My extended series on Clerical abuse has turned into a long and depressing affair, dragging on much longer that I ever expected,and leading me into several digressions along the way, included excursions into coming out as spiritual gift, South African history, and the importance of the sensus fidelium. These digressions, though, were important and helpful – at least to me. The conclusions presented thus far were also depressing: the root causes are deeply embedded in the institutional culture of the church (celibacy and the concentration of ecclesiastical power) and will not be easily changed, and also directly affect us all, not only the victims and their families. We are all victims, and we have all been complicit in the causes.
Now though, I can finally bring the series to a close on a more positive note. In the same way that the end of apartheid came about finally as a result of numerous internal and external pressures, in which all South Africans (and many foreigners) participated to some degree, so we are all part of the solution to the abuse scandal.
First, recall my argument in claiming that we are all victims, and all complicit. We are victims, because we are subject bullying on sexual morality, subject to a system of ethics developed by men whose own seminary experience and enforced celibacy has left them completely deprived of any natural psycho-sexual development or socialisation. We are complicit in acquiescing, in accepting our own oppression, and that of our priests, as normal and part of the given order of things.It is not.
Tom McMahon quotes an important aphorism:
“The easiest way to change a law, is to break it.”
So it is.
Tom uses this quotation to introduce some thoughts on the sensus fidelium. It must surely be clear to any dispassionate observer that large chunks of official teaching on sex are simply not observed or respected. How many adult Catholics really believe the validity of teaching on contraception, or on masturbation? The US Bishops recognise that about 95% of American Catholics use or have sued contraception. I know of many instances where priests have specifically recommended masturbation as a remedy for sexual frustration. These teachings at least have clearly lost the SF. The challenge of course, is to get this recognised by the powers that be.
The problem with the bullying is that we have too often responded with guilt, rather instead of the more appropriate indignation. Instead of this acquiescence, we should instead be speaking up frankly, telling not of our shame in our sexual so-called “transgressions”, but of the joy and life-giving experiences we have found in them, recalling that “The glory of God is in humans fully alive”. (St Ireneaus).
The bullying and abuse of power of course, is more than just in sexual teaching, but goes to the whole structure of the church and its operation. For too long we have accepted a system where those at the top take all the decisions, we at the bottom are expected to submitted meekly and say, “Ja, Baas”. (Yes, massah, as used in Afrikaans by South African blacks). The irony is that while the secular world has seen the steady expansion of democracy over the last two centuries, latterly strongly supported and encouraged by the church, the internal arrangements of the church itself have seen increased concentration, not devolution, of power.
This need not be. As South African experience and others have shown, it is not possible to sustain power indefinitely without the consent of the governed or ruthless physical force. The hierarchy currently has substantial consent, but no means of physical coercion. We can force them to change, simply by removing our consent and co-operation.
This is already happening on a small scale. I am reading more and more reports of groups and congregations who are simply regarding the Vatican and its decrees with the Ignatian detachment recommended by James Alison, and starting the Emmaeus walk described by Michael B Kelly back to Jerusalem, carrying prophetic witness of the risen Lord to the religious authorities who have forgotten it. Some examples of these are the congregations like that of the Spirit of St Stephen’s, who have responded to diocesan attempts to muzzle them by walking away from their control, or the womenpriests movement, who have responded to Vatican intransigence and refusal to even discuss ordination, by moving ahead alone. There are many others.
The question of priests and celibacy is more complex, and one that we in the laity can less easily influence directly. We can, however, take note of the distress expressed by Tom McMahon, who writes that the primary reason for leaving the priesthood himself was that he found it to have been a deeply dehumanising experience. Part of this was the inevitable result of celibacy, but he also notes that the people in his congregations too often seemed to find it impossible to relate to their priests as people, with simple human emotions and needs. Instead, they were either placed on a pedestal at the altar, dispensing absolute truth, or were treated as servants, required to perform the prescribed rituals of baptism, marriage and funerals more or less on demand.
This we can certainly change. If we can begin to interact with our clergy more honestly at a personal level, approaching them more as equals and recognising that they too are human, we can get them to understand more fully our lives: but more important, they will see that we have some sympathy and understanding for their lives too. Perhaps we can even reach a point where more of our priests are willing to take the first small steps o out of their own clerical closets.
Those are the steps to change that we can all take, just in the daily practice of our faith. Alone, though, they we will be just a start. We also need more, at a more political level. We need to speak up, to hold people accountable, and to demand the changes that are necessary. This is happening, but must be intensified.
La Luta Continua!