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.