A bishop has issued a letter apologising for recent “painful events” in his diocese, where media reports suggest that a group of priests were involved in a “sex party” at which a male prostitute lost consciousness and was initially denied medical assistance.
Though the church has acknowledged an incident took place and prosecutors have announced an investigation, neither have confirmed the precise nature of what took place and the local diocese says some aspects of media reports are inaccurate.
Last week, Gazeta Wyborcza, a leading liberal daily, reported that priests in Dąbrowa Górnicza, a city in southern Poland, had organised a party in a building belonging to the parish to which a male prostitute had been invited.
“The event was purely sexual in nature,” an unnamed source with knowledge of the incident told the newspaper. “Its participants took potency enhancement drugs.”
Gazeta Wyborcza reported that “the party got out of control and the male prostitute lost consciousness”, resulting in an ambulance being called. However, when paramedics arrived, they were refused entry to the premises. The paramedics then reportedly called the police, who helped them gain access to the unconscious man.
A spokesman for the local prosecutor’s office told Gazeta Wybrocza that an investigation has been initiated into the possible failure to provide assistance to a person whose health is endangered, a crime that can carry up to three years in prison.
In response to the newspaper’s enquiries, the local Catholic curia confirmed that there had been an incident involving the “intervention of an ambulance and police in a building belonging to the parish”. It said the bishop had appointed a commission to urgently explain what had happened.
In a subsequent statement, the curia announced that the commission’s “findings so far differ from the information presented by some media”, though it did not provide any further details.
Events then took a further dramatic turn when, on Thursday night, someone set fire to the doors of the basilica in the parish where the alleged incident had taken place. Firefighters extinguished the blaze and no one was injured. Police later detained a man suspected of starting the fire.
On Friday, the curia announced that the priest in whose apartment the alleged incident had taken place – who can be named only as Tomasz Z. under Polish privacy law – had been removed from all ecclesiastical duties “until the matter is clarified”.
Meanwhile, Niedziela, a weekly Catholic news magazine, announced that it had terminated its cooperation with Tomasz Z., who had previously been the editor-in-chief of its local Sosnowiec edition.
Yesterday, a letter from the bishop of Sosnowiec, Grzegorz Kaszak, was read in all churches in the diocese. He referred to the “painful events in Dąbrowa Górnicza” and the “ashamed priests” involved, but without providing any details of what had taken place.
“I apologise to all those who were affected and saddened, or even scandalised, by the situation,” wrote the bishop. “I would like to emphasise emphatically that there is no consent to moral evil. Anyone found guilty will be punished according to canon law, regardless of the verdict of a civil court.”
“Today I turn to you, beloved in Christ the Lord, with a request for prayer and fasting – tools of victory over the particularly strong evil that destroys man,” he continued. “Let us pray for the conversion of our brother who has committed a scandalous act.”
Meanwhile, the parish priest at the church where the alleged incident took place said during Sunday mass yesterday that he “condemns the act committed by Father Tomasz Z.” But he also appealed to people to not “act to intensify the spiral of hatred: evil must be overcome with good”.
The real history of religions throughout the world shows how its leaders and institutions have been concerned with controlling human sexuality through almost any means, especially when controlling that sexuality supports the culture’s political and economic powers. At the same time, history is replete with sexual harassment and abuse.
Obsession with sexual control is due to religions having been useful to political rulers to promote their power – kings, emperors, and politicians who funded the religious institutions and were often treated as exempt from the religious sexual prohibitions that were enforced on the commoners. Religious leaders and institutions relied on economic and political patronage and protection from governments just as the religious right-wing wants it to be today.
Sexual control of populations is vastly common to, but doesn’t have to be something inherent in, religion itself. There’s as much sexual abuse in non-religious corporations as in any denomination.
Healthy religion could be used to promote so much else, but that would mean giving up much institutional power. Instead, religious leaders would have to become comfortable with promoting freedom and personal choice.
But sexual obsession and control represent a familiar way religion has been used by its leaders, institutions, and allies to control the populace – adding eternal damnation, other condemnations, and threats to sanctify worldly power plays.
Sex has been good for stoking religion because it’s universal and, in Capitalism, it sells. Thus, at the same time it can be both promoted for profit and useful to raise guilt when it’s ever practiced.
For millennia, then, religious leaders have been preaching that their divines want all kinds of controls on human sexuality.
You’ve noticed that that kind of preaching has mostly failed, right? If you listen to controlling religious leaders who continue to repeat these failed tactics talk, they’re shouting today as much as ever, if not more, that sexual license – being out of (their) control – is worse today than ever.
Of course, this is combined with right-wing religious leaders’ claims that it’s those other religions or denominations that have the problem – proof that they have the Truth and those others don’t.
The Southern Baptist Convention, like the Roman Catholic Church, has shown that it can act like a major international bureaucracy that has institutionalized sexual addictions and covered them up with religion addiction.
And all through this, these institutions continue to act as if LGBTQ people or homosexuality is the societal problem. No, no look over there!
The reality of right-wing religion’s sexual sickness is that repression leads to obsession. And sexual addiction* and dysfunction and their cover-up with sexual and religious righteousness are widespread cultural phenomena that our sexually sick culture doesn’t want to face.
“As long as we can pin addiction on dysfunctional families and make them the primary cause of sexual addiction,” Anne Wilson Schaef asks in Escape from Intimacy, “can we then hold onto the illusion of ‘normal,’ refuse to look at the role of our institutions (especially church and school), and avoid completely the role of addictive society?”
As I discuss in When Religion Is an Addiction, the relationship between sexual addiction and religious addiction has a long history as cross-addictions in the Church, back at least as far as influential Church Father St. Augustine whose own Confessions show that he’s a classic example of a sexual addict covering it up by becoming a religion addict.
Augustine’s theological cover-up concluded that original sin was actually passed down through the sex act he could never reconcile in his personal life. Hence the Church would become a place for sexual anorexia and bulimia.
Even more today, though, it’s multiplied by that economic sexualization of our culture through conservative corporate, “free market” consumerism. Sex, the ad industry still believes, sells. It’s portrayed as something everyone can “have” better if they buy, buy, and buy more.
Sex is sold as proof you’re a real man or woman. It proves you’re finally close to another human being.
Everyone else has the stuff that ensures that they’re having the great sex you aren’t, you should fear. And if you aren’t compulsive about sex, you’re told there’s something wrong with you. Even some “science” colludes with the idea.
This is an ideal environment for religious institutions to recruit followers by convincing them that they’re guilty for having, or even thinking about, sex or the wrong kind of sex.
This tried and true method for getting people to relieve their guilt would lose much of its power if society weren’t selling things this way. No wonder right-wing religion is in cahoots with big business and its consumerism.
Correcting the societally encouraged sexually dysfunctional thinking and resulting guilt would require institutional and personal healing and learning how sexuality can be holistic and healthy. It would require recognizing the variety of sexual orientations and expressions.
But the popular method is to try to relieve the guilt and shame with a cover-up – the religious addiction to the feeling of being righteous.
Enter anti-sex politics and right-wing Christianity with its fear of anything it can’t control. Hide in the high of feeling righteous and identifying with each righteous cause, cling to the righteous feelings of right-wing Christianity’s exclusivism, and you have crossed into religion addiction.
It’s easier than coming to terms with what one hates or fears about themself and rejecting the institutions that promote fear and hate. It’s easier than learning to find one’s healthy sexual self.
Instead, this righteousness high works, until the addicts fall off the wagon.
The lights inside Saints Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church in Pearl River were on later than usual on Sept. 30, so a passerby stopped to take a closer look.
Peering inside, the onlooker saw the small parish’s pastor half-naked having sex with two women on the altar, according to court documents. The women were dressed in corsets and high-heeled boots. There were sex toys and stage lighting. And a mobile phone was mounted on a tripod, recording it all.
The eyewitness took a video and called the Pearl River police, who arrived at the church and viewed that recording. Officers then arrested the Rev. Travis Clark, pastor of Saints Peter and Paul since 2019, on obscenity charges.
The Archdiocese of New Orleans announced the priest’s arrest Oct. 1 but would not give specifics about why he was arrested. Nor would the police.
New details, however, have emerged in court filings that paint a lurid picture of a priest recording himself engaged in sexual role play while desecrating a sacred place within the church. Public records additionally show that one of the women, Mindy Dixon, 41, is an adult film actor who also works for hire as a dominatrix. On a social media account associated with Dixon, a Sept. 29 post says she was on her way to the New Orleans area to meet another dominatrix “and defile a house of God.”
Dixon and Melissa Cheng, 23, were booked on the same count as Clark, 37. Police said the charge stems from from “obscene acts [that] occurred on the altar, which is clearly visible from the street.”
Clark, who was ordained in 2013, had recently been named chaplain of Pope John Paul II High School in Slidell, in addition to his duties at Saints Peter and Paul. At the high school, he succeeded Wattigny, who had resigned from that position this summer over inappropriate text messages sent to a student. Pope John Paul II’s principal on Tuesday sent a letter to school parents criticizing Aymond for waiting until last week to tell him that Wattigny had been under investigation for those texts since February.
The archdiocese announced it had suspended Clark from ministry the day after he was arrested.
Attempts to contact Clark, Chen and Dixon weren’t immediately successful. All three have bonded out of jail pending the outcome of the case.
The archdiocese would not comment Thursday on Clark’s arrest, saying authorities were investigating the matter.
In Roman Catholic tradition, the altar is among the most sacred of church spaces, serving as the focal point of the Mass and the place where a priest consecrates the Eucharist during the sacrament of Holy Communion. According to church law, known as canon law, when sacred places are violated they must be “repaired by penitential rite” before they can be used again in the Mass.
Days after Clark’s arrest, Aymond went to Saints Peter and Paul and performed a ritual to restore the altar’s sanctity.
The Rev. Travis Clark also served as chaplain of Pope John Paul II High School
The church is vague on the specific acts that would constitute a desecration, but the Code of Canon Law says a violation of a sacred place occurs “by gravely injurious actions done in them” that are “contrary to the holiness of the place.”
That description appears to apply to the alleged tryst as outlined by police in documents filed in Louisiana’s 22nd Judicial District Court in Covington.
On Sept. 30 just before 11:00 p.m., an unidentified person was walking by the church on St. Mary Drive and looked inside through windows and glass doors because the lights were still on. Police allege that the person “observed and had video of Ms. Cheng and Ms. Dixon” using plastic sex toys while engaging in intercourse on the altar with Clark, who was still partially wearing his priestly attire.
The person called the police to the church. Officers arrived to see two women clad in corsets and high-heeled boots by the altar, with “lights set up around them as if they were filming some type of event,” the documents said.
Clark wasn’t on the altar, but an officer who knew Clark to be the church’s pastor tried to call him on the phone. Police then ordered the women to let them inside and, in addition to the lights, noticed a mobile phone as well as a camera, each mounted on tripods.
Attorney for student’s family alleges he was ‘grooming’ the teen for sex; church denies texts had sexual references ‘or innuendo’
The women reportedly told police they were there with Clark’s permission and were recording themselves in “role play.”
Clark soon arrived at the church and reportedly gave a similar account to the police, describing Cheng and Dixon as his guests and friends, police wrote in documents filed in court.
Officers determined everything that had happened was consensual, but they arrested Clark, Cheng and Dixon on accusations that the three had broken a law prohibiting people from having sex within public view. Police said they confiscated the sex toys and camera equipment as evidence.
Clark was later released from jail on a $25,000 bond. Cheng, of Alpharetta, Georgia, and Dixon, of Kent, Washington, posted bonds of $7,500, records show.
Each could face six months to three years in prison if convicted of obscenity.
Aymond sent a letter to parishioners at Saints Peter and Paul on Monday saying the Rev. Carol Shirima would replace Clark beginning Oct. 11.
In rare rebuke, principal of Slidell school blasts archdiocesan leadership for not telling him before Friday
Pearl River Mayor David McQueen said the arrest shocked the town. “There hasn’t been a whole lot of talk, they’re kind of hush-hush about it,” McQueen said.
McQueen said he was aware that the two women had been in Pearl River earlier this week to give statements to police.
Town Council member Kat Walsh, a lifelong member of the church, echoed McQueen. She said parishioners, especially those who are more deeply involved in the church, are the ones who were the most upset by the arrests.
Clark was well-liked by the congregation and considered easy to get along with, she said, and seemed to work diligently with different groups within the church.
“What upsets me is, why did he have to do that there?” Walsh said. “I’m upset for all of us, the parishioners of the church. Why there?”
More than a century ago, waves of Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Poland and Quebec settled in Chicopee and other western Massachusetts mill towns, helping build churches, rectories and schools to accommodate their faith. Today the priests leading those churches are under siege due to stresses, challenges and sex abuse scandals complicating their lives and those of their fellow priests across the United States.
The Rev. Mark Stelzer is among those trying to persevere. He’s a professor at a Roman Catholic college in Chicopee, and its chaplain. He travels frequently to out-of-state events organized by a Catholic addiction-treatment provider, recounting his own recovery from alcoholism.
Last year, his busy schedule got busier. Amid a worsening shortage of priests, the Diocese of Springfield named him administrator of a parish in Holyoke, Chicopee’s northern neighbor, where he lives alone in a mansion-sized rectory while serving as spiritual leader to the 500 families of St. Jerome’s Church.
“I’m at an age where I thought I’d be doing less rather than doing more,” said Stelzer, 62.
Stelzer loves being a priest, yet he’s frank about the ever-evolving stresses of his vocation that leave him nostalgic for the priesthood he entered in 1983.
“It was a lot simpler then,” he said. “There’s a real longing, a mourning for the church that was — when there was a greater fraternity among priests, and the church was not facing these scandals that are now emerging every day.”
Stelzer’s concerns echoed those of other priests, and some of their psychological caregivers, who were interviewed by The Associated Press.
Weighing on the entire Catholic clergy in the U.S. is the ripple effect of their church’s long-running crisis arising from sex abuse committed by priests. It’s caused many honorable priests to sense an erosion of public support and to question the leadership of some of their bishops. That dismay is often compounded by increased workloads due to the priest shortage, and increased isolation as multi-priest parishes grow scarce. They see trauma firsthand. Some priests minister in parishes wracked by gun violence; others preside frequently over funerals of drug-overdose victims.
One such victim was a 31-year-old woman whose family was among Stelzer’s closest friends. “This is one of the few times I actually felt my voice quivering,” he said of the funeral service he led last year.
Burnout has been a perennial problem for clergy of many faiths. But Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at California’s Santa Clara University who has screened or treated hundreds of Catholic clerics, sees new forms of it as the sex abuse crisis persists and many parishioners lose trust in Catholic leadership.
“You’re just trying to be a good priest and now everyone thinks you’re a sex offender,” he said. “If you walk in a park with your collar on, people think you’re on the lookout for children. … Some have been spat upon.”
The Springfield diocese, like many across the U.S., has a long history of sex-abuse scandals. In the early 1990s, priest Richard Lavigne was defrocked and several of his victims received cash settlements. In 2004, a grand jury indicted Thomas Dupre on two counts of child molestation soon after he resigned following a 13-year stint as Springfield’s bishop.
Stelzer had hoped the abuse crisis was abating but it resurfaced dramatically over the past two years. Abuse allegations led to former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s ouster from the priesthood and a Pennsylvania grand jury report asserted that about 300 priests had abused at least 1,000 children in the state over seven decades.
The wound is self-inflicted, said Rev. Philip Schmitter, 74, who has served for 50 years in Flint, Michigan. His stance endears him to an African American community where he lived in public housing for three decades to maintain close ties.
“This cover up, this ‘Let’s protect the institution’ was just a heinous, utterly unchristian kind of behavior,” he said.
Two miles north of Stelzer’s campus, on a recent Sunday, the Rev. William Tourigny was getting ready for the 4 p.m. Mass — his fourth and last of the day — at Ste. Rose de Lima Church.
When Tourigny, now 66, was ordained in 1980, the Springfield diocese had more than 300 priests serving 136 parishes. Since then, the ranks of priests have shrunk by more than half and nearly 60 of the parishes have closed. For Tourigny, it’s meant many more funerals to handle, including dozens related to drug overdoses and heavy drinking.
Even his own family has been scarred: Tourigny says the 27-year-old daughter of his first cousin was killed in circumstances he describes as fueled by her drug habit.
“But for her addiction, she was a wonderful mother,” Tourigny said.
Tourigny says he’s worked nearly 40 years without a real vacation. For years, he’s had therapy sessions, which he describes as “crucially important,” and he strives to minister compassionately without being engulfed in the emotions of those he consoles.
“I can share their pain but I can’t enter into it,” he said. “I’d be overwhelmed by grief.”
With 2,500 families, many of Polish and French Canadian descent, Tourigny’s parish has fared better with membership and finances than several nearby parishes. Yet Tourigny says many Catholics now mistrust the church hierarchy because of the flawed response to the abuse scandals.
“I was ordained at a time when the church was so alive — there was so much optimism,” he said. “Then things began to change quickly. It has changed the way people look at us. The church has lost credibility and it’s hard to get credibility back again.”
Plante, the California psychologist, says even priests deeply devoted to their work are upset.
“A lot are angry at bishops and the institutional church for screwing up — a lot of them feel they’ve been thrown under the bus,” he said. “They’re also concerned that one of these days someone will accuse them of misbehavior, even if they’ve done nothing wrong. They’re asking, ‘Did I do something 30 years ago that could be misconstrued, that will come back and haunt me?’”
The Rev. Stephen Fichter, pastor of St. Elizabeth Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey, said he has counseled people who’ve been abused by Catholic clergy and understands the “pain and horror” they experienced. Yet he voiced concerns on behalf of priests with unblemished careers who feel vulnerable to unwarranted suspicions.
“Sometimes a priest is confronted by an anonymous accusation from 30 or 40 years ago, and doesn’t have a chance to defend himself,” Fichter said. “It used to be innocent until proven guilty. Now a lot of priests feel it’s been turned upside down.”
Mark Stelzer proudly identifies himself as an alumnus of Guest House, a residential facility in Michigan that has specialized in addiction treatment for Catholic clergy since 1956. He travels frequently to make presentations on behalf of Guest House, and teaches a course at his Chicopee college titled “Addiction and Recovery.”
By the time he was ordained, Stelzer says, he was consuming alcohol daily. Only after five more years of steady drinking did acquaintances suggest he had a problem, leading to his stay at Guest House.
Guest House’s president, Jeff Henrich, is an experienced drug and alcohol counselor. He says substance abuse among priests is a longstanding problem but has been aggravated by recent developments — including the “residual shame” arising from the sex-abuse scandals and increased isolation as more priests now manage parishes on their own.
Since 1985, according to researchers at Georgetown University, the Catholic population in the U.S. has risen by nearly 20%, but the number of priests has plunged from more than 57,000 to under 37,000.
“There’s fewer of them and more work to do,” Henrich said. “That means you’re far more likely to live alone than ever before — and very few of us were meant to live alone.”
In response, treatment experts urge priests in recovery to find companionship in a support group and to form friendships outside their ministry.
Stelzer agrees that isolation raises the risks of substance abuse.
“We’re lone rangers,” he said. “Substance abuse might go undetected for longer when you’re living alone. A lot of those in treatment now say it was because of isolation, working harder and longer, and not feeling support from leadership.”
The harmful consequences of the priest shortage have come to the attention of the Vatican’s ambassador to the U.S., Archbishop Christophe Pierre. Addressing U.S. bishops in November, he urged them to be attentive to their priests’ health, spiritual well-being and sense of priestly fraternity.
“Many priests are saying they no longer know one another,” Pierre said. “Others, due to the priest shortage, are forced to live in isolation, managing multiple parishes.”
Stress, burnout, depression and addictions are among the conditions treated at St. Luke Institute, a residential treatment center for Catholic clergy and lay leaders, in Silver Spring, Maryland.
St. Luke’s president, the Rev. David Songy, is a psychologist who has worked extensively with troubled priests. One growing problem, he says, is that new priests are now often assigned their own parish within three years, instead of 10 or more in the past, and may be ill-prepared to oversee finances and personnel as well as pastoral duties.
“Some of the younger people that come to us — they’ve been overwhelmed and weren’t sure how to deal with things,” Songy said.
Other stressful changes relate to ideological differences. Tourigny considers himself a progressive and has welcomed lesbian couples into Ste. Rita. He says many young priests now emerging from seminary are less tolerant of LGBTQ congregants and eager to revive the tradition of celebrating Mass in Latin.
Another change noted by several priests: Some parishioners, rather than showing deference to their pastors, openly challenge them.
“In the past they might have disagreed, but they’d be courteous. Now it’s different,” said Fichter. “They think you are not Republican enough or Democratic enough depending on which end of the political spectrum they occupy. … They want you to preach what they want to hear, and they will confront you.”
At St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York — just north of New York City — there’s increased emphasis on screening applicants for their ability to handle stress and avoid the burnout that’s now affecting some priests even early in their ministry.
“There’s no doubt these men coming forward are facing what will be a very stressful life,” said the Rev. Thomas Berg, the seminary’s vice rector. “We must be sure they have the skill set or will be able to develop it.”
“On top of that, in some places, you don’t have a sense that their bishop supports them,” added Berg. “In plenty of dioceses, priests are essentially treated as outside contractors — there’s a lack of a genuinely caring relationship.”
Police officers, firefighters and paramedics are collectively labeled first responders. Henrich, the Guest House president, says priests also merit that label.
“They see trauma and loss on a very regular basis,” he said. “They get called out to hospitals, deal with grieving families, with lost and dead children.”
Gun violence is the plague besetting the Rev. Mike Pfleger’s parish in an African American area of Chicago.
“It’s a war zone,” says Pfleger, an outspoken pastor at Saint Sabina Church since 1981. “Doing funerals of children is the hardest for me.”
The violence has ripple effects: He says parents of slain young people go through divorce, mental breakdowns, addiction.
“It becomes overwhelming when it’s day in and day out, and you don’t have the resources to meet the needs,” he said.
Now 70, Pfleger says his health is good, and his work rewarding. Yet he says he and his colleagues risk being overwhelmed by the crises facing their neighborhood of Auburn Gresham.
“I was seeing myself becoming depressed, after several violent deaths in a short span,” he said. “I needed to make sure I talked to somebody.
“Last year I didn’t take any days off — I realized that was a big mistake,” he added. “It’s important to have people around you to say, ‘Are you OK?’”
In Brunswick, Ohio, a town of 34,000 people 20 miles (30 kilometers) southeast of Cleveland, the Rev. Robert Stec’s priorities have been transformed, due to the scourge of opioids, since he became pastor of St. Ambrose Church in 2005.
In 2016, Brunswick’s Medina County reported 20 opioid-related deaths. Stec presided over six funerals of those victims in a short span. While sharing parishioners’ grief, Stec resolved to combat the opioid epidemic and founded a multifaith coalition of northeast Ohio religious leaders.
Stec is grateful that Brunswick has better-than-average mental health services. But he and his fellow priests in drug-ravaged towns still employ a triage policy, seeking help for the most dire cases, because they can’t provide comprehensive support to every affected parishioner.
“We weren’t trained for this in the seminary,” he said.
Still the priests treasure their jobs despite the challenges. Mark Stelzer holds onto his role as a comforter. “For a lot of people, I’m the last person they saw while they were still alive,” he said. “There’s an energy and grace in those moments.”
Two high-profile Catholic thought leaders duked it out last week in a debate over the five-year legacy of Pope Francis — and what his papacy means for a church in crisis.
Longtime intellectual rivals Villanova professor Massimo Faggioli and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat engaged in a conversation on Pope Francis, hosted by Fordham University in New York. The debate ultimately developed into a far broader question: How far should the church change in dialogue with modern sexual ethics when it comes to issues like women priests, divorce, abortion, and same-sex marriage?
And — perhaps even more importantly — the conversation turned broader still, as both participants asked if change should be seen as a theologically necessary part of the Catholic tradition.
Faggioli, a self-professed liberal Catholic, and Douthat, a conservative, have long expressed differing views on Francis’s papacy, and on the trajectory of the Catholic Church more generally through bold rhetoric on Twitter.
Since the beginning of Francis’s time as pope, much secular media attention has focused on what, to non-Catholics, have appeared to be relaxed stances on usually taboo issues for Catholics. Francis’s papacy, while changing little in terms of Catholic doctrine, has nevertheless made welcoming those who fail to follow that doctrine (whether on abortion, LGBTQ issues, or divorce) into the Catholic community a priority.
For example, Francis opened a temporary window for women who have had abortions to seek forgiveness from the church in 2015. One of his most famous early statements may have been asking “Who am I to judge?” when it comes to homosexuality, although Francis has elsewhere maintained traditional Catholic doctrine.
Douthat, a Catholic convert, has frequently been critical of what he deems Francis’s divisive tactics, including using unofficial or “leaked” communications to the media to informally express more controversial views. He also opposes a willingness to, in his view, upend church tradition for the sake of pacifying liberal attitudes and retaining church membership.
For his part, Faggioli, an admirer of the Francis pontificate, has frequently condemned Douthat as an intellectual dilettante, criticizing his lack of formal theological training and what he sees as Douthat’s partisan perspective on church issues.
Their personal disagreement masks a wider debate, not simply between “liberal” and “conservative” Catholics, or between “progressives” who want to change the church to fit contemporary cultural mores and “traditionalists” who want to preserve the church exactly as it was.
It’s a debate between those who see a degree of dynamism as already part and parcel of what it means to be Catholic, and those who see it as an exterior, dangerous force.
The debate on Francis is also a debate on the aftermath of Vatican II
Although Faggioli and Douthat’s debate was about the pope, it wasn’t just about the pope. Central to their disagreements were their perceptions of the effects of Vatican II (formally known as the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965), which explored if and how the church should adapt to a changing world.
At that point, Catholics the world over were still responding to the aftermath of World War II, and the Holocaust in particular, leading some Catholics to question the language and tone with which the church approached interfaith issues.
Those changes under Vatican II included an increased focus on ecumenical relations, and on Catholic-Jewish relations. But the relative liberalization of Vatican II (for example, eschewing Latin during Mass) has often been seen by later critics as paving the way for an acceptance of more extreme elements of “modernity,” such as the sexual revolution. That movement challenged the formal Vatican positions on abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, divorce, and premarital sex more generally.
Official church doctrine has never changed on any of these positions (nor, should it be noted, has even the “liberal” Pope Francis ever sought to change them).
Still, the “spirit of Vatican II,” or its overall ecumenical ethos, is cited by proponents and critics alike to refer to post-Vatican-II liberalizing tendencies that exceed the remit of Vatican II’s more narrow reforms. To Vatican II’s critics, a broad definition of this spirit is responsible for a more general “liberalization” in the church.
The subsequent half-century or so of the Catholic Church has been marked by various popes’ differing responses to and reckoning with Vatican II, its spirit, and the question of what “moving forward” even means within a Catholic context. That brings us to the current debate — last week’s and among Catholics in general — around Pope Francis’s somewhat lax views.
Faggioli and Douthat’s debate reflected broader divides
Douthat, a perhaps more natural debater, took a more aggressive approach, referring to a coming “schism” and a “civil war” in the church, and saying that Francis’s approach risked fomenting a “crisis of papal authority itself.”
Speaking specifically about Francis’s opening to providing communion to remarried couples, Douthat warned that, by relaxing rules around communion, Francis risked promulgating the idea that “the papacy allows for changes around these contested issues of sexual ethic,” and thus challenging the idea — central to Catholic theology — that the church’s continuity on issues remains unchanged.
Faggioli, though, rejected Douthat’s very premise. Focusing on continuity as a metric for a “good” pope, he says, and “looking at Catholic doctrine in terms of continuity or discontinuity, in my mind, assumes one thing: that Christianity, at some point … was complete.”
Furthermore, Faggioli said his assessment of Francis’s perspective centered not on doctrine but on pastoral care. The church need not change its teachings, he said, but rather ask itself, “What can the Catholic Church do to make the faithful able to receive sacraments?”
For Douthat, Pope Francis represents a break with tradition so profound that it risks rendering a fundamental principle of Catholic thought irrelevant: the idea that the church exists in continuity with its past traditions and perspectives.
Citing the case of allowing parish priests license to grant communion to remarried Catholics, which Francis has quietly campaigned for, Douthat argued that such a procedure would, in practice, vitiate the church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage (because, in Catholic tradition, marriage is seen as an irreversible sacrament between the couple and God, divorce is not seen as legitimate).
It is, for Douthat and other Catholic conservatives, a back-door form of Catholic-sanctioned divorce. By advocating for it and similar reforms, Francis, in Douthat’s view, represents a dangerous figure for the church: one too willing to cede ground to modern liberalism.
Faggioli, though, argued that Douthat’s perspective — of “continuity” and “discontinuity” within church tradition — was flawed and ahistoric. He pointed out that Francis is not seeking to allow divorce — something that would be a striking change in church teaching — but only advocating that divorced and remarried couples be allowed to receive the sacrament of communion — and thus participate fully in church life.
Instead, Faggioli said, Douthat’s view failed to reflect the way in which Catholic tradition has long existed in dialogue with itself, and how interpretations of Scripture have consistently grown and developed over time. The Catholic tradition, Faggioli said, “is not a mineral, it’s an animal. It moves. It adapts. It grows.”
Decades after Vatican II, the church faces demographic and social upheaval
While Douthat and Faggioli differ on the degree to which the Catholic Church is in danger, it’s fair to argue that it is — if not in crisis — at least in flux.
Decades of sex abuse scandals have eroded public trust in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Mass attendance has drastically fallen in America and Europe, especially among young adults. There is an increasingly severe shortage of Catholic priests. And the face of Catholicism is changing, too. Catholicism is in decline in Western Europe and America, but drastically on the rise in Africa. Like it or not, the church is changing in demographics if not doctrine.
But the question remains: Where do we go from here?
The debaters’ differing perspectives may be as attributable to their methods as their politics. Douthat’s interest lies in the church as an institution; the questions he asks focus on that institution’s survival and transformation.
In many of his columns, as well as in his forthcoming book, To Change the Church?, Douthat approaches the church as a political scientist might, looking at how different conservative or modernizing factions have jockeyed for support and survival. His questions of “continuity” and “discontinuity” are questions one asks of an institution, rather than a faith.
Douthat comes to the study of the church as a zealous outsider, and that perspective — one that tends to see the church as a holistic, uniform body that, while sometimes under temporary threat, nevertheless remains intact — suffuses his work. That Francis seems to endanger that perceived unity makes him a threat.
Frequently during the debate, Douthat warned of the potential of a schism within the Catholic Church as a result of Francis’s developments: “Things can break … there is a deep conflict.”
Faggioli, however, is both a church historian and a trained theologian, whose concern is both with the church as an institution and with theology as a living, dynamic body of discourse, constantly being shaped by new questions and voices both inside and outside the academy.
As a theologian, he appears more comfortable with the often-murky process by which the exploration of ideas — theological debate — becomes calcified into church doctrine, and the way in which these ideas morph and change over time. Rather than arguing whether or not the church should adapt to shifting culture, he argued that a degree of dynamism is part and parcel of church tradition and always has been.
The Catholic Church’s priority should be on finding ways for the faithful to remain within the church, not expelling those who do not follow its teachings, he says. (And it’s important to stress, in this debate, neither Faggioli nor Francis is necessarily saying that its teachings should change. Faggioli’s point is about access, not ideas).
Both Douthat and Faggioli ask vital questions. And Douthat’s challenge — how does an institution address cultural change without losing its founding principles — is completely valid. Any answer that does not take seriously that for faithful Catholics, the doctrine being debated is a matter of weighty metaphysical truth, not just politics or optics, fails to appreciate the gravity of the question being asked.
Faggioli’s response — that “in order to get close to Jesus, there has to be some kind of discontinuity” — may provide “liberal” Catholics a viable alternative to Douthat’s reactionary historicism, and a way forward for a church that is both weighed down and grounded by its past.