readings, a few hymns and possibly a homily and distribution of previously consecrated Communion hosts. Many loyal Catholics are astonished that this has happened so quickly and that Communion services should be considered an appropriate solution. ... Many find it strange and even scandalous that this sacrament should be allowed to disappear from the religious life of ... Catholics.”

This yearning for sacrament and symbol extends far beyond Catholicism as we can see by the candlelight on the altars, more poignant for being makeshift, fashioned by ordinary people, to make sacred our places of great loss, oh so many of them, all across the world.

Gaze everywhere on the substitute sacraments of our time, on the balloons released to unnamed gods against the blue sky above a burial, the graffiti with which the powerless baptize and re-name the culture and its technology, and the grunts of those unaware of their own transcendent yearnings as, in a thousand mirrors, they celebrate the postmodern Eucharist of the self, This is my body. Do not omit the missing-man flight formations, crop circles or the Oliver Stone-size fantasies of conspiracy theorists, the visionaries of our time who search untiringly for the codes of life and death and the secret reasons that things happen as they do.

Abusing the Body of Christ

America’s bishops appear puzzled by reactions to their administrative handling of the still weeping wound of the sex abuse crisis that they can neither diagnose or recognize as a symptom of a more basic, if long developing, sacramental crisis of whose contemporary form they are the authors. Ironically, they were made bishops because they are men of files, law and ledgers rather than of myth, mystery, sacrament or even spirituality, and yet they do not see that Catholics’ canonical “right” to the sacraments (n. 213) obliges bishops to provide the sacraments.

“There,” they say, replacing the Eucharist with services too bland to challenge the separation of church and state, “what is the next item on the agenda?” They cannot understand that, for Catholics, being offered these lifeless “as if” sacramental services is equivalent to being told to eat the menu and forget the meal. The best hearted bishops do not understand that through this sacrilegious “solution” they are abusing the Body of Christ, an unmistakable symbol of the blanched sacramental sense that obscured what it gave rise to, the abuse of the bodies of thousands of innocent children by corrupted sacramental ministers.

Loss of the Sacramental Sense

The foundational crisis is the impairment, or complete loss by church leaders, of the sacramental sense, that feeling for the theological principle of sacramentality, the notion that all reality, both animate and inanimate, is potentially or in fact the bearer of God’s presence and the instrument of God’s saving activity on humanity’s behalf. This principle is rooted in the nature of sacrament as such, i.e., a visible sign of the invisible presence and activity of God, one of the central theological characteristics of Catholicism, (HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, McBrien, ed.).

Forfeiting this sacramental sense in order to maintain hierarchical control, they shatter the wholeness of creation in general and of the human person in particular. This wrenches sexuality out of human personality as brutally as an Aztec priest’s cutting the heart out of a young girl, both sacrifices of wholeness to the blood appetite of meagerly imagined gods. This gutting of human personality destroys its sacramental integrity, bringing a darkness at noon, the murky light in which the sacramental is devoured by the literal.

This emasculates faith, destroys the potency of its myths and symbols, making them eunuchs in the royal harem and setting off a deep human longing for their return, bearing the Christian mystery in their wholeness. While men and women search for these lost symbols of healthy life, the subtleties and the subtext of beaten down sexuality manifest themselves both in the abuse of the Body of Christ that marks the fundamental sacramental crisis and in the abuse of children’s bodies that grew, slowly but surely and largely in the dark, out of it. Make healthy sexuality falsely evil and you make clear the way for the true evil of unhealthy sexuality.

Searching for the Grail

The loss of a once sure sacramental sense plunges Catholics into a previous but parallel era of sacramental suppression that called forth the great myth of the search for the Grail, the legendary eucharistic cup or chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper. Joseph Campbell describes how the official Church Triumphant muffled religious mystery and so summoned the original myth of the Grail from the depths of the human longing for sacrament.

When “official Christianity and a number of mystic traditions ... were carried by Roman arms and colonization to northern Europe ... there, following the victories of Constantine (324 A.D.) and promulgation of the Theodosian Code (438 A.D.) -- which banned in the Roman Empire all beliefs and cults save the Christian -- the mysteries, like a secret stream, went underground, while the same symbols that were there being employed in rites of initiation as anagogic metaphors were enforced officially, above ground, as reports of hard historic fact” (Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Creative Mythology, Viking Press, 1968).

That secular triumph produced a church that concretized faith, paving over the sacramental with the literal, replacing the lyricism of the spiritual life with the off-key chords of law and precedent, and scoffing at the notion that religious mystery might be borne by story or symbol. The Roman Empire became the model for the dioceses with bishops placed as proconsuls, inheriting the same commission to carry out the decrees of the Roman authority who had sent them to far-flung posts and who might yet reward their dutifulness by sending them to greater places still. Today’s conquerors are not Roman emperors raising flags of imperial triumph but Romanized officials holding aloft the minutes of meetings, policy drafts and resolutions, banners proclaiming victory for the Church Administrative.

The myth of the Grail aches again to be reborn, a pure response from within creation, whose very groaning St. Paul had heard, to this smothering administrative mantle. The deadening “as if” sacramental substitute services mark a climactic moment in this reprise of this tale of loss that accountant bishops have misentered as gain in their ledgers, resulting in a world of absent sacrament and suppressed symbol, the condition that defines the basic sacramental crisis, or abuse of the Body of Christ, and its twisted growth in the abuse of the bodies of children by supposed sacramental ministers.

To Re-establish Trust

There is almost always a link between sacramental disorder and sexual disorder, as, for example, in the infamous 17th- century episode of supposed satanic possession and real perverse sexuality at the French convent in Loudun.

Sadly the crisis of the sexual abuse of persons manifests itself in tandem with that of the abuse of the Body of Christ in the vanishing Eucharist, the abuse, as we may say, of the Mystical Body of Christ, of the community of the faithful, the people who are the church, a violation, therefore, of all of us.

The reason that bishops cannot restore trust by administrative actions is found in the nature of this violation of intimacy and relationship. Such wounds as these related abuses inflict on all Catholics resemble those suffered by the trusting victims of clerical predators. It savages the inner lives of the people who are the church, its pain intensified because inflicted by father figures they trusted, and it will not heal until the bishops identify what they find difficult to understand: How their own actions so subtly and so profoundly injured their people.

These officials betrayed their loss of the sacramental sense of the person and of the people of God by responding to the long simmering reality of these interrelated crises, first, through denial, then through administrative moves designed not to explain or to cure but to contain and control them.

Estrangement from Body and Sacraments

These crises, representing estrangement from the sacrament and estrangement from the body, constitute a spurning of Incarnation, a rejection of Christ’s becoming as human as we are. That explains how, by what they consider an adequate non-sacramental administrative remedy, these leaders exercise control without recognizing how they thereby abuse the Body of Christ.

This dual estrangement is obvious in the chronic official disquiet with the physical, along with a poorly modulated anxiety with human intimacy, human identity and human sexuality. This disaffection from the fullness of humanity prompts the patrons of a literal, official church to disdain and to draw blushingly back from the body, defending themselves against its sexual dews and damps through an obsession with negative sexuality, with a conviction that no sex is better than any sex, that, if sex is necessary to continue the race, it remains so unnatural and undignified that it must be eliminated from the Incarnation that is thus de-humanized by being rendered sexless.

Body of Christ, Body of a Woman

Seen through the trifocals of hierarchy, sexuality is so disquieting that it must be affixed with warning labels about the dangers curled in its every impulse, from the late night screeching of alley cat stray thoughts to the summer morning running of the bulls at Pamplona in the passionate engagement of lovers.

Such a firebreak of virginity and virtue was built around them that, instead of being understood as food for healthy human hungers, the sacraments were reserved under glass for the Untouched rather than served freely to the Untouchables. An already purified state was demanded of men and women, formal dress only, before they could receive the Eucharist, a sacrament in itself of God’s forgiveness of sin. Sexuality was abandoned to its own bedeviled fate on the lowest level of the hierarchical division imposed on everything God created, from the oldest galaxy to the newest of newborn babes.

This hierarchical disdain for humanity was given magnificently vulgar expression by the late John Cardinal Krol after he surveyed the results of the multi-disciplinary study of the priesthood commissioned by the bishops a generation and more ago, curtly dismissing priests who wanted to talk about sexuality, “They only want to exchange their power over the Body of Christ for power over the body of a woman.”

One may understand Cardinal Krol in the context of his age and still step back from this breathtaking embodiment of the hierarchical distortions of human personality. Such an unhealthy, inadequate, and yet not uncommon clerical view of healthy personality ignored the infinitely complex unity of body and soul as gratuitously as a similar view by churchmen once dismissed the unity in the universe spoken of by Copernicus and Galileo.

Getting Both Right: Person and Sacraments

Persons, created whole, are meant to sense and exult in, rather than be estranged from, their remarkable unity. We men and women are conscious of our wholeness in profoundly human moments -- whenever we lose ourselves in the kindred activities of creating something -- teaching a class, doing a job thoroughly, preparing a family meal, painting the truth of one’s vision in water color or in words -- and in loving others in every self-forgetful way, including our healthy passionate sexual celebration of our intimate relationships. These moments of dying and rising are unmistakably and richly human for, at one and the same instant, they are sensual, sexual and spiritual, in short, sacramental.

Failing to get the human person right, we can never get the sacrament right. Deforming personality into antagonistic elements of spirit and flesh, while transforming the imagination from a vehicle of the spirit into the devil’s noonday playground, hamper administrative literal churchmen’s understanding and conserving the sacraments that are so utterly human in nature and purpose.

This twofold sacramental crisis is, simply put, a crisis of misunderstanding sexual human beings. It may disturb but it cannot surprise us that this scandal, with its shadowed gallery of shrunken humanity, should arise within the culture of holy orders, a sacrament, a sacrament, we are told, that, instead of imprinting an indelible character on the soul, now leaves a bloody stain that cannot be removed by the administrative reactions of churchmen. The sexual abuse crisis had a back-alley birth in the heavily controlled cultural universe of the very sacrament whose fullness bishops claim as their own and on which uncertain foundation they assert their authority as successors to the first apostles.

Dis-membering and Re-membering

This tragedy is directly associated with the consecrated hands and tangled inner lives of those sacramental ministers whose incomplete psychosexual development, masked in heavily suppressed seminary life, expressed itself in their later desperate searches for the missing sexual side of themselves. That sad, highly driven, catch-up behavior is a function of the unhealthy, and therefore unchristian, culture of the sacraments that was powerful enough in its impact to freeze future predators at a pre-adolescent level of behavior during their formative years in the encompassing Catholic social culture and, still not fully grown, through their semi-cloistered seminary years.

Many of them sought, after the seminary, the ghost of their missing sexual persona, seeking it fruitlessly through their repeated violations of innocent children. The literal sacramental culture spread its wings over them, exalting them, making them special, making them always the exception to the rules, the touchers made untouchable. Centuries before, church officials had devised a principle absolving priests in their official roles, an administrative guarantee that the sacraments work independent of the character of their minister, ex opere operato, from the work worked, instead of ex opere operantis, from the work of the worker. Such literal administrative solutions reinforced the heavily cosseted clericalism, providing ways to handle and hush up everything, moving the clerical figure across the chessboard, moving on to save souls, and slay innocents on the side, somewhere else.

Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

In such a culture instances of clerical sexual abuse were dealt with by administrative apothegms effortlessly invoked in a church defined by canon law as a “perfect society,” a world unto itself that determined both the rules and the exceptions. A cleric never had to say he was sorry, not, at least, in terms of the legal structures of the larger and inferior secular world.

The pathetic priest sex offenders were dis-membered, so to speak, by the wounded self-concept forced on them that they sought to heal by dis-membering children, cannibalizing them sexually for the missing parts of themselves. Now the task for ecclesiastical officials is simply to re-member, or make whole again, what their predecessors had dis-membered by replacing the sacramental with the literal: To re-member the human person it had dis-membered through dividing it, and to re-member the sacraments it had dis-membered by separating them from the human and to give them back, rather than ration them out, to the men and women for whom they exist.

Unless they carry out this re-membering -- a sacramental activity in itself -- our beleaguered bishops will be dizzied by the stench of these deep wounds that they cannot heal administratively -- this feeding on the flesh of children that remains the heartbreaking legacy of the hierarchical disfigurement of human personality that has brought us to this painful time and joined us together in this new search for the Grail.

The Sacraments: Human and Sexual

Our crisis, of the sacraments and of sacramental ministers, is a function of the bishops’ seemingly autistic sacramental notion that the sacramental world is contained and controlled solely within them, that they are the chosen ones called from all eternity to save the church by supervising it. They are so focused on their own centrality in the eternal scheme that, like everybody in the front row, they have a badly distorted view of the sacraments on the screen before them. The notions that, by extrinsic divine action they are made extraordinary makes it difficult for them to see that, in fact, they are as ordinary as Ordinary Time.

The sacraments are addressed to us as whole human persons in ways as fundamentally and utterly earthy and human as we are, given not as antidotes for being human but to nourish us, just as we are, in the human condition, in our state as curious, sexual, inventive and loving beings, so that we “may have life and life to the full.” (John 5)

Hierarchs may, therefore, learn much from the title of French sacramental theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet’s book, The Sacraments: The Word of God at The Mercy of The Body (The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn., 2001) in which he asks what he terms the basic theological question: “What do we learn about Christian faith and Christian identity from the fact that the sacraments have always been of their very fabric ... what does it mean for the faith that things are so?”

Chauvet observes that the sacraments are ordered not to the partially, but the totally human, just as God became not a pseudo-human but a full human person and died, not just in the appearances of a crucified body worn as a shield by an untouched spiritual Christ, but fully as a person. He aligns himself not with imaginary sufferings but the real pain of men and women, crying out in the same abandonment that humans can feel so deeply, leaving no doubt that he inhabited our condition without hesitation, reserve or special reprieve.

So Jesus gives himself to us in the Eucharist, not just as spirit or as fleetingly as the warmth in the quickly cooling iron, but steadily and as completely and immediately a person as the one who now sits across the table or lay in the same bed with us last night. Jesus does not don a mask of likeness to us in a masquerade of living but is nothing less than fully a person in circumstances real and raw. Nothing, therefore, that is human can be, or is, alien to him or to us.

A Sexual Jesus

Is it any wonder that, for centuries, theologians have danced warily with the question of the sexuality of Jesus. Their hesitancy is a function of the generalized hierarchical discomfort with the body and with sex, an anxiety that lives on, as radiation does, in succeeding half-lives that set off the defenses in even the most innocent among us. Theologians reduce their uneasiness as if under a judge’s instructions to rephrase the question, thereby expanding the symptom in sentences as pale and powerless as skywriting, “In what manner can Jesus be said to be sexual?” The answer, of course, is in the human manner, just like us, to whom he joined himself in taking on our flesh in the Incarnation and whose grace flows to us from his conquering its death in his Resurrection.

Sensual, Sexual, Spiritual

The sacraments are not only compatible but also reflect the characteristics of the human person in whose image they are fashioned, whose likeness they bear, and whose spiritual needs they meet. Spiritual needs are, of course, human needs. The sacraments mirror us, possessing characteristics analogous, indeed, homologous, to our own. We are, as the sacraments are, sensual, made for the great world of anticipation, stimulation and revelation, mediating wonder through sight and sound, taste and touch and smell, and not dulled to hunger, thirst, and every yearning and desire. Do we not find, as the keystone in the sturdy bridge of the word Eucharist, kharis, “thanks” or “grace,” a graft from the linguistic root gher that still pulses with the energy of want and desire and flows, a Mississippi of our longing, through both Eucharist and charisma?

Like us, the sacraments are sexual, filled with the exhilarating creative energy that brings and enlarges life that touches, now softly and now transcendentally, the strings of every human sensation. Should we be surprised at the passions put to use in God’s giving himself for us in the sacraments, would we be dismayed -- although neither John of the Cross nor Teresa of Avila -- were, at the ecstasy, at least partly sexual, that exploded out of their wholehearted surrender of themselves to God or in his response to them? We humans are never moved thoroughly without, even outside our awareness, being moved sexually. We can never create anything without engaging our sexuality in the process. We, and the sacraments, in the curious but commonplace harmony of all things human -- more often like the disjointed everydayness of Charles Ives than the melodic high tides of Ludwig van Beethoven -- are thoroughly spiritual as well.

The sacraments are experiences of intimacy that are dynamic, invasive, disruptive of one stage of growth and yet bearers of a newer and richer re-integration, a re-membering, of the self, whose wholeness is also known as holiness. Are these not spaces, as intimate and safe as loving human sexuality is, places that we enter only by surrendering ourselves, letting go and dying to that fearful and cautious creature, the same law-bound “old man,” of whom Paul speaks, who holds us back, tempting us to fear the risk of losing everything in the dying through which we rise as new persons, resurrected, born again out of this union with another, a communion of persons in which it is impossible to separate the sexual from the sacramental?

We may agree, then, with Chauvet’s decisive identification of “the concern of this (fundamental) theology of sacramentality (as) nothing less than a Christian reconciliation with the body (or better ... with corporeity) Are not the sacraments the most powerful expression of a faith that exists only ‘at the mercy of the body?’... what is at stake here is the overall way Christians understand themselves as Christians, speak of themselves as Christians, lead their lives as Christians.”

Sacrament, Syntax and Control

There is, at the heart of human sexuality, an experience that is far more threatening to obsessive administrators than their allowing some cat burglar erotic impulse to leap over the walls of their inner selves. Human sexuality’s threat comes not from the possibility of their entering the arena with the roaring lion of animal pleasure but from the flood of existential uncertainty that may be loosed if they let go of themselves in the risk-laden free fall of every lover’s leap. The unpredictable and uncontrollable outcome of ceding themselves to another overwhelms them. Who lives the sacrament of life, the dancers who feel and express its rhythms in their own, or those who may, from the sideline, judge the waltzers’ movements without ever knowing the press of, and responsibility for, somebody else’s body against their own?

How, then, could this scandal have been born in a culture that so emphasizes control, in the presumably safe sacramental setting of Holy Orders? It is also found in the administrator’s supplanting substance with syntax as in the bishops’ public discussion, at their 2002 meeting in Dallas, their policy -- the form that rises from the administrator’s soul as naturally, and with the same presumption of healing powers, as the spring at Lourdes -- of zero tolerance for sex abuse by priests. Here we observe how their administrative talent and technique compromise their responses to real-time, real-world crises. “May I,” one asks, replacing concern for the sacramental with an obsession with syntax, “direct the bishops’ attention to the use of the word in line 105?”

Successors to the Apostles

This deadening mood is on display in the choice of men to be bishops precisely because they are literal-minded and not well acquainted with the native tongue of sacramental life, for being administrators with, as Norman Mailer once famously said of Methodists, not much “taste for metaphor.” They accept the misunderstandings and criticisms that come their way, confident that they are, by Divine plan, successors to Peter and John and the sons of Zebedee.

While there is a dialogue between history and doctrine, sacramental theologian Kenan Osborne observes that “history does not create church doctrine ... (and) church doctrine cannot present an image of a sacrament for which the historical data offers no validity ... If ... the historical data over a long period of time moves in an opposite direction from the current, standard, church approach, then the church approach needs to be radically reconsidered.” (Christian Sacraments in a Postmodern World: A Theology for the Third Millennium by Kenan B. Osborne, OFM, Paulist Press, 1999.

Osborne’s observations are as crucial as they are relevant: “Prior to 215 C.E. there is no uncontested historical data on ordination to Christian ministry. Prior to this, how a person was accepted into a given role of Christian ministry is not known with any certainty, and any and every view remains conjectural. In other words, a dogmatic view that from New Testament times onward, those who were episkopoi, presbyteroi, or diakonoi were ‘ordained’ is simply a matter of conjecture. Historical data during this time is silent or inconclusive on the question. Consequently, every position -- that they were not ordained, or they were ordained, or some were ordained, or in some churches there was ordination -- can be maintained or denied, but only on a conjectural basis ...”(ibid.).

Regarding the apostolic succession that our bishops interpret in a concrete and consoling manner, Osborne continues: “Historical data does not substantiate the standard presentation that ‘bishops’ succeed the apostles. During the entire second century, there is major historical data that indicates that presbyteroi, not episkopoi, were considered the successors of the apostles. Nowhere in the gospels is there any indication that the apostles were ordained, nor with the exception of Luke, are the Twelve and the apostles seen as identical. Theologians have continually raised the issue whether the phrase ‘bishops are the successors of the apostles’ can really be held up as a doctrine of the church” (ibid.).

One sympathizes with leaders facing a re-examination and redefinition of the theological and scriptural foundations for their own understanding of who they are and what they do. Yet this aura of flawed sacramental presumption has played a role in their involvement, at every step, in the now fully developed sacramental crisis whose symptoms include the “vanishing Eucharist,” the scandal-ridden clerical state, the collapse of confidence in them for their administrative mishandling of the problem, and a recognition that their claim on our obedience -- that they speak as successors to the apostles -- is not a convincing argument, much less an argument of any kind, to support this.

True Confessions

These men, so well suited for routine ecclesiastical transactions, find themselves, at this time of spiritual and moral crisis, able to speak only the flat language of grammatically refined policy statements and administrative decrees. Thus, at their St. Louis meeting last June, they identified the present sacramental crisis as one of diminished attendance at Mass rather than of the disappearance of the Eucharist itself. As the Eucharist disappears, they are issuing new rules that Catholics must bow before receiving it and revealing extended official discussions on whether Catholics should stand, sit or kneel after receiving it.

Philadelphia Archbishop Justin Rigali expressed, perhaps ingenuously, the dynamic beneath the sacramental crisis: “Part of the Good Shepherd spirituality is being obedient to the church as Christ was obedient to the Father. This obedience recognizes, loves and serves the church in her hierarchical structure and is motivated to benefit the whole flock” (NCR, July 4).

By defining the spirituality of bishops as their being obedient within and through the hierarchical structure, in their oblation of themselves to the Holy Father, this prelate offers a literal, extra-sacramental, interpretation of Holy Orders in what is presumed as its “fullness” in bishops, inadvertently highlighting the very dynamics of whose sexual character he, and they, seem unaware.

This transmission of the male domination/submission theme in a spiritual-like vocabulary illustrates how good men can, unwittingly and unknowingly, contribute to the conditions in which a general sacramental crisis would reach critical mass in the abuse of the Body of Christ in the vanishing Eucharist and in the related sex abuse crisis within holy orders. The driving energies of these disasters are the same as those of the male domination/ submission theme that Archbishop Rigali proposes as the basis for the spiritual life of contemporary bishops and priests. Healthy bishops and priests shrug this off as they would a cobweb encountered in the dark, but this theme dominates the heavily clericalized universe in which they must live.

These bishops, living in an administrative Eden, would blush and back away if they had any hint of the sexually explosive subtext of the hardly subtle dominance/submission character of the subculture in which men once surrendered themselves by kissing the pope’s shoe or a bishop’s ring. They do not easily understand what they are dealing with, what, in the human world beyond abstract resolutions, profound and lasting things occur in transactions between human beings, what is going on in their own cloistered interiors, and how linked to, and dependent on, our human condition are the sacraments in Catholicism.

The Hierarchical Pope

The present pope is not without responsibility for this moment of exiled mystery and despoiled sacrament in the church, for these outcomes cannot be detached from his determination to overturn episcopal collegiality -- for which he himself voted at Vatican II -- and to dramatize himself as its sole dominant figure while arraying these hierarchical structures with placid and passive administrators who are eager to have him approve whatever they do.

It is not insignificant that Cardinal Bernard Law left Boston in December 2002, not as the resigned archbishop but as archbishop emeritus, because he remains the most influential of American churchman. He gained almost complete control of the American church by cooperating with the pope in restoring hierarchical structures. He also strongly supported John Paul II’s administrative decree, “Apostolos Suos,” in 1998, forcing national conferences of bishops to surrender, in effect, their potency, to submit willingly to virtual emasculation by surrendering any claim to their own authority on local issues and to submit -- a key concept in the sexual subtext of this narrative -- themselves and their work to the pope for approval.

However remarkably he contributed to liberating Europe from communist control, it would be hard to argue that Pope John Paul II has done other than restore absolute papal and Roman control to the church. Perhaps he did not foresee that in turning back the clock to that very moment of high triumph for Roman state control whose Dead Sea calm called forth the legend of the Grail, he created the conditions for the tragic flowering of the interrelated sacramental and sex abuse crises.

The very elements that need investigation -- such as the conditions of church life and discipline that may give rise to the compromised psychosexual growth in so many hundreds of priests who seek sexual gratification from trusting children, often in sacramental settings -- are taken off the table before inquiry or discussion can begin. Celibacy is painted by officials in bright and glorious colors that look pale, lifeless, and blood spattered in the harsh and unforgiving light of the sex abuse scandal.

When the scandals in Boston broke through efforts to contain them, the bishops responded at Dallas not by any commitment to understanding the origins of these associated crises but administratively, through instituting procedures, appointing committees, and adapting a zero tolerance program, from which they exempted themselves. These are classic hierarchical responses. In a church whose children should always be safe, they established offices of child protection run by a former FBI official, a bureaucratic solution for an essentially human, and, therefore, spiritual and sacramental problem.

Sacramentality or Hierarchy Renewed

A year later, in St. Louis, several bishops expressed hurt at not being given credit for these administrative initiatives, apparently little realizing, as the Eucharist vanishes around them and their people continue to feel no repair of the trust shattered by them, that such resolutions and policies are existentially and spiritually empty, that the tactics of the administrator fail in the face of what has happened to the sacraments and to Catholics at the hands of sacramental ministers.

The bishops withdraw unhappily, growling at the media for covering a story that they themselves turned into the biggest religious event of the year, and floating an administrative idea that they think will restore the confidence of the people and get things back to normal: They will hold a meeting. Meetings are, of course, the staff of bureaucratic life and they cannot see that calling one is a symptom of, rather than a cure for, their problem. They plan a plenary council, some years hence, through which they will regain their authority by proclaiming, hierarchically, that they alone possesses it in the church. They honestly, or at least earnestly, believe that they can crown themselves as Napoleon did, and that will get everybody to resume their proper hierarchical seating, that they will be in charge again and that things will get back to normal.

Do they think they can reclaim authority they have already handed over to a combination of the civil and the criminal justice systems? Do they think they can settle all lawsuits and thereby heal the sexual wounds and explain how they were inflicted at the same time? Do they have any sense that the stalemated relationship between them and their people contains the same elements of seduction, violation, and imposed silence that mark the transaction between priest predator and trusting child? Do they have any sense that inflicting this injury on their people can never be healed until it is recognized, named correctly, and dealt with in the sunlight and fresh air? Can they not see that, in handing the problem off, they are admitting that they have no idea, of themselves, how to solve it?

And they plan to remind Catholics that they alone have teaching authority in the church because they are the successors of the apostles. They thus close the circle, trying to cure a problem they have yet to prove that they understand by claiming a superior authority that they do not possess. One must feel sympathy for these good men whose administrative skills serve them so poorly in their literal attempts to understand and respond to a problem that is fundamentally sacramental. They would do better with a post mortem than with a plenary council. It is small wonder that Catholics are searching once again for the Grail.

Sacramental Reform and Hierarchy Renewed

Jesus made plain the ironies of church leadership in saying to the first pope, “Peter, you do not understand spiritual things, I will make you head of my church.” This prophecy has been fulfilled in our hearing for it is clear that our present bishops hold office not because they understand spiritual things and the kind of risks taken by holy people but because they understand balance sheets and the kind of risks rejected by bankers.

Yet the solution for their difficulties is not difficult to discern. Indeed, the agenda of American Catholicism, now replete with single issues and writing running down the margins about such matters as celibacy, women priests, sex abuse and the vanishing Eucharist, should list one item that would subsume them all. That is the sacramental reform and renewal of Catholicism, the concern fundamental to all these questions and a basis on which people with every shade of opinion may stand together to seek wholeness and healthiness within the church once again.

On this defining issue of Catholicism, bishops will find that they need not produce an administrative response to an intrinsically spiritual problem. Nor will they need to assert their authority if they exercise it as good shepherds rather than good bureaucrats in seeking and restoring the authentic sacramental sense to the life of the church. They will find themselves supported on every side if they acknowledge they understand their calling to provide the sacraments rather than inadequate, unnourishing and alienating substitutes.

The renewal of the sacramental life of the church will attract the energy now diffused into a dozen causes into those, such as the selection of those who should celebrate the Eucharist, that demand the participation of the healthy believing community. This requires bishops to develop a new style of collegial relationship with their people, a true link that will enable them to re-establish their own trustworthiness again.

There is no problem or question that will not be addressed and set right by a theologically informed, scripturally based effort to make whole Catholic sacramental life.

The terrible buzz of controversy will be stilled and all Catholics can get on with the sacramental work expressed by Pope John XXIII, who, once asked why he had called a council, replied in perhaps the most truly Catholic sentence of the 20th century: To make the human sojourn on earth less sad.

For it is true that the hourglass has been overturned and that we have tumbled out with the sand into another age in which we may agree that the calling of all Christians, of the people in union with their bishops and the pope, is not to draft a resolution, hold a demonstration, or call a meeting, but rather together to seek and find again the Grail of the Eucharist that is the center of Catholic life.

Eugene Cullen Kennedy is emeritus professor of psychology at Loyola University, Chicago, and author of The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality, published by St. Martin’s Press.

National Catholic Reporter, October 3, 2003

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