A Call to Boycott the Catholic Church
On Tuesday, December 11, I attended a prayer service for healing at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica in the Mission Hill section of Boston. The service was held in response to the revelations by the Pennsylvania Grand Jury of pervasive sexual abuse and its coverup by the clerics of the Catholic Church. The assembled faithful were given the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings about the crisis, with their responses being forwarded to leaders in the Archdiocese of Boston. The following is the response I shared:
Let me begin with my background. I’m 34 and was born and raised in the village in upstate NY. My parents are of Italian and Irish descent, and I was baptized into the Catholic Church as an infant. We were a mainstream family, going to Mass on Sundays at our parish, praying grace before meals, reading Bible stories growing. But we weren’t religious beyond that, except insofar as Catholic values informed my parents’ worldview in a general way: contributing to your community, treating everyone with respect, cherishing our blessings.
I went to public schools in my youth but matriculated to the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. Thus began my introduction to the Catholic intellectual life and the Jesuits. It would be a long and fruitful relationship. I was heavily involved in the faith life of the campus and discerned a vocation to the Society of Jesus for several years. I went on to complete a Masters degree in philosophy at Boston College, as well as a Master of Divinity, also from B.C. During those years, I was deeply immersed in Catholic Christian spirituality, theology, and charity. My dominant faith family has been the Community of Sant’Egidio in Boston. With them, I have practiced the pillars of prayer, friendship, and service with the poor and elderly.
I arrived at Holy Cross in the fall of 2002. The previous winter, the sex abuse scandal—the rape of children, the conspiracy by bishops to cover it up, the enabling of the predators, the hush money to families, the cowing of civil servants—exploded in the Archdiocese of Boston. As a result, my years at college became a prolonged episode in cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, I thrived in the intellectual milieu and spiritual opportunities of the place. And the college offered many panels and lectures that addressed the crisis in the church. But there was always something of a gap between those abstract discussions and the reality of the crisis on the ground. I don’t blame Holy Cross or myself too harshly—college is about a withdrawal for a return, about stepping back to reflect before plunging back into the world of action.
But as I progressed through my philosophy and, especially, divinity studies, I became increasingly disillusioned with the Catholic Church. Part of this was personal—I experienced the excruciating ordeal of being forced to choose between a woman I loved and following my desire to ordained ministry and religious life. The Church’s theology of vocation told me I had to pick—only one could be God’s will. The experience caused me deep psychological trauma, and also contributed to a neurotic relationship with my sexuality—my erotic desire for my lover seemed, in this worldview, a disordered attachment, something taking me away from God’s call to ministry. It would be years before I learned that this was a lie, a false choice constructed by men, not God.
At the same time, I watched from afar as my home parish was destroyed by a new pastor, who took over in my senior year of high school. He is not, to our knowledge, a sexual predator, but the parish came to learn of his profound psychological pathologies: his rampant lying and gossip about parishioners, his bottomless narcissism, his sociopathy. Within a few years, a vibrant and joyful community lay divided and dead. First one by one, then in droves, whole families departed, alienated by this unfit man of the cloth. My parents tried to come to his aid, until they, too, became victims of his wickedness and abandoned ship. Between him and the wider abuse scandal, my mother’s trust in the Catholic Church was destroyed.
So far I’ve touched only lightly on the abuse scandal itself. On the one hand, that’s because I believe that much of our reaction to this crisis (and anything in life) arises from our personal journey, and I want you to know where I come from. But on another level, it’s because the abuse scandal is about clericalism, and the evils of clericalism do not confine themselves to the sexual abuse of minors. Hardly. Before I continue, let me state unequivocally that I have known many Catholic priests in my life. I’ve known them as friends, spiritual directors, professors, and pastors. Several of my friends, including my best friend in college, entered religious life. The overwhelming majority of these relationships were positive and fruitful for me in my personal, intellectual, and spiritual development. I love many of these men. The abuse scandal does not diminish their gifts and value in my life nor in the lives of others.
Nevertheless, the revelations of the Pennsylvania grand jury last summer must awaken all Catholics to pervasive evil of clericalism. I didn’t think I could be shocked any more by the behavior of these predators and their protectors among the bishops. I was wrong. Infants being raped. Dioceses persecuting the victims when they came forward. Gangs of abusers marking their victims with crosses, so as to let other predators know they were vulnerable to attack. There are no words that can convey the wickedness, depravity, and evil at work here. Yet, with the exception of Cardinal Law, almost no bishop involved was removed from office for aiding and abetting this vast criminal conspiracy. And Law was rewarded with a plum position in the Vatican, where he exerts his influence on ecclesial politics to this day. How can we allow this?
I have come to the belief that the abuse scandal and coverup are a direct product of the Catholic Church’s theologies of ministry, sexuality, and vocation. Despite the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the church still operates with a theology that elevates ordained ministers above the rest of the baptized—in terms of status, power, and perceived holiness. Add to that a mandatory celibacy; negative views on any sexual expression outside of heterosexual marriage (and in that instance only if artificial contraception is not involved); and condemnation of homosexuality, and you have the recipe for a toxic brew. While many well adjusted men enter the seminary, we have all heard the horror stories. Seminaries and religious orders have become havens for an excess number of sexually broken, psychologically warped young people. And the predatory abusers in their ranks form just a fraction. When you repress something healthy, it often rears its head in unhealthy ways.
On top of this dysfunction, the church turns the priesthood into a separate caste, divorced from the lived realities of the baptized, cradled and coddled by a global institution, and beyond the reproach of their congregations. Despite the fact that he had destroyed their church, the parishioners back home could not get their priest removed. Their pleas to the diocese were met with disdain. The old model of hierarchy, in which God works from the top of the pyramid down—with the laity at the bottom—still predominates in the Catholic Church. Like any institution of power, the church’s leaders thus work to protect themselves. Of course the bishops shuffled priests around, blamed victims, and refused to resign. They are of the same caste—it is their in-group.
We must not neglect the influence of Catholic theology in creating this cult, a theology which still tells priests and bishops that they have been ontologically changed at ordination, their very being made into the image of Christ. Though the 18th-century spirituality that elevated the priesthood to the level of Christ has worn off a bit, its remnants are still powerfully present inside the seminary walls. The most psychologically well person would be tempted to egoism with this theology. But when you give it to the damaged or pathological person, you have a recipe for a disaster. It is an intoxicating ideology, and the church’s leaders (with the exception of Pope Francis and his allies) are drunk with it.
I took a course on the theology of ministry during my divinity studies, and I was amazed how my Jesuit and Franciscan classmates—among the most progressive orders in the church—resisted the idea that, as I and other lay students raised, people could, in fact, have a vocation both to marriage as a state of life and a vocation to the presbyterate as a way of ministry. But I understood their anger. Who wants to hear that maybe he didn’t have to swear off intimacy with a spouse and children? Or that maybe, despite all his heroic sacrifices, he really isn’t any more special to the church than ordinary, baptized people?
The sex abuse scandal is not about sex. It is about power. When a priest rapes a minor, or a bishop covers it up, he is abusing the power he holds over his congregation—and who is more powerless than a child? Wherever institutional power exists, you can bet you will find abuse of that power. This is especially true of organizations that block transparency and accountability, and the Catholic Church is one of them, to a staggering degree. Clericalism is the lifeblood of this abuse, for it makes the clergy the sole repository of ecclesial power. As long as they maintain a monopoly on this power, as long as they refuse to clean house and open the windows to let in sunlight, as long as such clericalism is allowed to continue, you can bet we will have more scandals, corruption, and wickedness in the church. Remember that the sex abuse crisis is but one of many church scandals that have erupted in years.
The suggestion is made that the worst of this particular crisis is over, that it’s been years since these crimes were committed. So we should just leave the status quo untouched, despite no accountability or reform taking place? Just hope another scandal doesn’t break out in fifty, one hundred, three hundred years? Is that what Christ would do? “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matt. 18:6) Let us pause over these words: by the standard of Christ, all of the bishops should be taken into the ocean and drowned. Luckily for them, Catholics are not biblical literalists.
Compared to Jesus’ standard, my requests seem minor. First, all of the American bishops must resign. That would meet the minimum standard of justice. But we must go further: we must break up the clerical caste and allow the non-ordained to exert greater power and oversight in the church’s governance. Mandatory celibacy must end, women should be allowed into ordained ministry, and gay men and women allowed to serve as ministers without shame or secrecy. These changes will help sanitize the noxious culture of seminary life and restore ministers to the ranks of the people, instead of apotheosizing them as ontological and social elites. Parish councils must be mandatory, not optional, and non-ordained people should have positions of authority through all levels of the ecclesial structure. Parish’s should have greater influence in the discernment process of candidates for ministry, and far greater power to remove ministers who are failing—whether priests or bishops. The theology of ministry that deifies priests must end, and the church must cast away its repressive views of human sexuality.
I am not calling for congregationalism or full flown democracy in the church. I am talking about transparency, accountability, and basic sanity. Something closer to the Episcopalian model of ecclesial governance. Why have we not heard about such vast global coverups in other churches? Is it because Episcopalians or Lutherans or Methodists are better people, with more angelic ministers? Hardly. Is it because none of their ministers commit such abuse? No. It’s because, knowing the tendency of human nature to sin and institutions to insularity, they have created ecclesial structures based on dialogue and participation, not command and control. This transparency mitigates against corruption and coverup, and holds the perpetrators to account when crimes do occur. The Catholic Church must adopt these changes, or it will increasingly become an agent of sin instead of grace.
Do I have any hope that the church will make these changes? No. There was I time I did. But when I saw the depths of the opposition to Pope Francis’s reforms from his own cardinals and bishops—and Francis’s own refusal to reckon with the abuse crisis—I realized just how beyond redemption they have become. One might say that this time’s different, that now, after last summer’s report, is a time for a renewal, that the clergy will finally listen. That view is naive. Have we forgotten what happened to Voice of the Faithful fifteen years ago? Instead of hearing their grievances and partnering with them to reform the church, the bishops—right here in Boston—attacked them with a ferocious hostility.
Don’t doubt that this would happen again should Catholics actually rouse themselves from their passivity and demand change. Keep in mind that the corruption of the Curia and episcopacy is deep and vast—they will resist any changes. Several friends of mine, on separate occasions and in different states, stood up in Mass last summer to question priests who counseled their flocks to continue obeying the bishops even after the report was issued. Their reward for doing the right thing, as Jesus would do? They were ejected from the assembly, reminiscent of conciliar condemnations during the Reformation.
The only way I see to get the church’s leaders to the table is to bring them to their knees. To do so, the baptized must boycott the church en masse. If no one goes to Mass, or sends their children to Catholic schools (and why would we, given these crimes against children?), or attends Catholic hospitals, or—especially—gives the church any money whatsoever, the bishops will listen to that. Or else they will find themselves shepherds without a flock. Think of it: if every Catholic, starting next Sunday, refused to attend Mass and did not return until the bishops called a council and agreed to these reform, we’d get their attention. Nothing short of that will work—the corruption goes too deep. If it seems extreme, recall Jesus’ recommendation.
The good news is that people actually don’t have to go to Mass in order to worship God on Sundays anyway. The Church is the People of God, after all—the assembly. Wherever that assembly gathers—be it a park, a living room, a gym—Christ is in their midst, and they can worship God in Spirit and Truth. They can call forth leaders and break the bread. In fact, they might find in doing so that they are praying like the early Christians. It could be a blessing. It could be, for the first time, an actual full, conscious participation in the liturgy, in doing church—as Vatican II desired. The point is, the baptized must be the agents of leadership and change—they should not be waiting on the bishops like sheep. When leaders abuse their power, they lose their legitimacy. The Catholic bishops have utterly lost their claim to lead this faith community.
I don’t see Catholics voting with their feet in such a manner any time soon. But I have so voted. This past April, after several years of discernment, I formally entered the Episcopal Church of the USA. One of the leaders in my orientation group at my new church was a former leader of Voice of the Faithful, ironically. Ironic, too, is the fact that the theology I learned in my Catholic divinity program spurred me to convert. I came to see that, on the subjects of ministry and church governance (along with the Eucharist), the Episcopal church embodied the conclusions of Catholicism’s own theology. In other words, the Catholic Church must make these changes as well because they are theologically correct. The church’s ministers should be called forth from the community and operate from an embedded relational context—not be foisted over a strange congregation and exert near total power.
Finally, though, I just had enough—enough of the scandals, lack of accountability, and ecclesial infighting. I was sick of looking in the mirror and asking myself why I was affiliated with this organization. We all must give an account of ourselves on judgment day. How could I remain involved with a church that had committed such evil yet refused to atone? I couldn’t take the feeling anymore. While the Episcopal Church has its share of problems, so far I feel greater spiritual peace of mind. I do not regret it. Not every Catholic needs to convert. But, at the very least, every Catholic needs to boycott the church until it reforms. Inaction at this point is cooperation with evil.