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The recent pedophilia crisis presents an enormous, unprecedented opportunity for American Catholics.
Many Catholics have long known that something was rotten in the Church. They were discouraged, however, by the Church from exploring further. Such authoritarianism stems partly from the failure of Church leaders — and Catholics themselves — to embrace the reality that the people in the pews are often smarter, better educated and better informed than the priests, bishops and cardinals who tell them what to think.
Americans have long understood that participation and dissent are necessary for a healthy democracy. The recent scandal reveals, however, that participation and dissent are necessary for healthy institutions of any sort. The Church’s failure to handle this situation properly reveals that the Church is an institution, run by human beings, who are fallible. It needs help.
Where does that leave Catholics?
They can dig in and defend the Church. Many conservative Catholics are already responding by saying that there is nothing wrong with the Church or its teachings; the priests are the problem. This view effectively cancels any serious inquiry or questioning.
Or, Catholics can recognize that, as in other areas of their lives, they should not simply accept what their leaders say. Catholics should demand broader participation in leading their Church, applying the thinking that one applies to other institutions: reason, experience, common sense, fairness.
Here are some things that Catholics should now address:
CELIBACY FOR CLERGY: What reason exists for this? Most other religions and denominations do not require celibacy, and their spiritual leaders work effectively. Is there a relationship between celibacy and pedophilia? Many mental health professionals think so. In any case, it appears that other churches are not facing this problem to the extent the Catholic Church is.
Moreover, experience tells us that celibacy is not required for spiritual life, or the other roles that clerics play — leader, counselor, teacher. Many CEOs are married. U.S. presidents have almost always been married. Rabbis and ministers marry. Time-pressed doctors often have husbands and wives.
Letting priests and nuns marry would result in an influx of energetic, well-rounded people to the clergy. People who had ruled it out would consider it. Very few people have joined in recent years, and many clerics have quit, for this reason alone.
Given the positive nature of contemporary views on sexuality, how many emotionally healthy young people can the Church reasonably expect to choose a lifetime of celibacy? Especially when other denominations do not impose this restriction on their clergy? Of course, some good people will still join, but why limit the pool?
Some of the most amazing, spiritual, intelligent, conscientious people I know are priests. Yet they are being deprived of good, new people to their communities, which results in a deep loneliness, a despair that makes many quit.
WOMEN PRIESTS: Why bar women from the priesthood? Women have proven they can be the presidents and prime ministers, legislators, judges, astronauts, jet fighter pilots, surgeons, CEOs, journalists. The list goes on. Women are ministers and priests and rabbis in other churches and religions.
The Church has arbitrarily shut out meaningful participation from about half of humanity. This represents a failure to tap talent, and it has caused an exodus of women who want no part of an institution that treats them as third-class citizens.
AUTHORITARIANISM: Catholics should participate in their parishes and help lead their church. At the end of Catholic Mass, most parishioners simply leave. There is little or no sense of community. Input from parishioners is not sought. Instead, they are simply told what to do and what to think.
For example, I once heard a priest tell a young woman who questioned a rule that the woman needed to “pray for understanding,” until she accepted the rule. The message: She was the problem, the rule could not possibly be wrong.
Would more participation and questioning have prevented some of the pedophilia scandals?
A friend once told me that at his Catholic high school, boys were routinely punished by a certain clergyman who took them all to the shower and made them do pushups — wearing only their jockstraps. No student or parent reported this to the relevant authorities. It is doubtful that such behavior would have gone unreported in a public school.
More to the point, would a majority of parishioners agree to quietly reassign a pedophile priest to the children of another parish?
Catholics should rejoice if bishops and cardinals resign due to public pressure, or ask forgiveness from their flocks. This will signify to Catholics that the Church is subject to questioning, that its members matter. Only then can the Church change. It will probably improve. It might even flourish.
Brian J. Foley is a professor at Widener University School of Law in Wilmington, Delaware. He can be reached at Brian.J.Foley@law.widener.edu