Nuns know better
This week marks 10 years since the United States’ Catholic bishops met in Dallas to create sweeping reforms in response to a wave of lawsuits and media reports on child sex abuse by multiple priests and a decades-long cover-up by the leaders in the church. The bishops created the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which developed a “one-strike” policy to remove priests credibly accused of a single act of abuse, and started steps to allow for swifter defrocking of predatory clerics. The bishops also allowed the abusive priests’ personnel files — cataloging more than 10,000 instances of abuse — to be studied for evidence of patterns by John Jay College of Criminal Justice. All of this was welcome and constructive.
But — and this is a big but — while the church has reached many settlements with victims of the abuse, including a major one here in Vermont, and many priests who were part of this travesty have been jailed, censured, removed from the priesthood and otherwise punished, there remains one group of Catholics who have escaped any accountability: the bishops themselves.
The bishops are at the heart of what is wrong with the Catholic Church. In practice they are accountable only to the Pope — not to the people they are supposed to serve. And the truth is, American Catholicism has moved far beyond the rigid, unaccountable and irrelevant Vatican hierarchy.
Most Catholics respect the Church and the hierarchy — but at the same time find less and less relevance for official church doctrine in their own daily lives.
Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley, a member of the national Catholic theological society, wrote a book — “Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics” — that engaged with the Catholic theology in a constructive way, trying to find a new theological way to interpret same-sex couples, divorce, and masturbation. The Vatican censured her, and wrote that the book was counter to Church doctrine and should not be used by Catholics — ironic, since Sr. Farley said she was trying to move theology beyond “taboo morality” where anything that is contrary to doctrine is also out of bounds for discussion.
This is part of a tone-deaf denial of any thinking outside the closed and unaccountable church hierarchy — the Vatican has even rebuked the main organization of American nuns and put a bishop in charge of them in order to “reform” their philosophy and practice.
What is really in need of reform is the upper reaches of the Catholic Church. Some might say that the single greatest thing wrong with the Church is that it is by tradition and by doctrine held tightly in the hands of the men, and not the women, who take the vows in service of the Catholic God.
When the bishops and the church hierarchy — all men — were confronted with the evidence of repeated sexual assaults by priests on young parishoners, they responded by trying to hide the crimes through transferring priests and declining to report the assaults to criminal justice. They acted in their own self-interest, and directly contrary to the interest of the people they are supposed to shepherd through this life.
If only the bishops had applied the same vigor and outrage to their own ranks when the sex abuse was going on, we might feel differently.
It is the nuns who have called out the Vatican and the bishops on issues like engaging with theology, contraception and charitable work. It is the nuns who are creating a way forward for the faith that does not sacrifice the central tenets of Catholicism but allows for relevance to the real, imperfect lives that we all live.
If the nuns were in charge, we would see an organization that was more accountable, more deeply involved in charitable work, more tolerant and less concerned with protecting the power and position of the church than in seeking a way forward through the greater truth revealed by the Gospels.