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The Story Behind the Catholic Church’s Stunning Reversal on Contraception
Or: A Short History of Sex and Contraception in the Catholic Church
Years later, when the remembrance of so many other things had faded, the memory still remained crisp in her mind. She saw herself lying in the hospital bed, bleeding, writhing in agony. She remembered clawing at the curtain surrounding the bed, trying get help, certain she was going to die. Finally she managed to cry out, “God dammit, I can’t die. I have five children.”
Her cries roused her roommate, who summoned a doctor. The doctor managed to staunch the bleeding from the hematoma that had resulted from the birth of her fifth child. It was not an unexpected complication. She had hemorrhaged after giving birth to her fourth child. The doctors had warned her against any more pregnancies, but she was a devout Catholic and the church said that using birth control was a sin. So another pregnancy had followed quickly on the heels of the last, and a little over a year later she was again in danger of dying and leaving her children motherless. As she lay helpless on her bed, Jane Furlong-Cahill made a decision. “I decided that the pope can have all the kids he wanted. I was through,” she said.
After that she used the Pill, which had only just become available, and eventually she got a tubal ligation to permanently end her childbearing ability. It was a controversial choice for a Catholic woman in 1964, but especially so for Cahill, who was one of the first women formally trained in Roman Catholic theology and knew that the church made no exception to its teaching that Catholics could never use artificial methods of contraception. The only acceptable form of birth control for Catholics, both then and now, is natural family planning, which relies on calculating a women’s infertile period during her menstrual cycle and only having sex on those days. The “rhythm method,” as natural family planning was called in the early 1960s, was notoriously unreliable, however, which made it a poor option for women like Cahill who really, really didn’t want another child.
The Catholic Church’s absolute ban on modern methods of contraception is inextricably linked to its views on sex and marriage. The church fathers who laid out the founding doctrine of the religion were always squeamish about the idea of sexual intercourse; they considered chastity a holier state. But at the same time, they recognized that it was neither possible nor practical to suggest that most people abstain from sex. Corralling sex within marriage was better than unbridled fornication. Hence, it was “better to marry than to burn with passion,” according to the apostle Paul.
But even within marriage, the Christian fathers’ acceptance of sex was grudging. Influenced by the Stoics, they looked to nature to determine the purpose and moral limits of bodily functions like sex. Therefore, sex within marriage was only moral if it was used for its “natural” purpose of procreation. They taught that Christians were not to have sex for pleasure or when pregnancy was impossible, such as when a woman was already pregnant. The belief that procreation sanctified sex automatically excluded the possibility of using withdrawal, contraceptive potions, or crude devices—all of which were common and widely used in the early Christian world—to frustrate conception.
The first formal theological condemnation of contraception was made by St. Augustine in the early 400s, when he declared that it is “a procreative purpose which makes good an act in which lust is present” and that married people who contracept “are not married.” It was a proclamation that would guide Catholic thinking about contraception for the next 1,500 years as the Augustinian doctrine was gradually codified by the church.
In 590, Pope Gregory the Great decreed that married couples who mixed pleasure with procreation in sexual intercourse “transgressed the law.” The first church legislation forbidding contraception appeared in the 600s in a canon that specified a penance of ten years for any woman who took “steps so that she may not conceive.” The church’s reaction to the distinctly non-procreative ethic of courtly love in medieval Europe and Catharism, a Christian sect that rejected the Catholic sacraments, including marriage, further hardened its insistence on the procreative purpose of sex. By 1400, Augustine’s doctrine on contraception was the rule within the church.
Despite its longevity, Cahill wasn’t the only Catholic woman questioning the teaching on birth control. In 1964, another budding theologian named Rosemary Radford Ruether published an article entitled “A Catholic Mother Tells: ‘Why I Believe in Birth Control’” in the Saturday Evening Post, bringing the issue straight into the living rooms of Main Street America.
Ruether took the church to task for failing to acknowledge that in modern marriages couples didn’t have sex just for the purpose of having children. She also revealed what many Catholic couples were saying privately: the rhythm method not only didn’t work, but put extraordinary strain on otherwise happy marriages. “A man and a wife may follow all the current methods for predicting the time of ovulation, they may be armed with an arsenal of slide rules, thermometers, glucose tests, they may abstain for the proscribed period with dogged perseverance, and they may still find that the method has failed. . . . The rhythm method keeps couples in a constant state of tension and insecurity,” she wrote.
Ruether, who was just embarking on a promising career as a theologian and already had three young children, wrote of her own failure with the method and the desperation of other women who found themselves pregnant when they didn’t want to be, including a friend who was in despair after finding herself pregnant for the sixth time in seven years. Like many women of her day, Ruether realized that controlling her fertility with a fairly high degree of certainty was essential to her ability to steer her own life. “I see very clearly that I cannot entrust my destiny just to biological chance. As a woman who is trying to create a happy balance of work and family, I know effective family planning is essential. A woman who cannot control her own fertility, who must remain vulnerable to chance conception, is a woman who cannot hope to be much more than a baby-machine,” she wrote.
Cahill and Ruether were not alone in concluding that the church’s dictum on contraception was an anachronism. Catholic theologians and bishops were also suggesting it was time to revisit the teaching. Two developments spurred their willingness to question the ban. One was a change in how the church viewed the purpose of marital sex. The church had held since Augustine’s time that the primary purpose of sex within marriage was procreation. But gradually a more positive view of sex crept in that allowed that pleasure and the expression of conjugal love could be part of the equation. In 1951, Pope Pius XII formally admitted that it was okay for married couples to enjoy sex: “In seeking and enjoying this pleasure, therefore, couples do nothing wrong.”
The church’s view of marriage was evolving in tandem. Increasingly it viewed marriage as having two ends: procreation and the “ontological completion of the person” within the union of marriage. This meant that many of the old prohibitions against “sterile” sex within marriage—that is, sex that could not produce offspring—such as sex during pregnancy, no longer held. If some limited forms of non-procreative sex within marriage were now considered licit and sex was acknowledged to have more than one purpose in marriage, this raised the question of whether in general each and every act of intercourse within marriage necessarily had to be procreative.
The second reason many theologians believed that the church could approve modern contraceptives was because it had already approved the idea of family planning when it approved the rhythm method. As Ruether noted in her Saturday Evening Post article, the church’s distinction between “natural” family planning and contraceptives was “theologically meaningless.”
The church’s incongruence on the issue of family planning dated back to 1930 and the papal encyclical Casti Connubi (On Christian Marriage), which was written to address the growing acceptance of birth control throughout the Western world. The tipping point was reached in 1930, when the Anglican Church officially approved the use of birth control by married couples. Other Protestant denominations soon followed, signaling that contraceptives had gained moral and social legitimacy. The Catholic Church had to respond. On the very last day of 1930, Pope Pius XI issued Casti connubii, in which he firmly restated the absolute Augustinian prohibition on contraception and denounced the idea that the primary purpose of marriage was anything other than producing and raising children. He condemned contraception as “base and intrinsically indecent” and said that it “violates the law of God and nature, and those who do such a thing are stained by a grave and mortal flaw.”
The encyclical was read to ban all known forms of contraception: withdrawal, the use of condoms or diaphragms, douching after intercourse, and folk contraceptive potions. However, the pope appeared to give approval to a birth control method that had been rattling around since the ancient Greeks but had seen a spike in interest since the discovery of female ovulation in the mid-1800s: timing sexual intercourse to coincide with a woman’s naturally occurring sterile period. The method had limited practical application at the time because science had yet to figure out exactly when during the menstrual cycle women ovulated.
But all that changed in the early 1930s when scientists finally determined when ovulation typically occurred, allowing for the development of the rhythm method. It was far from perfect, but it did offer a way to at least slow the growth of a family without resorting to contraceptives. The Vatican earlier had indicated preliminary acceptance of rhythm, but growing interest in the method elevated the question of whether it was acceptable under Catholic doctrine to a pressing theological concern.
The question was not definitively answered until 1951 by Pope Pius XI’s successor, Pius XII. In an address to the Italian Catholic Society of Midwives, he declared that the “observance of the sterile period can be licit” if done for serious reasons. He said, however, that serious indications for limiting births included “medical, eugenic, economic, and social” reasons, which went far beyond the reasons traditionally accepted by even the most liberal of Catholic theologians for refraining from sex to limit family size: extreme poverty or a serious threat to the woman’s health. In doing so he gave the Catholic Church’s stamp of approval to the idea of couples purposely manipulating the size of their family for the sake of the family’s overall well-being.
So by 1960 the church had made three key admissions: that sexual intercourse within marriage played a role that was not limited to procreation; that it was acceptable to limit family size for a number of reasons; and that it was licit to use the naturally occurring sterile period to do so. Enter Catholic physician John Rock. By designing a contraceptive that used hormones already present in a woman’s body to mimic the natural infertility of a pregnant woman, he hoped the Vatican would find a theological basis to approve the method.
In 1958, when the Pill was already being tested on human populations, Pius XII said its use would be acceptable “as a necessary remedy because of a disease of the uterus or the organism” even if it had the secondary effect of causing sterility. This meant women could use the Pill to treat painful periods or excessive bleeding, which became a popular early theological work-around for Catholic women who wanted to use it.
Theologians also speculated that the Pill could be used to regulate irregular menstrual periods to make the rhythm method work more effectively. Of course, that raised the question why not just permit the use of the Pill?
The debate over contraception emerged as the major issue facing the Catholic Church. Popular publications wrote about the “Catholic Revolution” and the “Growing Unrest in the Catholic Church” as the controversy became the subject of widespread discussion. In 1963, Pope John XXIII, who had succeeded Pius XII, appointed a commission that would eventually comprise fifty-five members, including five married Catholic women, theologians, priests, and physicians, to study the question of whether the church’s teaching on artificial contraception should be changed. There is some indication that he created the commission as a way to isolate the incendiary issue of birth control from the Vatican II proceedings, which were already dealing with a number of controversial doctrinal issues, and had no real intention of changing the policy on birth control.
Originally there were no lay members on the commission, but when they were added they were all married Catholic couples drawn from conservative Catholic family organizations who could be expected to mirror the hierarchy’s position on contraception. The commission studied Catholic teachings on contraception and marriage and heard from its lay members on the realities of using the rhythm method. Contrary to the assertions of the hierarchy that the rhythm method, with its continual obsession with fertile periods and the timing of sexual intercourse, was a way to bring couples closer together and strengthen marriages, they heard that it stressed marriages and drove couples apart.
They also heard from the women on the commission about the importance of sex in marriage beyond procreation and the burdens of repeated or poorly timed pregnancies. After a series of hearings, the commission voted overwhelmingly to recommend that the ban against artificial means of birth control be lifted. After all, the church had accepted the idea of birth control, so why not give couples a better way to practice it if it would strengthen marriages and families?
Unhappy with the direction of the commission, the Vatican packed the last commission meetings with fifteen bishops to formulate the final recommendation to the pope. But even the bishops voted nine to three (three abstained from voting) to change the teaching, concluding that the popes’ previous teaching on birth control were not infallible and that the traditional theological basis for the prohibition of contraception was invalid. They declared that responsible parenthood was an essential part of modern marriage and that the morality of sexual acts between married couples was not dependent “upon the direct fecundity of each and every particular act” but must be viewed within the totality of the marriage relationship.
Despite the commission’s years of work and theologically unassailable conclusion that the church’s teaching on birth control was neither infallible nor irreversible, Pope Paul VI stunned the world on July 29, 1968, when he reaffirmed the church’s ban on modern contraceptives in Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life). He declared that “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.”
The pope had deferred to a dissenting minority report prepared by four conservative theologian priests on the commission that maintained contraception was a “sin against nature” and a “shameful and intrinsically vicious act.” These theologians said that church could not change its teaching on birth control because admitting the church had been wrong about the issue for centuries would raise questions about the moral authority of the pope, especially on matters of sexuality, and the belief that the Holy Spirit guided his pronouncements. “The Church cannot change her answer because this answer is true. . . . It is true because the Catholic Church, instituted by Christ . . . could not have so wrongly erred during all those centuries of its history,” they wrote.
As one of the conservative theologians famously asked one of the female members of the commission, what would happen to “the millions we have sent to hell” for using contraception if the teaching were suddenly changed?
But another reason lurked behind the official explanation about why the teaching could not be changed: maintaining the link between sex and procreation was essential to the maintenance of the traditional, subordinate role of women. Maintaining the traditional family, in which men were leaders in the world outside the home and women were confined to the domestic realm by the demands of young children and repeated pregnancies, was a key concern of the Catholic Church. In the mid-1950s the Catholic bishops made headlines when they condemned married working mothers for deserting their children and helping to destroy the home. Allowing women to regulate their fertility was dangerous to what the church considered the natural order of things: women as receptors of God’s will as expressed through the acceptance of pregnancy.
Stanislas De Lestapis, a Jesuit sociologist who was one of the four authors of the minority report, first warned against what he termed the “contraceptive mentality” a couple of years earlier in his 1961 book, Family Planning. He said allowing women the freedom to regulate when they got pregnant would lead to a decline in women’s maternal instinct and a hostility toward children, increased female promiscuity, and “confusion between the sexes.”
Humanae Vitae came as a shock to Catholics, who had seen other aspects of the church—like the Latin mass and the teaching that Catholicism was the only road to salvation—change as a result of Vatican II and widely expected the contraception ban to be lifted. It seemed that the church was perfectly willing to evolve doctrine—except when it affected women.
The day following the encyclical’s release, eighty-seven leading Catholic theologians released a statement condemning it, saying it relied on outmoded conceptions of papal authority and natural law. They said the encyclical was not infallible and because it was “common teaching in the Church that Catholics may dissent from authoritative teachings of the magisterium when sufficient reasons for doing so exist,” Catholics couples “may reasonably decide according to their conscience that artificial contraception in some circumstances is permissible.”
The outcry over Humanae Vitae only further reinforced the belief of Catholic feminists that the church’s teaching regarding sexuality had little to do with theology. To Ruether and Cahill it was just one more piece of evidence that nothing would change in the church unless women made their voices heard. Eventually these pioneering women would bring their work to bear in an area that no one in the church was talking about: abortion.
On Carrying a Scandal Biblically
Perhaps it might more aptly be entitled: “From being scandalized to helping to carry a scandal biblically.”
By Ronald Rolheiser, OMI
I begin with an apology: Clerical sexual abuse is a difficult subject for all of us. It’s a topic that’s full of pain and anger. Moreover, there isn’t just one anger here. The anger is multiple: Victims are angry with perpetrators, priests are angry with their bishops, bishops are angry with the press, Catholics are angry at their church, and a large body of church-goers aren’t sure who to be angry at … and, I suspect, by the time I’m finished with this presentation many of you will be angry at me.
I want to do three things in this presentation: First, talk about this as a crisis for the church, particularly for the American church; then give some necessary clinical information on the disease of paedophilia; and finally, talk about what it means to carry something biblically. THE CRISIS ITSELF …
For the church in the United States, and to a certain extent for the Canadian church, this is probably the biggest crisis of credibility we have ever faced. Analysts point out that it’s not really a crisis of faith so much as a crisis of credibility, a massive crisis of credibility for young church.
The Catholic Church is 2,000 years old, but many of us grew up in a church that’s less than 100 years old. The Catholic Church in North America is an immigrant church and it’s still a very, very young church. By and large too, it’s had a wonderful history, with the situation in Quebec being a little exceptional because the church there had some features an established religion; but the rest of North America Catholicism came in with the immigrants, and it came in from where Christianity is supposed to come in – the bottom. For the most part, until this crisis came along, Roman Catholicism in North America enjoyed a wonderful history of trust with its people.
And then this scandal comes along, creating the biggest crisis of soul and crisis of credibility that the North American church has faced in its young history. This is, in effect, a “dark night of the soul” for us and, like most dark nights of the soul, wounds expectedly and at a particularly vulnerable part of ourselves. When you read the literature on nights of the soul by the great mystics, you see that a dark night of the soul almost always hits you in the achilles heel, as a surprise, where you are most tender and unprotected. That’s true too for this scandal. The whole issue of sexuality, and not just inside the church, is one of those vulnerable spots. Society likes to pretend sex is not an issue, but it’s a massive issue within every culture and every psyche.
Sex, anthropology assures us, is next to our instinct for breathing, the most powerful thing on the planet. It hasn’t worked itself out really well anywhere. Although it hasn’t done all that badly either, because it’s produced all of us and through it God has kept the human race going, no minor achievement. However, all of that notwithstanding, it is easy to be scandalized, especially religiously, when sexual issues are involved.
PAEDOPHILIA AS A DISEASE …
There’s a lot of misunderstanding about the disease of paedophilia. We need to highlight its prevalence in our culture, the nature of it as a disease, the utter devastation it does to its victims, and the needs of genuine victims.
First, some stunning numbers about it’s prevalence: It’s very important to name this so as to contextualize the crisis we are in. Though these numbers pertain to North America, I suspect it isn’t very different in other parts of the world. This is painful to say but, in North America, one out of every four or five persons, girls and boys, comes to adulthood scarred, having been violated sexually, in either a major, traumatic way or in some minor way (though it’s rare that the violation is minor because by its nature all sexual abuse is serious.) In terms of an image, this is what it means: In every fourth or fifth house [statistically] in the Western world, there is some kind of sexual abuse happening. It’s important to keep that in mind because (and I’m not trying to excuse priests and the church officials) sexual abuse is a massive problem in the culture at large.
Because of the way the issue has constellated, it’s too easy for us to identify the word paedophilia simplistically with priests and with the bishops’ less-than-stellar history of handling its clergy who are accused of it. That’s not to excuse priests, but contextualizing this in terms of its prevalence in the culture keeps us aware that priests are less than .01 per-cent of this massive problem. In fact, statistically, this disease is marginally lower among the clergy and vowed religious than it is among the population at large.
Moreover, paedophilia is not a celibate disease, not a gay disease, not a married disease, not a man’s disease, nor a woman’s disease. It’s a disease, pure and simple, and, like alcoholism, it cuts across all boundaries, affecting alike clergy and lay, men and women, gay and straight, married and celibate. Like alcohol, it plays no favourites. It’s a sickness and not a question of somebody who is celibate not having proper willpower or of somebody who doesn’t have sex acting out because of that deprivation.
A comparison can be made to alcoholism: If we could roll the clock back 60 or 70 years, we would see that society then had no understanding of alcoholism as a disease. It naively thought that the problem was simply a failure of willpower: “Why don’t they just stop drinking?”
Now we recognize that it’s a sickness and must be understood and treated as such. This naive understanding of the nature of the disease is one of the reasons bishops made some mistakes early on. Unaware of the real and deep nature of this as an illness, they believed the perpetrator when he said, “I’ll never do it again.” The perpetrator was sincere in saying that and they were sincere in believing it, but, as we know now, that’s not a responsible statement and there’s a dangerous naivete in believing it because in most cases there’s little chance that the paedophile is not going to do it again.
What causes paedophilia? While there is now division over a former axiom that held that “every abuser was first abused”, everyone agrees that paedophilia is caused by some massive trauma in childhood. In many, perhaps most, cases the perpetrators were themselves sexually abused as children. Whatever the trauma he or she experienced, the consensus is that it was massively deep and this is part of the very nature of the disease. Paedophilia is an awful disease – but something awful has caused it. Every year we learn more about the devastating nature of sexual abuse. It’s the worst kind of “soul-violence” on the planet. Nothing approximates it. And because devastating trauma, especially the trauma of being sexually abused, can be buried so deeply in one’s memory, when perpetrators act out they often bury the memories of their actions equally as deeply, giving them incredible denial mechanisms. I’ve seen a paedophile pass two lie-detector tests in a row. This makes it hard, and in many cases impossible, to treat the disease.
The anatomy of the illness itself helps us to understand it: A paedophile is someone who is attracted to a child who has not yet reached puberty. A normal adult is not sexually attracted to a pre-pubescent child. So why is a paedophile attracted to a child? The literature within this area tells us that a reason for that attraction, perhaps the main reason, is not to do with sex itself but with the trauma the perpetrator experienced as a child, namely, his or her pathological attraction is to the child that was lost in the paedophile’s own early childhood trauma. His or her own trauma killed the child in them. Simplistically put, the pathological sexual attraction to children exists in the paedophile because the paedophile has had his or her own childhood stolen from them.
Finally, and perhaps most important of all, we need to be clear vis-a-vis the effect of sexual abuse on its victim: We may never in any way understate the utter devastation of soul that is caused in the victim of paedophilia. There is no greater form of soul-violence on this planet. Nothing so scars, violates, and unravels the soul – literally pulls it apart – as does sexual abuse. I’ve heard two highly respected psychiatrists say that their hunch is that teenage suicide, which is so rampant in our culture (the second leading cause of death among young people in the Western world) is, 80% of the time, the result of sexual abuse. That’s also true, I suspect, for a lot of adult suicides.
Sexual abuse scars deeply and permanently. A victim I once worked with shared how she had a single incident when she was about eight years old, in a washroom. She was now in her 30s, married, with three children, and at least once a week when she goes into a bathroom she nauseates and throws up. It’s thirty years later and she is still suffering extreme physical reactions. That’s not untypical, but more the norm.
And what do victims want from us?
When victims are asked what we as a church, especially as the official church, can give them, they invariably name several things:
i) An honest acknowledgment that somebody else is sick (which is important for their own healing). Since generally the perpetrator is not going to do that, the bishop, the provincial, the pope, whoever, must do it. Someone who represents the church must say to the victim: “We hurt you, we were wrong, and we are sorry!” There has to be an honest acknowledgment and apology which may not be a rationalization or half-apology.
Today this is made difficult because of legal ramifications. There’s tremendous tension today in the church, in chancery offices and elsewhere, between compassion and the Bible, between what we’re called to do by Jesus and what our lawyers tell us to do. Richard Rohr, in a recent article on this in SOJOURNERS, comments on how, given the state of things, we need too to play the legal game, but we must recognize as well that sometimes this is antithetical to what scripture calls us to do.
The biblical and the legal often work in opposite ways: Legally, you’re innocent until proven guilty, then punishment is administered. Biblically, you admit guilt, are declared innocent, and there is no punishment. Biblically there is forgiveness, but legally things take a very different course. So today it is often very, very difficult to do the biblical thing.
ii) Victims also ask another thing of us: “Don’t be afraid of our anger!” On some previous occasions when I’ve addressed public groups on this topic, I first phoned a number of victims and asked them what they wanted me to say. Always one of their responses was: “Tell them not to be afraid of our anger!” By and large, I don’t think we have heard that.
ON CARRYING A SCANDAL BIBLICALLY …
As Christians we’re asked to carry this scandal biblically. What does that mean? Carrying something biblically means a number of interpenetrating things:
1) Name the moment:
Not everything can be fixed or cured, but it needs to be named properly. Jesus called this “reading the signs of times”. This scandal, this particular time in our history as a Catholic Church in America, is a moment of humiliation, a moment of humbling, a moment of pruning. We must begin the process of healing by clearly, and with courage, naming that – and then not, through an over-defensiveness or personal distancing, try to escape the humiliation and what that calls us to.
2) The call to compassion:
Our faith is biblical. So the question is: What does our biblical tradition ask of us at this moment, in this painful situation? First of all, to radiate the compassion of Christ. That sounds obvious, but, so many times, when we are in crisis the first thing that goes is the compassion and understanding of Christ.
Simply put, we too often end up bracketing the fundamentals because we think that our cause is so great and our indignation so justified that we may disregard some of the essentials of compassion, namely, respect, tolerance, patience, graciousness, and understanding. To carry something biblically means, first of all, to reground ourselves in the non-negotiables of Christian compassion – respect, tolerance, patience, and graciousness. Wild anger, disrespect, bitterness, personal distancing, and viciousness will not help carry this to any kind of meaningful closure.
And our compassion must, first of all, go out to the victim. The cross itself teaches us this. It highlights the excluded one, the one who has been hurt. Empathy must always move first towards the victim.
Usually, though, we are pretty good at this. Empathizing with a victim generally brings with it a good feeling. This crisis, however, asks us to take compassion to anther level: We are asked too to have compassion for the perpetrator because this person was also a victim and he or she is ill … and ill with the most unglamourous of all sicknesses. No sickness is glamorous but most sicknesses don’t have horrific moral connotations to them. It’s easy to be selective in our sympathy, offering our compassion at those places where we feel good and clean when we give it and withholding it from those people and places where we don’t get a good, clean feeling when we offer it. Compassion for the paedophile is, I believe, a biblical test as to the real measure of our compassion: Can we love and offer empathy when our love doesn’t feel (or look) clean?
3) Healing, not self-protection and security.
To carry this scandal biblically means too that healing, not self-protection and security, must be our real preoccupation. Sometimes for bishops, provincials, religious superiors, and church officials there’s a real (and understandable) danger of losing perspective in the face of accusations of sexual abuse. Many times, in fact, we have lost perspective.
In the vortex this crisis, what has to be our primary preoccupation? To protect the innocent and to bring about healing and reconciliation. Everything else (worries about security, lawsuits, and the like) must come afterwards.
Part of this too is how we must understand the role of the media and press in all of this. It’s too easy and too simplistic to blame the media for this crisis. They are not the problem; in fact, they are rendering us, the world and the church, a great service, irrespective of how painful this is. The press are not the villain – Don’t kill the weatherman for reporting bad weather!
Granted that sometimes their coverage hasn’t been fair, but that’s ultimately not the issue. Beneath it all, the substance is true.
4) Carrying this crisis is now our primary ministry and not a distraction to our ministry.
Henri Nouwen used to say, “For years I was upset by distractions in my work until I realized the distractions were my real work!” That is also true for this sexual abuse scandal. This is not a distraction to real ministry in North America, it is the real ministry for the church in North America.
Carrying this scandal properly is something that the church is invited to do right now for the sake of the culture. It is easy to lose sight of this. The church exists for the world (not vice versa). Jesus said, “My flesh is food for the life of the world [not for the life of the church.]” In essence, Jesus came “to be eaten up by the world”. That’s why, symbolically, he is born in a trough and ends up on a table, an altar, to be eaten. The church exists for the sake of the world and we must keep that in mind as we are faced with this crisis. What does that mean?
Right now priests represent less than one per-cent of the overall problem of sexual abuse, but we’re on the front pages of the newspapers and the issue is very much focused on us. Psychologically this is painful, but biblically this is not a bad thing: The fact that priests and the church have been scapegoated right now is not necessarily bad. If our being scapegoated helps society by bringing the issue of sexual abuse and its devastation of the human soul more into the open, than we are precisely offering ourselves as “food for the life of the world”, and we, like Jesus in his crucifixion, are helping to “take away the sins of the world.” And as stated before, this is not a distraction to the life of the church, it’s perhaps the major thing that we need to do right now for the world and our culture. There are very few things that we are doing as Christian communities today that are more important than helping the world deal with this issue. If the price tag is that we are humiliated on the front pages of the newspapers and that the Anglican, United, and Roman Catholic Churches of Canada end up financially bankrupt, so be it.
Crucifixions are never easy and they exact real blood! It might well be worth it in the long run if we can help our world come to grips with this.
5) Painful humiliation as a grace-opportunity.
Purification and pruning, humiliation leading to humility. This is a moment of
purification for the church. Granted the rest of the culture is also guilty, but, for too long, we falsely enjoyed clerical privilege. The chickens have come home to roost. Now we’re being pruned, humbled, and brought back to where we’re supposed to be, with the poor, the outcasts.
That’s where we are meant to be. Jesus resisted all power other than moral power. Too often we bought into power. Today the Body of Christ is not just being humbled, it’s being humiliated and we have the chance to come to humility through that. This is an important grace-opportunity for all of us inside the church. Biblically, it’s our “Agony in the Garden”.
What does this imply? Two things:
i) First of all it implies the acceptance of being scapegoated. In the Garden of
Gethsemane, before Jesus has his life-and-death conversation with his Father, he invites his disciples to “Watch”. He wants them to learn a lesson. He has just come out of the Last Supper room and he invites his disciples to go with him into the garden. “Watch and pray!” he tells them. But they sleep through it, overcome not by wine or the tiredness that comes at the end of a day, but, as Luke says, “they fell asleep with sorrow”. They fell asleep out of disappointment, as we also often do. And they missed the lesson.
What is the lesson? Luke captures it in one phrase: “Wasn’t it necessary!” There is a necessary connection between humiliation and redemption. We can only carry this scandal biblically (offering ourselves up on the altar of humility for the sake of the culture) if we recognize and accept this connection, redemption comes through this kind of pain. And we learn that lesson through “watching” how Jesus did it: “Stay awake, watch, pray!” Unlike the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, we must not let ourselves fall asleep because of disappointment.
ii) Second, this scandal is putting us, the clergy and the church, where we belong, with the excluded ones. When Jesus died on the cross he was crucified between two thieves. There wasn’t just one cross at Calvary, but three. The onlookers weren’t looking at the scene and making distinctions, sizing Jesus up as innocent while judging the other two as guilty. Jesus was painted with the same brush as the others, seen as compromised and tainted.
Carrying this scandal biblically means precisely to accept that kind of judgement and humilation without protest. Let me offer an example: A young priest that I know recently went into the pulpit and protested to his congregation: “This thing is very unfair to me! I’m not a paedophile and now people are watching me and sizing me up! I’m scared to wear my collar in an airport, knowing that people will stare at me and wonder: `Is he one too?’ I can’t hug your kids any more and can’t be spontaneous in relationships. This simply isn’t fair!”
He’s right, it’s not fair, but, on the cross, Jesus is not protesting his innocence, saying: “This isn’t fair to me! I’m not guilty like the other two! Don’t get Me mixed up with them!” Jesus helps carry their sin, the sin of the world.
The incarnation still goes on: Christ is always hanging, crucified, between two thieves. That’s true too for the young priest whose protest I just quoted and it’s meant to be true for us.
The invitation to us as adult Christians is to help carry this scandal – and not, first of all, to protest our own innocence and distance from it. Carrying it also means that we don’t simplistically project it onto the hierarchy, shrugging and saying: “They have a real problem on their hands!” If we do that then we are doing exactly what that young priest did in his selfserving protest. But his was not really an adult response. What should be the response?
We are the church, all of us, and we need to carry this, all of us. We stand within a tradition that stretches back in time for nearly 4,000 years (of Judeo-Christian revelation and grace). We carry that tradition, but we need to carry all of it, not just the wonderful parts. Yes, we stand in the tradition of Jesus, Paul, the great martyrs, and all the grace that has entered history through the historical church. But, we also stand in a tradition that carries murder, slavery, the inquisition, popes who had mistresses, racism, sexism, infidelity of every sort, and paedophilia. We can’t claim the grace and then distance ourselves from the sin – “This is unfair to me!” We need to carry it all, as Jesus carried everything, grace and sin, good and bad, without protesting his innocence, even though he was innocent.
6) To carry this scandal biblically asks of us “a new song”.
Sing to the Lord a new song! We are invited to do that often in Scripture. Have you ever wondered what the old song is? If we are to sing a new song, what’s the old one and how is the new one to be different than the former one?
Jesus specifies this quite clearly: He tells us that unless our virtue goes deeper than that of the scribes and pharisees (the “old song”) we can’t enter the kingdom of heaven. What was the virtue of the scribes and pharisees? Actually it was quite high. It was an ethic of justice and fairness: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, give back in kind to everyone. What’s wrong with the simple virtue of justice? Jesus, in his most important homily, one which lays down the central criterion for orthodoxy within our faith, points out the defect within an ethic of justice alone.
What’s wrong with the ethic of justice alone? It’s too easy! Anyone, he submits, can live the virtue of strict justice at a certain level. A paraphrase of Jesus might read like this: “Anyone can be nice to those who are nice to them, anyone can forgive those who forgive them, and anyone can love those who love them. But can you go further? Can you love those who hate you? Can you forgive those who won’t forgive you? Can you be gracious to those who curse you?” That’s the real test of Christian orthodoxy. And it’s what is being asked of us in this scandal: Can we love, forgive, reach out, and be empathic in a new way? Can we have compassion for both the victim and the
perpetrator? Can we have compassion for some of our church leaders who made some blunders? Can we give of our money when it seems we are paying for someone else’s sin? Can we help carry one of the darker sides of our history without protesting its unfairness and distancing ourselves from it? Can we carry a tension that’s unfair to us for the sake of a greater good? Can we help carry something that doesn’t make us feel good and clean?
7) We need to “ponder” as Mary did.
Inside of this, we must begin to “ponder” in the biblical sense. How do we do that? To “ponder” in the biblical sense, as Mary did, does not mean what it means in the Greek sense (from which our common sense takes its notion), namely, that the unexamined life is not worth living and that we are, consequently, meant to be reflective and introspective. When scripture says, “Mary pondered these things in her heart,” it doesn’t mean that she thought all kinds of deep thoughts about them. What does it mean?
Let’s begin with an image, Mary at the foot of the cross. What is Mary doing there?
Overtly nothing. Notice that, at the foot of the cross, Mary doesn’t seem to be doing anything. She isn’t trying to stop the crucifixion, nor even protesting Jesus’ innocence. She isn’t saying anything and overtly doesn’t seem to be doing anything. But scripture tells us that she “stood” there. For a Hebrew, that was a position of strength. Mary was strong under the cross. And what precisely was she doing? She was pondering in the biblical sense.
To ponder in the biblical sense means to hold, carry, and transform tension so as not to give it back in kind.
We can be helped in our understanding of that by looking at its opposite in scripture. In the gospels, the opposite of “pondering” is “amazement”, to be amazed. We see a number of instances in the gospels where Jesus does or says something that catches the crowds by surprise and the gospel writers say, “and they were amazed.” Invariably Jesus responds by saying: “Don’t be amazed!” To be amazed is to let energy, the energy of the crowd, simply flow through you, like an electrical wire conducting a current. An electrical wire simply lets energy flow through it and give it out exactly in kind – 220 volts for 220 volts.
Being amazed and giving back in kind is wonderful at events like rock concerts or sporting matches, but it is also the root of all racism, gang rapes, and most other social sicknesses. Nobody holds, carries, and transforms the energy and everyone simply gives back in kind. That’s the flaw that Jesus points out in the virtue of the scribes and pharisees, they simply give back in kind, justice for justice, love for love, hate for hate.
In the gospels only two people aren’t amazed – Jesus and Mary. Mary ponders and Jesus sweats blood. They take in the energy, good and bad, hold it, carry it, transform it, and give it back as something else.
Jesus models this for us. He took in hatred, held it, transformed it, and gave back love; he took in bitterness, held it, transformed it, and gave back graciousness; he took in curses, held them, transformed them, and gave back blessing; he took in betrayal, held it, transformed it, and gave back forgiveness. That’s what it means to ponder and this is the opposite of amazement.
Two images can be useful in understanding this: To be amazed, biblically, is to be like an electrical wire, a simple conduit that conducts energy, taking in and giving back in kind. To ponder, biblically, is to be like a water purifier; it takes in all kinds of impurities with the water, but it holds the impurities inside of itself and gives back only the pure water.
That is what Mary did under the cross – she held, carried, and transformed the tension so as not to give it back in kind. And that is what we are called upon to do in helping to carry this scandal biblically, namely, to hold, carry, and transform this tension, so as not to give back in kind – hurt for hurt, bitterness for bitterness, accusation for accusation, anger for anger, blame for blame.
And this might mean that, like Mary under the cross, sometimes there is nothing to say, no protest to be made. Rather all we can do is “to stand”, in strength, silent, holding and carrying the tension, waiting until we can transform it so that we can speak words of graciousness, forgiveness, and healing. That’s not easy. Luke, in his gospel, tells us that the price tag for that is “to sweat blood”. There are few phrases, I submit, more apt right now in terms of describing, biblically, what we are called to do in response to this scandal than that cryptic phrase from Luke’s gospel: “to sweat blood.”
The author of Lamentations puts it this way: Sometimes all one can do is to put one’s mouth to the dust and wait!
We must re-affirm our faith in God as Lord.
This too will pass. There will be resurrection, even from this. God is still God and firmly in charge of this universe. Our prayer in times of crisis must be a prayer that precisely affirms that God is still Lord of this world. When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, at his most anguished moment, he began his prayer with the words: “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you!” In essence he is telling God, “You are still firmly in control of this world – even though, tonight, it doesn’t appear like that!”
We need, in the midst of this crisis, to affirm our faith in the lordship of God. God is still firmly in charge, the centre still holds – betrayal, some bad choices by bishops, inflated media reporting, and predictions of doom on all sides, notwithstanding. The church isn’t dying.
Crucifixions don’t end life, they lead to new, enriched life.
9) We must patiently stay with the pain.
This is a dark night of the soul which is meant, like every dark night of the soul, to stretch the heart. To be stretched is always painful and our normal impulse is always to do something to end the pain, to make it go away. But the pain won’t go away until we learn the lesson that it’s meant to teach us. Pain of the heart never leaves us until “we get it”, get what it is meant to teach us, and get stretched in the way it’s meant to stretch us. This pain will stay with the church until we learn what we are meant to learn from it.
And what is it meant to teach us, beyond a new humility?
That there is a terrible pain within the culture right now, the soul-devastation caused by sexual abuse, and we, the church, are being asked to be like Christ, namely, to have our flesh be food for the life of the world so that this wound might be opened to healing.
Reprinted from eCatholicism.org (Feb. 10/13).
Nearly 50 years ago in this medieval city with its steep hills and the sprawling campus of one of Germany’s great universities, Hans Küng and Joseph Ratzinger were priests and theology department colleagues.
Küng and Ratzinger were the youngest and most influential progressives to advise bishops at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
When Vatican II concluded, it unleashed a historic movement in the church toward greater engagement in the daily lives of the people of God, the rank-and-file believers. A new sensibility for justice and individual rights arose in the church that would grow to 1 billion Catholics worldwide, with missions of activism in many of the poorest countries on Earth.
Back at the University of Tübingen, Küng, a native of Switzerland, and Ratzinger, who had grown up in the Nazi darkness of his native Germany, soon found themselves at odds over the sweeping changes in the church, in a theological debate that would echo across Europe and the global church.
Now, during the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, Küng, an internationally renowned scholar, and Ratzinger, known as Pope Benedict XVI, are even more at odds. Of the many issues that divide them, Küng sees the attempt to rein in the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious as a sign of myopia, a failure of vision.
“You cannot deny that Joseph Ratzinger has faith,” said Küng, in a coat and tie, seated in his office, speaking in calm tones in the blue twilight. “But he is absolutely against freedom. He wants obedience.”
“He is against the paradigm of Vatican II.” Küng paused. “He has a medieval idea of the papacy.”
“Many sisters are better educated and more courageous than a lot of the male clergy,” he said matter-of-factly. The Roman Curia “will try to condemn them.”
The legendary intellectual battle between Küng and Ratzinger holds a mirror to divisions in the larger church. Their split began shortly after Vatican II. During the student revolts of 1968, Ratzinger was appalled when protesters disrupted his classroom. That same year, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, which condemned the use of artificial contraception, met with enormous protest from laypeople, theologians like Küng, and even scattered bishops.
Ratzinger shifted to the right, embracing institutional continuity. Küng attacked papal infallibility as an accident of history, devoid of genuine theological meaning.
Küng sees the clergy abuse crisis and the crackdown on the leadership organization of American nuns as symptoms of a pathological power structure. By his lights, the impact on church moral authority, and finances, is a crisis rivaling the Protestant Reformation.
In his years at the university here, Ratzinger, polite and bookish, was a familiar sight on his bicycle. “He did not have a driver’s license,” recalled Hermann Häring, a retired faculty theologian who knew both men.
Ratzinger saw the church’s future in rebuilding its orthodox roots.
From academia Ratzinger rose to archbishop of Munich and Freising, then a cardinal appointed in 1981 by Pope John Paul II as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the old office of the Roman Inquisition. As he prosecuted theologians for straying from official teaching, he became known as an enforcer of truth.
Küng became a highly influential popular theologian with a stream of writings, including a book critical of papal infallibility. The Vatican reacted with a doctrinal investigation and suspension of Küng’s license to teach theology in 1979. But at University of Tübingen, a public facility that dates to 1477, Küng had job safety. Still a priest, he became a pariah to orthodox Catholics and an intellectual hero to mainstream believers as he kept publishing and speaking.
As doctrinal congregation proceedings targeted more church scholars, such as U.S. Fr. Charles Curran and Leonardo Boff, the Brazilian scholar of liberation theology, Küng likened Ratzinger to the Grand Inquisitor of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov — the sinister monk who tells Jesus the masses must be subdued by superstition for religion to maintain its power.
“You cannot be for human rights in society and not be for it in the church,” Küng told NCR. “In Ireland, the prime minister is more outspoken than anyone” — referring to Enda Kenny’s blistering 2011 speech in the parliament attacking the Vatican for the rooted concealment of pedophiles. Ireland closed its embassy to the Holy See.
In the French edition of his new book (forthcoming in English as Can the Catholic Church Be Saved?), Küng expands on the analogy between a church that once put heretics on trial and the injustice at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Ratzinger, as cardinal and now as pope.
“The Roman Inquisition continues to exist,” he writes, “with methods of psychological torture and the use in our day of many enforcement manuals.”
Küng, 84, expanded on the Inquisition theme in a Nov. 15 interview at his split-level residence, which also has offices for Global Ethic Foundation, which he founded.
“The [Roman] Curia realized that the practical life of nuns was different,” he said, “and that was enough to persecute them. You go to Rome for a hearing and it’s a dictate — take it or leave it.”
Küng and Benedict personify the polarized camps as the church has evolved since Vatican II. One side sees a church of rising aspirations in laypeople, particularly women; the papal side seeks a return to deeper piety, a rules-based tradition that honors the hierarchy.
The monarchical notion of papal absolutism has Benedict XVI and John Paul II standing out in high relief from the clamor of Vatican II-inspired theologians and activists. Küng sees the Vatican investigation of the nuns’ leadership group as symptomatic of papal retrenchment from Vatican II.
“Dissent is important in the history of the United States,” he explained. “The Catholic church is different. They are persecuting people who are dissenting. … Is the church one boss who has the truth, and not much justice?”
Küng said he is not surprised that the climate of fear generated by the doctrinal congregation has been met with silence by American priests.
“I have already written,” he said, as if the lesson should be memorized, “that one priest, acting alone, is nobody. Ten priests are a threat taken seriously. Fifty priests acting together are invincible.”
Küng has announced his retirement in 2013 on turning 85. The handsome, book-lined home here in Tübingen will continue housing the foundation he launched. For a man of such fierce idealism, he seems a portrait in serenity.
“Most people do not remain in the church because they identify with the local bishop — or the church,” he said, as the lights of the town twinkled across the hills of Tübingen. “They are loyal to their community and not the Roman Curia.”
[Jason Berry, author of Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, writes from New Orleans. Research for this series has been funded by a Knight Grant for Reporting on Religion and American Public Life at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism; the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting; and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.]
Franciscan Sr. Pat Farrell and three other sisters crossed St. Peter’s Square through the fabled white columns, paused for a security check and entered the rust-colored Palace of the Holy Office.
It was April 18, 2012, and on entering the palazzo, they were aware of its history, that in this same building nearly 400 years earlier Galileo had been condemned as a heretic by the Roman Inquisition for arguing that the Earth orbits around the sun.
Today, the palazzo houses the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office that enforces adherence to church teaching. As president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Farrell and her executive colleagues had an appointment with the prefect, Cardinal William Levada, about the congregation’s investigation of their group.
They were walking into what Fr. Hans Küng, the internationally renowned theologian who has had his own battles in the palazzo, calls “a new Inquisition.” (See related story. )
The sisters were accused of undermining church moral teaching by promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” To many sisters, the congregation’s action is a turn toward the past, causing a climate of fear and a chill wind reaching into their lives.
The Vatican wants control of LCWR, an association of 1,500 superiors, representing 80 percent of American sisters, most long active in the front lines of social justice.
The main leadership council of American sisters embraced the Second Vatican Council’s social justice Gospel, which has taken sisters to some of the poorest corners of the world to work with politically oppressed people, particularly in Latin America. But a stark drama of attrition has unfolded as the Vatican II generation reaches an eclipse. Since 1965, the number of American sisters has dropped by more than two-thirds, from 181,241 to 54,000 today.
In contrast, the rate of women joining religious orders has surged in Korea, South Vietnam, sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Caribbean. Nowhere has the increase been more pronounced than in India. Five of the 10 largest religious institutes of women have headquarters in India, where only 1.6 percent of the population is Catholic.
“While India has nearly 50 million fewer Catholics than the United States does, it has over 30,000 more women religious,” wrote Jeff Ziegler in Catholic World Report.
The Vatican crackdown of LCWR has exposed a schizophrenic church. Interviews with missionary sisters in Rome, from India and other countries, register a deep fault line between cardinals immune from punishment, and sisters who work in poor regions with some of the world’s most beleaguered people. Religious sisters from other parts of the world view LCWR’s conflict with foreboding. How far Pope Benedict XVI goes in imposing a disciplinary culture, policing obedience over sisters, is an urgent issue to many of these women — and one sure to color this pope’s place in history.
The doctrinal assessment delivered by Levada was an intervention plan; he appointed Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle to approve speakers for LCWR gatherings and overhaul its statutes. “You can impose silence, but that doesn’t change anyone’s thinking,” Farrell reflected several months later at the convent in Dubuque, Iowa, where she lives.
“This is about the Vatican II church, how we have come to live collegially with participatory decision-making,” Farrell said. “When I entered in 1965 we studied and prayed with [the Vatican II] documents, implementing new charters. … We’re in a line of continuity with the early history of our communities, assessing unmet needs, going to the margins to help the homeless, people with AIDS, victims of torture and sexual trafficking.”
“When Vatican II requested nuns to search their history, Rome believed in a mythology of plaster statue women,” said Syracuse University Professor Margaret Susan Thompson, a historian of women religious. “They found instead nuns who took the job literally, and became controversial for doing so.”
The leadership conference endorsed women’s ordination in 1977 — 17 years before Pope John Paul II reinforced the church’s ban on it with the apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. Farrell says LCWR has not campaigned for women’s ordination. Nor has it endorsed abortion. The doctrinal congregation’s demand that the leaders speak out against abortion and gay rights is a battle over conscience, forcing words into superiors’ mouths.
“These women are really rooted in Christ and committed to the poor,” said Sr. Nzenzili Lucie Mboma, executive director of Service of Documentation and Study on Global Mission in Rome. A Congolese member of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, Mboma had two friends murdered in political violence in the 1960s, during her novice years. “It is painful to see the Vatican carrying on these kinds of things,” she said.
“In certain parts of the church we have an us-versus-them mentality,” said Fr. Míceál O’Neill, an Irish Carmelite prior in Rome with background as a missionary in Peru. ” ‘Us’ is religious, and ‘them’ is officers of the Holy See.”
“We have a church that is doctrinally conservative and pastorally liberal,” O’Neill said. “The Vatican is trying to assert control, ‘we are in charge.’ … Many people are saying the two churches are not coming together.”
“There is a fundamental problem of honesty.”
Farrell, 65, came of age in Iowa in the years of Vatican II. She joined the Franciscans at 18, and in her 30s worked with Mexicans in San Antonio. She moved to Chile in 1980 during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Disappearances were common. “It was routine for police to torture people in the first 72 hours,” she said. Demonstrations were banned, yet protests were the only way to put a spotlight on abductions when lives were at stake.
She joined “lightning demonstrations,” unfurling banners of the anti-torture protest movement in congested traffic, spreading leaflets that gave people information on the missing, who were airbrushed out of news reports. At one point she was arrested, with 100 other people, but coverage in a growing clandestine media saw them released the same day.
In 1986, she moved to El Salvador with a handful of sisters to help people reeling from a civil war with U.S. military support of the Salvadoran government. Farrell spent her first weeks sleeping at night in a church sacristy, getting to know people, and eventually moving into a sprawling refugee camp, living with villagers displaced by military bombings. American sisters were a nonviolent presence, giving thin cover to locals.
“We learned never to leave the road because any area off defined footpaths could have land mines,” she explained. “I remember walking down one long hill with trembling knees to meet a group of soldiers who entered the camp. Part of our role as internationals in the camp was to keep the military out and I was on my way down to ask them to leave. That time they did, thank God.”
Religious processions common to Latin America took on heightened meaning. For a newly repopulated community to show up en masse, with banners of saints and the Virgin Mary, conveyed “a political statement,” Farrell said: “We are not afraid. We have a right to be here. Our faith continues to be a source of strength to us.”
In 2005, Farrell returned to her Dubuque convent. Elected to the LCWR board several years later, she was midway through her one-year term as president when LCWR leaders made their annual trip to Rome in 2012 to update church officials on their work. With Farrell were Dominican Sr. Mary Hughes, past president; president-elect Franciscan Sr. Florence Deacon, and Janet Mock, the executive director and a Sister of St. Joseph of Baden, Pa.
Before their appointment in the Palace of the Holy Office, they held an hour of silent prayer in a Carmelite center.
The sisters had met once with the doctrinal congregation’s investigator, Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, but had not seen his report. The sisters were expecting some conclusion to Blair’s inquiry but had no indication about what it would entail. Blair was not in the meeting that day. They were to meet with Levada, who was about to turn 76 and retire to his native California.
After a cordial greeting, Levada read aloud an eight-page, single-spaced assessment that his office was just posting to the Internet. The assessment accused the sisters of “corporate dissent” on homosexuality and failure to speak out on abortion. The assessment also castigated LCWR for ties to NETWORK, a Washington-based Catholic lobbying group that supported the Affordable Care Act, and the Resource Center for Religious Institutes, a group in Silver Spring, Md., that gives religious orders canon law guidance on property issues.
Leaving the Holy Office, Farrell felt numb. “It was in the press before we had time to brief our members,” she recalled.
“The reaction of rank-and-file sisters was anger. Now there is a stage of deep sadness and concern for the climate in the church and the misrepresentation of religious life,” she said.
A darkly ironic twist involves the doctrinal congregation’s handling of the clerical sexual abuse crisis. The congregation has processed 3,000 cases of priests who have been laicized for abusing youngsters. Several hundred are reportedly pending.
Yet those procedures, which Benedict, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, put in place as prefect in 2001, have a large loophole. The office has not judged bishops and cardinals whose negligence in recycling abusers caused the crisis.
The most glaring example is Cardinal Bernard Law, whose soft-glove treatment of pedophiles ignited the Boston scandal. He resigned as archbishop in 2002 and in 2004 he was named pastor of a great Roman basilica, Santa Maria Maggiore, with a $10,000 per month salary and a highly influential role in choosing new American bishops.
Law was a driving force behind a preliminary investigation of all American religious orders of women, according to several sources interviewed here, and a May 15 report by Robert Mickens, the respected Vatican correspondent for the British Catholic weekly, The Tablet. Law, who has not spoken to the media in a decade, refused an interview request. But Cardinal Franc Rodé, 78, retired prefect of the congregation that oversees religious orders, confirmed Law’s role. In a wide-ranging interview at his residence in the Palace of the Holy Office, Rodé said, “It was the American milieu in the Roman Curia that suggested it.”
The “apostolic visitation” of all but the cloistered communities of U.S. women religious was the initial phase. The doctrinal congregation’s aggressive investigation of the main leadership group soon followed.
“Some people say this is an attempt to divert attention from the abuse crisis, like politicians do,” a missionary sister from a developing country with her order in Rome, said of the doctrinal congregation’s investigation. She asked that her name not be used because the order depends on donations from U.S. Catholics channeled through dioceses.
“The Vatican is trying to assert control, to say, ‘We are in charge,’ ” she continued. “This envisions a different church from Vatican II. Many people are saying that the two churches are not coming together.”
LCWR has indeed pushed the envelope by giving forums to theologians who have questioned celibacy and the evolution of religious life. As liberal theologians clamor for change, LCWR has collided with the doctrinal office over freedom of conscience, a core principle of Vatican II.
Rodé, as prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, ordered the 2009 visitation of American sister communities. He told Vatican Radio of his concern for “a certain secular mentality … in these religious families and perhaps also a certain ‘feminist’ spirit.”
Rodé was also prompted by a 2008 conference he attended on religious life at Stonehill College near Boston. Dominican Sr. Elizabeth McDonough, a canon lawyer, accused LCWR of creating “global-feminist-operated business corporations” and “controlling all structures and resources.”
“I’m unaware of any such facts that would back up that claim. It sounds like a sweeping indictment of the direction many orders have taken which the hierarchy found offensive or disloyal, summed up in the ‘radical feminism’ catch phrase,” said Kenneth A. Briggs, author of Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of American Nuns.
“Most orders were scrounging to come up with funds to support retired sisters, often selling off property that belonged to them to do so. It seems clear to me that the aim of the Stonehill meeting was to paint a picture of disobedience as a pretext for a crackdown,” Briggs said.
Rodé in an interview brushed off suggestions that the apostolic visitation was unfair.
Rodé had requested $1.3 million from religious communities and bishops to cover travel and other expenses for the visitation, which he appointed Mother Mary Clare Millea, superior general of Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to carry out.
The funding request raised eyebrows among many missionary orders.
“Why would you want to pay them to investigate you?” asked one of the missionary sisters in Rome.
The study by Millea has not been made public.
“Vatican II was the most important event that changed the Catholic church,” said Sr. Nzenzili Lucie Mboma. “Jesus was a carpenter. He didn’t build cells, but windows to see every culture.”
She paused. “Why is this investigation happening?”
[Jason Berry, author of Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, writes from New Orleans. Research for this series has been funded by a Knight Grant for Reporting on Religion and American Public Life at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism; the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting; and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.]