Catholics for a Changing Church

"To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often" - Bl. John Henry Newman



by Thomas P. Doyle

The well-known Dominican argues that, far from being merely a tragic moment in the Church’s history, sexual abuse and related cover-ups are the fruits of a systemic disorder in the Church: toxic clericalism. He is one of three authors (with Richard Sipe and Patrick J Wall III) of Sex, Priests and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church’s 2000-year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse (2006). Reprinted by permission from Catholics for Choice. This is an edited version of an article which originally appeared in Conscience: The News journal of Catholic Opinion, Vol. XXXX No. 1, 14-18. © 2019 by Catholics for Choice.

The clerical leadership of the Catholic Church has been aware of the sexual violation of minors and vulnerable adults for centuries, even if it has been buried in secrecy. The secrecy ended in the mid-80s, when the media exposed the Church’s cover-up of a prolific priest-perpetrator in Louisiana. Often referred to as a ‘crisis’, it is, in truth, not a crisis. It is something much worse. It is a worldwide manifestation of a complex, systemic and self-destructive condition in the Church.

Despite the countless statements, programmes, apologies, explanations and excuses provided by popes and bishops, this condition is still very much a part of today’s Church. Much of the bumbling and even disastrous response thus far has been justified by those responsible as being ‘for the good of the Church’. ‘Church’, however, in this context, has not meant what is best for the entire community of believers. Instead, it means what is best for the image, the reputation, the power and the financial security of the clerical elite. The persistent failure to make it all go away is akin to trying to fix a hardware problem with a software solution.

Abuse survivors and countless others the world over have insisted, quite bluntly, that the pope and the bishops stop talking and do something. To date, the hierarchy has responded to this disaster just as they have to so many other crises that have challenged the Church: by having meetings, issuing statements and then having more meetings and issuing more statements. If the problem doesn’t go away, blame someone or something else. A good example of this was in his first public letter on clergy abuse (11 June 1993), Pope John Paul II in which blamed American culture and secular journalists for treating moral evil ‘as an occasion for sensationalism’.

The single most glaring deficiency is the lack of any consistent pastoral care for victims and their families. The many expressions of regret, apologies, promises of change and assurances of deep concern for the victims have no meaningful impact. They have no impact because they are not followed up by sincere attempts to reach out to victims to help identify and respond to the emotional devastation, the betrayal of trust and the profound spiritual damage inflicted not only by the sexual violation itself, but also by the history of rejection and re-victimization by the official Church.

Victims scoff at the canonisation of Pope John Paul II with good reason. He not only never responded to any of the victims’ pleas, he never even acknowledged them. But far worse was his protection of one of the Church’s worst offenders, the late Fr Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ. There are many valiant priests and nuns providing very effective pastoral support, yet the Church’s ordained leadership simply does not know how to deal with the people whom it has been instrumental in harming. Popes Benedict and Francis have done far more than John Paul II, but their efforts have clearly been deficient. What more is needed? What should the hierarchy do? What can the People of God do?

First, it is essential to acknowledge the most glaring aspects of causality. The clerical culture, or clericalism, is the most commonly identified contributor. This is a world set apart from the rest of society. It is sustained by the toxic belief that the ordained are not only set apart from lay people but superior to them. This belief fosters the narcissism and sense of entitlement so common among clerics. It also creates a detachment from children, family and the role of intimacy in life to the extent that many clerics simply cannot comprehend the devastation parents experience when their child is sexually violated. By the same token, far too many lay people continue to believe that this deference is part of their Catholic belief system. This erroneous thinking is at the root of the failure to demand accountability from the offending clerics and their superiors who protect them. The plague of clericalism is still alive and as destructive as ever.

The clerical culture is protected by mandatory celibacy and the myth that it is universally practised. This, of course, is dependent on the Church’s traditional teaching on human sexuality. This teaching is dysfunctional, confusing and contradictory, and it must be seriously re-examined. Close studies of countless cleric-perpetrators show many to be psycho-sexually dysfunctional to a serious degree. The connection between the sexual teaching and attitudes they assimilated, and their aberrant behavior must be examined.

The more pressing issue is recognizing the systemic roots of the Church’s response. ‘Systemic’ means that there are causal factors embedded in the very nature of the Church. The most glaring is the teaching on the nature of the priesthood. Countless victims have said they believed priests were closer to God, and many even believed priests took God’s place.

This traditional thinking, supported by John Paul II’s emphasis on the unproven theory that a man is ontologically changed at the moment of ordination, must be banished from the contemporary theology of the priesthood. Fifty years ago, the bishops at Vatican II fought to eliminate the public image of the ‘Church Triumphant’ and to re-image priests and bishops not as members of a gilded aristocracy, but instead as humble pastors. This seemed to be catching on, but only for a brief moment. The Polish pontiff, much to the delight of numerous upper-level clerics, began to systematically deconstruct the post-conciliar expressions of the priesthood that placed the Church’s ministers with, and not above, the people. This trend, known as ‘restorationism’, seeks to return to pre-Vatican II practices, customs, theologies and liturgy, all of which are heavily infused with the elaborate theology of Catholic exclusivism in general, and that of a dominant clergy and a supportive laity in particular. There remains a significant number of clerics and lay people who firmly believe that once homosexual clerics and sex abusers are banished, the Church will return to the security and glory of its former days. For some, homosexual clerics have become a convenient scapegoat for those too threatened to confront more systemic issues affecting the hierarchy.

Both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have insisted on the bishops’ collective and individual obligation to reach out with loving concern to those harmed. These and similar papal admonitions have remained empty words, never seriously followed by the bishops because to do so poses too great a threat to the hierarchy’s top and really only priority: the security of the episcopal image and power and the neutralisation of any threat to what is left of it.

The third essential demand necessitates the deconstruction of the institutional Church as a hierarchical system given by God to Saint Peter and through which Catholics must pass to attain salvation. This construct depends on the bishops as the pillars of the Church insofar as the Church rests on them as successors of the original apostles. Protecting the Church is the primary value, and by ‘Church’ is meant the bishops and their governmental system. This step obviously entails the dissolution of the counterproductive distinction between lay persons and clerics.

Stop talking and do something! We have heard everything you have to say many times over.

1. Agree on a universal definition of child abuse with worldwide accountability.

2. Create a universal definition of zero tolerance and then apply it worldwide.

3. Change canon law so that it contains a realistic definition and narrative about sexual abuse of vulnerable adults.

4. Enact universal safeguarding standards to which every bishop will be held accountable.

5. Demand that every bishop commits in writing that he will abide by these standards.

6. Enact a universal set of action steps and practical plans to face abuse, which is criminal behavior, and hold every bishop strictly accountable for enforcing this policy.

7. Effectively respond to clergy abuse, independent of involvement or interference by the Vatican bureaucracy.


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