Abuse of Power in the Catholic Church Part II – WE are the Church! By Michele Stopera Freyhauf


Spiritual Power is arguably the most dangerous power of all.  In the wrong hands, it gives the power to make judgments even about the eternal fate of another person.  It needs a sign on it at all times saying, ‘Handle with extreme care.’  The greater the power a person exercises, the more need there is for checks and balances before it is used and accountability after it is used.” – – Bishop Geoffrey Robinson

 May 6th, I addressed the issue of abuse of power in the Catholic Church and how we seem to be unraveling any kind of progress made since Vatican II.  Since writing that article, the Leadership of the LCWR met with Vatican Officials and expressed their concerns openly.  A dialogue occurred and left no resolution, just information that the leadership will discuss with the community at their August meeting.  That meeting will reveal their next step in this controversy – concede and follow the conditions and rules sets forth by the CDF or disband and form a new religious community or maybe there will be another option revealed.

I have to ask though – Was this a meaningful meeting or was it meant to pacify the Sisters and their supporters? Will the Vatican change its stance? Certainly, the U. S. Catholic Sisters have not been

pacified, nor have their supporters.  For example, there is a “Nuns on the Bus” tour traveling around the United States,  prayer services for the Sisters, #nunjustice and #whatthesistersmeantome campaigns on Twitter.  Even the Women’s Ordination Conference delivered a petition containing over 57,000 signatures to the Vatican in support of the Sisters.  Certainly, the support for the sisters and their mission is not dwindling, but growing stronger every day.

As for the Vatican, a change in their position is doubtful, but we can continue to pray.  I am, however, very discouraged by a statement attributed to Pope Benedict that indicates a desire to have a smaller more faithful Church of Catholics then a large Church of people who do not adhere to Church Teaching – seeking out a small, strong, holy community.

Obviously, it is my hope that this statement was taken out of context, but I have to be honest and say

Women’s Ordination Conference delivering Petition
Picture reprinted from WOC’s page on Facebook

that my hope is filled with doubt.  This is not the first time I have heard clergy make this statement. Priests have made this statement in my presence – wanting a more faithful flock and dismissing those that do not adhere to their interpretation of Church teaching. This stance does not bear fruit, but is rather a power play – a play that can be called many things – misogynist, arrogant, non-pastoral, cold-hearted, and frankly un-Christian.  It also plays with a person’s spiritual fate and in many cases their soul.   The psychological impact of something like this is dangerous for some. Some ordained will go so far as to withhold sacraments or even compromise the person’s  status in the Church, including their role in ministry, for the sole purpose of  inducing compliance – a tactic that dates to the medieval period.

Spiritual Power is arguably the most dangerous power of all.  In the wrong hands, it gives the power to make judgments even about the eternal fate of another person.  It needs a sign on it at all times saying, ‘Handle with extreme care.’  The greater the power a person exercises, the more need there is for checks and balances before it is used and accountability after it is used.  If the governing image of how to act as a priest or religious is tied to the ideas of lordship and control, then, no matter how benevolently ministry is carried out, an unhealthy domination and subservience will be present.  The worst case is that of the ‘messiah complex,’ where a person believes that God is calling him or her to be, as it were, a messiah, a chosen one who is called to some special mission and is, therefore, above the rules that apply to ordinary mortals, including the moral rules.” – – Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, Retired Auxiliary Bishop in the Archdiocese of Sydney Australia from 1984 until 2004, in his book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus

Many have left the Church because of these very issues –reasons that stem from an action, interaction, or lack of action with their pastor or other clergy.  While I refuse to make blanket statements about the clergy in the Church, because many exist who are pastoral and dedicated to the social gospel and the Church, there are many more who are guilty of having this “messiah” complex who rule with the fear of fire of brimstone instead of love and compassion.

Donald Cozzens outlined additional issues that Catholics have with the Church today in the forward of Robinson’s book:

  • “Catholics today are weary and discouraged.
  • They are weary of the stark and deepening divide separating so-called Vatican II Catholics from Vatican I Catholics

    Donald Cozzens – reposted from http://votf.org/vineyard/June29_2012/index.html

  • They are weary of the meanness and the self-righteousness that marks much of their exchanges.
  • They are discouraged by those church leaders and others who want to ‘reform the reforms’ of the Second Vatican Council.
  • They are tired of those churchmen who refuse to take laity seriously, especially the extraordinary gifts of Catholic women.
  • Catholics are weary and discouraged, but they are also angry. 
  • They are angry with those members of the clergy who have used their pastoral roles and status to sexually exploit children, teenagers, and vulnerable adults.
  • They are angry with those bishops and their assistance who have placed the welfare of the institutional church ahead of the welfare of the church as the communion of God’s people – and in doing so denied, minimized, deflected, and outright lied.

Between the issues surrounding the Church and the handling of the sex abuse scandal, the targeting of the U. S. Catholic Sisters and the Girl Scouts, vatican warnings on publications written by Jesuits, theologians, vowed religious, and women, as well as stances on contraception and the overall targeting of  women in general – a movement is occurring, communities are forming, and the people are taking their church back. I want to believe that I am witnessing history – a wave of change – a hope for a better and stronger church.

It goes without saying that this is and will always be an imperfect Church because humans are imperfect.  The Church is not bricks and mortar, but living and breathing. According to Cozzens, Catholics really do not want much:

  • We “want honest dialogue about our wounded church.
  • We want a more open and accountable church, with far less secrecy.
  • We want a serious review of the systems and structures that no longer serve the pastoral needs and mission of the Church.
  • We want real collaboration between clergy and laity, a collaboration that respects the Spirit-given talents of the people of God….
  • We want leaders who will treat us as thinking adults. 
  • We want leaders who understand they are meant to tell us the story of freedom in Christ Jesus.
  • We want leaders who so live the Gospel that the very witness of their lives is the ground of their authority….
  • Catholics want pastors and bishops who listen to their experiences of trying to live as Christ has taught. 
  • Listen, they ask, to the stories of parents and young believers.
  • Listen, they ask, to the stories of the divorced and separated, listen to the stories of the gays and lesbians, listen to the stories of pastors, and listen to the stories of women. They are stories of faith and grace.  They are stories of wounds and triumph.”

Certainly, this list is a manageable list and is rooted in compassion, humility, patience, and understanding. It is a re-building of community and respect rooted in the Gospel, understood through the experiences of the members of the Church, dialoguing with everyone – no exceptions – all coming together in love and support, helping and healing, and lifting each one up in prayer.

Picture of Bishop Robinson reprinted from http://bishopgeoffrobinson.org/

No matter the outcome with the U. S. Catholic Sisters, we must always remember that WE are the Church. WE must come together in support and love.  WE must be pastoral.  WE must listen.  WE must have faith. WE must be hopeful.  WE must be Christ-like.  WE must be the Church.

I conclude with a reflection from Robinson that sums up our Church:

“The promise of Jesus Christ was not that the church will never make mistakes, but that it will survive its mistakes, for the truth of Jesus Christ will always be present in the church – tarnished and even obscured, but always there to be rediscovered.  The promise that, in spite of many errors in detail, the church will be maintained in the basic truth of the Great Tradition, and that the ugliness in the church will never completely destroy its underlying beauty.  The church’s faith will often be weak, its love lukewarm, its hope wavering, but that on which its faith is based, its love is rooted, and its hope is built will always endure.”

 Michele Stopera Freyhauf is currently at the University of Akron doing post-graduate work in the area of the History of “the Americas” focusing on Religion, Gender, and Culture.  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.

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Categories: Abuse of Power, Catholic Church, Catholicism, Church Doctrine, Contraception, Ethics, Feminism, Gender and Power, General, Hierarchy, Jesus, LGBTQ, Power relations, Prayer, Reform, Second Vatican Council, Social Gospel, Social Justice, U. S. Catholic Sisters, Vowed Religious, Women and Ministry, Women in the Church, Women Religious

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4 replies

  1. Brava! And Hooray for the Nuns on a Bus and other strong Catholics. Given the history of the papacy–anyone else remember the Inquisition, the Piuses who weren’t, the Innocents who weren’t, the Borgia and Medici popes??–can we really hope for a change in the 21st century? The old men in skirts have 20 centuries of absolute power and wealth behind them. Is there a new, feminist Henry VIII alive today to change the old church?? Any new Reformers?? Goddess knows, we don’t really want another Henry or another Calvin and his bunch, but your church may need someone like them. Hooray for feminist Catholics. Hooray for the Nuns on a Bus.

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  2. Thanks Michele for this – it’s really important to be reminded that it is the community of faith that makes up the church. The people as church can and should continue to live out its witness to the good news, and a small handful of people in hierarchical power don’t get to control or determine that – even if they think they do. La Lucha continues!

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  3. Thank you Michele, we need to keep alive the hope to reshape, recreate and recover the images and messages of Mary, Jesus and Magdalene from the self proclaimed apostles. This is what the US Nuns mean to me. When I received this email, immediately I thought of you. As a former devoted Catholic, I am thrilled at the NUNS efforts!

    Interview of Sister Pat Farrell, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the vice president of the Sisters of St. Francis in Dubuque, Iowa.

    An American Nun Responds To Vatican Criticism, interviewed by Terry Gross, Fresh Air, NPR:
    http://www.npr.org/2012/07/17/156858223/an-american-nun-responds-to-vatican-condemnation

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  4. As a Protestant who is interested in the Catholic Church, I am yet again dumbfounded by people like the author, who are obviously extremely well-educated, yet don’t seem to understand the fundamentals of the RC Church. The way I understand it (and please correct me if I am wrong) is that the Catholic Church is a top-down, authoritarian church with ALL of its fundamental teachings being non-negotiable and permanent via the teachings of the Bible and Sts. Augustine and Aquinas. It claims to be the Truth, and Truth doesnt change. Everything that is taught must be consistent with these sources. All the most strenuous efforts in the world to change things like its stances on contraception or women in the priesthood are a COMPLETE WASTE OF TIME. It is not a matter of getting the Church to “evolve” or “come into the 21st Century.” To justify contraception and women priests, you would have to somehow make these consistent with the complete body of moral and theological teachings for the last 2,000 years, not just say that the Church needs to be more “modern.” No one is doing this. Dialoguing is only a means of pacifying people and making them think something is going to change, but it is never, ever going to. The Catholic Church’s claim to fame–and the reason that Protestants now want to join–is that IT DOES NOT CHANGE ITS BASIC BELIEFS. Protestants can see their changing beliefs morph their own churches far away from where they started, and don’t like the results. I could not join the Catholic Church today unless I assent 100% to everything the Catholic Church teaches, yet members think they can “dialogue for change.” That’s an illusion. If the Pope were honest, he would be clear that, although he is open to hearing people’s complaints, he has no intention of changing any doctrines whatsoever, and CANNOT even change some–like women in the priesthood. Instead the members are allowing themselves to be fooled into believing that these “dialogues” mean change is in the air. The truth is that you do not,want to assent to the Church. You do not want a pope who tells you what the Church teaches. What you want is to change the things you don’t like. What you want is to be PROTESTANTS,

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