Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Sex Abuse and Women's Ordination: The Plight of the Liberal Catholic

Father Roy Bourgeios, a prominent activist for social justice, gave a homily at a service in which , contrary to Catholic doctrine a woman was ordained as a priest. He was excommunicated four months later.

Father Steven Kiesle asked to leave the priesthood after his arrest for molesting children. His Bishop sent letters to the Vatican recommending approval. Four years later, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote back saying the issue needed careful consideration and more time. After six years, Kiesle was defrocked.

David A. Sylvester in a thoughtful post at Tikkun Daily writes about why he stays in the Church, this despite his full recognition of the horror of the comparison of the Church's treatment of the two priests and his understanding of the checkered history of the Church. His main lines of argument involve ways in which liberal Catholics distance themselves from the leadership of the Church. It is standard Catholic doctrine that Catholics must follow their well-formed conscience even if it conflicts with those of Church leaders. Moreover, he does not regard the Vatican as the Church; he argues that the People of God are the Church. He believes Church leaders should be confronted in a prophetic spirit of justice, not vengeance.    

On the latter point, it may be easier for many to do this outside the Church than inside. If one stays inside the Church one is more likely to be angry at Church leaders because one feels more attached. On the People of God point, ironically, Sylvester provides the resources to take much of the liberal comfort out of identifying with them rather than the Vatican. In developing an argument for humility and understanding the forces working on Church leaders, he observes that American Catholics are only 6% of the world's Catholics and, of course, a hefty percentage of American Catholics are not liberal. On the sexist issues associated with the women's ordination issue or the issues associated with sexual orientation, from the perspective of the liberal, the People of God are not much better than the Vatican. Indeed, the People of God might be less likely to speak out against the materialism, hedonism, and general limitations of capitalism. On the other hand, the People of God would be less likely to cover up sex abuse.

Sylvester also is moved by a more primitive argument. The conservatives would like me to go. I will not give them the satisfaction. No doubt many conservatives want the liberals to go; they would prefer a smaller more unified Church. There is a lot of "Go Back to Russia" sentiments among Catholic conservatives. But among others there is a desire for liberals to stay and for them to lead the best Catholic lives they can. I think this may animate the views of the Church leadership. On the other hand, there are material considerations as well. American Catholics provide needed material support for the mission of the Catholic Church. I do not think the Church leadership wants to lose that.


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Sylvester equates excommunication with laicization. The two are not the same.

Posted by: SPG | Jul 30, 2010 8:25:11 AM

"Sylvester equates excommunication with laicization. The two are not the same."

That the two are different doesn't negate Sylvester's primary point - the speed with which the first serious sanction was imposed and the slowness with which the other was.

Posted by: Susan Stabile | Jul 30, 2010 8:58:21 AM

I think the failure of church leadership began during Christ's ministry on earth and was on full display as early as Holy Thursday. Church leadership has been bad since the beginning. The only thing worse than Church leadership is my own sinfulness, for which I am responsible. In light of my own pathetic failings, it is not so hard for me to be in a Church led by sinners and filled with sinners.

While the article by Sylvester is indeed thoughtful, I think it proposes the wrong solution. Sylvester says: "Now, he has developed a different faith-relationship to the Church. He sees two churches, one of the people, one of the hierarchy." This approach will ultimately undermine the Church even if it allows him to (sort of) remain in it. I think we should reject this two churches approach wholeheartedly.

There is only one Church, not two. We are all sinners, together. We cannot escape the truth of our condition by saying to our leaders: you are not in my church, you are not worthy of my church. On this earth, we need to have sinners lead us, or we will have no one lead us at all. We are either in this Catholic Church together - all of us - or there is no church at all.

The problem with proposals like the one Sylvester is making, it seems to me, is that they always focus on the sins of others (our narrow-minded leaders, the bigoted conservatives, the faithless liberals, etc.) and not our own shortcomings. This is not to say that others do not sin - they surely do, and the leaders of the Church are no exception - but the idea that their sins somehow allow us opt out is or separate ourselves from them, I think, is antithetical to the Christian message of reconciliation and love. If we recognize that the Church welcomes us in spite of our immense sinfulness, then how can we then reject the Church's leadership because of sinfulness?

In my view, a better solution is the one proposed by Dr. David Schindler in his book Heart of the World, Center of the World. Instead of *just* a hierarchical view of the Church (the one some conservatives promote), or *just* a democratic view of the Church (the one Sylvester is promoting), Schindler proposes an ecclesiology of communio. The ecclesiology of communio incorporates and includes both a hierarchical/moral component and a democractic/social justice component, but directs them towards their proper ends: unity among men/women (i.e. love of others), and unity of men/women with God (i.e. love of God).

In an ecclesiology of communio, the Eucharist - Jesus - is the focus of and reason for our faith. In the Mass, the pathetic sinners like us, the narrow-minded bishops, the bigoted conservatives, and the faithless liberals - the laity and the hierarchy alike - are all united in Christ: one church, not two.

The ecclesiology of communio sees the Church as a family, and the mission of the Church is to bring the family of God together on earth. As with any family, we have to put up with the foibles and failings of our relatives and in-laws, and they have to put up with our shortcomings too. But even if we would like to avoid some relatives or reject the beliefs of our parents, we cannot stop being family.

It is surely important for us to criticize our leaders and to wonder why it takes them 6 years to laicize a child molester. But let's stop talking about two churches, and let's stop pretending that the bishops are solely to blame when we ourselves have failed so badly, and let's stop framing every issue as a debate between conservatives and liberals. It is not helpful, and it undermines the true message of the Church: we are one group of sinners seeking God's mercy together.

Posted by: BMW | Jul 30, 2010 10:37:57 AM

I see the shock value provided by comparing the reactions to molestation and to ordaining women, but I find it a weak comparison, because the offenses of bad behavior and doctrinal disobedience are not comparable.

Bad behavior, no matter how awful, is still categorically a matter of bad behavior. Wherever it is on the spectrum, from shoplifting to drunk driving to molestation to murder or even mass murder, it's still in the category of human frailty. It should be punished by civil authorities, and the Church should not protect any priest from facing criminal charges from civil authorities, and I am as mad as anyone about the coverups.

Further, the Church should apply Church discipline in addition to civil action. In some cases, that means removal from active ministry, and sending someone off to a monastery. In some cases, laicization is also proper. But as a matter of course, such decisions SHOULD be carefully reviewed, etc.

Doctrinal disagreement, accompanied by a public in-your-face resistance, is a different matter. If someone stands up in public and denies Christ's divinity, that's an easy call -- short of an immediate reversal and apology -- no matter how much good someone has done in soup kitchens. And the Church has declared the ordination issue to be a doctrinal matter, not merely disciplinary, has it not?

Now, I understand that many people disagree with that statement of doctrine, and I understand the need for room to debate and to urge the Church to change. But I don't have much sympathy for unilateral resistance and self-appointed self-righteousness. That's true regardless of the issue or the "side." When Archbishop Lefebvre purported to name new bishops, he was excommunicated. When anyone purports to name new priests or bishops without Church authority, he is exercising such an open defiance of the Church's authority that he's daring them to do something. I know it's defended as prophetic, but other than applying your own sense of what the rules "should be," what basis is there for the Church to look the other way for such in-your-face defiance?

The Lefebvre example is a good one because I find, at least in my personal experience, that most of the self-described "liberal Catholics" I know are in favor of the swiftest smackdowns for "conservative" disobedience by traditionalists. Why? Because some disobedience is OK, and some is not, even if equally doctrinal, or even involving comparable behavior (unapproved ordinations)?

My ears are open to the debate over women's ordination, but frankly, my sympathy for the issue goes down a notch every time I read of one of these unilateral events. I want to change my Church hierarchy, too, but part of being in the Catholic Church means that you can't write your own rules and expect the Church to back down because you're so right and so special.

Posted by: disappointed | Jul 30, 2010 11:25:44 AM

Sigh - I don't know if my opinion of Sylvester's analysis has gone up or down. I just backed up and read his Part I article, and he rightly criticizes the New York Times for falsely reporting that the Vatican "equated" molestation and purported ordination of women. Sylvester rightly explains that the NYT's shallow treatment misses the distinction between the categorization of the offenses -- crimes against faith/doctrine as opposed to other disciplinary or behavioral -- with the "level" of the crime on the "how bad" spectrum.

So that shows he understands how critical that distinction is. But given that, he should also understand how that difference played out in the cases he compares in his second article.

Basically, he commits precisely the same error he criticized the Times for! But it's worse, because he should know better. I don't expect anything better from the Times anymore.

But he's achieved his rhetorical purpose, so maybe pulling the fast one was worth it. Sigh.

Posted by: disappointed | Jul 30, 2010 11:52:46 AM

What's all this "liberal" and "conservative" Catholic nonsense all about? Catholic is Catholic. As implied by the term catholic, we need everybody, liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican, etc. And if conservatives want to see liberal Catholics leave the Church, and vice versa, shame on them. We are Catholics first, political-ideological affiliations should be a distant second.

As for women's ordination, did the lack of ordination, hold back some of the most powerful women in history, like Catherine of Siena (a political and religious giant of her age), Mother Theresa, or the Blessed Virgin Mary ("All generations shall call me blessed")? Let me just say, these women, who answered the call of Christ, did not need to be priests to do so. They weren't interested in what they "wanted" to do. In obedience, these women changed the world in radical ways that the vast majority of priests and bishops have failed to do. Heck, there is no mortal man in Heaven greater than the Queen of the Angels and Saints.

Time to drop the liberal-conservative American Catholic melodrama and mediocrity. The Priesthood is decidedly masculine as dogmatically determined by the Church. A well-formed conscience accepts such dogma, even if such a conscience fails to understand it. And the radical response to such a dogma, which is impossible for the binary liberal-conservative mind of America to understand is, "let it be done according to your word."

Posted by: CK | Jul 30, 2010 1:23:41 PM

Again I wish people would get the Oakland Case right. I am not sure why this guy should have been to the front of the line so he could get married. Which was the main reason people wanted this final step to removed from their vows

Why should the Catholic Church be moving Heaven and Earth so a child abusig Priest can get married? He had to wait till 40 just like everyone else.

This is a case where I have noted something odd. Yeah it might be good PR if the Priest was officially as a matter of Canon Law put in the LAY state. However at this point it is mainly a technical thing.

But people that say they are outraged are fine with the Church allowing a former priest now child abuser to marry (and maybe have kids of his own) because do the final Canon Law step is good PR and looks nice in the paper. Is this how the "people of God" operate.

Posted by: jh | Jul 30, 2010 1:43:45 PM

Penalties in canon law are a difficult subject. There are two kinds: medicinal and expiatory. The difference is that a medicinal penalty MUST be lifted as soon as the person repents while an expiatory penalty is not. Penalties are applied according to the nature of the delict. Some are latae sententia which means that they occur when a person commits a certain offense. They can be declared or undeclared. When declared the results are more severe in terms of the effects of the excommunication. So, if you excommunicate an abuser and he repents then you MUST restore him. Is that just? If you dismiss him from the clerical state, an expiatory penalty, then he remains dismissed even if he repents. The penalties for these two priests were appropriate given their situation. In the previous rules governing dismissal there were strict due process provisions to protect individual rights of the accused. The Cardinal had to obey the law. These protections are now largely gone. As lawyers that should bother you. You might consider that US law, if it used the current norms that are ius vigens in the Catholic Church, would be ruled unconstitutional. This is a result of the mentality shown in the article. Before you write something like this please consult a canon lawyer, so that you know what you are talking about. I am one.

Posted by: Fr. J | Jul 30, 2010 2:04:57 PM

"In the previous rules governing dismissal there were strict due process provisions to protect individual rights of the accused. The Cardinal had to obey the law. These protections are now largely gone. As lawyers that should bother you"

Father J that is a excellent point. I thin th commentary here is very very good. However for LAW Profs I ama amazed how they take a almost layperson view of the secular law on this. "On those Lawyers and all those technicalties."

I doubt they apply the same standards as to the Criminal and Civil Law in their classrooms.

Again that has perplesed me bing that blog has a legal focus

Posted by: jh | Jul 30, 2010 2:47:01 PM

"What in heaven’s name is going on?," wonders Sylvester; "[w]hat does this mean?" One obvious answer is that times change. Even if the two cases were otherwise comparable (they aren't, as SPG notes above; there is no reason to suppose that two different processes with different purposes and ends should move in comparable timeframes), the Bourgeios case happened after twenty years of experience and criticism for moving slowly.

Posted by: Simon | Jul 30, 2010 4:05:45 PM

If the author can make such a strong distinction between liberal and presumably conservative Catholics, why not the same with the subject about which he writes. Catholics rightly incensed by the pedophila scandal in the Church, even now, continue to blur the bright-line distinction between the reality of sexual abuse and the realities of other gender-related matters which are subject to controversy, such as women's ordination or gay priests.

Another way of seeing it is that every Catholic who uses the issue of the child sexual abuse scandal in the Church as a starting point for arguing against, say, priest celibacy or prohibitions about women’s ordination reveals a stubborn ignorance about the real evil. That is my view. Perhaps the outraged individual purports to have the authority to criticize the Church hierarchy for rigidity, self-defense and denial, with such blurry distinctions he or she proves to have advanced no further out of the ignorance in which sexual predators relied as they thrived unrecognized and then excused by the bishops and, in more cases than admitted, communities of people whom they served.

Doctrinal bickering has been around since Peter and Paul had to work out their differences in disposition. As an adult Catholic woman who has survived ten years of child sexual abuse by a series of priests, I fall short on interest women’s ordination. However, I am a single-minded supporter of a policy that without exception ensures predator priests are submitted to civil courts of law like any other citizen. That is a zero tolerance policy.

The overall argument here can win only by omission of full truth. The laicization of the predator priest was (one hopes) not the only process of justice underway. To suggest so is specious. The canon law by its own action admits to a secondary role to civil law, so predators are laicized after court judgment in the best of circumstances - not the worst. As for former priests who eluded justice by hiding in the Church's sanctuary until the statute of limitations had expired, well, that is a burden on the souls of those who abused the concept of sanctuary to protect the predator from the civil laws which Rome's practices of laicizing predators reveals Rome knew overrode its authority in cover ups.

Blurring the crucial distinctions about the evil in child sexual abuse in the context of any discussion of the hierarchy’s reaction is dangerous—to children, because it feeds the ignorance about child sexual abuse by priests, as I note in my book RESTORING SANCTUARY, whose proceeds are all donated to help other survivors find solace, help and renewed faith.

Posted by: T Pitt Green | Dec 3, 2010 9:11:44 PM