Friday, May 15, 2015

Fr. Richard McBrien on Fridays

In the popular imagination of so many, especially anti-Catholics, the Catholic church is an absolute monarchy with the Pope as some kind of Czar or Louis XIV or Henry VIII.  Actually, even at the height of the power of the papacy, the pope was frequently attacked, sometimes deposed if not imprisoned or killed by some Emperor or other, some King, some potentate, some rich aristocratic family, not even necessarily Roman or Italian, etc.   There is the infamous period of the Avignon papacies, where the Bishop of Rome was removed to France. The teachings of popes have certainly been laid aside by rulers and aristocrats from the beginning, especially those which were not to the financial benefit of the earthly kings.   The teachings against slavery in the Americas were certainly not followed and they were even opposed by other bishops and priests, even theologians.  Yet the English flavored myths about such things persist up till this week when I had an argument with some radicals-in-their-own-minds who sounded like they'd swallowed the basest of Brit antipopery  and finished with a serving of Chick publications for pudding.

Here's an article which didn't get Richard McBrien censored, or censured or called up on the carpet or threatened with firing from his job of teaching theology at one of the major Catholic Universities of the United States which questions some of the hottest issues in one of the most authoritarian of recent papacies.

Linking Sexual Abuse and the Ordination of Women

In mid-July the Vatican issued revisions to its internal laws making it easier to discipline predatory priests, but stating at the same time that ordaining women to the priesthood was as grave an offense as sexual abuse of minors by priests.

According to a front-page report in The New York Times (7/16/10), the decision to link the two issues appeared to reflect the determination of Vatican officials to oppose any suggestion that sexual abuse within the priesthood had anything at all to do with obligatory celibacy or with allowing women to become priests, as if having women in the priesthood would have prevented the sexual abuse problem from ever happening.

The linkage of the two matters left many observers stupefied. They simply could not believe that the Vatican would make such an incredible public relations blunder. And it certainly was that.

But the Vatican’s linkage between sexual abuse by priests and the ordination of women also had a more substantive side. It reflected yet again the Catholic Church’s scandalously negative attitude toward women.

Even those who viewed this latest Vatican initiative through the prism of the sexual abuse scandal alone were acutely unhappy that the Vatican still did not hold bishops accountable for sexual abuse by their own priests, nor did the Vatican require bishops to report such abuse to civil authorities.

But many more Catholics, especially (but certainly not only) Catholic women, were both astonished and outraged that the Vatican had included the attempt to ordain women to the priesthood on a list of the “more grave delicts,” or ecclesiastical crimes, to which there is attached a canonical penalty.

That list included not only pedophilia but also heresy, apostasy, and schism.

Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C., called the document a “welcome statement” even as he took pains to praise the role of women in the Church.

At the same time, the archbishop insisted that the “long and constant teaching” of the Catholic Church has held that ordination to the priesthood has, “from the beginning,” been reserved to men, “a fact which cannot be changed despite changing times.”

Msgr. Charles Scicluna, a Vatican official who has long been involved with addressing the sexual abuse crisis in the priesthood, explained that sexual abuse by priests is a more grave delict than most others because it involves an egregious violation of the moral law, but that the ordination of women would constitute “a wound that is an attempt against the Catholic faith on the sacramental orders.”

However, few Catholic theologians would regard the ordination of women as a matter of Catholic faith, on par, for example, with various items mentioned explicitly in the historic creeds, such as the divinity of Christ and the resurrection of the body.

Indeed, the latest poll of U.S. Catholics done by The New York Times and CBS News disclosed that 59% now favor the ordination of women to the priesthood, while 33% are opposed.

At the news conference in which these latest changes in Vatican policy were announced, Msgr. Scicluna boasted that the new rules provided the Church with more effective tools in the fight against sexual abuse.

“This gives a signal,” he said, “that we are very, very serious in our commitment to promote safe environments and to offer an adequate response to abuse.”

But the announcement was severely, if not fatally, compromised by the Vatican’s linkage of sexual abuse by priests with attempts at ordaining women to the priesthood. 

Not only did this inexplicable linkage detract attention from the enormity of the sexual abuse scandal, but it also served to focus the klieg lights once again on the Church’s longstand-ing, negative attitudes toward women.

These attitudes are reflected not only in the women’s ordination issue, but also in the Vatican-directed “visitation” of U.S. communities of religious women and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s “doctrinal assessment” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents upward of 95% of all such communities.

Catholic women themselves (not all, by any means) are in a much better position than Catholic men, even those of us who are supportive of their concerns, to measure the everyday pain of frustration, rejection, and anger that these official attitudes and policies have generated over so many years.

In any case, the recent Vatican linkage of sexual abuse by priests and the ordination of women is not only a public relations disaster, but, what is far more important, it is yet another major affront to women in the Church. 

They are, on the contrary, among the Church’s greatest assets.

Richard C. McBrien

9 / 6 / 2010

Afterthought:   Some bible scholars speculate that the tone of accuastion against "the Jews" in the Gospel of John reflects the time in which it was written, when pointing out the responsibility of the Roman occupying government for the execution of Jesus was dangerous.  It was far safer, it is said by such scholars, to blame the relatively less powerful and so dangerous Jews than the Romans.

I wonder if that's not why the habit of blaming religion for literally all of the crimes committed by political rulers, gangsters, aristocrats, etc. is so widely practiced.  The churches are relatively powerless to do much of anything on a large scale by way of depravity and the mainstream religions in the West have a far less bad record than many entirely secular institutions in that regard.  While the churches are far from perfect and can be guilty of many things,  I think they are the target of a cowardly attempt to deflect blame where it really belongs in many cases.  That's certainly the case in the modern world in which the crimes and even alleged wrongs that can be attributed to religion are magnified a thousand times while those which corporations and governments commit are covered up in the frenzy.


  1. As for the "habit of blaming religion," i've actually seen comments (at Salon) claiming Nazi Germany was driven by Christian beliefs, first and foremost (or in some meaningful way that made religion responsible for Hitler).

    Mostly because they had belt- buckles on their uniforms that read "Gott Mit Uns." You know, the same way "In God We Trust" makes our money holy; or something.

    The beat goes on....

  2. And we all know that the Nazis are to be believed to the letter and the umlaut because they never deceived or lied or covered up their real intentions to gain power and to practice it.

    I sometimes wonder if the Salon-Alternet atheists are as stupid or only somewhat less stupid than the ones at some right wing websites. I can't make up my mind on that.