Winds of Change in the Roman Catholic Church by Michele Stopera Freyhauf

Michele FreyhaufIn 2007, I had a conversation with a professor who felt that change was in the air for the Roman Catholic Church. The basis of this opinion was based on language. The words and the context used in writings that emerged from the Vatican were changing and somehow different – a difference that went beyond personal writing styles of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. This professor was hopeful that positive change for women could be coming. He was right about change in the Church, however, the changes surrounding women that emerged have not been positive.

As I continue to reflect on these words, I ponder the issue of language; specifically the impact words have and the way they are used to facilitate subtle changes in thinking, opinion, and beliefs. The method of persuasion that seems to be employed is the Aristotelian Rhetorical Theory that utilizes the five canons of rhetoric: invention, organization, style, delivery, and memory.

An example of this can be seen clearly in the changes in the liturgy that occurred last year. First, the teaching comes out with the rationale as to why the liturgy needs to change. From there a discussion, especially through the media, addressing the upcoming modifications are followed by subtle changes in the liturgy beginning with the call – response and the language in the creed. Next, the language of the celebrant began to change. Finally, the full implementation of changes is made with the addition of new gestures or movements. When I discussed the mass changes with a family member, there was an admittance that the changes no longer affect them – the changes were no longer noticeable. Their memory was impacted because the routine is now second nature.

In order to come to grips with the issue of language and the observation of my professor, I wanted to do a cursory review of the writings issued by the Vatican during this period. Admittedly, with a blog post, there is a limitation as to the depth and breadth of information that can be disseminated. It is my hope to eventually complete a thorough review of the modification of language used during Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy. For now, I want to address a few observations.

During a cursory investigation, I came across a common theme:

the Vatican seeks to set the record straight on Vatican II’s ecumenical intent, saying some contemporary theological interpretation had been “erroneous or ambiguous” and had prompted confusion and doubt.”

In a Washington Post article dated July 10, 2007, “Vatican Reaffirms Catholic Primacy,” the relationship of the Roman Catholic Church to other Christian denominations is examined. In essence, a statement was made that said any community outside the Roman Catholic Church suffers from defect:

“In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church.”

This statement came after Pope Benedict’s decree restoring the Tridentine or Old Latin Mass – another movement backwards.

This is also the time that the Doctrine of Faith issued a decree, December 19, 2007:

“Remaining firm on what has been established by canon 1378 of the Canon Law, both he who has attempted to confer holy orders on a woman, and the woman who has attempted to receive the said sacrament, incurs in latae sententiae excommunication, reserved to the Apostolic See.

If he who has attempted to confer holy orders on a woman or if the woman who has attempted to receive holy orders, is a member of the faithful subject to the Code of Canon Law for the Eastern Churches, remaining firm on what has been established by canon 1443 of the same Code, they will be punished with major excommunication, whose remission remains reserved to the Apostolic See (see canon 1423, Canon Law of the Eastern Churches).”

John L. Allen Jr.’s article “Has the ‘real Ratzinger’come out to play?” lists issues raised by the Vatican in April alone:

  • “On April 18, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith decreed a sweeping overhaul of the Leadership Conference for Women Religious, the main American umbrella group for the superiors of women’s orders, to correct what the congregation described as LCWR’s “corporate dissent” on issues such as women’s ordination and homosexuality, and its contamination by “radical feminism.”
  • Pope Benedict XVI (from
    Pope Benedict XVI (image from

    At least five Irish priests have faced Vatican-inspired discipline, with implementation left to their religious orders. Two Redemptorists have seen their writings for a church magazine either withdrawn or limited (one was also dispatched to a monastery for a six-week “reflection”), a Passionist prominent in the English media is now subject to prior censorship, and both a Marist and a Capuchin have been told to stop writing and speaking on certain hot-button topics.

  • On April 5, Benedict XVI included some blistering language in his Holy Thursday homily about a “call to disobedience” issued by more than 300 priests and deacons in Austria who oppose celibacy and support women’s ordination. The pope called the effort “a desperate push to do something to change the Church in accordance with (their) own preferences and ideas.
  • On April 14, Benedict XVI ordered the German bishops to translate the traditional Latin phrase pro multis, from the words spoken by Christ at the Last Supper in reference to the shedding of his blood, as “for many” rather than “for all”. (The Vatican had previously done the same thing for English.) In the politics of liturgical translation, “for all” has been the preferred post-Vatican choice among progressives; conservatives typically prefer “for many,” worrying that “for all” suggests a false promise of universal salvation.
  • On April 25, Benedict created a commission of three veteran cardinals to investigate the recent Vatican leaks scandal, complementing two other internal probes. The suggestion was that the Vatican’s moles, assuming they’re identified, will face stern punishment.”

Since 2007, and thinking about the last few months, we have seen Fr. Roy Bourgeois excommunicated for supporting the ordination of women and Pope Benedict using his Christmas message to attack gay marriage. Instead of giving an uplifting message of hope, there is criticism. According to the NY Daily News:

“the Pope has said that gay marriage, like abortion and euthanasia, is a threat to world peace.”

As proposterous as this sounds, we just entered a new year. I fear what is in store for the Church. Benedict continues to move the Church backwards – as it existed before the implementation of the changes from the Second Vatican Council – with the use of rhetoric. He has brought back the red shoes, outside hats, and other vestments that have not been seen or worn by other popes on a regular basis, if at all, for quite some time.

This backward slide is subtle, but with the appointments and promotions of staunchly conservative Bishops and Cardinals, there is an aggressive enforcement of their interpretation of Catholic teaching, which seems to be singling out theologians, women, and homosexuals. This movement is unsettling and continues to alienate many of the faithful. For those who listen without question, rhetoric has caused compliance, but not necessarily obedience (as demonstrated in the most recent Presidential Election where the GOP lost the Catholic vote).

While there is so much more to say and examine, I will conclude with a couple of questions to ponder and discuss. Is Allen correct in his statement about the Pope? Are we far away enough from Pope John Paul II’s death that the policies and Benedict’s interpretation of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, in favor of the Church of his youth? Will the Church become a smaller and “more faithful”? What will the Catholic Church look like in the future?

Michele Stopera Freyhauf is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University. She has a Master of Arts Degree from John Carroll University in Theology and Religious Studies, performed post-graduate work in History focusing on Gender, Religion, and Sexuality at the University of Akron, and is an Adjunct Instructor in the Religious Studies Department at Ursuline College. Her full bio is on the main contributor’s page or at Michele can be followed on twitter at @msfreyhauf.

Author: Michele Stopera Freyhauf

Michele Stopera Freyhauf is a Doctoral Student in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and a Member of the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University as well as an Instructor at John Carroll University’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies. Michele has an M. A. in Theology and Religious Studies from John Carroll University, and did post-graduate work at the University of Akron in the area of History of Religion, Women, and Sexuality. She is also a Member-at-Large on the Student Advisory Board for the Society of Biblical Literature and the student representative on the Board for Eastern Great Lakes Biblical Society (EGLBS). Michele is a feminist scholar, activist, and author of several articles including “Hagia Sophia: Political and Religious Symbolism in Stones and Spolia” and lectured during the Commission for the Status of Women at the United Nations (2013). Michele can be followed on Twitter @msfreyhauf and @biblicalfem. Her website can be accessed here and is visible on other social media sites like LinkedIn and Google+.

10 thoughts on “Winds of Change in the Roman Catholic Church by Michele Stopera Freyhauf”

  1. I cannot access this post and get the following message:

    404: Page Not Found We are terribly sorry, but the URL you typed no longer exists. It might have been moved or deleted, or perhaps you mistyped it. We suggest searching the site:


    1. I had the same thing happen, but then clicked on the author’s name and entered the site and her article is listed at the top of the articles.


  2. I had the same thing happen. I clicked on “home,” got the piece again, then clicked on “read more” and got the rest of the piece. At least the error message didn’t come up in Latin.


  3. Really appreciate this post and look forward to your further exploration of the topic. I suspect that the list of items from John Allen’s “real Ratzinger” article should say since April 2012, not 2007. Those events all occurred last year.


  4. Yes, words are important. Why is anyone surprised that this pope and his gang are twisting words in their efforts to take their church–and presumably the rest of the world–back to the Middle Ages? Those were the church’s good old days when the pope was in charge of everything. Patriarchal men will do anything to stay on top. It’s time to reread 1984 by George Orwell. And support the Nuns on the Bus; whether they’re still on that bus or not, they’re headed forward, not backward.


  5. Good morning, Thought you would want to know that the link to the full article is broken (leads to a 404 error).




  6. I am not sure why the link is broken. The only thing I can think of is that the post was accidently published the 2nd and when I updated it, the date may have updated to the 3rd in the URL. Sorry for the inconvenience, but I am very glad you found this article and welcome your comments.


  7. Barbara, you’re absolutely right. When Ratzinger was elected, this follow-on was predictable, and why it’s now leading to surprised “Wow! I could have had a V-8!” slaps to various foreheads is astonishing.

    As one who has come the whole journey through (and, fortunately, out of) the Roman/Orthodox patriarchal system, it seems self-evident that the whole thing is not about walking Jesus’ walk–if that’s what one chooses to do–but about continuing to talk the same old patronizing, belittling, anti-feminine, anti-whatever-group you feel threatens your grasp on power and control, talk. It’s the continuing use of both direct language and of insinuation to threaten, cajole, intimidate, and silence. It’s the clever use of language to appropriate or imply an authority you don’t even possess…unless someone hands it over to you. It’s the Taliban by another name.

    It’s at critical moments of insight (Ratzinger’s appalling Christmas speech provides an excellent example: peace where? Good will to whom?) that feminists need to stop denying they’re in abusive relationships with irredeemable and irremediable institutions and exit.

    Riding in the back of a bus, whether actual or metaphorical, only gives consent for old patterns to go on…and on…and on.


  8. My favorite quote on Ratzinger came from a German man on CNN during the priest pedophile discussion. “The papacy is like a (jack in the ) box and when you open the box out jumps Ratzinger.”


  9. Michele, do you happen to know the current status of what’s going on with the Leadership Conference for Women Religious? Have the bishops moved in and started throwing their weight around yet, or has the church actually come to its senses and attempted some genuine dialogue (as opposed to their current imposed monologue) with the LCWR?


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