Is Reform Possible, Within the Current Institutional Structure of the Church?

By William M. Shea
Patheos blog
July 5, 2019

Is true and sweeping reform possible under the current government structure of the church? I think not. After all, the first revelation of the spate of crimes took place in 1985, thirty-five years ago. The essential facts were set before the American bishops at the time and they declined to accept the report. They would not discuss the matter. In the Dallas charter of 2002 bishops pointed their reform efforts at priests and ignored their own crimes. For any ordained church leader, low or high, to even suggest a change in clerical authority itself is to make himself a parish. The structure has been many times made a matter of dogma, including at Vatican II. Yet the damage hasn’t ceased and that is the failure of church leaders. The Vatican’s “cone of silence” squashed even the question of any limit to ordained leadership, not to mention serious public discussion of it.

Lack of support

Despite an occasional effort, bishops have been unable or unwilling to provide communal support for priests that might sustain their efforts at moral probity and deep spiritual life. Some of this may rest on the lack of spiritual depth and maturity on the part of bishops themselves. It would seem that they do not regard themselves as ministering to priests in spite of official Church rhetoric. Priests have very little if any spiritual community, especially with their bishops. In my own experience in the priesthood I had a five minute discussion with bishops only twice in nineteen years, once to ask for a transfer from a parish (1964) and once when I was resigning (1979), and never with anyone one of the dozen New York auxiliary bishops. When I was desperate at the end of a fifteen year wrestling with celibacy I had to turn to a Jesuit spiritual director for council. I never got the impression that any New York bishop was interested in helping priests.

The tragedy of clerical life is not American alone, but is shared by the Irish church as well, and the churches in Canada, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, Chili and probably the churches worldwide, over the same sins of priests and the same episcopal irresponsibility. The problems are systemic.[1] They must be met systemically.

An institutional problem

The pope’s call for a necessary conversation of heart on the part of bishops and priests is entirely on target. He knows well the plight of the modern cleric. However, the situation is not merely a sin here and a sin there but an institution wide moral collapse on every level of leadership. Nor is it just a matter of the sins of this or that priest or bishop but of general moral laxity in The Church and an atmosphere of corporate corruption. Former Bishop Bransfield of West Virginia is the rule rather than the exception for ambitious clergymen; his modus operandi of cash gifts to the higher priests is the way to rise.

I had along with the rest of my seminary mates gotten some advice from the authorities in charge of our education. One bon mot was that of the spiritual director, Monsignor Robert Brown (RIP), who warned us all to “Watch out for the pious ones.” “Better the bottle than the bosom, worthy brothers!,” he said to two hundred and fifty seminarians in one of his weekly spiritual nosegays. You can always dry out, he meant, but once you’re on the bosom or the bosom is on you, there’s no drying out to be done. Monsignor Francis Reh (RIP), a New York seminary rector who inexplicably became a bishop and an archbishop instructed us in our last year before ordination: “If you can’t be good at least look good. If you have to do it, don’t do it in your own parish.” No mystery about the “it,” I hope. What he took to be realism we took to be cynicism. When we were told by another spiritual director, “There is no vacation from your vocation” we all knew what he meant: have a good summer, don’t mess with the ladies, and come back. But what in heaven’s name did the other two mean? Did Brown mean that it is better to be a drunken priest than a married priest? Did Reh mean for the church’s sake be discrete when you fornicate? Bad advice in both cases, bad for the soul of the future priest, bad for the church.

Note what Reh didn’t say: “If you’re having problems with celibacy, if you are having heterosexual or homosexual relations with adults, if you want to abuse children, for God’s sake and your own, turn yourself in to the bishop and ask him for help.” That may have happened here and there but we will never know. Whether high or low, for good or for ill, the clergy have secrets to keep.

We must stop ignoring reality

We got plenty of “spiritual direction” in the seminary but even then still nothing about children. Why was there nothing said about the desire to have sex with children? Nothing serious, nothing cynical, just nothing. The only thing, as I remember it, were jokes we told about Episcopalian priests and their altar boys, not about Catholic (i.e., “real” ) priests and theirs. Was I asleep during that part of the sex and sin lecture? Not a chance. I never went to sleep when any of my seminary superiors were talking about sex. I can only conclude that my superiors, like me, knew nothing about it or thought that it was so marginal a phenomenon it was hardly worth mentioning. Who ever heard about priests desiring the bodies of children? Was the image and desire so perverted that one dare not even mention it?

I hope I am not overstating the case. I am trying to picture the working of the hierarchical system from the point of view of a Catholic who reads daily newspapers and the string of books written on the priests, high and low, which have been written since 2002, and from one who knows personally the struggle with celibacy. The published materials seem to make the conclusion inevitable: It’s not just a matter of good or bad men, sinners or saints, but also a matter as well of how the church is structured. If Pope Francis is correct, then clericalism and its attendant grip on power is the root of the problem.

If the conclusion that the church needs restructuring cannot not be warranted, it seems to me that at least the question should be raised and a church wide discussion take place. Do you think the Vatican will sponsor a conference on sexuality, celibacy, church structure and authority, or has the last word been spoken in “The Tradition” on an all male priesthood and required celibacy?

[1] Years of reading steamy Protestant accounts, often by ex-priests, of “the sins of the confessional” failed to convince me that there was much to it but the last decade has convinced me otherwise. See W. M. Shea, The Lion and the Lamb: Evangelicals and Catholics in America (Oxford University Press, 2004).








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