by guest contributor Teresa Messineo
How can the church become more transparent? (continued from Part One)
One way this can happen is by involving women more in the church, in positions of power where they can affect the most change. My apologies to every undergraduate student of theology I ever debated with against women being in those positions. I guess I automatically equated that with feminism to the point of being anti-male, or photographs of nuns in leotards dancing around a flaming altar I once saw in an old paperback book from the ‘60’s. But I am no longer the naïve young girl I was in college. I have a much, much higher estimation of the real, positive, transformative power women bring to the world. Of the power I bring to the world. A transformative power that has sorely been lacking from our church. Without the input and influence of women, we will only ever be half a church. Our present scandal is a perfect example. How long would clergy sexual abuse have been tolerated, if the mothers of those children had been in a place of authority? If any woman had been in a place of authority? Not only would there never have been a cover-up, but the ferocity with which those women would have routed out and sought retribution for those predator priests is second only to the Angel of Death’s. Correction, it is second to none.
Another way change can occur is by re-introducing married clergy. While celibacy is a legitimate vocation for many, for some individuals it can lead to an unhealthy sexual repression, the sequela of which we are now seeing in all its destructive permutations. Allowing priests to marry would also increase the ever-dwindling pool of prospective seminarians, young men who would bring so much more practical life experience to their ministry as priests, as a result of having families of their own.
The most important way change can take place is by Catholicism becoming all about Christ again. Sadly, for many Catholics, this scandal is irrelevant. They are no more likely to leave their parishes – some of which their families have attended for generations – than they would be to leave their political party if a high-profile member was accused of the same crimes. For them, being Roman Catholic is simply a social identity, something to turn to when someone is born, or marries or dies; customs that provide a framework that is comforting (or, at least, comfortable) but has very little to do with the Person of Jesus Christ. So, if their priests are morally bankrupt, they remain unfazed, blindly trusting in programs like ‘Protecting God’s Children’ (attorney-designed, diocese-mandated curricula) that teach a docile laity how to recognize and document clergy sexual abuse when it happens. That last line bears repeating. When it happens. Not if. But when did we, as a church, sink so low that our priests being rapists and torturers is the baseline from which we will proceed? ‘Limiting access,’ ‘reducing opportunity,’ is this really our goal? Knowing that a certain percentage of our children will become the next victims to our reluctance to work towards substantive change?
The hierarchy needs to stop victim blaming.
And while I am for a more a thoughtful and prayerful laity that strives to make Christ the center of their lives, the church must make a more appropriate response than the one it has been offering its members since this scandal broke. During homilies, we the people are encouraged to pray more. Try harder. Ask for forgiveness. Be better people. But this smacks of victim-blaming and derailment. As the Catholic laity, we do many, many things wrong – but that is a conversation for another day. We are asking for concrete answers to questions like, How could you have knowingly shuffled these predators from parish to parish? What has substantially changed in the power dynamic of our church to ensure this won’t happen again, to ensure independent oversight? And all we get are sound bites in return. Be patient. Be forgiving. We all make mistakes.
We do all make mistakes. But the kinds of mistakes I make are cutting out of work at 4:54 instead of 5:00, or eating the last coconut custard doughnut, or sleeping in when I (really) should go to the gym. Not raping children. Not hurting children. I used to belong to a moms’ group that met in a parish hall, and when we were told we’d have to leave (since we all hadn’t taken the ‘Protecting God’s Children’ workshop) I asked the pastor, point-blank, when the last time was that a mom had been convicted of sexually assaulting a child on church property, ‘tell me that and I’ll take the class.’ Of course, he couldn’t – because no mom had. Sure, I was a punk then. But I’m still enough of a punk now to say, stay on topic. If I am demanding accountability from my church, from my bishop and even from my pope – if I am asking, How dare you cover this up? How dare you sacrifice our children to save face, to indulge someone’s sick fantasy or criminal appetite? do not gaslight me by telling me to fast more, or pray more, or be a nicer woman. Stay on topic. Because I certainly intend to.
There are those who will counter all my arguments with, ‘But not all priests are bad. I know a good priest. I know a couple of them’ – but their very argument defeats them. They know one good priest. Or two. Or maybe three, if they’re lucky. Of course they do. If every single Catholic priest were a sexual predator, they would all be locked up by now, and this conversation moot. But that very defense – ‘I know a few good priests’ – speaks volumes of how low our standards have fallen. That we, even subconsciously, expect our priests to be evil men, and justify our remaining Catholic at all by reassuring ourselves, ‘Well, not all of them are that bad, I know a few who are okay.’ I, too, know a few priests who are okay. Who are more than okay. Who are Christ-like and loving, emotionally healthy and stable, who are life-long friends of mine I would trust with my life, with the lives of my children. But this should be our baseline, this should be our ‘normal.’
Why stay Catholic?
There are others who will ask, if I have such serious objections to both the corruption and structure of my church, why don’t I just join another denomination and be done with it? Clearly, there are more user-friendly congregations already in existence. And they would have a very good point (after all, what I am currently doing is protesting Rome, so I guess that does technically make me a protestant, albeit small p at this point). When Christ introduced the concept of the Eucharist to His followers, many ‘walked with Him no more.’ When He asked the twelve if they would leave Him, too, Peter’s reply of, ‘To whom else can we go? You have the words of eternal life,’ had always seemed rhetorical to me. But since the clergy sex abuse scandal broke, Peter’s words have never seemed more literal. Where else can we go? Given my particular faith experience, I feel I would starve without the sacraments. Purely commemorative or symbolic communion services – while beautiful and meaningful to those who participate in them – would, of necessity, disappoint me, given my beliefs about the Bread really being His Body and the Wine really being His Blood. And even for churches that share that belief (for example, the Greek Orthodox), they seem (from the outside, at least) even more patriarchal (their leaders are called patriarchs, after all), which I’m not sure would be a good fit for someone looking for more power and accountability to be given to the people.
Given the seemingly unassailable power of the established church; its rampant corruption; and the incredible odds against myself or any other rabble-rouser enacting meaningful reform, I cannot predict what will happen next. I do not know what will happen to me, my church, or what church – if any – I will ultimately belong to. I do not rule out the option of living in a treehouse like a self-styled Simeon Stylites, reading Civil Disobedience aloud to anyone who will listen. But, until that day, I will strive to take after my patron, Teresa of Ávila, remembered as much for her passionate love of Christ as for her innate stubbornness and tenacity. There are those in our church – in every church – who turn a blind eye to corruption in their childlike hope that it will consequently disappear; who pin all their hopes on the next world, forgetting the very real tasks that have been appointed to us here; who bury their heads in the sand of obedience, vainly trying to protect what they love by ignoring the threats all around them. But for those of us to whom all this still somehow matters; to whom our church is more than a country club to which we pay dues; in short, for thinking Catholics, there are only two alternatives left us. Either leave the church and no longer be associated with such corruption, or stay and fight against that corruption.
But, either way, a storm is coming. And I am the center of that storm.