An Unholy Holy Week: Is the All-Male Rule of the Roman Catholic Church Self-Destructing?

This week is unprecedented in the two-thousand-year history of the Christian Church. Instead of focusing on the last week of the earthly life of Jesus Christ, Christians are listening to horrific accounts of priestly sexual abuse of children and wondering whether Pope Benedict XVI will take decisive action to cleanse the Church.

Probably he will not. After more than half a century of living and working in an all-male club he just doesn’t get it. His focus has been purity of doctrine, not the purity of those who say Mass and administer the Church.

In the United States, he has approved an ongoing investigation of nuns whose social activism ranges from anti-war activity to challenging the Roman Catholic ban on contraception, married priests, women priests, and acceptance of same-sex relationships. But there’s no investigation of the reasons why widespread sexual activity by priests persists; whether it be child sexual abuse, affairs with parishioners, or “marriages” surrounded by a conspiracy of silence.

In fact, the all-male rule of the Roman Catholic Church is self-destructing. Ordained men, from priests to the Pope, are proving that it wasn’t a good idea to leave Church governance to an old boys’ network. They have been focused on forgiving each other and covering up crimes “to avoid scandal”—that is, to protect each other, their power, and the church’s wealth.

Call No Man Father”

Here’s the good news: women’s long fight to win the right to an equal role in the Roman Catholic Church is being shortened by the mistakes of this male hierarchy. In fact, the once-omnipotent structure is imploding. Like Dorothy finally face to face with the Wizard of Oz, we have looked behind the pomp and procession to find a few confused and pitifully human old men at microphones still trying to send out impressive puffs of smoke.

Within 20-40 years, we will have women priests ordained with the blessing of canon law (not outside canon law as at present). This will happen sooner than previously expected because each act of abuse or cover-up weakens the power of the male hierarchy. Their convoluted reasons for why only men can represent Jesus Christ at the altar are starting to ring hollow.

“Call no man father,” warned Jesus in a passionate diatribe against “those who love the place of honor” and like to be called rabbi or teacher (Matthew 23). “Woe to you!” he repeated, describing the leaders of his day as whitewashed on the outside but inside full of “all kinds of filth.”

In fact, deference to “Father” is at the heart of this mess. Nuns now report not challenging priests when they spent unusual time alone with children. John Conway, supervisor of a vocational rehabilitation program in Wisconsin in the 1970s, heard from deaf men about sexual abuse and collected affidavits, but he trusted Archbishop William F. Cousins to take care of it. Priests where Fr. Peter Hullermann worked in Essen sent him to Munich for treatment and trusted the office of Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger to make sure this predator was not around children. No one challenged the code of deference to those higher up and obedience to the rule of secrecy.

Now we have “the largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in Church history,” declares the National Catholic Reporter in an editorial. The New York Times, which broke the story of abuse at the deaf school in Wisconsin, quotes a priest in Berlin as saying the crisis is “the worst in 100 years or more.”

They Act Like They Don’t Believe in God

It’s not that the faithful are leaving the Church—for the most part, they aren’t. It’s that the hierarchy itself is cracking.

“What I would like to see is actually Christian honest people running the shop,” said Sinead O’Connor, speaking on CNN about her faith as a Catholic woman and the need for governmental change in the Church.

“It seems to me that the Vatican don’t actually believe in God at all. They’re certainly not acting like they believe in a God that watches. A Christian is supposed to ask ‘What would Jesus do?’ and try to do it. Would Jesus have covered up for decades all of this abuse?”

Like many others, O’Connor has chosen not to leave the church but to work for change. Her most dramatic call for change came in 1992 when she tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II as protest against child sexual abuse on Saturday Night Live.

She and others have pinpointed one source of the problem: canon law, which does not require cases of abuse to be reported to the police. Instead, a culture of extreme secrecy has prevailed, codified in Vatican norms issued in 1962 requiring secret investigations and prohibiting any report to civil authorities.

Will Pope Benedict XVI set in motion any change to canon law? Will he step down or ask any complicit bishops to resign? Will he even order a Church-wide investigation?

Unlikely. Instead, his moral authority will continue to erode. The number of priests will continue to dwindle. Catholic women will assume more and more administrative and other posts, and the hypocrisy of refusing to ordain them will become increasingly apparent.

The house of cards will fall.