(written for and published in May 24, 2010 CNTsf in response to a rabid letter blaming the church crisis on “modernism” and “homosexuals”)
My grandfather who lived in Yorkshire, England was a conservative and faithful Catholic for whom service and obedience to the church was the standard by which he lived. Towards the end of his long and fulfilling life, he was awarded the “Benemerenti” civilian medal by the Pope to recognize his long service to the Church. At his local parish in Wakefield my grandfather was considered to be a “wooden deacon” – he vested in cassock and surplice each Sunday for more than 60 years and assisted the priest at the altar, being given special permission to handle the sacred vessels while wearing white gloves as his unanointed hands were still unworthy of such a privilege.
One of the services my grandfather provided was the training of the young altar boys. This is something that he did with great seriousness, and he would tolerate no nonsense from the young candidates to the altar guild. At the same time my grandfather would tolerate no nonsense from the priests either. As was common with Anglo-Catholicism, the clergy usually came over from Ireland and were characteristically full of their self-importance and power. Rarely did a lay person contradict a priest, for this was the early 20th century. On a number of occasions my grandfather fought with newly appointed priests who wanted to take over control of the altar boys. My grandfather had reason to doubt that the interest expressed in the altar boys was only focused on their service around the altar. Surprisingly my grandfather prevailed and at least in his parish the young boys were protected from the predatory inclinations of some of the clergy. Now we can lament that all parishes did not have an elder layperson in place to protect the young children from the sick and perverse inclinations of a significant minority of the clergy. My grandfather’s story serves to illustrate that the “problem” experienced today is not a recent development.
There are some who choose to argue that this present crisis in the church is a phenomenon of the “modern age”. Some might counter and suggest that the problem has always been there and even that the depth in depravity was achieved on the eve of All Saints in 1501 by Pope Alexander VI , a Borgia Pope, and the infamous “Dance of the Chestnuts”. (Who needs to read fiction when you can read the lives of the Popes?) The modern age provides us with different mechanisms to record and report on the events and issues, but the problems which today are receiving so much attention are hardly “modern”. As with any institution – civil, military or religious – the exercise of unrestricted power leads to abuse.
The sexual abuse crisis in the church, clearly not just a North American problem, unfortunately masks all other forms of abuse of power within the institution. Power seeks control over others, and requires a mental collaboration between the dominators and the dominated. The lay class needed to be constantly reminded of their unworthiness while the clergy were exalted. Sexual ideology played its role in fostering this structural condition. The clergy (and religious) had chosen the “higher” calling reinforced with the obligation of celibacy. The common folk lived always in the state of sin because of their sexual activity, for even within marriage “it” was always sinful if excusable for the sake of procreation. The clergy exercised domination and control – the more extreme examples being in places like Quebec and Ireland – of the lives of the common catholic far beyond the matrimonial bed.
In 1910 Pope Pius X instituted the “oath against modernism”. The church of the counter-reformation assumed a defensive position and rejected the insights of rationalism and the new sciences. Basically clerics had to believe all traditional church teachings regardless of evidence to the contrary. The Second Vatican Council called by the beloved John XXIII sought not to invalidate church teachings but to open the church to the insights of the modern world while at the same time speaking its religious truths in concepts and language understood by the modern world.
One of the pivotal concepts coming out of Vatican II was the primary role of personal conscience. On this matter in a commentary written by Josef Ratzinger, later Cardinal Inquisitor and presently Pope, the primacy of conscience is affirmed. He said: “Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. This emphasis on the individual, whose conscience confronts him with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official Church, also establishes a principle in opposition to increasing totalitarianism. (Herbert Vorgrimler, ed., Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II. Vol. 5, 1976 as quoted by Daniel C. Maguire ).
This theological position is not an “error” of modernity, but a fundamental premise of solid Christian morality. The formation of a properly informed conscience requires the insights of modern science and its methodologies, as is highlighted even in restrictive teachings such as Humanae Vitae. In section 10 of H.V “responsible parenthood” is the norm sought by potential parents but this norm requires a knowledge of the “biological laws”, an exercise of “reason and will” taking into consideration “physical, economic, psychological and social conditions”. A decision must be taken either to create new life or equally to avoid conception and this decision is the responsibility of those who would be or would not be parents, not by anyone else.
No longer can or should Catholic people rely on the clergy to make such a fundamental decision for them. A priest may be consulted, only in the process of consultation with other sources of valid and necessary information. The Catholic person has moved from the paradigm of obedient and “lesser” follower to a new paradigm of responsible decision maker, employing all the assistance that modern science and especially the social sciences can provide.
There are some who yearn for the pomp and certitude that the old church seemed to offer. Yet these traditionalists for some strange reason only want to reach back to the 16th Century time of the Council of Trent, as if to suggest that anything before that was not authentic Christianity. This yearning for such a restrictive past – to an infantile attitude towards authority – is a rejection of the need to be “responsible” in all matters religious. Certainly Pius X and before him Pius IX who convoked the First Vatican Council in 1864 saw before themselves a changing world where the church was losing its economic and political prestige in Europe. Change became the enemy, and the church leadership cocooned itself in a “traditionalism” that ignored the first 15 centuries of Christianity.
The Council of Nicaea (325c.e.) was perhaps the first attempt to suppress different expressions of Christianity. At that time Christianity had many different forms, and different interpretations of the “Christ”. The emperor Constantine enforced unanimity in religion for the purpose of gluing together a disparate empire. This was convenient for that singular version of Christianity which enjoyed the favour of the emperor, but no so favourable to those with different expressions of Christianity and even different gospels. Traditionalists today cannot accept that in the 2000 years of Christianity, pluralism was a foundational and genuine characteristic of the church.
Among traditionalists we often hear the tired canards of homophobia. The modern sexual abuse crisis is blamed on “homosexual clergy”. Again, from the earliest traditions it would seem that homosexuals have been faithful members of the church but constantly subjected to harassment and persecution. Even today the church honours the martyr saints Sergius and Bacchus, a gay couple whose ancient icon portrays Jesus as the groomsman at their wedding. The twisted pelvic orthodoxy of official theological discourse denies an understanding of sexual orientation based on modern scientific insights. The documentation of the present clergy sexual abuse disaster suggests that in fact the majority of abusers are not gay. They are otherwise heterosexual males whose psycho-sexual development was arrested in a pre-pubescent state and not allowed to develop or mature in the artificial climate of the pre-seminary and seminary formation programs. Just as in other situations, such as military confines or prisons when persons of the same sex engage in sexual play, it is the situation rather than “orientation” that is a determining factor regarding the persons involved. If a male priest sexually molests a male child, this interaction between two persons of the same sex is not classified as a “homosexual act”. In the effort to deny fault and to escape responsibility for institutional failures, many church leaders have looked for a scapegoat group upon whom the church could shift blame. Homosexuals have not “infiltrated” the church or its clergy. Homosexuals have always been a part of the church from the earliest years when the Jewish sect of followers of the Nazarene came to be distinguished as a separate group.
The barque of Peter is floundering but not because of the storms it needs to sail through. The institution of the church was a political creation of the emperor Constantine and over the centuries it accommodated itself to ruling dynasties that offered it privilege and security. Fidelity to the message of the Jewish preacher from Galilee whom we know as Jesus was not a requirement for the church even as those other safeguards were threatened or lost. If the modern church is to evolve into a new form of Christianity much depends on its willingness to deal with the tough questions of the modern world. The pelvic dilemmas of the old church will prove to be minor compared to the challenges faced by a new Christianity stripped of political and economic privileges defined with concordats and alliances with the powerful oppressive classes or rulers. The new Christianity will need to relate to a world of different religions, and non-religious ideologies. Much more difficult will be the need to contend with other Christianities which seek accommodation to systems of power and prestige, such as the “Tea Party” phenomena in the USA.
If someone wants to take communion on the tongue or kneeling rather than standing, perhaps that is simply a matter of “taste” rather than right or wrong. About this Thomas Aquinas suggests “de gustibus non es disputandum” – about tastes there should be no quarrel. A new Christianity should be built on a foundation of “love of self, love of neighbour, and love of God”. It sounds like something that even Jesus would agree with.
 Daniel C. Maguire – “A primer on educating bishops”
 Matthew 22:36-39