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The Crisis in the Catholic Church

The Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church      Gerry O'Shea

2018 was a disastrous year for the Catholic Church. The publication of clerical sex abuse reports by state attorneys general combined with widespread stories of cover-ups by bishops and religious order superiors plus revelations about the disgraceful behavior of two cardinals, both child abusers, led to Pope Francis calling a special synod of church leaders which will be held in the Vatican from February 21st to the 24th.

Many Catholics will question whether such a consultative conference in Rome, involving a few hundred elderly males, is the optimum arrangement for solving a massive crisis in a church with more than a billion members. What credibility will the synod recommendations, which will be voted on by male celibate prelates only, have with  Catholics in the pews?

The 500th anniversary of the last great crisis in the Christian Church, the Reformation, was commemorated with considerable pomp two years ago. Luther's condemnation of the sale of indulgences and of the arrogance that prevailed in the Vatican at that time led to more than a hundred years of horrific religious wars that left more than ten million dead, all convinced that they were fighting on God's side.

There will be no killing involved in dealing with this latest crisis, the worst by far since the Reformation, as the church confronts the widespread sexual abuse of children. One sobering perspective in comparing Luther's time and the present situation can be gauged from the fact that church attendance now for Catholics or Protestants in the countries in Europe where the terrible religious wars were fought fizzles at about 15%.

The sole purpose of the emergency February synod revolves around finding ways to respond to the clerical abuse crisis. Francis has been forthright that a new approach is needed to spirituality, especially in seminaries, and this will not be achieved by in his words by "issuing stern decrees or creating new committees or improving flow charts."

The Catholic Church operates for many centuries as a hierarchy. The pope at the top, followed by cardinals, often spoken of as princes, then archbishops, bishops, priests with their own pecking order - canons, archdeacons and monsignors - followed by brothers and nuns before one gets to the laity. It is very hard to fathom how this ecclesiastical apportioning of power can be accommodated with the spirit of the New Testament which stipulates as a core teaching that in the promised new kingdom "first will be last and last will be first."

All the layers of power and authority have led inevitably to a clericalist organization where power resides almost entirely with the clergy and, with excessive power came shameful abuses at every level.

These male clerics - we will get to the situation with women later - have real authority, allegedly bestowed on priests at their ordination, which enables them to perform important community tasks, including saying mass and hearing confession. These powers  give them status and importance, placing them above ordinary Catholics.

This arrangement which puts the priest on a pedestal is good for his ego but dangerous for his spiritual development, because it is based on the false premise that somehow his ordination makes him different from the rest of humanity. In reality, he shares the same instincts and powerful drives as the rest of the male population, and pretending otherwise places a seriously unfair burden on the priest and leaves the ordinary parishioner with unrealistic expectations.

At a recent mass on Christmas Eve in Yonkers  a relatively young priest proclaimed  in the course of his sermon that his sacerdotal authority exceeds the power of angels in the eyes of God. No doubt some of the large congregation at the mass were impressed by this pretentious assertion, but It left  others wondering if the pie-in-the-sky theology behind the preacher's claim is typical of the formation program in Catholic seminaries.

Assigning special importance and prestige to the Roman collar led to young people, mostly from devout Catholic families, giving undue deference to these men and opened the door to predatory behavior by  immature priests and others who were not able to control their strong sexual urges.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, pointed out that after the powerful human instinct for survival, the sexual drive to procreate comes a close second for most men. Young and often immature males signing up to a celibate life are nearly always sincere in their willingness to sacrifice, but living out that promise presents huge challenges and, sometimes leads to reprehensible predatory behavior with vulnerable young people.

Should the church return to the practice of the first thousand years of its history when celibacy was not mandated for priests? Polling suggests that a big majority of Catholics, lay and ordained, think that would be a positive move.

 The Vatican is very slow to change even when the arguments for moving forward are compelling. Will altering this discipline even be on the agenda at the February synod?

What about women? Where do they feature in plans for reform? Unfortunately, females barely count in the power structures of their church. They are treated like second-class citizens, blocked from leading community Eucharistic services or preaching the gospel or hearing confession.

Many theologians assert that these limitations are culture-based, reflecting the thinking and practices in eras where the wider community  thought of females as inferior. Society has moved on; today more and more women assume top roles in civil society.

Popes and other church leaders still assert old rules derived from outmoded thinking. No wonder that after studying in depth the traditional theological arguments against the ordination of women that former Irish president, Mary McAleese, succinctly summed up her conclusion about the rationalizations used for female exclusion as "codology dressed up as theology."

It is still difficult for gays to find a parish where they feel welcome and valued. Scholastic dogma which condemns homosexual acts as depraved behavior continues to dominate clerical teaching. Many church leaders, including it seems Francis in some recent statements, mistakenly point the finger of blame for the current crisis on a gay culture that they claim has permeated the training and lifestyle of priests.

 Systemic change is urgently needed. The synod would make a great start by condemning  clericalism in all its manifestations, ending the discipline of mandatory celibacy, and opening all the positions of power in the church to women.

Did I just hear a voice in the back of the room saying "Dream on!"


Gerry O'Shea blogs at




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