The Church’s Tug of War

The Church’s Tug of War

Women are a driving force behind reform in the Catholic Church.


It is a harrowing time for the US Catholic Church. While the American bishops at their Dallas meeting in June agreed nearly unanimously to remove from active ministry any priest guilty of sexually abusing a minor, they didn’t render that decision with enthusiasm. For many, anger and resentment roiled just below the surface.

Take the closing remarks of Chicago’s Francis Cardinal George. In an elliptical rant, he held the Church’s opponents responsible for the hierarchy’s diminishing power. George’s targets included the campaign of Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) to downgrade the Church’s status at the UN to a nongovernmental organization; feminists working for laws requiring Catholic institutions that serve and employ the general public to provide reproductive health services, including contraceptive insurance; anyone suing the Church; Catholics with a shaky faith; Protestants; and American culture in general.

“There’s been an erosion of episcopal authority and a loss of Catholic faith for a generation,” George scolded. American culture, he said, is “a form of secularized Protestantism…self-righteous and decadent at the same time…. There’s external opposition…to the Holy See’s being in the United Nations…the attack on our healthcare institutes, the attack on our social services through various insurance policies…the attack upon our institutional presence that is only beginning…as plaintiffs begin to go forward in order to bankrupt the Church. All of these…are not coincidental. I believe personally–without looking at it as some kind of cabal…that we have to be very serious about how we’re going to go forward.”

“Going forward” to George means a smaller, more orthodox Church. It would be free of all those “dissidents” who, as the Catholic League’s William Donahue has said, “enabled the behavioral deviance.” Reflecting similar sentiments, America’s cardinals, upon their return from a visit to the Pope in April, issued a statement instructing pastors “clearly to promote the correct moral teaching” and “publicly to reprimand individuals who spread dissent.”

One thing is clear from the unprecedented gatherings in Rome and Dallas: If fundamental change is to come to the American Catholic Church, the bishops will not be leading the way. Nor will the Pope, who in Canada recently for World Youth Day finally acknowledged publicly the shame of the sex abuse scandals, but not the hierarchy’s culpability. That makes the work of the Church’s progressive reform movement more important than ever.

Anne Barrett Doyle is a recent recruit. She says she “literally woke up” in January when she read the Boston Globe‘s stories of clergy sex abuse and diocesan cover-up. The same spirit that had moved her as a tenth grader in a packed Roman Catholic Church to protest her priest’s refusal to baptize the baby of pro-choice parents inspired her again. Instead of going to their usual parish, she and her family drove to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, where Bernard Cardinal Law would be serving mass. Carrying her scrawled It’s My Church sign, Doyle joined a picket line of seven.

“I was so overcome with the sinfulness of the Church and also of myself, as a lay person who had enjoyed being part of this little club and had not fought against [my] subservient role,” says Doyle. Her wake-up call resulted in the birth of one of Boston’s most spirited Church reform organizations, the Coalition of Catholics and Survivors. As a leader of that group, Doyle joins the ranks of a largely invisible but driving force behind the Church’s progressive change movement: women.

Arguably, the best known is Sister Joan Chittister. A fiery orator and prolific author, this 66-year-old Benedictine nun made international news last year when she refused to obey a Vatican order forbidding her to speak at an international conference in Dublin on the ordination of women. Chittister made her decision in the face of Vatican threats of “grave penalties,” which could have ranged from excommunication to expulsion from her monastery in Erie, Pennsylvania. “The Church that preaches the equality of women but does nothing to demonstrate it within its own structures…is…dangerously close to repeating the theological errors that underlay centuries of Church-sanctioned slavery,” she told the emboldened crowd at the gathering.

Though Chittister would have defied the Pope alone, in the end, she didn’t have to. The Vatican had demanded that the prioress of Chittister’s monastery, Christine Vladimiroff, issue the “precept of obedience” forbidding Chittister to speak, or face grave penalties herself. Vladimiroff refused to be the Vatican’s henchman. “I could not order something I was in total disagreement with, and that is silencing,” says Vladimiroff. Despite advanced age and infirmity, all but one of 128 active members of the Erie Benedictines co-signed Vladimiroff’s letter to Rome. An additional letter of support came from nuns in twenty-two other Benedictine communities. The Vatican backed down.

For some, the courage of the Erie Benedictines has been an inspiration. Father Walter Cuenin is a Newton, Massachusetts, parish priest who helped to found another reform group, Priests’ Forum. The forum gives Boston priests a private, independent venue to discuss the previously undiscussable–from “whether mandatory celibacy should remain” to Church teachings like the birth-control ban. Cuenin remembers the Benedictines’ action well. “It had an impact on me personally,” he says. “A lot of us have lived in fear–I can’t speak because something will happen. If enough people speak, there’s nothing that anyone can do.”

There is no question that the pedophilia scandal has torn the mantle of sanctity off the Catholic Church. Long subject to a litany of illogical and unconscionable sexual prohibitions–which the Church labors worldwide to have written into secular law–Catholics now see that the hierarchy has failed to live up to even the most basic moral standards. That, explains Catholic University sociologist William D’Antonio, has exacerbated their outrage. His research revealed that only 20 percent of American Catholics look to Church leaders as a source of moral authority, and that was before the scandals broke. Most also believe that the Church should be more democratic. “What our data show,” D’Antonio says, “is that people are ready for the reform movement.”

And the reform movement is ready for them. The welcome surge of interest, however, has created some internal challenges for the movement, as the influx of new activists has radically changed its composition. Catholics never active before in Church affairs are demanding a voice. Some have joined the progressive movement, while others are mapping out a new middle ground. What’s different, says Tom Fox, publisher of the independent National Catholic Reporter, is that “there is a large cross-section of Catholics calling for change. From left to right, Catholics are calling upon the bishops [for] greater accountability. They’re saying the Church that we have, the governance we have, is not working.”

In the spirit of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the progressive reform groups embrace a broad agenda. They want women at all levels of ministry and decision-making; married clergy; optional celibacy; acceptance of homosexuals, the divorced and the remarried; an end to Vatican silencings; lay involvement in Church governance and in teachings on human sexuality (though abortion support varies, even among reformers); new forms of liturgy and nonsexist language; academic freedom at Catholic universities; and an affirmation of conscience as the final arbiter in moral matters.

This agenda is embraced by such groups as Call to Action–the nation’s oldest and largest, with 25,000 members and forty chapters; the gay rights group Dignity/USA; the Women’s Ordination Conference; the reproductive rights groups CFFC and Catholics Speak Out; Corpus, which supports married and female priests; Women-Church Convergence, a coalition committed to feminist spirituality; and FutureChurch, which raises awareness of the priest shortage and of women’s ministerial roles in the early and the contemporary Church. All are led or co-led by women.

By contrast, the new “center” is occupied by reformers with a narrower agenda. Like the progressive groups, they support the long-neglected victims of clergy sexual abuse–represented by the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and Linkup. But they call for change in only one area: Church governance. They want the hierarchy to share power, giving lay Catholics a real voice in administrative affairs such as financial decision-making and the hiring and firing of priests and bishops. Another new group, Voice of the Faithful in Boston, is working swiftly and systematically to move the agenda of Church accountability forward. With 22,500 members in forty states and twenty-two countries, VOTF is building an exploding network of independent, parish-based groups. In addition, VOTF has set up a charitable fund through which Catholics can redirect their donations from Boston’s archdiocesan coffers to Catholic agencies–the only real power Catholics currently have.

While VOTF has members who also participate in progressive reform groups, the organization does not consider itself part of the progressive community. Founder Jim Muller, a cardiologist who also founded International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, describes VOTF as a centrist organization. “We are building a representative structure for the laity that will be more like Congress than the Democratic or Republican Party,” he says. According to one insider, however, VOTF has gone to great lengths to make conservatives feel welcome while distancing itself from progressive groups. It has also, observes Call to Action spokeswoman Claire Noonan, “been very careful not to take positions on issues of big controversy, like women’s ordination and optional celibacy.” Depending on how large VOTF becomes and how its members vote on contentious issues, it could have the effect of either strengthening or marginalizing the larger progressive reform agenda.

As for the progressive reformers, they see in the current crisis dramatic evidence of the need for change. They are incensed by the hierarchy’s scapegoating of homosexual priests as the cause of the scandals. In fact, they point out, that contention cannot be separated from the Church’s denial of the rampant sexual abuse of girls and women by Catholic priests, which some contend far outstrips the abuse of male children in its incidence. Half the members of both SNAP and Linkup are women. Last year internal Church documents revealed a pattern of sexual abuse and exploitation of nuns–and other girls and women–by priests in some twenty-three countries, on five continents. What’s more, according to the research of psychotherapist and former Catholic monk Richard Sipe, at any one time, at least a third of priests, regardless of sexual orientation, are sexually active with adults. Whether those relationships are exploitative or consensual, they indicate the depth of the hypocrisy inherent in the claim of a celibate priesthood.

Progressive reformers see women’s overall subordinate role in the Church–including the ban on ordination–as contributing to this crisis. Another Call to Action spokeswoman, Linda Pieczynski, suggests that if women–particularly mothers–had been at the table, “We wouldn’t have tried to save Father Bob’s reputation. We would have protected the children.” Indeed, we have seen how women in male-dominated institutions–Sherron Watkins at Enron, Coleen Rowley at the FBI–have blown the lid off secret shenanigans. But integrating women into positions of power in the Church means taking on an issue absent from the public dialogue: misogyny. As Chittister has observed, the Roman Church “built a bad theology of male superiority on a bad biology that defined women as passive incubators of male sperm…inferior by nature and deficient of soul, the servants of men and the seducers of civilization.”

While reformers in the new middle are trying to force the hierarchy to share power, plenty of progressive reformers have chosen to go their own way, while continuing obstinately to call themselves Catholic. Last November Mary Ramerman lay prostrate on a stage before 3,000 jubilant supporters in Rochester, New York’s Eastman Theatre, where she was ordained a Catholic priest. While Ramerman was ordained in the Old Catholic rather than the Roman Catholic Church (the Old Catholics broke with Rome when it declared the doctrine of papal infallibility in 1870), she took that action against the orders of Rochester Bishop Matthew Clark, who directed her “to abandon your leadership role” at Spiritus Christi. A vigorous congregation of 1,500, Spiritus grew out of the smoldering ashes of another Catholic parish, Corpus Christi. That was after Clark dismissed both its pastor, in part for allowing Ramerman on the altar during mass, and Ramerman for refusing to step off.

“They are a real problem [for the Catholic Church] because that’s the most alive faith community in that whole area,” says Sister Maureen Fiedler, advisory board member of Catholics Speak Out and host of the radio show Interfaith Voices. CFFC president Frances Kissling agrees. “What is the best example of Church reform in the United States right now? Spiritus Christi. They have a vital, lively church that is not connected to the institution, but that views itself as Catholic.”

Revving up the rebellion, on June 29 seven women–four Germans, two Austrians and one with dual Austrian-American citizenship–were ordained Roman Catholic priests on a cruise ship, the MS Passau, on the Danube River, just outside of Passau, Germany. Romulo Braschi of Argentina was the presiding bishop. While Braschi was ordained a Catholic priest and later, a bishop, he leads a splinter sect and has no standing with the Vatican. As a result, some reformers distanced themselves from the ordination. Others, like Fiedler, who attended, saw it as an important step forward. “I think what Rome worries about is that this could start breaking out all over,” she says.

While much smaller than Spiritus Christi–some have only a handful of members–hundreds of Catholic intentional eucharistic communities exist around the country. In the tradition of the early Christian church and Latin America’s small base communities, these worship communities–some decades old–meet regularly, often in people’s homes; celebrate the eucharist, with their own liturgies; and choose their own worship leaders, including married Catholic priests, openly gay Catholic priests and Catholic women.

Reformers also labor outside the Church to curb its power in the world. No group has worked longer to challenge the institutional Church’s attempts to restrict access to reproductive healthcare than Catholics for a Free Choice (I served for a time on CFFC’s board). More recently, secular women’s groups have joined in this work.

After toiling in near-obscurity, progressive Church reform groups have been hurled by the current crisis into the spotlight. They report increased hits on their websites, more calls and letters, jumps in membership, more donations. Though their membership rosters remain very low, considering that the country has 63 million Catholics, there is a lot of talk about the demand for Church reform finally having reached critical mass.

Intent on keeping the heat on, VOTF organized its first national conference, which drew more than 4,000 people to Boston on July 20. Call to Action is planning its annual national conference for November in Milwaukee. The Women’s Ordination Conference has endorsed the ordination of the new women priests in Germany and is considering a similar event in the United States. On the narrower issue of clergy sex abuse, the groups will be monitoring to see that priests are removed and lobbying for penalties for complicit bishops. Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma, head of the national lay committee established by the bishops’ conference, has pledged that he will appeal to the Pope for sanctions against offending bishops, but is already tempering his tough talk.

Even if the reformers do nothing more, many believe the Church hierarchy has already forfeited its moral authority–potentially a loss to advocates for the poor, but a boon for reproductive rights. Certainly the Church has lost its protected status with the media and, now, with law enforcement. A grand jury convened by Westchester, New York, District Attorney Jeanine Pirro just recommended criminal penalties for those who recklessly allow an employee with a record of child sexual abuse access to minors–which could provide a way to prosecute offending bishops.

For its part, the Church is not taking these incursions into its power lying down. During the American cardinals’ visit to Rome earlier this year, Cardinal Law had his top aide, Bishop Walter Edyvean, send a letter to parish priests in the Boston Archdiocese instructing them “not to join, foster or promote” the efforts of a lay group to combine existing diocesan-run lay councils into an association. In a meeting with VOTF representatives, Edyvean invited them several times, according to VOTF spokesman Paul Baier, “to shut your group down.” VOTF reports pressure on parish priests to prohibit VOTF chapters from meeting on church property–a prohibition long imposed on Call to Action chapters. Such obstacles, VOTF’s Muller told the New York Times, could lead the group to “become more radical.”

And, in a dramatic contrast to its coddling of priest child sex abusers, the Vatican threatened to excommunicate the women ordained on the Danube if they didn’t renounce their ordinations by July 22. The women refused, and have since sent a letter challenging their excommunication to the Vatican. Ironically, July 22 was also the Feast Day of St. Mary of Magdala (a k a Mary Magdalene), on which several thousand people attended more than 200 woman-led celebrations. Those celebrations were developed by reform groups to mend the reputation of the most famous prostitute in Church history, who was actually not a prostitute at all but the first of Jesus’ disciples to witness his resurrection.

The power of the institutional Church to intimidate stands. Some reformers remain protective of the identities of priests who allow women to preach at mass and of independent eucharistic communities. Vladimiroff never got official word that the Pope was finished with the Erie Benedictines, and she’s waiting for the other shoe to drop. Organizers of the ordinations on the Danube restricted press access to protect guests from Church reprisals.

The progress to be made, in the end, depends on the will of the laity. “Catholics need to get much more vocal with the diocesan leadership about what kinds of things they’re going to tolerate and what kinds of things they’re not,” says FutureChurch executive director Sister Chris Schenk. “And they’re going to have to link it to the pocketbook.” That’s a special challenge for devout Catholics used to obeying, and for so-called cafeteria Catholics, who may feel little responsibility for the institutional Church.

As to how quickly change will come, Chittister offers a perspective. “I’m talking about the movement of tectonic plates,” she says, reflecting on the magnitude of the challenges ahead. “I am not talking about tiny, little organizational cosmetics, a new set of rules for how we report on something. I’m talking about a whole institutional Church, about the conversion of this clerical institution into a real Church society.”

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