A Catholic Crisis

The nation's Roman Catholic priests will not miss the year 2002. A year ago few could have imagined the disrepute into which the priesthood would slip following hundreds of sexual abuse cases involving clergy and a clueless response by bishops who misidentified exactly whom they were supposed to be shepherding.

The anger was intense enough to destroy not just a few ecclesiastical careers but also the goodwill of parishioners and the public that priests used to take for granted. Almost forgotten are my former colleagues, the hard-working core of priests who are not malefactors. These men remain trapped in a system where they have next to nothing to say about the shape of Catholic leadership or its response to the crisis.

Little wonder that priests' numbers are dwindling. Their experience, their personal holiness and their spiritual insight don't seem to count. The hierarchy seeks only their deference and silence. As priests see one bishop after another imposed from above to put in place policies without input from clergy and laity, they become resigned, disgusted and just plain tired.

At the same time a smaller group of clergy ambitious for higher office have long brought all their skills to the challenging task of pleasing their omnipotent superiors rather than responding to the promptings of their subordinates or of the laity.

In the more than two decades I spent as a priest (I left the clergy a decade ago over the celibacy issue), I had many opportunities to observe the ways priests are required to grovel to their superiors. Once, back in the seminary, as a hundred or so of us stood around waiting for his eminence the cardinal to appear for an event, a student approached a monsignor and said, "So it seems the cardinal is late!" "Excuse me, young man," he was told, "the cardinal is never late. Everyone else is early."

Some years later, when I was head of the seminary student body, I found myself seated next to the archbishop at a dinner. Our student council had recently completed a study of issues affecting seminary life and our future as priests and human beings. I was eager to share the results with the authorities; and here I was sitting at dinner next to Himself!

Yet as soon as I broached the topic, the cardinal silenced me. I was not to approach him directly, he said, but only through the appropriate channels so that the chain of authority would remain unbroken. He had no desire to know firsthand what his future priests were thinking.

Bishops anointed "by the favor of the Apostolic See" are deferred to not because of their competence or learning, but simply because of that "favor." This is true today, 40 years after Vatican II sought to encourage a more collegial-style leadership, one seeking input from clergy and parishioners and even acknowledging the laity as a "priestly people." Accustomed to this deferential thinking, today's mismanagers of the clerical abuse scandals do not see themselves as ill-intentioned. Ignoring the abuse victims out of an ideology that holds clergy as different from ordinary people. Accountability is for lesser mortals.

The culture of deference to the clerical mystique is deep-rooted. Twelve years ago I was at a conference for priests on preaching and worship in the context of Vatican II, and the curriculum was suspended one afternoon for an impromptu address by the archbishop. By the end of his hour-long monolog, he had effectively dismissed the newer approaches the faculty had been promoting....There was [of course] no rebuttal from the assembled priests [or staff].

The trouble with deference and silence is that they encourage ignorance and denial about issues that need to be addressed. A few months ago a group of New York clergy were told by a high-ranking official that he was open to discussing issues directly. However, some who were present told me, it was stressed that this was to be a so-called "Roman" dialogue: "I'll talk, you listen!"

The seeds of the present crisis were really sown in 1968, the year of the papal letter Humanae Vitae, which began the undoing of Vatican II. This letter reasserted the church's opposition to artificial contraception and to the principle that church teaching grows and develops. Catholiocs were not to decide for themselves, as a matter of conscience, whether or not to use contraception.

After this papal letter, thousands of priests remained silent about this teaching on birth control, one that was out of sync with the lives of the people. Many priests and laity then decided that the church's teaching was no real guide for their sexual lives. Is it possible that this silence, combined with a culture that quickly and effectively condemned dissent in any form, fostered the idea among some troubled priests that they could get away with predatory behavior?

Over the last year, this silence has been shattered by public outcry and the people's rediscovery of their voices. What remains to be seen is whether or not these voices will be joined by others [in sufficient numbers and strength] to influence the course of Catholic teaching and policy.


Rev. Francis F. Baiocchi

As did Paul Dinter, the author of the above article, I too spent many years functioning as an ordained cleric of the Roman Catholic church. I too walked away from the clerical life of isolation and celibacy, married a woman I love and became father to two wonderful children. But I never left the ministry to which I was ordained. I now am co-pastor of a faith community known as Jesus Our Shepherd in Nenno, Wisconsin. We are a Eucharist-centered community ministering to people whose faith and spiritual lives have been marginalized by particular policies and rules of the Roman Catholic church.

There is no doubt in my mind that Paul Dinter's expose of the clerical mentality among particular priests and bishops is right on target. But there remains a tremendous inertia among Catholic clergy and laity for any substantive change in this mentality. The "public outcry" to which Dinter refers has been sustained and supported by constant media coverage over the past twelve months. As that media coverage becomes neutralized over time, will laypeople continue to support systematic changes in the ways church policies are formed and shaped? We saw first-hand how these policies and secrecies decimated the lives of innocent children.

Do lay people continue to look for priestly support to make such changes? I hope not. The kind of priest being ordained from our seminaries these days does not bode well for effective clerical leadership on the grass-roots level of the "people of God." Over the years of his pontificate, Pope John Paul II has thoroughly revamped the seminary system by insisting on total obedience and silence rather than upon open discussion of issues that matter most to the health of the church and its members. He has pulled the rug right out from under the spirit and intent of the Vatican II council.

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