Overture To Catholics, From an Episcopal Priest

I have no authority whatsoever to speak for my Church, nor would I presume to do so. But as an Episcopal priest, I call on my ecclesiastical superiors to make a special overture to Roman Catholics who are disgruntled by the pedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church; scandals that increasingly point to the complicity of the man in charge of the Vatican, Benedict XVI.

My reference here, of course, is to the declaration last fall by the very same Benedict seeking to lure conservative Anglicans and Episcopalians to the Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican sensed an opening, especially with those Episcopalians (and former Episcopalians) who were still fuming over the consecration of V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as bishop of New Hampshire, the refusal of the Episcopal Church to foreswear same-sex marriages, and the ordination of gays and lesbians and even (still!) the ordination of women.

On October 20, 2009, the Vatican announced a special “Apostolic Constitution” that would welcome these restive Episcopalians and Anglicans into the Catholic Church, allowing them to bring with them some of the glorious liturgies and music of the Anglican tradition.

While I’ve seen no evidence of Anglicans and Episcopalians “swimming the Tiber” en masse (pardon the pun) to Rome, the Vatican’s overture struck me at the time as opportunistic, even cynical. Ignoring decades of ecumenical conversations—not to mention catching the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, off guard—Benedict thought he could harvest disaffected Anglicans into the Roman Catholic Church by offering concessions on liturgy and music together with ironclad proscriptions against such “evils” as homosexuality and women priests.

Now, just five months later, the tables have turned. Every new edition of the New York Times, it seems, carries fresh disclosures about priestly pedophilia in Ireland, Germany, and (most appallingly) at a Catholic school for the deaf in Wisconsin. Sadly enough, priestly pedophilia is old news by now. What’s new, in the opening of court documents that the Vatican sought desperately to suppress, is that the Catholic hierarchy stubbornly refused to deal with these cases in a way that would protect children against further abuse by predatory priests. There’s plenty of blame to go around, it seems—mild slaps on the wrist and reassignment to other venues where the abuse continued. But the finger of blame and complicity points unmistakably to Benedict in his pre-papal responsibilities as Joseph Ratzinger while archbishop of Munich and, later, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

So what do we learn from these developments over the past five months? Consider the evidence. I gather that the lesson from the Vatican is that homosexuality, even on the part of those in loving, committed relationships, is sin, must be exposed to the light of day for its shamefulness and must never be countenanced. It’s okay, however, to turn a blind eye to pedophile priests, to reassign them quietly to do harm elsewhere or simply to ignore the problem.

I’ll take my Episcopal Church, warts and all, any day.

Last October, the Vatican offered disgruntled Anglicans and Episcopalians the opportunity to bring their music and liturgy with them to Rome. I’m not sure what we can offer disaffected Roman Catholics—except for the honesty and the integrity of facing difficult issues and asking vexing questions, such as sexual identity in relation to the New Testament mandate of love. Not everyone will agree with the answers we choose, but I’m proud to be associated with a Church willing to address those questions.

And for anyone ready to swim the Tiber in the other direction, you’re welcome in my parish anytime.

randall.balmer@dartmouth.edu'

Randall Balmer, Mandel Family Professor in the Arts & Sciences at Dartmouth College, is the author of a dozen books, including The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond and Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America. He wrote, produced and hosted a PBS documentary on Billy Graham, Crusade: The Life of Billy Graham.

 

  • Cat Steppings

    Has no one commented on this article?
    I am seriously looking into the Episcopal church. As a Catholic, the “scandals” (to put it extremely politely) have been the main cause for me to question the Church and it’s teachings. I have disagreed for years with their doctrines that we’re supposed to follow, esp. contraception, human sexuality, and the pope’s infallibility, among other things, but most Catholics do. And growing up, I really didn’t know the beliefs fully, or what they were, or cared. We had sunday school of course, but it was mostly in one ear out the other. I just liked believing in God, going to Mass, youth groups and activities. My family is Catholic on my mom’s side (but not devout or strict, mostly ‘guilty-lapsed-Catholic’) and my Dad’s family was Presbyterian (or something), but he doesn’t practice religion at all.

    So, I was born Catholic, fell away to “lapsed” status in 2004 in my ’20′s, practiced no religion, came back around 2009, became lapsed again around 2011-12, became atheist, and now I’ve come back to the Bible, and looking into the Episcopal Church. In reading the bible, I realize I need to join a faith community, I don’t believe in new age ‘solo religion’, and the Bible is confusing on yer own. From what I have read about the Episcopal church, it’s liturgy is similar to roman catholic, which is a draw. And the importance of serious worship, prayer and reflection.

    I really think being involved in a spiritual community is healthy, and some people just need to believe in God, and I feel like I am one of those people ( i didn’t like atheism). I just think the Catholic Church’s way of approaching the bible, and expecting belief in the Catholic Church/tradition equal to that of Jesus is not right.

    I think when you are born into the Catholic church, you feel like it’s the only path to God (it get’s so ingrained ’cause they get you at the cradle). So you don’t explore other denominations when your belief in the Church falls away, or you confuse “loss of faith in the Church” with “loss of faith in God”, which is why so many ex-Catholics just become atheists. Adding to the problem, is the church’s insistence at calling itself the ‘one, true church’, the only church that has ‘the truth’. So Catholics that don;t believe in the Church anymore, naturally figure “What’s the point of going to another denomination, if this is the only one true church? ” I’ve been like that, but now I am open to other denominations.

  • Joan59

    Thanks for the invitation, but I tried that awhile ago. Unfortunately this is a conservative area and the Episcopals are stuck in gatekeeping for high status members. I even tried a small church with a female priest. I thought my search was over, but my social phobia made them uncomfortable. Not nearly as uncomfortable as I became. What a cold bunch.
    It was quite a painful awakening, realizing that mostly churches mirror the values of the society around them.
    Yes, they do nice things in the community, and their progressive values matched mine, albeit they are blind to class issues. It’s just the usual matter of fitting into a social mold, and if I wanted that agony I would join a country club.
    But, hey, that’s my problem not theirs. I left the RCC decades ago, and before I concluded that a person takes the church within her when she leaves, I sought for a substitute of sort. Someday when I retire, and getting out is easier, I may try again, but this time without expectations of finding a spiriual community.
    The only community in this world that is real is our deep commuity with the All, the only cathedral I want is a forest, and the only company its creatures and the words of men and women across the years who write from profound solitude.

  • Joan59

    You will likely find a happy home with the Episcopal Church, with the spiritual nourishment you are looking for, and it won’t feel totally alien to your positive spiritual experiences. There are a lot of great spiritual writers from the Episcopal tradition, along with some Catholic theologians whose works were criticized by the RCC. The Episcopals often sponsor very interesting and informative workshops.