Voice of the Faithful Conference - Fordham University, October 24 - 25, 2003 Lecture
 Beyond Crisis
by A.W. Richard Sipe

There are a number of crises facing religion today. Chief among the current pressures are the abuse of minors by Catholic clergy, the broad-based loss of credibility in Church authority, the demand by the faithful for moral and financial accountability from Church hierarchy, the diminishing number of men ordained to the priesthood, and an unfettered demand for dialogue by all levels of practicing Church members. All of these raw issues merit the moniker, crisis.

Each of these is a clear symptom of dire pathology in the Body Religious.

But, "crisis" is the wrong word to describe the present status of the Catholic Church. The Church is in an inevitable, irreversible and inexorable transition. I find it comparable to the transition the Church underwent between 1500 and 1600. In spite of the fact that no one can predict the final transmogrification, the Church of 3003 will not look the same as it does today.

The celibate/sexual agenda that was avoided by the Second Vatican Council is central to the current transition. Theologian William Shea (1986) identified the tangle of issues that clog the Catholic system. They all relate to sex:

"divorce and remarriage, premarital and extramarital sex, birth control, abortion, homosexuality, masturbation, the role of women in ministry, their ordination to the priesthood, the celibacy of the clergy, and the male monopoly of leadership." (He adds: Fear and perhaps hatred of women.) The catechism teaching--the official Church teaching about sex is not credible. I know of no other way to say it. The magisterial teaching is that every sexual thought, word, desire, and action out side of marriage is mortally sinful. Every sexual act within marriage not open to reproduction is also mortally sinful. And in matters sexual there is no paucity of matter.

This standard could be justified as a norm for adult, willing, and free "celibates" who wish to dedicate themselves to an ancient ascetic tradition. This is not a reasonable norm for developing boys and girls or mature adults. It does not conform to nature. It is based on a pre-Copernican understanding of human life and sexuality. I often wonder where are the voices objecting to this aberrant teaching? Where are the committed Christians who can admit, "I cannot--do not--live or grow this way? I cannot foster this norm for my children. I do not believe it."

I contend that the inherent duplicity between the stated norm, belief, and practice thrives on the denial of sexual reality. This communal dishonesty sets the stage for sexual corruption and abuse.

The sexual/celibate teaching and practice of the Church forms the incubator for ecclesiogenic neurosis. My years as a clinician convinced me that such a syndrome exists. It manifests itself among clergy in underdeveloped and mal-developed consciences, blatantly exposed by abusers of minors. In the laity multiple anxieties, rigidity, and distorted relationships reveal the syndrome.

Another myth fosters the neurosis. The myth that bishop or priest equals celibacy is destructive to the fiber of religion, celibacy itself, and the safety of the public. This fabrication is dangerous because it is false. I have never disputed the law of celibacy--the right of the Church to demand celibacy as a prerequisite for ordination to the priesthood. I have questioned the integrity of the Church in insuring its practice. Celibate law is extolled while celibate transgression is indulged, fostered, easily forgiven, and covered up.

Celibate transparency and accountability are non existent in the Church, and attempts to foster honesty are labeled disloyalty, impudence, or heresy.

The sexual abuse of minors by clergy is the poster issue of the current transition in the Church, much as the sale of indulgences was the poster issue in the 16th century.

Let there be no pretense. The Catholic hierarchy has not provided moral leadership in the sexual crises confronting us. They have not championed the causes of responsibility and honesty, let alone transparency or accountability.

Folks in the pews recognize that any institution that cannot tell the truth about itself has nothing worth listening to.

Four forces have combined to draw attention to the crisis of abuse by clergy.

The persistence and courage of abuse victims blazed the trail. The press (notably the Boston Globe) defied the wrath of gargantuan powers to report the extent and dynamic of Church complicity. Lawyers--mostly Catholic lawyers--have dedicated themselves to the service of justice for victims of ecclesiastical rape. Law enforcement, traditionally reverent toward Catholic clergy, and often cautious to the point of toadyism in the investigation and prosecution of bishops and clergy, has been responsive to the evidence provided by victims.

This shift is epic; it will not go away. Groups like the Voice of the Faithful are a manifestation that these forces for leadership will no longer stand alone. The Church will be heard --regardless of the reticence and even opposition of the hierarchy. Corruption has proceeded from the top down; reform is progressing from the bottom up. This is the pattern of Church history.

Conventional wisdom has it that a new Pope will make a difference. Yes, any new Pope will make "A" difference, but will not make THE difference. The current challenges besieging the Church are more important than any one person and bigger than all of us put together. Remember that Pope Paul III who called the first session of the Council of Trent in 1546 had a mistress and fathered three sons and a daughter. His successor, Pope Julius III who called the second session of the reform council in 1552 was scandalously infatuated with fifteen-year-old boy (he named him a cardinal). The power or the sanctity of a Pope will not reform the Church. It never has. The Church reforms when a sufficient number of men and women demand integrity and honesty from themselves and force transparency and accountability from those who aspire to serve and lead. It has always been so.

There is no question. The Catholic Church is in a reform mode. The core issues are sexual. Witting or not we are part of the history of transition.