We welcome a new voice to the pages of Catholica. Professor Allan Patience is an Australian lay Catholic presently working at Sophia University in Tokyo. Archbishop Denis Hart's recent apology to victims of sexual abuse has stirred him into penning this cutting response that argues the institution's present problems extend far beyond the present focus of the sexual abuse scandal.
Apologies for Sexual Abuse are now "Too Little, Too Late"
Archbishop Denis Hart's pastoral letter, apologizing for the suffering caused by clerical sexual abuse, is too little too late. It is unlikely to stem the rising tide of frustration and alienation that many contemporary Catholics feel towards the official Catholic Church, and especially towards the hierarchy.
Archbishop Hart describes himself as "your Archbishop". This is his first error. He is not "our" Archbishop in any meaningful sense. He is "the" Archbishop of Melbourne appointed by the Pope and he remains in that office at the Holy Father's pleasure. His first loyalty is to Rome and to a distantly decided doctrinal orthodoxy that barely reflects the needs and interests of local parishioners and their priests. This orthodoxy is policed — often with breathtaking rigidity — by a Vatican bureaucracy with almost no compassion towards the very people it directly affects. Hence many contemporary Catholics have only grudging sympathy for their bishops, whether they are innocent of covering up (or engaging in) sexual abuse or not. Until the Church gives local Catholics an authoritative voice in the election of their bishops, the gap between the hierarchy and the people will continue to widen. For many thoughtful Catholics this gap is already at breaking point.
Archbishop Hart's second error is that he expects us to obediently believe that the words of his apology are sincere. However, given the attenuated history of the sexual abuse scandal — especially the cover-ups along the way — his Grace's letter is in danger of coming across as hollow to many people. This is because the scandal is being handled so ineptly and so defensively by too many bishops and by the Vatican. The hierarchy's credibility flew out the window a long time ago over this issue. Moreover, mere words are not enough. They need to be backed with effective actions. What is needed is a genuine and sensitive programme of pastoral care for the victims of clerical abuse and Church judgmentalism generally. The current predominantly legalistic approach is only making things worse. A more compassionate response must extend beyond the present arrangements. In the public domain those arrangements are tarnished because of police concerns about them, whatever the Archbishop says in their defence.
The third error implicit in Archbishop Hart's apology is that the sexual abuse scandal is the only really serious or sole problem bedeviling the Church at this time. However, sexual abuse is only the tip of the iceberg of anguish that is threatening the very viability of the Universal Church today. Many Catholics are painfully aware of the rampant hypocrisy that marks the actions of not a few members of the hierarchy and religious orders. Too many bishops are living extravagant life styles, flying to and from Rome in business or even first class cabins and wining and dining fabulously. Their sense of entitlement is out of all proportion to their proclaimed commitment to a life of Christ-like simplicity and their alleged "preference for the poor." The problem is that they stand loftily apart seemingly never accountable to the people they "rule" and who provide them with the means to live as they do. They have all the pretentions of corporate CEOs, and much of the hypocrisy, and most seem to have abandoned their primary duty of pastoral care for priests, religious and for the laity. Lord Acton's warning about power is as apposite as ever:
I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men with a favourable presumption they can do no wrong. If there is any presumption, it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it. [Italics added]
The sexual abuse scandal is evidence that the hierarchy's exercise of power (vis-à-vis conveying the love expounded in the Sermon on the Mount) has corrupted it at many levels. The humble Galilean would surely be shocked by the gilded presumptions of power of the Pope and cardinals in the Vatican and their acolytes in bishops' palaces around the world.
In tandem with this corruption is a gross sense of entitlement that has penetrated much of the hierarchy and contemporary religious life. Lay people are left with the sense that they exist only to be used (and sometimes abused) while being expected to fund the hierarchy's needs and remain eternally obedient. Little wonder that alienation is setting in with a vengeance. The old joke that it costs the laity a fortune to keep the bishops true to their vow of poverty is no longer risible.
A misogynist Vatican...
Nor do lay people need to be told that there are some exceptionally good priests and religious. They know who these people are and they love them for their goodness — a selfless goodness that sometimes puts them at odds with the hierarchy. But they also know there are equally good men who feel a deep call to be priests but who also have a vocation to be married. Lay people know, too, that there are magnificent women among them who would be brilliantly pastoral priests and diocesan leaders. But a misogynist Vatican bluntly refuses to engage with the issues of a married and/or female priesthood — even though these issues are critical to the Church's very survival.
Meanwhile the majority of priests are old men struggling to keep up with the educational levels and complex every-day lives of their parishioners. Too many priests and religious are frankly not up to the job. Some are down right lazy or egregiously manipulative. Some are disillusioned and bitter. They fear they have wasted their years in a Church that is indelibly smeared by the sexual crimes of a few. Their rates of alcoholism and mental illness are disturbingly high. They are often over-wrought and over-whelmed by bewildering expectations and recriminations increasingly being heaped upon them. Loneliness stalks many a presbytery. Meanwhile too many in the hierarchy are simply turning their gaze away. The result is that the Catholic laity in Melbourne who do attend Mass regularly (at best, about 20% of the million or so nominal Catholics in the diocese) are too often being subjected to vacuously pious homilies, graceless liturgies, and a spiritual exhaustion that turns young people away in droves and tests the faithfulness of older people severely.
The issues of birth control and gay people are also caustic examples of a disconnected hierarchy trampling ruthlessly on the rights of ordinary people trying to live meaningful lives in a confusing and complex world. The fanatical length to which the Vatican goes in railing against most normal variations in human sexuality flies in the face of the massive injustices resulting from global inequality. If only the Pope and his cardinals would focus their moral energies on the truly evil fact that each day thousands of children die from malnutrition around the globe, or that torture is still being used on prisoners of war, or that more is spent on producing the technologies of war than on freeing the world from hunger. The Vatican's stunningly unbalanced approach to the fundamental immorality of the structuring of contemporary globalization simply beggars belief.
While sexual abuse is unquestionably a deeply serious issue, its resolution (when and if that ever happens) will not put an end to the crisis the Church is facing in the twenty-first century. Only a radical rethinking of the faith, clearly focused on the Christian Gospel of unconditional love, can offer a way forward.
Allan Patience is a Professor at Sophia University, Tokyo. He is an Australian lay Catholic.
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©2010Dr Allan Patience