Father Does Not Know Best: How To Fix the Catholic Church

Recent revelations of widespread sexual abuse by priests and cover-ups by bishops in Europe, as well as the abuse of deaf children in the United States, are signs of the implosion of Roman Catholicism. The price has been incalculable in human terms. A flatter, rounder, more inclusive community is the only possible way forward.

Allegations that Pope Benedict XVI acted with the same impunity as other bishops in the failure to brings perpetrators of abuse to justice, and instead protected the institutional church’s reputation by secrecy, add up to the need for substantive structural change in Catholicism. Simply changing those in leadership, even adding women to a hopelessly flawed structure, will not be sufficient. A new, horizontal model of church led by teams of competent ministers who are accountable to local and wider communities is the best way to assure that these scandalous, damaging practices are ended.

The details of the clergy sexual and physical abuse of children make clear that the crimes that went on for decades were not done by a few bad apples who spoiled the bushel, as Vatican officials have long insisted about the perpetrators. Rather, what comes into sharper and sharper focus with each new hideous revelation is that the hierarchical model of the Church, with absolute authority vested in a few individuals at each step up the ladder (a priest in his parish, a bishop in his diocese, a pope in Rome) is in and of itself a danger zone. Human organizations, especially religious ones, need more checks and balances to assure that those who have unfettered access to the young and privileged relationships with the spiritually vulnerable are monitored. Helping professions have codes of conduct, professional associations, and other means of making sure their practitioners are on the up and up. Roman Catholicism needs the same. It will never happen without structural changes.

Here’s How it Works…

The clerical culture that arises from and permeates the Roman Catholic Church is a key part of the noxious mix in which hundreds of thousands of people around the world were victimized by their religious leaders. Jim Jones and his followers look like kids at camp by comparison. Here is how it works.

A boy (not a girl, mind you) goes to seminary to become a priest. He is hot-housed in an all-male environment often from an early age. He is taught to respect and follow the dictates of his professors. He is expected to swallow the theology they spoon-feed him even if it flies in the face of reason and experience—as much of official Catholic theology of sexuality does. He is rewarded for such behavior by the same clergy who decide whether he is “fit matter” for ordination. He is judged whether he is compliant enough to be part of the “collegium” into which he will be welcomed as a priest, that is, whether he is trustworthy enough to play the clerical game. He is well advised to follow the program, conform to the norms, and do what he is told if he wishes to be successful; which is defined as being ordained, made a pastor, or sent on for further study, and eventually becoming a reliable colleague in a closed circle that continues to indoctrinate the next generation of clergy. This mindset is formed early and reinforced throughout a priest’s career.

Priesthood is a male-only society where those who are higher in rank judge those who are below them. No one else’s judgment matters—not lay colleagues, not women, not other ministry professionals, and certainly not the parishioners. Catholic clergy belong to a small, shrinking, and exclusive club. Many socialize with one another, vacation together, sometimes date each other. They project a holiness and piety that may or may not correspond with reality. They are also the object of plenty of projections.

Lay people, including all sisters or nuns, are entirely outside of and considered below the clergy in ecclesial status. Until very recently, most high-level jobs in a diocese were reserved for clergy. For example, personal secretaries of bishops were often priests who were schooled in the ways of the system and in turn rewarded for behaving according to the rules. It is obvious how in such a system of collusion and cover-up of illegal behavior was easy to pull off, unquestioned by those who had been taught it was business as usual.

Creeping Infallibility

Two Roman Catholic theological confusions make the problems even more complex. One is the notion of secrecy and the other is a misunderstanding of infallibility. There is a culture of secrecy in Catholicism that is rooted in the “seal of the confessional.” That means that when a Catholic confesses a sin to a priest in the Sacrament of Reconciliation the priest is bound by Canon Law not to reveal the content of that sin under any circumstances. This is meant to assure the confidentiality of the sacramental process. Violations of the seal are taken seriously. However, in the case of criminal activity, the confessor is allowed (one would hope morally compelled) to encourage the penitent to turn him/herself in to civil authorities. Since chances of that are nil in most cases, it does not happen.

In clerical circles, the confessor is only one person in a wide network of colleagues, many of whom know about offenses and would not break the seal by reporting a perpetrator. But instead of this happening, there is a mistaken extension of the “seal of the confessional” to other authorities in the same system who assume for a variety of wrong reasons—the good of the institution, the prevention of scandal, the hope that the perpetrator will rehabilitate himself, and so on ad nauseum—that secrecy is the way forward. This is a theological error that needs immediate correction.

Another piece of the problem is the dogma of papal infallibility. This is a technical theological matter declared in 1870. In essence, it means that when the pope promulgates a teaching to the whole church on matters of faith or morals claimed to be based in divine revelation, the teaching is free of errors. Thankfully, this convoluted reductionistic approach is not invoked often.

However, the mere idea of papal infallibility has been enough to make many people think: a) the pope does not make mistakes, b) everything the pope says is right, c) the pope knows best the mind of God. This is referred to as “creeping infallibility,” and it is a disease rampant in Catholicism. Not only is the pope assumed to speak for God and be right, but those down the ladder are grandfathered into the infallible realm. This accounts for a lot of the “Father knows best” thinking so dramatically portrayed in the movie Doubt.

Pyramid v. Pinwheel

Analysis of what went so tragically and devastatingly wrong in Roman Catholicism will take decades to sort out. But the hierarchical structure is an obvious place to start. The Vatican has displayed a strong allergy to liberation theological efforts, especially those in Latin America and among feminists, to replace the pyramid model with a pinwheel, as I have long envisioned it. It is time to dismantle the top-down structure and replace it with networks of local base communities that communicate and cooperate around the world. I realize that this is anathema to those in charge, but it would change both the players and the playing field of ecclesial power. It would involve women, married people, even young people in leadership, and it would decentralize authority. Nothing less will be sufficient to assure the safety of children and the accountability of ministers.

Shorter-term solutions are tempting. It is clear that Pope Benedict XVI should fall on his crosier and resign. A lot of bishops should follow his lead. I am not holding my breath. But the specter of another conclave to elect his successor from the same old tired crowd of cardinal candidates is simply more of the same.

Maureen Dowd’s clever piece in the New York Times calling for “A Nope for Pope”, that is, a nun instead of a priest, is a fresh thought. On reflection, it changes only gender and not structure. Conservative nuns are currently doing the Vatican’s bidding in the Apostolic Visitation of progressive nuns. This makes me dubious about imputing special virtue to women in general, women religious in particular. Besides, nuns are as lay as the rest of us, so why privilege them? How easy it is for even smart columnists to fall into the old mindset! Change does not come easily or quickly.

My counsel is that we name the primary problem as structural—a hierarchy that ends in a sharp point at the top—and go about dismantling it. This doesn’t take any individual off the hook. To the contrary. But it does prevent others from taking their places. Withholding all money from parishes would give the process a jumpstart. Now that the hierarchy has imploded there is plenty of space to socialize the process of being Catholic. The task is clear. It is up to us, the laity and what would be in this model the former clergy, and we are up to it.