Abuse crisis causes church demoralization - Catholic Courier

Abuse crisis causes church demoralization

In a recent address to the National Federation of Priests Councils in Atlanta (Origins, 5/27/04), Father Timothy Radcliffe, former master general of the Dominican order and one of the church’s most respected priests and gifted leaders, identified three causes of the current state of demoralization in the church: the gap between the church’s official teachings and “the lived experience of many Catholics,” polarization and the sexual-abuse scandal.

In two previous columns I have made an effort to engage seriously with Father Radcliffe’s careful and thoughtful analyses, focusing on the first two causes of priestly demoralization.

I suggested that his analysis of the first cause — namely, the gap between official teachings and their reception by many of the laity and clergy — does not go deeply enough. He fails to raise even the possibility that the gap may exist because the official teachings themselves are defective, in whole or in part.

Accordingly, the solution may not simply be a matter of finding a more effective way of presenting the teachings and in healing the “pain” of the laity in the meantime, but rather of changing the teachings themselves, just as the Papal Birth Control Commission in the 1960s urged Pope Paul VI to do with regard to the official teaching on contraception.

I suggested also that Father Radcliffe’s analysis of his second cause of demoralization — namely, polarization — requires one additional step.

Although he concedes that polarization occurs in the absence of dialogue, and although he correctly implies that real dialogue cannot happen so long as one side controls the process and its outcomes, he does not ask why we have such an imbalance of power in the church today.

I proposed last week that the major underlying cause of polarization is the radically unequal distribution of power in the church, reflected particularly in the pattern of episcopal appointments and promotions within the hierarchy over the past 25 years.

Many, if not most, of the bishops named and promoted during this time period would have aligned themselves, to one degree or another, with the minority at Vatican II in opposition to its principal reforms. This monochromatic pattern of appointments is a new phenomenon in recent church history.

The major proponents of reform at Vatican II — cardinals all — were appointees of Pius XII, no wildly liberal pope. Their names include Suenens of Belgium, Bea, D√∂pfner and Frings of Germany, K√∂nig of Austria, Alfrink of The Netherlands, Marty and Li√©nart of France, L√©ger of Canada, Ricketts of Peru, Meyer and Ritter of the United States (Chicago and St. Louis, respectively), and Montini (later Paul VI) and Lercaro of Italy — to name but a representative few from Europe and North America.

When one prominent observer of the Catholic scene asked in exasperation, “Who are these guys? Where did they come from?” with reference to the 15 or so U.S. bishops who have threatened to deny Communion to Sen. John Kerry and other like-minded Catholic politicians, his questions were obviously rhetorical. We know where they “came from.”

Which leads us to what Father Radcliffe suggests as the third cause of demoralization in the church today, and especially among its priests, namely, the negative effects of the sexual-abuse crisis.

Ask most lay persons whom they blame more for the scandal, the predatory priests or the bishops who covered up their crimes, and the results are overwhelmingly against the bishops.

Father Radcliffe does make a passing reference to episcopal culpability for the scandal, noting the anger that many feel “at the way it has been handled by some bishops.” But that factor is curiously listed among several others, including “shame at the grilling the Church has got in the media.”

Not only does Father Radcliffe fail to lay the principal blame, as most Catholics in the United States do, at the feet of certain of the bishops, but he also makes the truly odd point that the sexual-abuse crisis “was not as bad as the Last Supper,” where Jesus ate with Judas, who would betray him; with Peter, who would deny him; and with the other disciples, who would “almost to a man take to their feet and run away.”

One doubts that such an analysis would be accepted by the many victims and survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of trusted priests or by the families who were subjected to episcopal stonewalling, lying, intimidation and demands for absolute secrecy.

Toward the end of his talk, Father Radcliffe referred disapprovingly to one bishop who had denied all legal responsibility for his priests, describing them as “independent contractors.”

There was no mention of the bishop’s subsequent appointment as cardinal-archbishop of New York.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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