I was raised an Irish Catholic. 6 a.m. Mass most mornings, Novenas every Tuesday night, First Fridays every month and as many rosaries as could be squeezed in between. To say nothing of choir practice for the Sunday Mass. I was taught by the long-suffering nuns and was usually their chosen debater to be sent to Archdiocesan Religion Contests to compete on matters of faith. I was even given my very own Jesuit theology coach in high school to prime me for the fray.
Then I grew up. I studied other peoples’ theologies and evolved my own connection to God – a close one, very dear to my heart. I’m a major pray-er and have been known to storm heaven when the occasion demanded it. I’ve written about God from a Tibetan, Catholic, Mystic, Native American, Hindu, Jain and Kabbalist point of view in my books. I’ve penned a book of Uncommon Prayer.
So much for my bona fides.
I’m now an outsider who was once an insider, but having read just this week that the Los Angeles diocese hid documented abuse cases for four decades and that the Vatican has just suspended a well-loved priest in Ireland because he dared to call for more open discussions within the Church on matters like women in the priesthood and birth control… I find myself troubled enough by what’s going on with Catholicism to want to raise a few issues:
A Lot to Answer For
It’s now well documented that the Church spent 25 years and more than a billion dollars to protect pedophile priests by covering up their crimes and moving them from parish to parish, allowing them back into the company of children, and denying their guilt until forced by law and the sheer number of victims to admit it. Did you know there’s now an insurance company that underwrites a policy for clergy that covers “any act of unlawful sexual intimacy, sexual molestation or sexual assault” available for $2,500 per cleric per year. Presumably such insurance policies would not exist without ample need for them. Insuring pedophiles? What a far cry from the catechism’s admonitions about purity, morality and just plain decency we all studied so diligently in childhood.
Pope Benedict XVI, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly called The Inquisition…yes, that Inquisition) was tasked with collecting all data worldwide on priestly sexual abuse cases. Doesn’t that mean he has possessed for decades all the data that was hidden from the law and the laity? Yet the victims of these brutal crimes must still fight, diocese by diocese, and lawsuit by lawsuit to have the truth of the priestly sexual predators who abused them laid bare? Does anyone hold the Pope and his minions accountable for their complicity in the cover-up, I wonder… maybe only God.
I’m also troubled by the Pope venting his spleen on the few remaining nuns who exist in the world, their average age being 70 – when their major function now that most Catholic schools have closed in the U.S., is to try to make the world better by any means possible – in schools, in hospitals, in war zones, in impoverished areas – overworked, underpaid, under-respected, under-appreciated – and now, it seems under the gun by the Church hierarchy. Accused by the Pope of espousing “radical feminist themes” their real crime appears to be that they dared to enter the 21st century and voice their concerns and convictions on matters of women in the priesthood, family planning, women’s rights and same-sex marriage. Concerns and convictions shared, according to polls, with more than 50% of the Catholic Laity.
On the cusp of our Presidential election, an American Archbishop suggested that Catholics who are “pro-marriage equality” are unfit to partake in the Eucharist. And now a priest in Minnesota has made the national news by refusing to give the Eucharist to an entire family, because their 17 year old son opposed an anti-gay marriage ballot on FaceBook. He also refused to allow the boy to be Confirmed. This seems to me such a jaw-dropping over-reach of authority that it begs the question: how can the hierarchy of the Church be so out of touch with reality, the 21st Century and the legitimate and compelling needs of modern humanity? Can it be that they don’t recall the love and compassion of Christ’s ministry or His willingness to find new ways to enlighten? It certainly seems they don’t remember that denying the Eucharist to those who are following the dictates of their own conscience is unconscionable. Or that as a tax exempt religious institution, the Church is Constitutionally bound to stay out of politics.
Matters of Conscience
It’s hard enough to forgive the Church for the villainy in its past – torture, Inquisition, pogroms, Galileo’s imprisonment, and the Crusades for starters, but at least these atrocities took place in supposedly less enlightened times. But 2013?
According to Gallup Polls, 71% of Catholics now favor full civil rights for same sex marriage.
65% of Catholic voters in a recent New York Times poll supported health insurance that covers birth control.
I don’t know what percentage of Catholics believe the priesthood should be opened to women, or believe that priests should be permitted to marry – nobody seems to have polled that yet. But I’m pretty sure that 0% of Catholics believe priests should be permitted to prey sexually on children, or be protected when they do so.
And 0% of the Catholics I’ve ever met think nuns should not be permitted to speak their minds and their consciences. Indeed, as anyone who was ever taught by them can attest, speaking their minds is what nuns do best.
Maybe the Church hierarchy should broaden their ecumenism to take in an everyday concept from their Evangelical Christian confreres and just ask themselves What would Jesus do?
What Would He Do?
If the Church fathers measured themselves against that simple standard, they’d remember compassion, protection of children, respect for women and that the Eucharist is not theirs to withhold from anyone who seeks the solace of God and operates within the bounds of his own conscience. “A good conscience is the palace of Christ,” said St. Augustine. “He who acts against his conscience always sins,” said St. Thomas Aquinas.
By being tone deaf to the voices of the laity, by protecting the egregious sins of priests, by continuing to marginalize the role of women, by forgetting their compassion for struggling humanity and by meddling in politics, the Church seems to have become lost in a reactionary conservatism that does not rise to the needs of its 21st century faithful, nor to the gentle teachings of Christ.
A recent document from the International Theological Commission headed by a former Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith tells us that “Attention to sensus fidelium is a criterion for Catholic Theology.” Sensus Fidelium, which means “sense of the faithful” refers to the centuries old concept that spiritual truth derives not just from the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament, but from the Holy Spirit that guides and inspires the Faithful in everyday life and in every generation.
We can only hope that just such sense of the faithful leads the current Church leaders to understand that for Catholicism to survive, it must be a living, breathing faith that meets the needs of those who strive to follow its dictates. Jesus, in his time, taught love, forgiveness and compassion, as well as equality of women. The faith he created was not the hierarchical structure of a Church that has so often in the past made wrong decisions and said it was doing so in His name.
As far as I know, Jesus’ teaching was based on two powerful principles: “Love God, love your fellow man. This is the whole of the Law,” he told the arrogant theological lawmakers who sought to entrap him. Can those who choose to be Catholic because of their love for Christ’s teachings really be expected to take their Spiritual council from a Church that seems to have lost its moral compass? “Soul speaks to soul,” says the poem, but for that to happen, shouldn’t the Church have to display at least as much soul as its parishioners do?
© Cathy Cash Spellman/The Wild Harp & Co. Inc 2013