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Search for answers begins within

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Our church leadership meltdown continues as the hierarchy is mired in the seemingly endless clergy sex abuse scandal, now spreading across Europe. Last month Pope Benedict XVI met with Irish prelates; this month with the head of the German bishops’ conference. Meanwhile, news of abuse has begun to come out of the Netherlands.

When will this end? Perhaps not until the Vatican orders a thorough self-examination of the clerical culture and celibate structure that has allowed and, at times, fostered the abuse and cover-up in the first place, according to two knowledgeable men interviewed by editor at large Tom Roberts (See story). These two argue that the crisis is symptomatic of deeper problems in church structure.

Theologian Hans Küng chimes in from Germany. He notes that hardly any bishop until now has admitted his share of the blame in the unfolding scandals. He writes our prelates could well argue that, in keeping things under wraps, they were only following instructions from Rome (See story). The more the scandal spreads, the more the focus seems to be turning to Rome to see how Benedict reacts.

Meanwhile, instead of any obvious need for some serious self-examination, our bishops choose instead to point fingers elsewhere, well outside their ranks. Instead of asking if there is something off balance in the way the current exclusively male celibate leadership structure functions today (it dates back not to Jesus, but to the 11th century), instead of studying itself, it has decided to begin a million-dollar-plus, three-year investigation of U.S. women religious congregations. Not enough? A seemingly paralyzed Vatican leadership (See story) has ordered a doctrinal evaluation of the U.S. women religious leadership’s central network, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

Late last month, Mother Mary Clare Millea, the Vatican’s apostolic visitator, sent out letters to religious congregations detailing the requirements imposed on those now being chosen for site visits (See story).

While our prelates appear to be floating on a sea of denial, women’s issues continue to beckon them like sirens from no longer distant shores. On March 10, L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, though not the official voice of the Vatican, published an article written by Lucetta Scaraffia, an Italian journalist and history professor. She said what many others have been saying for decades, that a greater presence of women in decision-making roles in the church might have averted the cover-up of priestly sex abuse cases. “We can hypothesize that a greater female presence, not at an inferior level, would have been able to rip the veil of masculine secrecy that in the past often covered the denunciation of these misdeeds with silence.” The only thing newsworthy about this is that the article appeared in L’Osservatore Romano.

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Our bishops’ twin-track obsessions -- exclusion of women and fixation on pelvic matters -- have become so pronounced they muddy basic Christian teachings. We have slipped into a narrowly focused acts-oriented (regardless of intention) natural law theology. Intention in other areas of moral theology matters. That killing is wrong, but killing in war or in self-defense is not, is just one example. Official Catholic sexual morality simply does not match human experience. This is a huge problem for our church, dating back most notably to Humanae Vitae, the 1968 papal encyclical. Only a tiny fraction of lay Catholics, for example, uphold the church teachings on birth control. A similarly narrow interpretation of what natural law theology tells us has led to some offensive and insensitive statements banning condoms for AIDS-stricken couples and condemning all homosexual acts as intrinsically disordered. Gays and lesbians are told they cannot have intimate relationships and must lead completely celibate lives.

Christianity is fundamentally about compassion and forgiveness. Wouldn’t we be better served by a moratorium on public condemnations? Didn’t Jesus tell the scribes and Pharisees to let “he who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7)?

Our prelates argue it is their responsibility to teach Catholic doctrine. Taking them at their word, then why so unevenly? Why is it always the sexual issues that lead to banishment? And what is actually being taught? Are these “teaching” efforts saying more about the teachers than about the faith? Consider the harm being caused on a host of levels by Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, whose archdiocese has told a lesbian couple they must remove their young children from a Catholic parish school in Boulder (See story). These children someday will ask their parents why they were told to leave the school. Looking at the lesson aimed at them (and others) from the Denver chancery, local Sacred Heart parishioners are also asking: Why them, not us? If children of gays are to be kicked out of Catholic schools then why not those of divorced and remarried parents? Why not the children of couples practicing artificial birth control?

Catholics have much to ponder these days. No one said it would be easy. But we were promised that the Holy Spirit would always be among us. We are being reminded, as never before, our search for answers begins within.

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