|The problem of clerical sexual abuse has to be
addressed: justice and compassion for the victims, pastoral guidelines to limit it as much
as possible in the future, due process and compassion for the perpetrators, and so forth.
But the Church, which is galvanized by the problem, should have the courage to look what
lies beyond it.
There are two fundamental issues, one more interior and psychological, the other more exterior and community oriented. The first deals with clerical sexual abuse as a symptom of problems of psycho-sexual maturity among priests and religious which, in turn, is symptomatic of the institutional Churchs inability to deal with a whole series of interconnected issues in this area: birth control, and the critical question of world population, mandatory celibacy for priests, married priests, women priests and the role of women in the Church, homosexuality in the clergy and in religious life, etc., all the way to developing a genuine theology and spirituality of married life. These problems have a common root in the inability of the male-dominated institutional Church to be genuinely able to relate to women. This is a problem they share with men in general, as can be seen from the high rate of divorce, the incidence of domestic violence, and so forth. Clearly this is not a problem that will be simply solved by ordaining married men. Men, whether vowed to a life of celibacy or not, face one of the greatest challenges of their lives in relating to the women around them, and to their own feelings. In the institutional Church these basic male problems take on their own particular color. A resistance to the feminine, whether inside or out, is cloaked in religious language and the real issues are not dealt with. The Church cannot be objective about psycho-sexual issues and the problems they lead to because it cannot be objective about women and the feelings men have about them. It is not unreasonable to imagine that women, and married couples, know something about these issues, and could help the Church grow in these areas.
The other fundamental problem is that we have a clerical-dominated Church which is identified with the hierarchy rather than with the entire Christian community, especially the vast majority of Christians who are married people and their families. The old pyramid of pope, curia, bishops, priests, religious, and last and definitely least, lay people, breeds problems for everyone. Power is hoarded at the top, leaving most people feeling powerless. What is needed is a new kind of community that starts with each Christian who takes responsibility to grow in his or her Christian life as much as possible, and goes on from there to be centered on the Christian family and small communities.
What stands in the way of such a change? On the one side it is the old clerical institution, itself, which although it has made a mess of things, guards its supposed power jealously. On the other side it is the laity conditioned to a passivity that leaves them believing that they have to wait for Fathers permission before they exercise their own creativity in renewing the Christian community.
What should be done? The Church as a whole needs to come together and talk about these fundamental issues and other ones, as well. Each individual, each family, each circle of friends or small community, each parish or diocese should take the sorry spectacle of clerical sexual abuse as a wake-up call that they cannot leave the responsibility for the health of the Christian community in someone elses hands.
You can find an additional discussion board devoted to this topic at Shalomplace.com
A Priest Responds
Thank you for your provocative thoughts on the sexual abuse problem in the Church. You
make some good points and I'm inclined to agree with you.
It is good to read of your willingness to look for a new approach to clericalism, the
hierarchical "lock" or whatever one chooses to call it. It is almost
mind-boggling to visualize a church that could focus on something besides their own
self-perpetuating power. The bishops consider themselves omnipotent; they answer to the
pope, not the people. This needs to change! Maybe the sexual crisis will be the thing that
will move this discussion off dead center. Do we dare envision a church that has to answer
to the people? Or a democracy!
A Response from Philip St. Romain
There is a much larger social issue underlying the problems in the Catholic Church, but the way we've structured ourselves as Church frustrates our ability to deal with it, and, as you noted, actually attracts some pretty unhealthy people into that leadership layer of the institution.
For my opening remarks, I'd like to acknowledge that after working in the institutional
Church for many years with several religious orders and in several dioceses, the reality
is that most of the people involved in institutional leadership are very good people. It's
a shame that they're all being tainted somehow by the current scandals, but that's part of
There are two basic and not contradictory approaches we can take to the issue of clerical pedophilia. In the first, we look at the incidents of pedophilia among the clergy, and compare it to that in other helping professions; we look at the advice psychologists were giving out and compare that with what the bishops were doing, and so forth, in order to see the specific problem in a wider societal context. This kind of approach is valid, but it should not be advanced solely as a policy of damage control and containment, and it cant ignore the evidence that already exists that we may not be dealing simply with a problem of pedophilia, but ephebophilia, that is, an attraction to young adolescents, in this case, adolescent males, thus raising the possibility that what is going on here can be seen in terms of arrested and thwarted heterosexual development.
The second approach is the one I have taken above, and deals with the wider clerical culture in which the problem is embedded, and which may even be giving rise to this and other sex and gender issues. Then we need to look at the whole spectrum of these kinds of issues ranging from birth control to homosexuality among the clergy, to divorce and the American annulment phenomenon, and ask ourselves why the institutional Church seems to do so poorly confronting them.
Addressing these issues is not going to be easy. We are immediately going to confront the other fundament aspect of the problem, a male clerical dominated Church where kind, open and informed discussions of these issues is not the norm, and the exclusion of lay people is. The birth control fiasco is a well-documented example of what could have been a wonderful collaborative effort derailed.
What can be done? A first step could be to have in every parish a forum in which these issues could be talked about, a place where the lay people and clergy could meet for frank discussions about the problems that afflict their Church and what to do about them. If the clerical institution would have problems doing this, the Catholic laity would have its own issues: a long history of passivity that leaves them with the sense that they have to wait on the hierarchy before anything can be done, a lack of education about their own faith despite their expertize in many other fields, the possibility of them advancing ill-conceived theological ideas, -though this can happen among the clergy as well - and so forth. What I have in mind is a genuine council open to the whole parish that allows the insights, inspiration and creativity of the whole community to come forth. Who can say what talents lie buried in this community until they are given the opportunity to come out? What kind of topics could these forums address? Possibilities are: What is behind the crisis of clerical sexual abuse, and what can we learn from it? What are the best pastoral responses to the high failure rate of Catholic marriages, and what do we do about divorced Catholics who have remarried? Is it possible to find a way out of the impasse in the Church about birth control? And so forth.
These kinds of discussions would require a great deal of good will and self-control on everyones part, but perhaps they could be the beginning of a church-wide renewal that starts from the most fundamental units of the Christian community and percolates upward.
Now it is your turn to contribute to this discussion. Send us your questions and comments: firstname.lastname@example.org