A subtle trend has been underway since 1979 in the Roman Catholic Church. Joe Ratzinger’s ascendency to the papacy after the death of John Paul II (a pious man whose piety itself is his legacy of leadership) was only one of several markers on this Roman road leading back from the Second Vatican Council. Broadly speaking, the movement has been to reverse the movement from the council wherein the laity were to take a more active role liturgically in the Church. The reactionary movement away from this has been to stress the distinction between clergy and laity. I contend that this distinction played a role in the abuse of lay children by priests.
Part of the shift since the election of John Paul II has been to go back to more of a distinction between the clergy and laity. For example, instead of making Communion available to the laity under both species (bread and wine consecrated) as much as possible, “traditionalist” priests prefer to reserve the sacred blood for themselves. Underlying this is a clerical view of the clergy as holding a unique sacrificial priesthood with Christ—the laity thus being inferior as only partaking in the priesthood of the people via baptism. Vatican II sought to increase lay ministry (sharing ministry with Christ) by encouraging offices like the lay Eucharistic minister and (relatedly) in making the Blessed Blood available to the laity as often as possible. Put another way, a priest who refuses to provide the cup during daily Masses even as he avails himself with it is increasingly out of the norm under Vatican II.
Were “high clericalism” limited to extenuating the liturgical prerogatives of priests, the Church would be far less vulnerable to scandal due to the behavior of its clerics. In October 2011, Bishop Robert Finn and the diocese of Kansas City, Missouri were indicted, according to The New York Times, “on criminal charges for failing to report a priest found to have pornographic photos of children, including children of his congregants. The priest [had been] accused of having taken more such photographs in the months before church leaders turned them over to law enforcement. . . . Much of the anguish, then and now, concerned the decision not to inform law enforcement — or the parents . . . — about Father Ratigan even after the school principal had written a letter detailing concerns that the priest’s behavior fit the profile of a child predator, even after church officials in December discovered hundreds of photographs on his computer that included nude pictures and ‘upskirt images’ of girls, and even after he attempted suicide. Instead Father Ratigan was sent to live in a convent and told to avoid contact with minors. But he continued to attend children’s parties, spend weekends in the homes of parish families and, with the bishop’s permission, presided at a girl’s first communion, according to interviews and court documents. Despite a pledge by the diocese to immediately report anyone suspected of being a pedophile to law enforcement, Father Ratigan was not reported until May.” In short, the series of events points to a willful refusal on the part of Finn to abide by the law and keep his word. Like police who do not think twice about overstepping their authority, the bishop’s behavior suggests that he knew that accountability within the church hierarchy was virtually nonexistence and furthermore that not even civil law could reach him.
Accountability must come from civil authorities, as it is doubtful that the church hierarchy will turn so dramatically from its ways. Even though I suspect the church hierarchy would not change as a result, it is significant that the bishop was “the highest ranking member of the clergy to be charged with a crime stemming from the sex abuse scandals.” There is indeed much value in bringing the impervious to justice, particularly if they feel they are above the law on the basis of what is only an organizational office.
The abuse and the steadfast refusal of the hierarchy to hold its clerics accountable instead of protecting them (exactly like a club of peers protects its own) caused “disappointment and anger” among Catholics in the Kansas City diocese. Rather it being wrong to criticize a cleric, the laity have a moral obligation to do so, particularly given the lack of accountability. “Obviously we’re not O.K. with this and we don’t like the way it was handled,” said Jason Krysl, whose wife was a teacher at a Catholic school and was holding their 7-month-old son. “But it’s frustrating because there’s not much you can do about it. It’s not like you can vote for bishop.” Maggie Nurrenbern, a high school Spanish teacher and a Catholic in the diocese, said the indictment was a step in the right direction. “Nobody is above the law,” she said. “The bishop should go to jail, I absolutely believe that. He was covering this up for months and the priest kept abusing girls in the meantime.” Maggie is spot on; Finn should go to jail. To his flock, he said “it is enough to be here with you, whom I love.” Of course, he can love and be forgiven while he is in jail. It is not at all disrespectful to his office to lead him to the slammer. Nor would jail be “Christian persecution,” even if the bishop’s denial leads him to view his punishment in such distorted terms.
My broader point is that the “high clericalism” trend then well underway in the Church played a role in there being both abuse and a lack of accountability. Finn, well within that trend, was already controversial in his diocese before the scandal because he was forcing the diocese to conform to his traditionalist views at the expense of Vatican II. For instance, he cancelled a program to train laypeople to be leaders (and I suspect he was not fond of lay Eucharistic Ministers even in distributing the Host) and hired more staff to recruit candidates for the priesthood. His attitude toward the laity can be seen in this pair of changes alone. Is it any wonder, therefore, that he would place the interest of a priest above those of even innocent little girls? Moreover, is it any wonder that his arrogance would be such as to dismiss even the reach of the civil law over him? As blameworthy as he was, the related issues of clerical abuse of children and accountability in the Church’s hierarchy can be placed in the wider context of the broader trend going on in the Church.
Firstly, the extent of sexual abuse of kids by celibate priests suggests that giving up such a vital part of oneself as one’s sexual nature—created by God, by the way—is not something that can be done without paying the price psychologically in terms of diverted repression “acting out” in dysfunctional and anti-social ways. In fact, denying such a basic and natural part of human nature could even be considered to be a sin—denying something that God created. Furthermore, to view sexuality as itself something squalid probably stems from psychological issues in need of being dealt with independently. The Church itself readily admits that clerical celibacy is merely a tradition and could be reversed at any time without breaching fidelity with the Gospel.
Secondly, as I intimate above, the anti-Vatican II trend of high clericalism is conducive to clerical abuse of laity (as well as hypocritical arrogance even as God is viewed as humility). I am not at all surprised that Finn cut the budget of a program on poverty and human rights while expanding an anti-abortion and anti-stem-cell office. While his action may not evince an abuse of his discretion, it certainly points to a particular slant and a willingness to use the power of one’s office to promote one’s own ideology under theological auspices. In other words, I discern in it the same attitude that is evinced by the priest who refuses to provide the cup to others even as he enjoys it himself and the priest who takes pictures of naked girls. It is ego, impure and simple, under the guise of serving. Lest it be forgotten, Jesus himself said that many of the first would be last.
In terms of organizational change, typically a step forward (in loosening) is followed by a step back (in fear), and then another step forward (once the fear has been overcome with hope). In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Roman Catholic Church was unfortunately in the midst of a step back without any hint of the step to come. The Vatican was making sure that a step forward would not come any time soon. Accordingly, laity who loved the Church and its sacraments were beset with difficulty in having faith in those human beings who presumed worthy of authority, even if merely organizational. Sadly, we take our organizations and their offices much too seriously; we have lost perspective and power-hungry clerics have taken advantage of it.
In the grand scheme of things, it is important to remember that priests and even bishops are human beings, and thus stand in the same relation to God as do lay persons. Any distance between people in terms of sharing priesthoods with Christ pales in comparison to the distance between God and man. We are all subject to the abyss. Even the distance between the saint and Pharisee priest is like that between two adjacent roads as seen from a jet window at thirty thousand feet. For the priest who presumptively views his “clerical club” as being superior, even soteriologically, to the laity, he should know that his superiority is a self-vaunted illusion. He is still redeemable; he can still melt his pride and humbly return to his brothers and sisters above. Fortunately for clergy like Finn, the climb up from estrangement is not as great as the height (rather than depth) he imagines he himself occupies above the laity. Yet for clergy like Finn to want to make the climb—even to acknowledge it as a climb rather than a charitable descent—is like getting a camel through the eye of a needle. For such arrogance does not lose weight easily.
Laurie Goodstein, “Bishop in Missouri Waited Months to Report Priest, Stirring Parishioners’ Rage,” New York Times, August 15, 2011.
A. G. Sulzberger, “In Kansas City Churches, Tiptoeing Around the Latest Scandal,” The New York Times, October 17, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/17/us/in-kansas-city-sermons-avoid-mention-of-abuse-scandal.html