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Earlier stories

Spotlight Report

  James Carroll  

The escalator of change

By James Carroll, 9/24/2002

WHEN THE American Catholic bishops met in Washington in the fall of 1968, a crowd of protesters showed up. The meeting was at the Washington Hilton, and what drew the demonstrators was the still boiling furor over ''Humanae Vitae,'' the papal encyclical condemning birth control.

Though only a seminarian, I was there in support of the numerous priests and theologians who had boldly signed declarations saying they would not teach that contraception is inherently evil. Some were professors of mine, and some had already been suspended or even fired. Dozens of those priests and their supporters had come to the Hilton demanding to be heard by the bishops.

We were gathered in the large, polished lobby of the hotel, waiting for the bishops to come out of their morning session, which was being held in a conference room one floor up. An escalator joined the two floors. Finally, the bishops began to appear on the moving stairway, bringing them down. Gold crosses and chains gleamed on their black shirtfronts. They were laughing and talking - but their expressions changed when they saw the throng of protesters who were waiting on the first floor.

Perhaps a dozen bishops were already on the escalator, and a crowd of dozens more were right behind them. But at the sight of us in the lobby below, the bishops instinctively - urgently - turned around, reversing themselves, to climb back up, avoiding the confrontation at any cost.

The trouble was that they were on a moving staircase that was still bringing them down. That was when they really began to move. Even then, I knew what an apt symbol was presenting itself - the Catholic bishops of America clambering up a down-escalator.

The bishops escaped their critics that day - the encounter never took place. In truth, they seemed for a long time to have successfully defied the equalizing momentum of history's moving stairway. Dissenters dispersed. The sexual lie of ''Humanae Vitae'' found its niche among other church deceptions. But a full-fledged crisis of ministry began to unfold as waves of priests then resigned, eventually overburdening those who remained.

Vatican-sponsored mechanisms of denial and control gave the appearance of a church that had not changed all that much, and Catholic lay people, for the sake of the consolations of the sacraments, joined in the pretense that all was well. In the church, down had become up. But the moving stairs on which everyone was standing never stopped - and they were going in the direction of equality, with all on one level. Catholic practice and belief faced one way, but the future faced another.

The future is here. Most bishops, true to form, are still scrambling backwards up a down Escalator. Bishops are avoiding not only their critics, even moderate ones like Voice of the Faithful, but they have cut themselves off from their priests, even the most trustworthy.

For a minute, the bishops seemed to register the anguish of abuse victims, but when the bishops saw that they themselves would be held accountable for crimes they enabled, they reversed course. Now we hear, from the Vatican and elsewhere, that the crisis has been overblown, if not wholly created, by the American media. The crisis will pass, may have passed already.

The Catholic people don't think so. We are in the lobby watching the bishops halfway down the escalator, nearly in our midst. But look, they are scrambling backward again, going for the old safety of upper-story closed meetings. But the effort is futile. They cannot get off the moving staircase this time.

There are forces at work here that have already leveled the structures of denial and control. Those forces include the determination of victims to be heard, the energy of Catholic lay people expecting change, the demand of good priests to be respected, the actuarial reality that most of those good priests will be retired soon, the court's requirement of full accounting for crimes, the duty of a free press to report news that matters, and the still vital impulse of reform begun at Vatican II. All of this keeps the escalator moving under the bishops, taking them where they do not want to go.

But there are even more irresistible forces in motion. World-wide impulses toward democracy, the power of new female consciousness, pluralism's relativi zing of triumphalist claims, religious self-criticism after 9/11 - all of this has the ground moving under Catholicism, too. And just in time. The moving stairs of the last century made the Catholic Church an instinctive critic of imperialist war, even if American.

The renewal of the church will mean the restoration, above all, of its moral voice, which is the main reason to stop going the wrong way on the escalator of change. Up is not down, any more than Bush's war is just.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

This story ran on page A19 of the Boston Globe on 9/24/2002.
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