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Spotlight Report

Theologians call for wider debate

Urge bishops to do 'systemic' review

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 6/8/2002

NEW ORLEANS - Members of the world's largest association of Catholic theologians, gathering on the eve of an unprecedented meeting of bishops struggling to bring the clergy sexual abuse crisis under control, yesterday called on the Catholic Church to re-explore its power structure, its priesthood, and its teachings about sexuality.

Rejecting the narrow focus of US bishops on how best to deal with abusive priests, the theologians declared that the current crisis suggests a need for ''thoroughgoing church reform.''

''The bishops are more interested in the pragmatic issues and the pastoral issues of how to deal with this crisis, but we are not bishops, we are theologians, and therefore we want to know what kind of church theology allowed this crisis to occur,'' said Rev. Peter C. Phan, president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, which represents 1,500 scholars teaching at Catholic universities, seminaries, and other institutes of higher education around the country. ''The crisis is not going to disappear because the bishops set out policies. Without considering these issues, the policies will not work.''

The society did not vote on the statement, saying it might not represent the views of each of its members. But Phan, a professor of religion at the Catholic University of America, said the statement, unanimously endorsed by the society's board of directors, will be mailed to the leaders of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the 16 bishops who are also theologians. During a discussion of the document, not a single theologian spoke against it, although some suggested changes.

''The scandals facing the church today have led us to conclude that a thoroughgoing church reform is both legitimate and necessary,'' the document declares. ''Public outrage has been directed not just toward the instances of clerical sexual abuse themselves, but toward church leadership's systemic failure to maintain, even minimally, the kind of open communication, consultation and participative decision-making that ought to characterize the church as communion.''

Individual theologians speaking at the meeting made it clear they share the dissatisfaction many lay people, and some bishops, have with the way church leaders have handled clergy sexual abuse over the last several decades.

''I have been profoundly scandalized by the behavior of bishops, archbishops, and cardinals who responded to credible accusations of clergy child sexual abuse in a disgraceful way,'' said Barbara Hilkert Andolsen, a professor of social ethics at Monmouth University in New Jersey. ''We absolutely have to look at our theology of the laity and our theology of priesthood with a sweeping, fundamental reconsideration ... We are clearly in a crisis that requires the laity to demand accountability from the bishops and the Vatican.''

And Terrence W. Tilley, chairman of religious studies at the University of Dayton, said bishops who fail to remove abusive priests from ministry should be held to the same standard as priests who abused children. ''The bishops are accessories before and after the fact ... Any bishop who has allowed a man to stay in ministry after two strikes ... should be removed,'' he said.

The theologians are meeting days before the nation's Catholic bishops are scheduled to gather in Dallas to debate a policy that would require all dioceses to report abuse allegations against clergy to state authorities, would ask the pope to defrock priests who abuse children, and would set up a national office to oversee the church's efforts to combat sexual abuse.

The theological society represents the church's most prominent teachers in the United States, and its membership is predominantly made up of priests and nuns who work in academia. But the society has previously been at odds with the bishops. Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston has been sharply criticial of the society because it called for discussion of the restriction of the priesthood to men. The hierarchy has been concerned enough about the loyalty of theologians that last year, under pressure from the Vatican, the bishops approved a measure requiring Catholic theologians to seek an endorsement of their teaching from their local bishops.

But several of the 420 theologians gathered here said the church needs to consider broader issues, including how to hold bishops accountable for failing to remove abusive priests for ministry, as well as systemic issues that some believe contributed to the crisis.

''This is obviously a crisis that has theological implications,'' said Vernon Meyer of the University of Dayton. ''If we don't voice our perspective, this crisis will only be focused on punitive judgments.''

The statement is most provocative in calling for a reassessment of the priesthood, which is currently restricted to celibate men. The statement says theologians ''must ask difficult questions regarding the canonical and even doctrinal strictures that severely limit who is permitted to respond to the call to priestly ministry'' - a sentence that refers to the canonical prohibition against the ordination of married men as Roman Catholic priests and the doctrinal prohibition against the ordination of women.

The document was drafted by three prominent theologians, Lisa Sowle Cahill of Boston College, Richard Gaillardetz of the University of Toledo, and Rev. Ladislas M. Orsy of Georgetown University.

The theologians dismissed the notion that celibacy causes sexual abuse, declaring that notion ''too simplistic.'' But, the statement asks whether ''these strictures ... contribute to a clerical and elitist closed system'' and declares that ''any reform that does not attend to these issues will, rightly, be viewed as merely cosmetic.''

''It is evident that the exclusion of women from any consistent and formal role in higher governance has contributed to the clerical culture that many increasingly deplore,'' the statement says. And, it adds, ''there is ... reason to wonder whether mandatory celibacy does not sometimes foster a clerical culture in which, because he does not have a relationship to a spouse and to children, the priest's primary focus of loyalty becomes the institutional structure of the church.''

The theologians declare that the subject of gays in the priesthood must be researched. On the one hand, they take issue with some bishops and an increasingly vocal group of conservative lay people by declaring that ''homosexual men who are committed to a celibate vocation may be ordained to the priesthood.'' But the theologians also declare that ''among the issues worthy of more investigation are whether an isolated, all-male environment is more likely to attract homosexuals; ... to encourage sexual transgressions by homosexuals more than by heterosexuals, and whether greater cultural and moral openness to homosexuality, reflected even in church documents, has had a deleterious effect on clergy sexual behavior.''

The statement calls on the church to explore ''new canonical structures'' to facilitate lay involvement in the church, saying that the current structures, such as diocesan pastoral councils representing the laity and presbyteral councils representing priests, ''in many cases ... have atrophied into uselessness, whether through benign neglect or deliberate suppression.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/8/2002.
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