It breaks me down. My anger, my revulsion, my powerlessness. I have been searching for the way since I was a child old enough to remember my mind. For a time, I thought Jesus was a white guy knocking on my door after having seen a religious pamphlet placed under our windshield wiper. I’m not sure he has blond hair anymore, but I still feel him knocking. I have been in love with him for as long as I have been a self, so much so that I baptized myself as a little girl.
Somewhere along the way, I figured my little, lonely way wasn’t good enough, and I wanted a church home. I finished a doctoral dissertation trying to find some place I could hang my hat. I picked the Roman Catholic Church, despite what I knew of it and what I had to defend about its patriarchy and history to family and friends. I loved the conversation, the so-called “Catholic Intellectual Tradition.” I always felt myself to be a covert, a conversa, a definitive outsider, and someone not to be trusted entirely as a cradle Catholic might be trusted, yet I tried to be family. I’ve been bringing up my kids in the Church, volunteering, working in Catholic education, paying the boys’ tuition. I do work-arounds, making excuses for the exclusion of women, defying the Church’s stance on sexuality with a critical repertoire of cross-disciplinary scholarship. Lord, I even had to help my Seventh-Day Adventist mom with a hostile annulment process that was dropped on her unsuspecting by a horrendously insensitive marriage tribunal. It wounded us all. Yet, here I have sat, until this.
I do not believe you can or should put it back together again. I would respect you more if you did not even try. You see, I have been reading the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report with my own two eyes. It reads worse than those Hollywood movies from the 80s, which I used to decry, that tried to shock by juxtaposing Catholic images/places/people/symbols with the devil-worshipping occult. I would like you to know, I have been reading the report aloud to my kids. I want them to understand the limits of your authority. I want them to question what you say. I don’t trust you, and I don’t want them to trust you either. Earn respect or don’t expect it. Warrant trust or trust you do not warrant it.
I have read many statements from various priests and bishops, responding to the “crisis.” These all act as though some bad thing has occurred that they weren’t anticipating, such as a really nasty bridge-collapse or a virulent bird flu epidemic. There is a much-protesting message of hierarchical disgust flying around. To me it sounds, “Oh my, oh dear (picture a fan daintily waving in hands of the almost-fainting leadership), this is just awful! We’re going to get to the bottom of this. And, by golly, those rotters who cast a bad light on Holy Mother Church! They should be ashamed. Oh goodness, huddle close, children. We have to pray for those poor victims. And, even more, we have to pray for the Church, the Light of the World” (by which it is unclear whether that means the 1.2 billion people who comprise the universal flock or the King’s Men, caught with their pants down.) There is some accountability and also some measure of kicking around blame as well. Some are calling for panels, study groups, more grand jury investigations, and resignations. Some are calling out the highest ranks of leadership, even the Vicar of Jesus Christ himself, that is, the Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, the one, the only, the Servant of the servants of God. I read the report implicating Pope Francis as well, much to my chagrin.
But, I tell you what… I don’t believe the righteous indignation in the priests’ and bishops’ responses or even in the pope’s sudden reticence. As a grown-up #metoo-er, I see the light. And, the light of the world is not to be found in the closeted shelter of conclaves, gentlemen’s clubs, and men’s locker rooms. Don’t you see? Don’t you get it yet? Don’t you understand what the problem is?
I can’t believe you don’t get it yet. You’re smart fellows. You’re at the tops of the ladders. You are educated, empowered, insured, fed, and housed. You know the problem is not really the suppressed homosexuality of a few gay priests or even a lot of gay priests. You know the problem is not the pedophilia of some misguided souls. You know the problem is not the challenge of celibacy and a supposed uncontrollable need for sex, which a married priesthood would solve. The problem is not (Oh Lord, I’m even going to say this), merely the general exclusion of women from the priesthood. You Holy Men in Power, you know what the problem is. It is your power, and you are never, ever going to relinquish it. What is more, that power is deeply, perversely sexed and gendered. You have ill-relationships to the body, informed by power and greed, and that distorts every potential for wholesome relationship between selves and among creatures. Could such a stronghold of power ever sincerely seek for faith to make the flock well, so well that we indeed would be well enough to go, whole, freely, in peace?
I do believe that I speak with a host of angels cheering me on when I dare say that Jesus of Nazareth, the man recorded in the gospels, did not envision any kind of Church that at any point in its historical timeline would search and destroy witches, endorse enslavement for monarchical gain, or cover up the modern-day holocaust of souls made possible by a persistent culture of sexual predation. He was a servant, unto death itself. He didn’t force a doctrine. He didn’t even set up some doctrine. He forgave and set people free of the things that bound them, beseeching only two things: that they love God and one another.
Indeed, it is true that anywhere there are vulnerable people, there will be advantage-taken. Parents to children; teachers to students; coaches to athletes. It is not you alone, Catholic priests and bishops. But, my God, you were called to better when you put on that cloth and allowed someone to call you, ”Father.” When you asked for the confession from a bunch of eight-year-old kids and told the parents that the kids’ confessions are exclusively between themselves and the priest, you lost the privilege of screwing up that badly.
How could this happen, you ask, we ask? It is so entirely simple. It is isn’t really screwing up, is it? Part of the institution, part of the process itself, part of the structural norm is the huge, impenetrable imbalance of power that allows for insidious corruption. The huge gulf, even after Vatican II, between the hierarchy and the rest of us, is the seedbed of fear, shame, voicelessness, and spiritual disparity that keeps sheep under the hierarchy. It is that institutional power differential that keeps wives under thumbs, children stunned and silenced, black kids dodging police cars, and gays fearing for the next piece of legislation. You cannot fix child abuse and its coverup without addressing the source of the problem. You cannot fix the problem by an exercise of power but by power’s abdication.
What would you have me say to my children? What responsible survivor of her own childhood trauma can be welcome in your home? Am I too woman, too sinful, too much a mother, too sensitive to pray inside the halls and walls of kings in satin hats, dressing gowns, and fancy kicks (red or white)? I was trapped in my psychology professor’s office once, and I have real trouble in my family. I can’t pay all my bills, and I clean my own house. I’m trying to love people, really hard, clumsily, but with all my might. I am not sure which one of us is broken, but I know I have absolutely no confidence in your king’s men’s capacity for repair. I do know, we’re all struggling, and y’all are still up there dodging bullets and calling shots. Maybe I’m not your kind of Christian after all.
If you disagree, Servant of servants, give me a call.
P.S. This is a love letter, in case you missed it.
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie’s most recent book is Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.
Categories: abuse, Abuse of Power, Belief, Breaking News, Catholic Church, Catholicism, Children, Christianity, Church Doctrine, Community, Consent, Faith, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General, power, Power relations