Tony Coady, Roman Catholic and Professorial Fellow in Applied Philosophy at Melbourne University, is currently Leverhulme Visiting Professor at the University of Oxford Uehiro Centre for Applied Ethics.

(Here are excerpts from his 18 May 2012 article in Practical Ethics, University of Oxford.)

The Vatican Response

The Vatican response to the spread of critical questioning from within has been to exercise what power it has to suppress ruthlessly any signs of dissent, even the mildest. Since the laity is these days largely immune to ecclesiastically imposed sanctions, the primary focus for the exercise of brutal power has been on the clergy (with occasional less effective forays against politicians).

Numerous Irish priests, including Fr. Tony Flannery and Fr. Brian Darcy have been disciplined recently for speaking and writing about contentious issues that the Vatican regards as closed. The Congregation for the Doctrine and the Faith (formerly known as The Inquisition, or more fully and pompously as The Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition) has been prominent in these suppressions of the priests, several of whom belong to Ireland’s 850-strong Association of Catholic Priests. The ACP held a meeting in Dublin on May 7, this year, to discuss changes to the Church and it was attended by over 1000 people. The ACP also recently commissioned a survey of Irish Catholics which found that 90% would support the introduction of married priests. The survey also found that 77% of Irish Catholics want women to be ordained, while more than 60% disagreed with Church teaching that gay relationships were immoral.
Several recent examples serve as models to demonstrate the Vatican’s modus operandi.

An Australian Case

The first is the case of Bishop Morris in the Australian diocese of Toowoomba. Bishop Morris had been subjected to a campaign of hostility from Vatican episcopal bureaucrats since he was reported by some conservative people in his diocese for a supposed inclination to downplay personal confession in favor of the general form of confession involved in what is called the Third Rite of Reconciliation. A pastoral letter in 2006 in which the bishop discussed some of the problems facing the church with diminishing clerical vocations and an ageing clergy proved the final straw. In that letter, he argued that the church should be open to discussion of such possibilities as ordaining women, ordaining married men, welcoming back former priests and recognizing the validity of Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting Church orders.

This was particularly offensive to the Vatican since Pope John Paul II had prohibited even the very discussion of the issue of women priests. The Vatican appointed Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver (now Philadelphia, JG) to investigate the matter and after speaking with various laity, bishops and priests in Australia he made a secret report to Vatican authorities as a result of which Bishop Morris was forced to take early retirement.

Bishop Morris has openly stated that in his conversations with various authorities, including Pope Benedict, he was never told what specific charges had been made against him and hence given no right to defend himself. Nor did he ever see the Chaput report.

Alarmingly, Bishop Morris revealed that in the Pope’s final letter to him Benedict had claimed that ” Pope John Paul II had said irrevocably and infallibly that women cannot be ordained.”

The very idea that a disciplinary rule could be subject to infallible decree is nonsensical, and if the Pope and his associates think that the prohibition on the ordination of women is a matter of faith or doctrine they are surely deluded. To the best of my knowledge this is the first time that the previous Pope’s edict has been treated thus. The comment should probably be viewed as a piece of rhetorical exaggeration from an embattled leader.

Those Troublesome Nuns

As is commonly the case in organizations dominated by men, the Church’s top officials are especially apprehensive about the thoughts and conduct of the women in the ranks, especially the nuns. …. significant is the recent Vatican move against the United States Leadership Conference of Women Religious (USLCWR).

Since the liberalizing winds of Vatican II, the various orders of nuns have been in the forefront of new thinking and fresh policies in religious life. The Vatican had been investigating the feisty American ladies for some time and the result is that their major organization has now been placed under the guidance and oversight of, guess what, a MAN, the Archbishop of Seattle.

The Vatican apparently found fault with the Conference’s fidelity in promoting church teaching particularly on life issues. As another Australian Jesuit Andy Hamilton pointed , this move, though so far much milder, has echoes of the way the Church’s male leadership tried in the early 17th century to smash Mary Ward and her plans for a new congregation of religious women who would depart from the enclosure within a convent and who, adopting the Jesuit rule, would engage in pastoral work and teaching on an international basis without the supervision of men. Her congregation was suppressed and she was imprisoned for a short time.

The papal bull that suppressed the congregation expresses beautifully an attitude to women by church rulers remnants of which linger today. It said:

“Free from the laws of enclosure they wander about at will, and under the guise of promoting the salvation of souls have been accustomed to attempt and employ themselves at many other works which are most unsuitable to their weak sex and character, to female modesty, and particularly to maidenly reserve — works which men of eminence in the science of sacred letters, of experience of affairs of innocence of life undertake with much difficulty.”

It concluded, “we totally and completely suppress and extinguish them, subject them to perpetual abolition and remove them entirely from the Holy Church of God… And we wish and command all Christian faithful to consider them and think of them as suppressed, extinct, rooted out, destroyed and abolished.”

In spite of all this, Mary Ward’s sisters continue today and the picture of the role of nuns expressed by that papal rhetoric is, one would hope, merely comical and embarrassing even to Pope Benedict and his assistants…..

Church and Structures issues

(Today’s) Church structures steeped in a lost world of monarchical, absolutist sovereignty, secretive processes and male domination will have to be renovated to make them more consistent with the profound insights of the ideals of liberal democratic governance, even if those ideals are frequently betrayed and ignored in practice in the democracies that openly profess them

It is understandable that those who believe that the current image and structure of the Church is somehow divinely ordained are reluctant to embark on such a journey. Less laudably, resistance to serious change is supported by anxiety about loss of power and about decline in the influence of the institutional offices and structures within which the lives of so many bishops, clergy and religious have been given meaning.

These latter factors, of course, were also prominent in the disgraceful reaction of the institutional church for so long to the sex abuse offences of clergy and religious. But the abuse scandal has shown that closing ranks, cover-ups, and stubborn resistance to admitting mistakes and failure are poor substitutes for facing facts and for changing attitudes.

In the era of Pope Benedict XVI (and for that matter his predecessor) the hope for such turbulent renovation may seem very dim. I would certainly not be confident of an early transition, but there are several factors that make for a small degree of optimism.

One is the great decline in vocations to the priesthood and religious in the industrialized world indicating that, outside the poorer, largely pre-modern regions of the world, the incumbent image makes little appeal.

Another is the battering that the idealized “holy Mother Church” has received from the treachery of the sex abuse scandals; this betrayal of trust, though not directly connected with doctrinal matters, did show up the degree of hypocrisy associated with much of the public clerical stance on sexual matters (some of the worst abusers were loud in their denunciation of condoms and in promotion of “family values”).

In fact, the insensitivity and confusion of the hierarchy’s attitudes to clerical child abuse was highlighted by the recent Vatican document revising canonical rules for dealing with the matter. The revised list of rules also treated attempts to ordain women priests as “a grave crime” suggesting that it was somehow in the same category as brutal raping of a child.

Vatican spokesmen denied this implication, describing the attempt at female ordinations as “a sacramental crime” rather than “an egregious violation of moral law”, but the damage had already been done (See “Vatican Revises Church Law on Sex Abuse”, National Catholic Reporter, July 15, 2010).

A third concerns the fact that not only are very many laypeople who still describe themselves as Catholic alienated from or indifferent to official teachings on the morality of sex, abortion, euthanasia, the role of women and much else to do with personal morality, but a great number of theologically literate clergy and laity are impatient with the rigidity of what one theologian has called “Vatican theology.”

Rome wasn’t built in a day and it won’t be reformed in a day, but massive, top-down political structures have a way of unexpectedly collapsing under the weight of their own incapacity to adapt to changed environmental forces, as we saw with the demise of the Soviet Union. – Tony Coady

……… And let us not forget Gandhi’s advice to reformers:

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

It is up to us as we hear in the Ascension account in Acts of Apostles: “You Galileans, why are you standing there staring up into the sky?” It is time to stop staring off into space…..It is time to get busy.

Or as my old hero Desiderius Erasmus said:

If you keep thinking about what you want to do or what you hope will happen, you don’t do it, and it won’t happen.


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