— The Catholic Church must act now to address the sins of the past
By Michael W. Higgins
In just one week in January, it seemed as if all the grief and shame was unleashed again. Every media outlet was covering one story after another about the Catholic Church and the cumulative effect was dispiriting and demoralizing.
There was the decision by the Supreme Court of Canada, which declined to hear a final appeal from the Archdiocese of St. John’s concerning its liability over the abuse of children at Mount Cashel Orphanage; there was the rising clamour for the resignation of Vincent Nichols, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster (the premier Catholic prelate in England), following a report chronicling his failure to deal with abuse cases while Archbishop of Birmingham; there was the final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes in Ireland, with its searing indictment of ecclesial neglect and cruelty; and there was the uncontained outrage in Cologne, Germany, over the obstinate refusal of its Cardinal Archbishop, Rainer Maria Woelki, to make public the findings of an investigation he commissioned into abuses in the archdiocese.
So when does it end? When will the toxin that is clericalism – the corrosive pattern of entitlement and abuse of power by clergy – be purged? How does the institutional church move on when it cannot stanch the flow of allegations? Certainly the contributing factors are many – and some are outside the immediate boundaries of church life. But what progress can be made if there is still resistance to full disclosure, to acknowledging the sins of the past in a manner that is genuinely contrite and not choreographed by lawyers and actuaries, when many officials, fatigued and defensive, simply want to escape the relentless pull of accountability?
By means of various studies, surveys, commissions and academic panels, we have a good if not comprehensive understanding of the roots of many of the problems we consider to be the marks of clericalism: the absence of psycho-sexual maturity, truncated emotional growth, the perks of prestige (at least among some in the Catholic community), power and entitlement by virtue of one’s “calling.” It can be reasonably said that we have a handle on the diagnosis. It is the prognosis that concerns many – not least of whom is that ardent advocate for structural change, Nuala Kenny.
A Sister of Charity of Halifax, retired pediatrician and ethicist, Dr. Kenny is tenacious in summoning Catholic authority to the task for reform. In her forthcoming book, The Post-Pandemic Church: Prophetic Possibilities, she highlights her anguished puzzlement that “in a church with a strong commitment to life, the sexual abuse of children and youth is not considered a pro-life issue.” She recognizes that the church’s ill health and slow response to the challenge is attributable to many factors both external and internal. But the persisting pathology compromises the church’s essential purpose, weakening its credibility, souring Catholics on their spiritual birthright – a true sign of enduring scandal.
To reclaim trust, to build anew confidence in the integrity of the church’s leaders – from local pastors to bishops – channels of communication are essential with theologically literate laypeople and a creative rethinking of the way we educate men to priestly ministry is fundamental. And in doing this, we need to de-emphasize, if not eliminate entirely, the spurious and seemingly ineradicable notion that somehow – ontologically – priests are a different species. We need also to take seriously the theological and historical arguments for the ordination of women to the ministry of deacon.
Some of these matters fall within the jurisdiction of the local bishops, some other matters are reserved to Rome, but what is critical at this juncture is action, not paralysis – not waiting out this pontificate in the hopes that the next pope will restore the old identity and calm the tempestuous waters that beset Peter’s barque. Nostalgia and fantasy have no place in a reform agenda. Or, indeed, with reality.
Dr. Kenny’s moral urgency is underscored by the following passage from the late spiritual writer and Irish priest Daniel O’Leary, who spoke of clericalism shortly before his death in 2019 as “a collective malaise … It keeps vibrant life at bay; it quarantines us for life from the personal and communal expression of healing relationships, and the lovely grace of the tenderness which Pope Francis is trying to restore to the hearts of all God’s people.”
The curse of clericalism – a phrase employed by bishops and popes alike – can only really be extirpated when there is institutional will to do so. Dr. Kenny is wondering why we are still waiting. So am I.
A co-founder of the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland has criticised the bishops of England and Wales for their lack of consultation in opting for the Catholic Edition of the gender-exclusive English Standard Version (ESV) translation of the Bible for use in a new version of the lectionary.
Fr Brendan Hoban, a retired parish priest in Co. Mayo, noted that the ESV refers to men and women as “men” and translates humanity as “man”. Other translations, such as the Revised New Jerusalem Bible, prefer inclusive language.
Accusing the 22 bishops of England and Wales of “a conspicuously bad decision”, he alleged there had been no consultation with priests, Religious or laity, biblical scholars or liturgical experts.
In a statement on 22 January, the bishops of England and Wales said the ESV was chosen because it is seen as fulfilling the qualities the Church seeks for “accuracy of translation which conveys the meaning of the biblical authors” as well as for the “dignity and accessibility of language needed for a worthy proclamation of the Word of God”.
The Bishops of Scotland announced in July 2020 that they had also chosen the English Standard Version – Catholic Edition for the lectionary.
Writing in his column in the Western People, Fr Hoban noted that traditionally the Catholic Churches of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland cooperate over the publication of liturgical books and their revised editions for financial and other reasons.
He asked if the Irish bishops would now accept the “unilateral England (and Wales) decision”, or would they “follow again the dismal, dangerous example of their colleagues on the other side of the Irish sea?”
Fr Hoban wrote: “Will they compound a problem being visited on the Catholics of England and Wales by regularly and ritually insulting women as they listen to the Word of God being read at Mass – giving them another reason to cut their links with an institution that insists on patronising and disrespecting them to the point of misogyny?”
He added that if the Irish bishops do this, the recent words of the newly installed Archbishop of Dublin on leadership would be meaningless.
Fr Hoban was referring to Archbishop Dermot Farrell’s homily at his installation earlier this month, where he said: “Leadership in the Church is not about telling people what to do; rather it is about promoting co- responsibility and overcoming the mindset which runs the risk of relegating the baptised to a subordinate role, effectively keeping them on the edges of church life.”
According to Fr Hoban, the decision to adopt the ESV translation for the lectionary is “a watershed moment when women may eventually decide that no matter what the Catholic Church says, disrespect for women is sewn into its institutional seams”.
Replacing the phrase ‘lay men’ with ‘lay persons’ is hardly a radical change
By Gina Menzies
Pope Francis recently announced that he would remove the phrase “lay men” from Canon 230 and replace it with “lay persons”. This change to the church’s legal code means that women can now be permanently installed as lectors or acolytes – essentially, readers, distributors of Communion and assistants at Mass and the sacraments.
Although not a radical change – women have been carrying out these duties for decades – the decision was welcomed by the international Women’s Ordination Conference.
It is seen by some as progress. However, it remains the case that married and single men can be ordained deacons in the Catholic Church. Women cannot.
In 2016 Francis established a commission to examine whether women could or should be ordained deacons. The commission’s report in 2019 has not been published. Stating that the outcome was inconclusive, Francis established another commission in 2020.
To date, calls for restoration of the diaconate to women have fallen on deaf ears in Rome
At least four such studies have taken place since the 1970s. None have recommended against women deacons.
Theologian Phyllis Zagano, whose research on the history and theology of women deacons is extensive and incontrovertible, was a member of the original commission but is not a member of this second commission. This does not bode well for a recommendation by it for ordination of women deacons.
To date, calls for restoration of the diaconate to women have fallen on deaf ears in Rome. Calls for reform of ministry and the reinstatement of women deacons and ordination of women to the priesthood come from many parts of the Catholic world.
The Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region in 2019 begged the pope to permit women deacons and married priests; it is not on its own. The newly consecrated Archbishop of Dublin Dermot Farrell, in an Irish Times interview on January 2nd, also stated that he would like to see women deacons, as did the Association of Catholic Priests of Ireland in 2014.
In Germany, two bishops are on the record recently as calling for change in the church’s attitude to the ministry of women. Leading this group is Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, elected president of the German bishops’ conference in 2020.
He went further, stating that it is increasingly difficult to justify the ban on ordaining women. Bishop Gebhard Fürst of Rottenburg-Stuttgart said in 2017 that women deaconesses are a “sign of the times”.
Restoration of women’s diaconate should not be seen as a solution to the declining numbers of men joining the priesthood, but rather as a means of accommodating the diversity of gifts, talents and decision-making that women would bring to ministry and leadership, thereby enriching the whole community.
There is clear, incontrovertible evidence from the Gospels and epigraphic discoveries that women were essential in the spread of Christianity
Phyllis Zagano, in her book Holy Saturday, cites numerous references to the ministry of women in the early church. Prof John O’Brien, in his recent book Women’s Ordination in the Catholic Church, argues convincingly that “ the early church’s developing theology of ministry focused not on the power conferred, but on the ecclesiastical relationship into which the ordained was conferred… Eucharistic presidency followed from pastoral leadership over a community.”
There is clear, incontrovertible evidence from the Gospels and epigraphic discoveries that women were essential in the spread of Christianity, as demonstrated in the resurrection and Pauline narratives.
A narrow anthropology of women based on child-bearing has persisted in church thinking. De-linking women from this one-dimensional understanding of what it means to be female is an urgent necessity if women in the Catholic Church are to be treated as disciples of equality.
The constant mantra that only a male can image Christ suggests that gender is more relevant than humanity.
Complementarity of the sexes has been put forward as a justification for excluding women from ministry. This notion is anchored in papal writings in modern times, appearing frequently in the writings of Pius XII and more recently those of John Paul II.
Theologian Mary Hunt puts it very well when she says: “The growing biology and social scientific consensus in favour of the broad range of ways in which human beings live out their gender identity undermines the fragile and indefensible sexist and heterosexist anthropology on which the Catholic teaching on human sexuality is based.”
The institutional church is flying on one wing and breathing with one lung by refusing to value the diversity that women would bring to ministry. It will not be sufficient to appoint “safe” women to positions: diversity of culture, insight and knowledge are as necessary as the now more frequently stated objective of inclusion.
Women need to be treated on the basis of their humanity and willingness to be called to serve, not their gender. This would be the Christian way to proceed.
A Catholic relationship and sex education programme being used in UK schools says that contraception is “wrong” and suggests gay people should abstain from sex
Faith-based sex education resources which say men were “created to be the initiator in sexual relationships” and that women act as “receiver-responders” are being used in UK schools, i can reveal.
The resources, which form part of a Catholic relationships and sex education programme calledA Fertile Heart, also say that contraception is “wrong” and suggests that gay people should abstain from sex.
A Fertile Heart was produced by a group of priests from the dioceses of Birmingham, Cardiff, Clifton and Shrewsbury, and has been approved by the Archbishop of Birmingham.
The programme was piloted in 43 primary and thirteen secondary schools in the Archdiocese of Cardiff, but is also being taught in at least one school in England.
One chapter seen by i advocates “complementarity” – the idea that men and women were designed to have specific roles, particularly in sex and relationships.
It suggests that “within a romantic relationship between male and female, masculinity is more about initiating”, whereas “femininity is more about receiving and responding”. “Looking at things biologically, it does appear that man has been created to be the initiator in sexual relationships, and woman the receiver-responder”.
Discussing wider differences between the sexes, it says that “many couples find the woman tends to be better at communicating her emotions, whereas the man is sometimes better at knowing when to move on from such analysis”.
Gay marriage not ‘real’
The resources say that homosexuality should be treated with “sensitivity”, but adds: “We cannot deny the objective reality of sex being directed towards procreation and family, nor the link between this and marriage, commitment and parenthood.”
It links to a YouTube video featuring the American Catholic campaigner Jason Evert, who argues that gay people cannot have “real” marriage and should abstain from sex.
The resources cite the hormone oxytocin as a biological reason why “a woman tends to find it more difficult to enter uncommitted sexual relationships and is prone to suffer mentally and emotionally if sexual relationships fail”.
Pupils are told that the Church is clear that “all artificial contraception” is “wrong” and that “the pill bulldozes through and prevents the young woman understanding her fertility and femininity”.
A suggested lesson activity says pupils should discuss “whether contraception has truly liberated women, or actually made them more ‘available’ and vulnerable to being used”.
Dr Ruth Wareham, education campaigns manager at Humanists UK, said: ‘All the best evidence shows that outdated abstinence-based models of sex education like that peddled by A Fertile Heart don’t work and can even have a negative impact on sexual health outcomes”.
She said the resources used “pseudoscience and half-truths to back up its flimsy arguments”, and had “no place being taught in schools”.
‘Open to misinterpretation’
A spokesman for A Fertile Heart told i the programme was “designed primarily though not exclusively as a resource for Catholic schools”, and that the current revised edition was “in full conformity with the Church’s moral teaching” and had the “endorsement and active support of several Catholic bishops”.
The spokesman said that some paragraphs in an earlier textbook “were open to misinterpretation” and had been subsequently “edited”. The reference to men being initiators was “not speaking in terms of who decides whether sex happens or how”, but was about the the marital relationship of “mutual love and respect”. He said the reference to the effect of oxytocin was “written in the light of current research”.
On fertility, he added: “At a time when adolescents, especially female adolescents are getting attuned to the significant changes in their bodies, and learning to ‘read’ them, the claim that there is a potential risk that the Pill bulldozes through and inhibits a young woman understanding her fertility properly is a valid one not least as hormonal contraception can cause depression and high anxiety levels particularly in young girls.”
The Department for Education’s guidance on RSE says schools should be “alive to issues such as everyday sexism, misogyny, homophobia and gender stereotypes and take positive action to build a culture where these are not tolerated”. It says that by the end of secondary school students should be given “the facts about the full range of contraceptive choices, efficacy and options available”.
It says religious schools “may teach the distinctive faith perspectives on relationships, and balanced debate may take place about issues that are seen as contentious”.
Humanists UK said the Government should “remove the faith-based carve-outs to the law on RSE”.
A few hours after agitators incited by President Donald Trump breached the Capitol, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, addressed the reconvened representatives, along with a vast television audience. She denounced the “shameful attack on our democracy” and resolved that the House would complete its certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the Electoral College. Pelosi, a Catholic, then took a religious turn. “Today, January 6th, is the Feast of the Epiphany,” she said. “On this day of revelation, let us pray that this instigation to violence will provide an epiphany for our country to heal.” She also quoted a prayer often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Lord, make me a channel of thy peace; where there is hatred, let us bring love; where there is despair, let us bring hope.” Biden has quoted this prayer often. Three weeks earlier, when the electoral votes were first certified, he had offered the saint’s words—“where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is darkness, light”—as something like a mission statement for his Presidency.
Those invocations represent a striking turnabout. In the past four years, several million traditionalist American Catholics have made the impious, twice-divorced, religiously tone-deaf celebrity mogul Donald Trump their standard-bearer. Now progressive Catholics are placing their hopes in Biden, who is only the second Catholic President, after John F. Kennedy. Biden’s unfailing attendance at Sunday Mass, his visits to the churchyard graves of his first wife and daughter (who were killed in a car crash, in 1972), and his practice of carrying a rosary are taken as emblems of that public servant’s deep faith. His late-in-life election, moderate temperament, and just-folks manner prompt comparisons with Pope Francis—even as the new President’s support for abortion rights and gay marriage has prompted the head of the U.S. bishops to form a “working group” to examine his positions, and several bishops to declare that he should be denied Communion. (During the campaign, Biden turned against the Hyde Amendment, which proscribes the use of federal funds to support abortion services, after decades of tacit support for it.) Set the rosary aside, and old-school Joe Biden is the kind of flexible, independent-minded Catholic whom many bishops have spent their careers taking to task—and many progressive Catholics see as akin to themselves. In a new book, Massimo Faggioli, an Italian who is a professor of theology at Villanova University, near Philadelphia, observes that “Biden’s presidency arouses not only political expectations but also religious, even salvific ones. This Catholic president is now called upon to heal the moral damage inflicted upon the nation by Trump, the pandemic, and globalization.”
The events of January 6th upped the salvific ante and the brief for Biden to be a “Reconciler-in-Chief.” With the election to the Senate of the Reverend Raphael Warnock, a Baptist pastor from Georgia, some envision a resurgence of the religious progressivism that shaped the civil-rights movement. Catholics hope that the Church, with its moral authority diminished owing to its bishops’ failings on clerical sexual abuse, can be a trusted actor in national affairs again—that it can counter the “ ‘zombie’ ideas” (as Faggioli calls them) of Christian nationalism. The hope is that the Biden Administration will invigorate American Catholicism, and vice versa.
Catholics have sought convergence between Rome and U.S. politics before, and the present political culture is partly shaped by such aspirations. In 1987, Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran pastor (soon to convert to Catholicism), declared that a “Catholic moment” in American public life was at hand. The Reagan Administration had conjoined the President’s anti-Communist conservatism to that of Pope John Paul II, who, after conducting a nine-city U.S. tour, was at the apogee of his influence in this country. The Archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O’Connor, was as prominent as any senator or governor. Antonin Scalia had been seated on the Supreme Court. Through John Paul’s efforts, Catholicism was strongly identified with the struggle for political freedom and human rights in Soviet-controlled Poland. Neuhaus saw the moment as one in which the Roman Catholic Church in the United States would assume “its rightful role” in providing “a religiously informed public philosophy” to what he saw as an incoherent, decadent, post-sixties civil society.
Catholic theoconservatism has shaped Republican politics ever since, through an extensive network of political operatives, opinion-makers, academics, and philanthropists. It has set itself against the presentation of religious belief as merely a private matter, seen in a speech that Mario Cuomo gave in 1984, when he was governor of New York, in which he explained that, although as a Catholic he believed abortion to be wrong, he could not impose his beliefs on his constituents. Theocons disdain that position. In their view, a Catholic in public life should affirm his or her faith openly, strive to conform public policy to Church teachings, and reject the notion that the separation of church and state forces officials to check their faith at the door.
Today, outward measures suggest that a different Catholic moment is at hand. Six of the nine Supreme Court Justices are Catholics. So is Speaker Pelosi. So are at least eight of Biden’s Cabinet nominees. So is Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Yet the terms of engagement have changed dramatically. The Church to which these people all belong is nearly as divided as the country, and American politics is now suffused with religion-as-public-philosophy, even as theocons decry, as the former Attorney General William Barr, a Catholic, did in 2019, the left’s “organized destruction” of traditional religion.
The appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court made the change manifest. Barrett, raised a Catholic in Louisiana, is a graduate of an all-girls Catholic high school and of Notre Dame Law School, whose faculty she later joined. Since childhood, she has belonged to the People of Praise, a Catholic movement with a structure that places female members under the authority of men. A traditionalist—mentored by Scalia and publicly opposed to legal abortion—Barrett was a theocon’s dream high-court nominee. Yet, at her confirmation hearings for both the U.S. Court of Appeals, in 2017, and the Supreme Court, this past October, she took the Cuomo-esque position that theoconservatives have long derided: she insisted that her “personal convictions” and “policy preferences” should have no bearing on her rulings from the bench. (Nevertheless, last Tuesday, she joined the five other conservative Justices—three of them Catholics—in rejecting the argument that a Food and Drug Administration rule that women seeking to obtain the so-called abortion pills must do so in person from a health-care provider rather than by mail places an undue burden on those women during the pandemic, which has made doctors’ offices and clinics less accessible.)
Biden’s stance is something like the inverse of Barrett’s: as his public prominence has increased, he has grown more effusive about his Catholicism. In his memoir from 2007, “Promises to Keep,” he recalled that, fifteen years earlier, when asked to speak about faith and public service, at Georgetown University, where his son Hunter was a student, he hesitated: “It was a topic I had always shied away from because it makes me a little uncomfortable to carry religion into politics.” But the experience, he went on, made clear that Catholicism’s message about the perils of the abuse of power by the powerful had “always been the governing force in my political career.” His faith was prominent in the memoir itself, and in 2016, when he received Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal, awarded to Catholics who have “enriched the heritage of humanity” through their work, he called it “the most meaningful award I’ve ever received in my life.” During the 2020 campaign, he traced his view on immigration to the Church’s “preferential option for the poor”—a favored expression of the Catholic left. Last June, in a eulogy for George Floyd, he cited “Catholic social doctrine, which taught me that faith without works is dead,” and quoted from the Catholic hymn “On Eagle’s Wings.”
Biden’s nondoctrinaire Catholicism is driving comparisons to Pope Francis, who has vexed traditionalist U.S. bishops much the way Biden has. Shortly after his election, in 2013, Francis said that “we cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods,” suggesting that the Church had become “obsessed” with those topics. In 2019, he expressed support for gay civil unions. Last week, he announced that women are now expressly permitted to serve on the altar during Mass, thereby rejecting the traditionalist view that sacramental authority belongs to priests, who, according to Church teaching, must be male.
Shortly after Election Day, Francis sent Biden an inscribed copy of his new book, “Let Us Dream.” The progressive Catholic commentariat had already lit up with exhortations about the ways the new President might draw on the Pope’s key themes—mercy, concern for the poor, attention to the common good—to undo the Trump Administration’s inhumane policies. But it’s worth noting that, on many issues, Francis is much more progressive than Biden. In his 2015 encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” the Pope traced the destruction of the planet to globalized liberal capitalism, in which strong countries put “selfishness” in place of the common good. In October, in “Fratelli Tutti,” he spelled out a view of universal human solidarity to extend his vision of a society in need of dramatic reordering. His positions bring to mind those of the self-described democratic socialists who are the architects of the Green New Deal—which Biden distanced himself from in a debate with Trump, saying, “The Green New Deal is not my plan.”
How, then, might President Biden draw on his faith as he takes office and leads the country? There are two obvious options. The first is that he could move to the center, through an appeal to his Catholic roots. On the Sunday after the riot at the Capitol, Pope Francis encouraged public figures to “calm souls” and “promote national reconciliation.” Biden could use the language of faith—the human family, my brother’s keeper, a common destiny—to reach out to Republicans disaffected by the Trump-incited hard right, and gain their coöperation in containing the spread of COVID-19, doing the work of reconciliation in the process.
Alternatively, Biden could draw on Francis’s critique of globalized society to move the emboldened Democratic majorities in Congress emphatically leftward. He could cite the vastly popular Pope to help make the case for regular payments to pandemic-stricken families (a form of basic income), tax and banking reform, a national minimum-wage increase, debt forgiveness, and aggressive action on climate change. An obvious precedent is President Kennedy, who shifted left after his election, bolstered, in part, by the progressive teachings of Pope John XXIII.
Or he could combine the two options, taking an approach rooted in both Francis’s pontificate and his own career. Paradoxically, the Pope’s moderate temperament and reputation have served to advance his progressive positions. In the same way, Biden’s record as a centrist and his profile as a hymn-quoting churchgoer could give him cover as he tacks left, much as Francis has, using the language of the common good to advance policies—refreshed infrastructure, a green jobs program, health care for all—that would actually benefit the disaffected whites in the heartland who are presently hooked on Trump. Strong employment, social stability, and a government seen acting concretely for the common good would help bring about national reconciliation with a Franciscan accent. As a side effect, joint efforts between the Biden Administration and the Vatican—on the climate, immigration, and human rights—might prompt the Vatican to be more progressive in its approach to laypeople, women and gay people among them, in leadership positions.
Of course, Biden faces harsh opposition, not least from other Catholics. The morning of the Inauguration, as Biden went to St. Matthew the Apostle, the Catholic cathedral in the capital, for a Mass attended by Speaker Pelosi and other government figures, the Catholic bishops released a long missive by their conference president, Archbishop Jose Gomez, of Los Angeles, expressing an eagerness to work with the new President, but upbraiding him for holding positions “in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender” that “would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity,” and implying that Biden’s approach to Catholicism posed a threat to religious freedom. The same Catholic traditionalists who detest Pope Francis detest the new President, and spiteful right-wing resistance may block any progressive initiative from Biden, as it has blocked those of Francis in Rome.
In this moment, it’s strange to think of Joe Biden, for so long a workhorse legislator in a blue blazer, as a redemptive figure. It’s strange that progressives, who are generally leery of Vatican authority, are frankly hoping that American politics will be inspired by the Pope—and hoping that a Pope might move a Democratic President further to the left. It’s strange that a Church whose followers have been harmed and angered by decades of negligence on clerical sexual abuse can still be seen as a source of civic healing. And yet the second Catholic President can hardly afford not to draw on his religion; with the country wracked by a pandemic, a recession, and political violence, he is going to need every source of reconciliation and moral authority available to him.