What Ecumenical Neighbors and Friends are Asking: Are Roman Catholic Bishops Killing Their Church?

John Shelby “Jack” Spong (born June 16, 1931) is a retired American Episcopalian bishop. He was formerly the Bishop of Newark, New Jersey. He is a contemporary, historical-critical theologian. A few days ago, on 23 February, Bishop Spong offered his reflections about his Roman Catholic brother bishops. I cite a few of his key observations.

His full reflection can be found here: http://johnshelbyspong.com/2012/02/23/the-roman-catholic-bishops-are-they-killing-their-church/

Bishop Spong: “I never thought I would live long enough to see birth control become a major political issue. Nor did I think I would ever hear the desire to provide women with safe and effective contraception be referred to as ‘a war on religion on the part of the Obama administration’….

“First, if the national polls are to be believed, about 98% of the American population uses contraception at some point in the course of their lives. That statistic appears to be true whether the users are Protestants, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, Jews, non-believers or atheists!

“….The Roman Catholic Church’s leadership, however, still acts as if it has the power to dictate what public policy is or what it should be on this issue. Unable to gain the loyalty of those they call ‘the faithful’ they have now apparently decided that they will seek to impose their practices on the entirety of the nation’s citizenry. It is not working…. The idea that once emancipated from biological necessity women can now be coerced to return to the practices of yesterday is not just unrealistic, it is an act of violence!

“….In American politics, the Roman Catholic bishops have become increasingly aggressive on public issues over the last fifty years. When John F. Kennedy was seeking to become America’s first Catholic president in 1960, he assured a gathering of clergy in Houston that he would not seek to impose his religious rules upon this religiously pluralistic nation. That answer seemed quite satisfactory to Catholic bishops at that time. By 1984, however, when a Catholic woman, Geraldine Ferraro, was a candidate for the vice presidency, her position of separating her personal code from what was legally possible in the public arena was ruled by the Catholic bishops as no longer a satisfactory position for a Catholic to hold. John Kerry, as a practicing Roman Catholic, was told in his bid for the presidency in 2004 that he was forbidden to receive Communion because of his position of not repudiating the law that gave women the legal right to make their own abortion decisions.

“Now this Church’s bishops have taken that battle to what seems to be both a political and a religious absurdity. Though already given a ‘conscience’ exemption of not being required to provide contraceptive coverage in the health care offered to employees of Catholic churches, they are now demanding the right to impose that teaching on employees of their Catholic universities, hospitals and charitable institutions. Those institutions, while Catholic sponsored, serve a diverse population and receive public state and federal money to carry out their work. They have many non-Catholic employees and many Catholic employees who do not want Catholic teaching imposed upon their own health care decisions. The bishops have gone on to argue that any business run by a Roman Catholic CEO should also have the right to opt out of the requirement to provide contraceptive care to their employees.

“….The Roman Catholic Church’s recent history with the laws of this nation in regard to the criminal behavior of both abusing children and of protecting abusive priests had them asking for and receiving great leniency. Subpoenas of church records relating to the transfer of known child molesters have not been aggressively pursued. Cardinal Bernard Law, perhaps the guiltiest prelate in America of protecting abusers was allowed to move to the Vatican rather than have to answer his accusers or their attorneys under oath. Cardinal Law probably should be in jail today not in a respected post in the Vatican. This Church has a history of putting its own well-being ahead of its victims. Now they want to dictate the kind of health care available to women who are in their employ. I shake with rage at that suggestion and at that kind of self-serving duplicity.

“This Church has also carried out a destructive public campaign against justice and equality for gay and lesbian people over the last fifty years. They have used their money to defeat initiatives that would have provided equality before the law and end all forms of discrimination against homosexual people. They have done this based on Church teaching that defines homosexuality as deviant, a point of view regularly articulated by Pope Benedict XVI, despite the fact that this definition is almost universally dismissed as little more than dated ignorance in scientific and medical circles. How long do we tolerate religious ignorance that diminishes American citizens?

“….I never want to go back to the time when participation by Roman Catholics in public life was opposed because of their religion. I recall when one seat on the Supreme Court was designated ‘the Catholic seat.’ Today a literal majority of five of our Supreme Court justices (Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy and Alito) are Roman Catholics. If, however, the leaders of that church are going to use the political process to impose Catholic teaching on this entire nation then that attitude will surely compromise their ability to fulfill their oath of office. I had hoped that such a day had long gone from American life. The behavior of the Catholic bishops is surely reviving it. I am not willing to sacrifice the health of women or the constitutional rights of homosexual people to accommodate the dated attitudes of present Catholic leaders.

“….The vast majority of American Roman Catholics also seem to recognize that the leadership of their Church is simply badly out of date. I grieve that the present all-male leadership of the Catholic Church is bringing that Church into disrepute in a way that hurts the witness of the Christian faith, a faith that I too represent and treasure.


3 thoughts on “What Ecumenical Neighbors and Friends are Asking

  1. This reflects, in a way, the local situation here where the current bishop has undone all his predecessor’s interreligious activities and involvements, much to the chagrin of many pastors and organizations of other traditions, a number of whom wrote publicly to Sambi and the Vatican. Sambi replied off line before he died. There has been no response from the Vatican – no surprise there. Many catholic parishes are upset, too, but there is nothing anyone can do about it.

  2. Thank you Bishop Spong. It takes courage to be a truth teller when the response will surely be an accusation of “anti-Catholic” bias and a personal attack in the time honored Roman tradition of ‘shooting the messenger”! Your words badly needed saying, openly and publicly. We in the Roman Church are now paying the price for the policy of John Paul II of choosing bishops solely on their avowed “orthodoxy” without regard to pastoral qualifications or experience. When an organization values conformity as the sine qua non of leadership it dooms itself to mediocrity. This mediocrity is plainly obvious in dioceses all over the US, an intellectual mediocrity and a moral mediocrity. The fruit of this policy is apparent in the grey heads filling Catholic churches. The young families are few. It should be a worry that the third largest religious cohort in the US is now made up of “fallen away Catholics”. Instead of contemplating reform the Bishops are doing their best to drive away the rest of us.

    Frank Lawlor. Royal Oak, Maryland

Leave a Reply