Abuse of Power in the Catholic Church: Undoing Almost Fifty Years of Progress – Part I, by Michele Stopera Freyhauf
“Now the Vatican says that nuns are too interested in “the social Gospel” (which is the Gospel), when they should be more interested in Gospel teachings about abortion and contraception (which do not exist). Nuns were quick to respond to the AIDS crisis, and to the spiritual needs of gay people—which earned them an earlier rebuke from Rome. They were active in the civil rights movement. They ran soup kitchens.” – Roman Catholic Women Priests (via Facebook)
I once had a conversation with my New Testament Professor about the issue of women ordination. He was optimistic and thought there might be a possibility that change was in the air – that was six years ago. The basis for his statement had to do with language. Of the journals and articles read, he felt the language used was more inclusive and that once people adjust to this discrete change in gender inclusive language, change for women in the Church can come.
He was right about change coming. The result was not equality and ordination for women, but an attempt to silence and force these women back into their habits and cloisters.
Language here is vital. Language is an extension of power – a weapon of enforcement, abuse, and control. If we examine language, four important points show a movement to undo almost fifty years worth of progress in the Catholic Church.
The first is the issue of Vatican warnings issued, especially against Roger Haight S.J. and Jon Sobrino S.J. John L. Allen, Jr. in 2007 predicted, or shall I say prophesied, that the Vatican’s warning against Liberation Theologian, Jon Sobrino S.J., was the sign of things to come. Specifically Allen states that the issue of “low Christology,” or the focus on the humanness of Jesus, is at issue. Allen states that the problem, according to Pope Benedict XVI, is:
“If Christ is seen as merely a human being, then Christian service to the world could be reduced to a “purely sociological” endeavor, as opposed to something that points to a spiritual message about supernatural redemption and salvation.”
This message is troubling. Works and charity are being de-emphasized, almost eliminated with the current controversy surrounding the U.S. Catholic Sisters, in favor of a “high Christology,” or focus on the spiritual or supernatural “Christ.”
The second is the change in words and gestures used during Liturgy. While sold as a more accurate translation of the Latin (Vulgate as opposed to Koine Greek or Ancient Aramaic), this is a return to language and gestures used during Liturgy before the Second Vatican Council. One only needs to talk to someone familiar with the Church prior to the Second Vatican Council to confirm this.
From there, backlash against theologians erupt with attempts to silence and redefine their purpose. This came at the hands of the USCCB, with now Cardinal Dolan at the helm. The issue surrounds the role of a theologian. According to CTSA, the theologian’s task is meant to venture in “new ways to imagine and express the mystery of God.” Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, before he died, emphasized that theology is not only healthy but “ultimately builds up a vital future for the church.” A push is being made to make Catholic theologians to take the party line and uphold, not challenge, the teachings of the Church. By this, theologians will become catechists, those “trained to teach” the catechism of the Catholic Church, instead of engaging in an exploration of the meaning of “faith seeking knowledge” – the definition of theology coined by Thomas Aquinas.
The final blow came down like a hammer against the keepers of the social gospel and the women that built and ran non-profit hospitals, taught in schools and founded institutions of higher education, and cared for orphans and the impoverished – the U. S. Catholic Sisters. Robert McClory tells a story of a homily given by a retired Pastor, Bob Oldershaw, who “praised in his homily women religious for creating in the U. S. ‘the most successful realization of Catholicism in history’.” Also touting the contribution of the women religious is James Martin, S.J., contributing editor at America Magazine, who started the Twitter hashtag flurry of #WhatSistersMeantoMe, which is captured in this video (warning the song that plays with the image contains an explicative (which you can mute), but the images and messages here are important and worth watching):
Martin’s video of thanks to the Sisters, which also mentions the document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, is found at this link: http://youtu.be/ALx-eolC1FI. In a quote found in the Huffington Post, Martin states:
“Catholic sisters are my heroes. In light of the Vatican’s desire to renew and reform their main organizing body, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, I thought it would be a great time to speak a word of support for Catholic sisters, and to acknowledge the hidden ways that these women have generously served God, served the poor and served this country.”
It is important for those not familiar with the status of the Catholic Sisters (or vowed religious) in the Catholic Church to know something about their mission, vows, and charisms:
“We make public vows of chastity, poverty and obedience to God. We vow to live for God alone and to serve God’s people for the rest of our lives. Our vows free us for this life through which we hope to express God’s love, mercy, compassion and care.”
- The vow of Chastity is the promise to live single-heartedly for God and to love wholeheartedly and inclusively all God’s people.
- The vow of Poverty is a commitment to simplicity of life in which we share not only possessions but our time, talents, and presence.
- The word Obedience comes from the Latin, obedire, which means “to listen.” There are community and personal aspects to the keeping of this vow. We are called to listen as a community to the Word of God, to the signs of the times in events and in society, and to the Catholic Church to see where we are being called and what we are being called to do. On the personal level, the vow of obedience requires a prayer life that cultivates a listening heart (emphasis mine).
Arguably the Catholic Church is the living breathing Church composed of its members, not the members of the hierarchy. Finally, each order has a specific charism (like the Ursuline Sisters whose charism is education):
“The word charism means special character or gift which is the distinctive quality of a certain person or Congregation. Just as one inherits certain physical and emotional features from one’s ancestors, we religious women inherit certain characteristics and spirit from the founders of our individual Congregations. The founder’s charism of service, spirituality and sense of mission lives on in the Congregation which s/he founded. This charism is developed and creatively expressed in new ways as succeeding generations respond to new needs and challenges in the world.”
According to Sr. Sandra M. Schneiders, professor emerita of New Testament and spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, in California:
From where I stand, it seems to me that male “protection,” paternalism and patriarchal theology are not to be trusted anymore because the actions it spawns in both men and women have limited the full humanity of women everywhere, and on purpose. Isn’t it time for us all to really be converted, to say the real Truth about women from our pulpits, from our preachers, from our patriarchs, until both they and we finally believe it ourselves? Then surely the actions that make it real will follow.
Truth with a capital “T” is emphasized. She also stated that for the group to revise itself was “actually immoral:
” ‘Within the canonical framework, there is only one way I can see to deal with this”… ‘They would have to disband canonically and regroup as an unofficial interest group. That would be the only way to maintain growth and nourish their congregational charisms and the charism of the LCWR, which is to help religious communities assess the signs of the time. If everything you do has to be approved by somebody outside, then you’re giving your charism away, and you’re certainly demeaning the ability of women to make distinctions.’ “
Today we find another American Cardinal is to blame for the original investigation; a Cardinal that has no business casting stones. His name? Cardinal Bernard F. Law. For those that do not remember the issues surrounding Law, he “resigned as Boston’s archbishop in 2002 following articles in the Globe reporting that he had allowed priests accused of sexually molesting minors to continue serving in parish ministries where they persisted in abusing children.” According to Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University:
“Many observers underestimated Law’s influence by focusing on his former role as arch-priest at St. Mary Major Basilica while ignoring his posts on important Vatican committees, especially the Congregation for Bishops. “He clearly was in a position to have influence to the extent that anyone would listen to him,’’ Reese said. “And many people at the Vatican felt he got a bum deal and were sympathetic to him.’’
As time continues to progress, the abuse of power exercised by the hierarchy moves in a way that refutes the teaching of Jesus. As we move away from the social gospel that Jesus left as a legacy and the foundation on which the Catholic Church was built, a question arises: Is the person who sits as Peter’s successor, entrusted with the keys to the kingdom of heaven, also standing in Peter’s shoes as the one who denied Jesus? With the judgment passed on theologians and the vowed religious, and with the exclusivity of language oppressing women, the cock has now crowed three times. But why?
As a young theologian, then Ratzinger, worked on the following documents as an “expert” during the Second Vatican Council: Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), and the Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church (Ad Gentes). It is important to understand the focus of each of these documents:
- Dei Verbum encourages the “theological virtues,” “Christian morality,” and a “fundamental guide for Christian conscience” that “takes special care to vindicate the authenticity of the portrayal of the historic Jesus of Nazareth in the Four Gospels.” A focus on Christology and social gospel of Jesus.
- Lumen Gentium, specifically the Appendix Acta Apostolicae Sedis, focuses on “Theological interpretation that apply to all magisterial teaching, including that of the papal Magisterium, as in encyclicals.” This is a focus on theology and one of the major documents that came out of the Council.
- Gaudium et Spes focuses on the Church’s duty in the world for human dignity and the common good – a Christocentric document with the basis of interpretation as the social gospel. This is another major document that came out of the Council.
- Ad Gentes focuses on the church as a sacrament paralleling “the missionary life and activity of the Church with the Trinitarian life of God.” Arguably, this document focuses on evangelization and missionary work, or once again, the social gospel.
With everything that is happening, evidence emerges and continues to emerge, showing a movement to undo the teachings of the Second Vatican Council is in the works, especially those worked on by the current Pope. At the forefront of this agenda is sexism, an attack against women in the Church. Quoted by Jason Pitzl-Waters:
“The Pope, who wrote the latest ruling, has been a strong opponent of feminism in the Catholic Church. In his book, The Ratzinger Report, he wrote, ‘I am, in fact, convinced that what feminism promotes in its radical form is no longer the Christianity that we know; it is another religion.”
Whether emergent at the level of Bishop, Cardinal, or Pope (or as indicated here, all three), abuse of power in the hierarchy of the Church is rampant and ravaging the Church with the target firmly set on women – especially feminist, theologians, and/or vowed religious. The Sisters have given so much to all of us, without asking for anything in return. They are Christ in the world. We need to support these women in a very public way, through our language – the language of the living breathing Church – each one of us baptized into the catholic church (small “c” emphasized).
For more information about the investigation surrounding the U.S. Catholic Sisters, see NCR’s blog page dedicated to tracking the responses and articles: http://ncronline.org/blogs/examining-the-crisis. To send a word of support: http://signon.org/sign/support-catholic-sisters.fb5?source=s.fb&r_by=4430626. To show solidarity with the sisters consider signing the petition to the USCCB and Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith: http://www.change.org/petitions/support-the-sisters. If interested in showing financial support to LCWR: https://lcwr.org/civicrm/contribute/transact?reset=1&id=1. Also see FAR’s dedicated page to this controversy.
The second part of this article, abuse of power by the hierarchy will be explored, especially the question – How did we get here? How did the hierarchy become so powerful? Is there anything we can do about it and remain faithful members of the Catholic Church? One thing is certain - the history behind and the cause (or motivation) for the abuse of power is remarkable, disturbing, and contrary to the teachings of Jesus.
Note: Images of the vowed religious used above and not otherwise marked can be found at http://www.CatholicNunsToday.org and http://www.catholicozvocations.org.au. Hyperlinks, in brown type-font, refer to cited material and videos.
Michele Stopera Freyhauf is currently at the University of Akron doing post-graduate work in the area of the History of Religion, Women, and Sexuality. She has a Master of Arts Degree from John Carroll University in Theology and Religious Studies and is an Adjunct Instructor in Religious Studies at Ursuline College. Her full bio is on the main contributor’s page or at http://johncarroll.academia.edu/MicheleFreyhauf. Michele can be followed on twitter at @MSFreyhauf.