|Rev. Emmett Coyne|
This morning, I'd like to share an essay by Rev. Emmet Coyne, a retired priest of the diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire, and author of The Theology of Fear. Emmett has kindly offered to let the essay be published here. It's a proposal to rehabilitate the ancient Catholic practice of interdict, but to turn it upside down, so that lay Catholics begin to use it to call their pastoral leaders to accountability. Here's Emmett's essay:
In 1909 in Adria, Italy, “Several thousand fanatical Catholics nearly stoned their bishop to death.” What triggered this? The pope (Pius X) instructed the bishop to move the seat of the diocese to the more important city of Rovigio. One might assume the Catholic citizens of Adria felt they were losing their prominence. So, for the pelting of their prelate, the pope pronounced an interdict on Adria and the surrounding area.
The interdict is an arrow in the Vatican’s quiver for subduing unruly members. It’s a papal ploy to deny the sacraments to individuals and dioceses. It has been employed intermittently to threaten Catholics and was successful. The interdict remains a measure of last resort. To deny the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, effectively cuts members off from God. The interdict conveyed this threat.
Real power in the Roman Church resides exclusively in male celibates. Since Vatican II, lay persons were allowed in to participate in parish councils, but these were simply advisory. There is nothing in the pipeline currently which will allow lay members to exercise authentic power. John Paul II anticipated the emerging laity might seek to ascend to a position of power. He then legislated that no cleric could be under the authority of a lay person. Canon Law through the centuries was the exclusive domain of male clerics to write the rules. The laity are subservient in all of the canons, being accorded with few rights and mostly responsibilities.
The current structure of the Roman Church is an absolute monarchy. Laity are left to beg, cajole, and petition for any participation in advocating structural change and power sharing. Collegiality, even for bishops, is not a constant. They are dependent on the whim of the current pontiff. The result is that committed lay persons are left to their own creative devices until the Pentecost event becomes an accepted truth and is institutionalized. At the first Pentecost, the Spirit was poured out upon the whole People of God, not simply community leaders. This was a unique episode in the consciousness of the new community struggling for self-identity in the wake of the Jesus event. All persons would share equally in the life of the community. This was the radical nature that drew slaves and women especially. So the community surged until the time of Constantine when the imperial model was imposed. This has endured till Vatican II when the hope of lay persons was to become equal participants, no longer relegated to ‘pray, pay, and obey.’
The counter reformation of JPII and BXVI, however, sought to suppress this resurgence of hope. It was also during their terms of office that the greatest threat to the Body of Christ since the Reformation erupted throughout the world – the clerical sex abuse of children. In the past thirty years it has become the greatest non-evangelization event of the Roman Church as the hemorrhaging of members continues despite the kinder, gentler papacy of Pope Francis.
Might an interdict be imposed now? But this time from below rather than from on high, and for a much more substantive reason than moving the seat of a diocese from one city to another? By self-imposing an interdict to withhold the Eucharist on a given Sunday and joining in a prayer service with victims, prophetic parishes would underscore the priority of healing. Such an interdict would demonstrate leadership from below, and given the hierarchy's failure to exercise pastoral leadership, this type of lay leadership can compensate for the absence or failure of leadership from on high.
While in a short time Francis has opened windows and returned hope to the despairing, he has dodged any public pronouncement and, more importantly, substantive structural changes primarily toward bishops who participated in the cover-up of this heinous sin and crime. In the recent summit of eight cardinals, the issue was not on the agenda. And even with his celebrated cold calls, there has been none to a victim of clerical sexual abuse. If there had been, the Vatican PR would have touted it and a grateful victim would have shared it publicly.
The American bishops were the first in the world to respond publicly to this crisis in which the tip of this iceberg first emerged in the Boston Globe exposé. The pressure of the media forced the bishops to act publicly, albeit reluctantly. They developed a program of safe environment for children in the church and aggressively encouraged dioceses to implement it. But now we are aware that programs are not the panacea to the problem of clerical sexual abuse.
In June 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) promulgated the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” commonly referred to as “The Dallas Charter.” The result was the implementation of “safe environment” programs in dioceses, training clergy and laity in being sensitive to the signs and issues involved, requiring background checks for Church employees, adopting a “zero tolerance” policy for sexual abuse, and alerting civil authorities when faced with an allegation. Subsequently, the American bishops began to boast that the Catholic Church is now the safest environment for children because of these stringent policies and programs, unique above all other institutions.
Bishop Harry Flynn was credited with cleaning up one of the earliest nationally publicized cases of clerical sexual abuse in the diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana. As a result, he was appointed as chairman of the bishops’ committee that drafted the “Dallas Charter.” Subsequently, he would be promoted as archbishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis where serious questions would arise regarding his failure to enforce the ‘zero tolerance” policy. His failure here underscores the endemic problem for the Roman Church: the problem is not programs and policies but persons who fail to faithfully implement them.
In an article “The Archdiocese of Wobegon” posted at Commonweal Magazine’s website on October 14, 2013, the author, Grant Gallicho, removes the curtain of programs and policies to reveal the failure of hierarchical personnel who sabotage their own programs. He highlights the faulty culture of those in responsible positions who failed to follow the very program they implemented. Archbishop Flynn would become the poster child of this cognitive dissonance, having promoted as pastor one who would subsequently be imprisoned for sexual abuse. Further, Archbishop Flynn failed to report a pastor who downloaded “borderline child pornography.” In the author’s words, “No amount of 'safe environment' training can fix this problem. It doesn’t matter how independent a diocesan review board is on paper. Or how many laypersons have been tasked to overhaul a diocese’s abuse policies. Or how sincerely a bishop promises to make room for a review board to do its work.”
The archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis is sadly the latest manifestation of the hierarchy’s own culpable failure to monitor its own programs. Archbishop Flynn abruptly resigned as chairman of the St. Thomas University Board of Trustees in the wake of those failures, in addition to new failures surfacing at the university. The Canon Law expert tasked with implementing the program for the archdiocese resigned when she faced the stonewalling of the archbishop. She refused to be a complicit team player while clerics in the chancery spent years pondering what constitutes “borderline child pornography.”
The woebegone archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis is simply the latest in a string of dioceses and archdioceses where the principal obstacle to a transparent implementation of their own program has been the hierarchy itself. What is setting in is a paralysis of analysis of the clerical sexual abuse scandal that reverberates endlessly throughout the world. Pope Francis’ apparent foot dragging in this self-inflicted body blow is part of the problem; it can’t be smiled into oblivion. There are too many victims who have bravely publicly weathered their abuse to be cowed or paid off.
Catholics in the pews have become too passive in permitting the hierarchy to commit one cover-up after another. Collegiality demands that the laity also take responsibility for allowing this festering and seemingly unending cancer to the Body of Christ. Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, who had headed the clerical sexual commission in Australia, passionately prods Catholics: For Christ’s Sake, End Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church … For Good. The hierarchy had years to resolve this but have attempted to wash their hands of the residue. The Roman Church has also had more than the current thirty years dithering over clerical child sexual abuse. A thread of sexually abused children has been woven through the Roman Church for centuries. It is not a new phenomenon but a part of the Church’s dark tradition.
Most Catholics know next to nothing about church history. Hence, it is understandable that many think the clerical sex abuse scandal is a new, disturbing blip. Unfortunately, it is a debilitating thread woven through the church’s history. As early as 306 A.D., half of the decisions of the Council of Elvira dealt with the sexual behavior and misdeeds of the clergy. The still-unmatched reformer of sex abuse, St. Peter Damian in the eleventh century, did not mince words in throwing down the gauntlet at the failure of bishops: “Listen, you do-nothing superiors of priests! Listen, even though you feel sure of yourselves, tremble at the thought you are partners in the guilt of others.” He believed only a collaborative reform of all, lay and clerics, would resolve this sin and crime. It was a duty that he applied to women, too. The root cause of the problem was, and remains, episcopal laxity. The solution is in a collaborative effort. Hierarchs are quick to respond that the church is not a democracy. It should be a community that is collaborative and collegiality, but currently is monarchical.
This sordid tradition is perhaps best encapsulated in the case study of the Piarist Order in sixteenth-century Rome. It is the paradigm for what is currently happening, replete with the abuse of children, the transferring of predator priests, and their protection by prominent prelates, with complicity on the part of the pope. Any Roman hierarch would know this history which played out in the shadows of the Vatican. Seemingly, the institution learned nothing from that classic case. It suppressed its sordidness only to have it continually raise its ugly head. The Vatican has repeatedly demonstrated it is unwilling to root out what Benedict XVI had to finally confess publicly as “this filth.” It knows too well the problem, but has chosen not to act decisively once and for all. The solution is not in the hands of the hierarchy; they are the problem! The solution remains within the entire People of God.
As a priest, I find priests today bristle at the accusation of clerical sexual abuse. They will quickly point out that the problem exists in other religious groups. True enough. But each house has first the responsibility to clean out its own stables of “this filth” before comparing itself to others. But, can the other groups have the same, intense sordid historical thread? Priests today feel stigmatized by the sins of their fraternity. While priests were on a pedestal prior to the eruption of this scandal, now all priests are no longer assumed automatically to be above reproach. This is a healthy reduction to reality. As Peter Damian argued, it should “not be assumed that office holders fulfill the duties of their office or vowed persons observe their vows.” The clerical sexual abuse scandal has leveled the playing field – all persons are equally subject to prove their worth. This can only be a healthy blowback for priests.
And Francis prays that a smile will cover a multitude of such sins. Parishioners in the pews would be moved to act if one of the victims was their own child or grandchild. Yet many seem unable to grasp that the abuse any child in a community grievously affects the entire community. Paul wrote that when one part of the body hurts, the whole body hurts. Would that Catholics were catholic in this painful regard!
As the Roman Church continues to ignore the Pentecost event of the pouring out of the Spirit upon the whole community, the ‘lowerachy’ of priests and parishioners must rise out of their safe sanctuaries and pews to act for the common good, to preserve the Gospel. The paralysis of analysis must end and the power of action commence. If interdict is part of the Roman tradition, now may well be the time for priests and parishioners to impose it from below. This is a non-violent action to counter the violent abuse of power within the beloved community of Jesus. By their failure to act, priests and parishioners are in complicity with the hierarchy. And the Roman Church remains, despite policies and programs, no safe haven for children.
Some might recoil at the thought of suspending the celebration of the Eucharist. But there is a scriptural basis in Matthew 5:24, “Leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”
In speaking out, many members have been intimated by the hierarchy. This was particularly true when the laity were less educated and more easily intimidated by anyone in power. But the movement of universal education and the growth of participatory democracy has encouraged persons to take responsibility for the common good even if it means publicly challenging those who might be abusing power. According to C. Colt Anderson’s scholarly work, When Magisterium Becomes Imperium: Peter Damian on the Accountability of Bishops for Scandal, St. Peter Damian repeatedly argued that it was legitimate to correct superiors harshly and publicly when they failed to follow the guidelines of Scripture and tradition.
The Genesis account of Abraham who sought to find ten just men to save Sodom and Gomorrah is a seminal story. There is something compelling about a minority who initiate a movement toward change. The majority often are the beneficiary of the impetus of a committed minority. An interdict of “Abraham’s Ten” can save the Roman Church. Most priests are fearful of exercising the prophetic spirit of Jesus. And lay persons, too, are more wedded to the status quo than they care to confess. But there are prophetic priests and parishioners. They need to publicly coalesce for a specific date to self-impose an interdict by not publicly celebrating the Eucharist. How will the hierarchy react? Excommunication? Hardly, given the kinder, gentler papacy of Francis who is reluctant even to remove any malfunctioning prelate. With the world watching, suspicious of the abuse of power in all institutions, sympathy and support will be on the side of the prophetic witnesses.
An interdict is proposed in lieu of any public action to confront the ongoing sexual abuse of children. There is a universal acknowledgement that children are our endangered species and, finally, laws protecting children and penalizing predators are part of a catholic consensus to end the multiple levels of the abuse of children.
In the Gospel, the mention of children is an extraordinary historical documentation. Search the record of antiquity and children are hardly even mentioned, let alone presented as a role model for adults. Yet, uniquely, in the Gospel they are, “Unless you become as little children…” Where Jesus made children center and prominent in the community, through the centuries, the Roman Church made children invisible, and invisible children are easy to abuse. Canon Law, in its scant reference to children, depicts them as objects rather than subjects with any rights and prominence.
Jesus spoke of the word as seed that is scattered on the ground. Most of it fell on unreceptive ground. “And other seeds fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” While Abraham failed to find ten just men to save Sodom and Gomorrah, the more seminal story for the Christian is the sower who goes out to sow, confident that some fertile ground will be found that will produce an abundant harvest. “Let the one who has ears to hear, hear.”
Let the word of interdict be scattered to the four corners, knowing that good soil will be found, and “For Christ’s Sake, End Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church … For Good.”