Church must face need for institutional and theological renewal


RITE & REASON:For many Catholics, the institutional church has become an obstacle to faith

THE MAELSTROM of the clerical abuse crisis in the Catholic Church has exposed already existing fault lines. Weaknesses in church governance and the absence of a meaningful theology of human relationships are at the heart of much that needs reform.

The ongoing revelations of cover-up, as most recently disclosed in the Cloyne report, have driven many to despair.

Attempts to contextualise clerical child abuse by saying it is at the same level as in secular society fails to recognise that when it is perpetrated by figures who claim moral and spiritual power over others the consequences are frequently even more devastating.

There is a disconnection between the gospel message of love, compassion and justice and the institutional response to revelations of clerical abuse of children. Do the institution’s snail-like response to revelations of abuse and, worse, its efforts to conceal the truth on many occasions serve the gospel?

The monarchical model of the church where power and authority reside at the top has failed the gospel imperative to look after the most vulnerable.

Vatican II proposes a different model where the church is a community of believers on the way, a community in dialogue with the best insights of human wisdom, reading “the signs of the times”.

The present model has more in common with imperial Rome, with its emphasis on power and loyalty to the institution above all else.

The church continues to try to manage rather than confront this crisis. Confronting a crisis in any organisation requires openness, transparency and the ability to listen, especially to those most affected by it. Surely the church should want to know how and why those who should have been advocating on behalf of children were often their tormentors?

Is it not time for a more appropriate and immediate response? For a rigorous and all- encompassing inquiry conducted by experts and informed by the experience and reflections of those abused, with recommendations made public?

Questions need to be asked. Why did people ordained to serve the Christian community allow the rape, sodomy and torture of children to happen? What were the factors that led men to abuse their positions of power for their own sexual gratification? Why did the church’s response seek to conceal the evil committed and deny its own understanding of the sacrament of penance where acknowledgment of evil done is the first step to reconciliation?

Behind all the obfuscation and denial that has gone on for so long is the question: what kind of theology operated in the minds of the custodians of the gospel? What theology of human relationships directed and continues to direct their thinking? What is their understanding of human sexuality?

Negativity towards sexuality has been the dominant motif in Catholic teaching since the time of Augustine. Later, a physicalist outlook viewed the only end of marriage as procreation. The body was made to procreate, as the eye is made to see, and any other use of sexual expression was wrong.

Such thinking leads to the notion that homosexual love is “intrinsically evil” and a “serious disorder”.

Yet Vatican II expanded the meaning of marriage when it said the intimacy of the couple is as worthy an end of the relationship as procreation and opened up the possibility of a renewed theology of human relationships.

When the church issues moral teachings about social justice, economics, war and peace, it informs its teaching with insights from science, philosophy, psychology, sociology and history.

However, the teaching about sexuality omits the wisdom of the world around us and relies solely on the authority of the Vatican.

Justice in human relationships demands respect for the other, desire for the other’s wellbeing and the absolute imperative to do no harm. If the biblical concept of justice had been a guiding principle in the theology of sexual morality, how could ordained ministers have engaged in denial and cover-up of assaults on vulnerable children?

For many, the institutional church has become an obstacle to faith, yet many remain attached to their local church community where they experience an authentic gospel.

The gospel message remains faithful where a community supports each member according to their needs, spiritual and physical, where the local priest walks with them in their daily journey of life with its joys and sorrows. Nevertheless, the challenge of institutional and theological renewal is needed more than ever.

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