BY KENNETH L.
crisis of sexual abuse by the clergy is one of trust. It says much
about the widespread lack of trust in the American Catholic Church
that we are now witnessing the construction of see-through confessionals,
windowed cubicles where priest and penitent can be seen but not
overheard. It says even more about the failure of the Church to
pass on its tradition that so few Catholics bother with the sacrament
of Reconciliation, in the first place. That many of the sins left
unconfessed are sexual in nature is a guessbut a guess that
evokes the widespread gap between what the Church teaches about
human sexuality and what, polls tell us, Catholics both lay and
clerical are willing to accept. Windowed confessionals: The image
parodies the call these days for institutional transparency.
I think we still don't know the full dimensions of this crisis,
nor do we have any long-term solutions in hand. Indeed, the medical
profession itself does not know yet what makes a man a pedophile
or an ephebophile. That is why this Church in the 21st Century initiative
is so important. It is shocking to realize how much institutional
self-delusion prevails in the American Church, more shocking still
to realize that the bishopsand the Vaticanhave been
unwilling to examine or even to acknowledge the many disconnects
between what is taught and what is believed. This has been going
on at least since 1967, when, as it happens, Newsweek magazine
became the first organization of any kind, Catholic or otherwise,
to poll U.S. Catholics on what they think of their Church. Now,
of course, such polls are routineindeed they are almost a
cliché of reporting on the Catholic Church, designed, I guess,
to show once more that substantial numbers of Catholics do not agree
with some of the Church's moral teachings. They are also a form
of flattery: When was the last time you saw a similar poll of Methodists,
or Unitarians, or Seventh-day Adventists? Even so, the Church leadership
has lacked the courage to take such data into account. I'm reminded
of a once robust order of missionary sisters that is now unable
to retain the few novices it attracts butas a matter of principlerefuses
to ask those who leave after a year or two what prompted their decision.
This initiative is important for another reason as well: It emphasizes
the importance of a Catholic university as a place where the Church
does its learning. If a university is not free to inquire, it is
not a university. But if it does not understand and respect its
role in the basic mission of the Church, it is not a Catholic university.
time is long overdue for a disciplined discussion of ordaining women
and married men to the priesthood. In fact, informal and often undisciplined
discussion of these issues has been going on for decades. If the
bishops feel they cannot study such issues themselves, Catholic
scholars ought to provide this service for them. And I speak as
a Catholic who is comfortable, maybe too comfortable, with the present
division of labor in the Church. I am not a lay minister, nor do
I aspire to be one. I'm not even an usher. Indeed, I've always felt
that the Women's Ordination Conference should focus first on diversifying
the International Brotherhood of Church Ushers. Come to think of
it, we'll probably have ordained women sooner than we will have
For the record, I count myself among those who are opposed to ordaining
women and even married men, for reasons that I believe are sociologically
compelling. My advice to Catholic friends who think otherwise is,
"Look before you leap"that is, I see no reason why
the Catholic Church should imitate those declining mainline Protestant
denominations, which ordain women, reject clerical celibacy, and
institutionalize lay leadership.
Would-be Church reformers would do well to study the Protestant
experience, where they would learn that tyranny by committee can
be as stifling as tyranny by hierarchy, and where children of clergy
form their own support groups. The lesson of comparative ecclesiology
is that there is no perfect way to structure a church, which means
that renewal is always an ongoing process.
The Church in the 21st Century project is timely. As I speak, there
is an initiative circulating among the American bishops that seeks
to convoke a plenary council of the American Church, something that
has not been done since 1884. And in New York, a group of Catholic
lawyers and jurists are pressing the region's bishops to convene
diocesan synods to discuss the crisisin my view, a much sounder
In some important dimensions, we already know what the American
Church in the 21st century looks like. First, we know that its membership
is changing from one kind of diversity to another: That is, the
immigrants of old are being replaced by the new immigrants, mainly
from Hispanic countries, whose sense of Church is, I might say,
more organic than that of the culturally assimilated, post-Vatican
II Anglo baby boomers. We should remind ourselves that the Catholic
Church is and always has been the most diverse communion on the
face of the Earth, a fact that seems to escape some of its critics
in the media.
Secondly, we know that because of the sharp decline in vocations
to the priesthood and, among women, to the vowed life of religious
communities, the Catholic Church in the United States is well into
an era where lay ministries are coming to predominate over the clerical.
Just look at the statistics. The American Church has about 45,000
priests, most of them 55 years of age or older, of which a third
are members of religious orders. One parish in six has no resident
priest. The Church has some 80,000 women religious, also a rapidly
aging population. But it now has, at last count, 13,277 permanent
deaconsall male, most of them late middle-agedand at
least another 29,000 lay ministers, most of them women, who work
more than 20 hours a week for the Church. And there are thousands
of lay men and women who work in diocesan ministries and as paid
office workers, not to mention the thousands of volunteers who work
less than 20 hours a week for Catholic parishes and Catholic schools.
Most Catholic theologians, as a matter of fact, are now lay women
It is simply not true to say that the laity are uninvolved in the
life of the Church. But it is true that the laity, especially women,
have no real voice in making important decisions and none at all
in the decision-making processes of the Holy See. Clericalism of
this kind is not only wrong, but unnecessary and inefficient.
But what do we mean by "Church"? Consider for a moment
an image of the Church that I find useful. It's not so much a theological
model as Avery Dulles has elaborated, but a kind of working image.
I see the Church as a pyramid, with countless circles floating inside
it. The pyramid reflects the Church as a hierarchical institution,
with the pope at the top. The circles represent all the innumerable
ways in which members of the Church come together to form communities
and to create specific missions. My point is that the pyramid is
a large and fecund place that allows a host of circles to be produced
within it. I'm thinking not only of individual parishes and dioceses
and religious orders; I'm thinking also of the countless Catholic
organizations, from the Blue Army to the Catholic Workers. I think
too of the thousands of Catholic high schools and colleges that,
at their best, shape the identities of individual Catholics through
experiences, attachments, and lifelong connections. My own Catholic
formation, for example, took place in my childhood parish. It was
deepened at St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland and later at Notre
Dame University. In my self-understanding, these last two communities
lie closer to my core identity as a Catholic than does my present
Parishes, I believe, are necessary but insufficient forms of communion
within the Church. As a journalist, I find my roots in the Church
nourished regularly through the communities of conversation created
by Commonweal, America, First Things, and other more scholarly
publications. In short, the Church as pyramid provides the unity
without which there can be no diversity.
The same image can be considered from another angle, the angle of
gender differencethe sort of thing that Harvard psychologist
Carol Gilligan likes to study. In this view, the pyramid is masculine,
stressing authority, hierarchical organization. The circles are
feminine, stressing mutuality and cooperation. Few Catholics, outside
the clergy, experience the hierarchical in their lives. On the contrary,
most Catholics experience the institutional Church as feminine:
Holy Mother the Church. As I've argued elsewhere, the Catholic Church
was "feminized" long before there was a feminist movement.
Indeed, to the extent that the energies of organized American religion
in general are devoted mainly to the nurturing of the young, to
the extent that religion in America is privatized, localized, and
inevitably domesticated in individual congregations that
function like extended families, I would argue that religion in
general is experienced as feminine rather than masculine. In any
case, we know that on any given Sunday, in any given church, Protestant,
Catholic, or Orthodox, there are always more women than men in attendance.
And as any Christian pastormale or femalewill tell you,
Sunday night to Sunday morning on the congregational level, the
clergy operate in a world that is essentially bleached of males.
And so it has always been.
Those who claim the current crisis is the most serious since the
Reformation are guilty of gross hyperbole. I know of no one who
has left the Church because of episcopal malfeasancethough
I do know of Catholics who have abandoned the faith entirely because
they were sexually molested by a priest. Many Catholics do expect
a rethinking of the Church as institution and are open to practical
changes. Thus, we need to ask what the relationships between bishops
and priests and laity are and ought to be. I can't provide the answers,
but I have some thoughts.
Two years ago, I was in Rome during the last International Synod
of Bishops, and I was discouraged to see that after 30 years that
body is still debating the question of collegiality as if it were
an issue of authority, rather than a matter of practical administration
of a huge, worldwide Church. Collegiality is also needed at the
diocesan level. According to the New Testament, authority in the
Church is to be understood as service. Thus Catholics justify the
hierarchical pyramid by saying the pope is the servant of the servants
of God. His brother bishops are called to serve the people of the
diocese, especially the priests in their care. The priests in turn
serve the laity, not the other way around. But we lack standards
for judging how well service in the Church is rendered.
Given that the Holy See is the last Renaissance court, it is not
surprising that bishops look up and over their shoulders toward
Rome to see how well they're doing. The result is conformity and
timidity. Rather, they should look to the priests and the people
of the diocese for mutual criticism and confirmation. Though authority
is conferred on bishops from above, this does not make a bishop
authoritative, any more than ordination confers holiness. Yes, I
know the priesthood is a calling, but this fact should not prevent
us from demanding professionalism in directing the Church, the diocese,
the parish. Indeed, the best and happiest priests I've met tend
to be those who have acquired a profession as well as ordination.
With professionalism come standards, and with standards comes accountability.
With thought, perhaps we can all come up with standards that, in
the best sense, would professionalize the parish ministry.
For example, one thing every parish priest must do is prepare and
give sermons. But surely I am not the only one who wonders why,
at a time when this pope has seen fit to revive the practice of
giving indulgences, there is still no time off in purgatory to be
earned by those who Sunday after Sunday endure sermons better left
unpreached. And I must say, sermons by permanent deacons are usually
worse. A small matter, you may say, yet the Sunday sermon is unfortunately
still the only encounter with the scriptures that most Catholics
experience. Where are the professional standards in the ministry
of the Word?
With a shortage of priests, perhaps the Church ought to reconstitute
several orders of preachers who do nothing but that, making a circuit
of parishessay, twice a monthand allowing parish clergy
two weeks to prepare their own sermons.
For their part, bishops usually possess at least one professional
credential, a degree in canon law. Now, canon law is important,
not the least because it protects the rights of members of the Church.
But surely wisdom, prudence, and spiritual discernment are more
important in a bishop. After all, a bishop can always hire a canon
lawyer; I'd rather a bishop with a knack for holiness than a head
for business. And by holiness, I do not mean personal piety, but
the sort of wisdom that comes from deep immersion in the gospel
and in a life of prayer and pastoral service. Consider this: The
late Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop of Westminster, single-handedly
transformed the image of English Catholicism by manifesting in his
person and office the best qualities of a Benedictine monk, an order
he entered at the age of 12. Yet he also got things done as English
Primate. Or consider the Dalai Lama. He carries the burdens of government
in exile, not to mention the future of the Tibetan people. And he
carries them very well. Yet his primary identity, the one that means
the most to him, the one that sustains his charismatic leadership
and his personal candor is that of Buddhist monk.
I view the current crisis as an opportunity to demand and to declare
new criteria for choosing and judging bishops. It is within Church
tradition to give a voice to the clergy in the selection of bishops,
and I see no reason why such a voiceor at least a taking of
the pulsecould not be extended to the laity as well. And however
bishops are chosen, we ought to discourage careerism in the hierarchy
and require something more of our bishops than management capabilities.
In any case, management of a diocese does not require clerics in
financial posts. Given that we have a shortage of priests, I see
no reason why we cannot begin to replace most diocesan officials
with lay professionals. Since an increased lay management of the
Church is inevitable, let us make virtuous our necessity: It would
not be at all difficult for one or more Catholic universities to
create programs specifically designed to train lay women and men
in Church management.
The idea is not problem-free, of course. The laity have no special
purchase on virtue. As it is, though, our bishops already rely on
the unrecorded and unacknowledged advice from buddies in business
and the legal profession, who in turn are paid in the cheap coin
of the Renaissance court systemdinners with the cardinal,
private audiences with the pope, and the satin sashes of the Knights
of Malta. If the bishop is to be a teacher, as tradition holds,
then let us have men steeped in learning, let us have bishops who,
when they speak, have something to say.
Above all, let a bishop's bond with his priest be one of father
to sons in Christ, colleagues even. Fathers do not automatically
throw their sons out of the house when they are accused of wrongdoing.
Neither do they shield their sons from the law when found guilty.
And they do not put the honor of the clan or the Church above the
truth, on the pretext of avoiding scandal. Commitment to the truth
and to those who serve in the priestly ministry is not too much
Another concern of the Church in the 21st Century initiativethe
living and passing on of faithgoes to the heart of what it
means to be the Church. Catholics are hardly alone in wrestling
with this issue. Beginning in the late 1960s, when the flood of
baby boomers reached adolescence, most religious institutions either
indulged their young by jettisoning hard demands or ignored them
altogether. The Catholic Church lost at least a generation of young
people through misconceived catechesis, dumbed-down, childlike liturgies,
and other foolish enthusiasms following the Second Vatican Council.
But mainline Protestantism has suffered the most, in part because
the otherwise laudable ecumenical movementwhich began decades
earlier as an intra-Protestant affairblunted differences between
historic traditions and unintentionally encouraged the kind of church-shopping
that has virtually destroyed all but the most sentimental denominational
In the 1960s, liberal Protestants jettisoned their church camps
and youth groups, and woke up in the 1980s to find out that most
little Presbyterians do not grow up to be adult Presbyterians, but
something else, or, just as often, nothing at all. Catholics, in
part because of their school systems, and especially, I think, because
of their all-male high schools, have done a marginally better job
in retaining their young, but only marginally. In fact, mainline
denominations like the Episcopalians would be half their current
shrunken size were it not for an influx of divorced and otherwise
disaffected Catholics. Put another way, the Catholic Church, though
growing through immigration, has become the farm system for American
Protestantismand especially for the fastest-growing sector
of American Christianity, the no-name, non-denominational community
churches that preach a Christ who was born yesterday.
Overall, the most nuanced studies indicate that less than a quarter
of American adults are seriously religious, and we're not talking
about Mother Teresas here. Another 30 percent are nonreligious or
outright opposed to religion. Some scholars tell us that the high
tide of religious belonging and identity associated with the 1950s
was a historical anomaly. That may be true, but the more important
point is that, well into the 1960s, religious denominations were
also social and cultural enclaves. One rarely entered the doors
of a church other than one's own. Southern Baptists no less than
Catholics provided age-appropriate education in stages for the young.
And where neighborhood and religious boundaries roughly corresponded,
as in parts of Boston, traditions were assimilated like family recipes.
Such religious subcultures have largely disappeared. And so have
the intact intergenerational families that inhabited them.
More and more, Catholic parishes resemble the intentional communities
of Protestant congregations. New circles of belonging replace the
old. And today's parents must contend with the vast power to form
identity exercised by an omnipresent, commercially driven, media-saturated
youth culture that barely existed when I was young. To be a religiously
concerned parent today is to find oneself immersed in guerrilla
warfare on all cultural fronts. Indeed, the so-called revival of
religion in recent decades owes most of its salience to parents
enlisting help from religious congregationsany congregationin
the rearing of their children.
Formation is still the key to passing on any religious tradition
from one generation to the next. The question is, who or what is
the forming and the informing agent? It is said that adolescence
is a stage in life where young people seek their own identity. But
the opposite is at least as true: The young assume identities, and
identification is what the media sells in order to survive. If parents
are not committed to a faith, if they do not have an adult's grasp
of its contents, their children will be indifferent to religion.
Catholics can no longer count on the easy formation that once came
with the old enclave culture. Now the effort at formation must be
conscious and persistenthigh on intellectual content and strong
on personal commitment. In the context of contemporary American
culture, even more than in contemporary Third World cultures, the
primary agents of Catholic formation are parents and grandparents,
not only formally but informally, by the way they live and by the
way they die. Parents must make their children realize that to be
Catholic is not only to be distinctive, but quite often to be at
odds with the culture of public education, the media, and entertainment.
Children should be taught that, as Christians, they will always
live in tension with the powers of the world. This is not an easy
lesson to teach, or to accept, when, at present, Catholic pulpits
are reluctant to announce, as Dorothy Day liked to remind us, that
"it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living
God"meaning, it is terrifying to allow oneself to be
genuinely an instrument of God's will.
The same applies to Catholic schools. Students there should be taught
that the purpose of an education is not simply to gain a credential
or otherwise achieve a given competence in order to survive and
thrive in life. And yet I fear that this is the message that most
Catholic universities give. I am old-fashioned enough to think that
the Catholic universities exist to train students to be critics
of the world they are about to enter, that criticism being rooted
in the Catholic vision not only of social justice but of the utterly
unique hope that Christ brings to the world. But I wonder: Would
Boston College, or any other Catholic university, be willing to
withhold a diploma from Catholic students who did not pass a sophisticated
mandatory test to measure their grasp of the forms and content of
the faith? And if you did do that, how many of your students do
you think would pass?
In short, I see no point in talking about the laity's role in the
life of the Church if the graduates of our best Catholic universities
are uninterested, or unable, to enter into that loving, critical
conversation with the past, without which there would be no tradition.
A moment ago I observed that religious traditions used to be passed
on through religious enclaves or subcultures. Here I want to add
that, on matters of sexual morality and behavior, those enclavesProtestant,
Catholic, Jewishexhibited a remarkable degree of consensus.
Nearly all, I think, agreed that sex outside of marriage was wrong,
and so reinforced certain limits and taboos about dating. Divorce
was rare: tolerated, but frowned upon. In this environment, only
Hollywood celebrities and trailer park trash cohabited without benefit
of marriage. Abortion was a crime as well as a sin. And gays and
lesbians were culturally closeted.
Today the reverse is true. In matters sexual, American society is
normless. Living together is not only tolerated, but regarded as
a practical first step toward marriagethough more often it
leads to yet another live-in partner. (Why is premarital sex so
seldom premarital?) Indeed, some social scientists now talk of starter
marriages, which, like starter homes, are seen as a transition,
to second and even third marriages. Abortion-on-demand is the law
of the land. Abortion is widely practiced as a form of birth control
and represents the only instance in law in which the snuffing out
of human lifea phrase prohibited in the mediais tolerated
for any reason. What matters is individual choice. Indeed, some
Protestant denominationsthe United Church of Christ comes
to mindsee their pro-choice position on abortion, not as an
endorsement of abortion, but as a natural extension of the principle
of individual interpretation of scripture. And in politics abortion
remains the one consistent benchmark issue separating the
two major parties.
In this context, Catholic sexual norms appear to be not only eccentric,
but dangerously sectarian, possibly even un-American. This is not
altogether a bad thing. It is a tribute to be disrespected for the
right reasons. To the extent that Catholic understanding of sexual
morality and marriage are rooted in the Gospel, what the Church
teaches will always be distinctiveand difficult. That does
not mean that what the Church has taught in this area has always
been right or even healthy: Certainly it is true that its norms
have never been uniformly observed by Catholics themselves.
For example, the effort to ground opposition to contraception in
a universal natural law, as in Humanae Vitae, not only
hasn't persuaded otherwise committed Catholics, it has also demonstrated
that nature and its laws are not so transparently obvious to others
of good moral will. Indeed, nothing has so hobbled the Church's
witness on abortion as Humanae Vitae. Nothing has distanced
more women from the Church, and I suspect nothing has so compromised
the consciences of priests in and outside of the confessional as
that single encyclicalmuch of which, by the way, I think is
At its best, Catholic teaching makes a strong case that sexual intercourse
means or should mean what marriage means: mutual commitment to the
other. Even in marriage, I would argue, there is no such thing as
safe sex. That is, the emotions raised, the intimacy realized, the
commitment impliedthese are always flammable. If sex means
what marriage means, we must ask what Catholics mean when they marry.
I know of no one who thinks that Catholics are any more prepared
for marriage than other people, least of all for the lifelong commitment
and fidelity that Catholic tradition envisions. This is a huge pastoral
problem that I think ought forcefully to be addressed. Likewise,
most Catholics are not at all clear about the annulment process.
Most annulments, I am told by canon lawyers, are granted because
at least one spouse did not intend marriage as it is understood
by the Church or because he or she lacked what is called due discretion.
Yet given the self-sacrifice that marriage demands, how many among
us can say that we entered marriage with due discretion? My wife
tells me she didn'tall the time.
Nonetheless, it seems to me that the Church owes it to society to
insist on the permanence of the marriage bond. After 40 years of
sexual revolution, even the Joe Namaths among us want to make good
marriages and make them last. Even the most jaded of my journalistic
colleagues tell me they would kill their spouse if he or she cheated
on them. There is a wisdom in the Church's treating marriage as
a sacrament, and realism in its insistence that a good marriage,
like a good life, requires the grace of God.
There is, finally, the question of homosexual marriage. If you feel,
as I do, that marriage is possible only between male and female,
and that procreation and the rearing of children is one of the purposes
of marriage, still we must ask whether and how we also ought to
encourage monogamy among homosexuals. I do not think civil unions
endanger the institution of marriage. But even though infants seek
attachment to whatever set of parents given them, we have ample
studies demonstrating the harm that comes to children, especially
boys, who have no father in their lives.
Any one of these issues is enough to occupy more than the two years
of this project. But it would be useful to keep a broad theological
view in mind. As with all major religions, Christian praxis aims
at two things: the transformation of the individual and the transformation
of society. For Christians, the two are intimately connected. In
this sense, renewal of the Church means its re-formation in the
service of that transforming grace that is the promise of the Christian
Kenneth L. Woodward is a contributing editor at Newsweek
and from 1964 to 2002 was that magazine's religion editor.
Kenneth L. Woodward (top) and audience members. By Lee Pellegrini