Catholic Hierarchy Is Still out of Touch

By Charles Austin
North Jersey Media Group [New Jersey]
January 16, 2003

If every bishop who ever covered up priestly sexual misconduct resigned, if no priest ever again committed a sexual sin, if future bishops were perfectly diligent in disciplining miscreants, the Roman Catholic Church would still have a problem.

People value their faith, but they are losing trust in the institution defining that faith. People love their local parish, but rarely see their bishop and never meet a cardinal. People honor the doctrines of Christianity, but vehemently disagree with the way those doctrines are being interpreted and legalized by a distant hierarchy.

Many who love the Roman Catholic Church (including a lot of us Protestants) no longer believe that the hierarchy can fix the problems or even understand what the problems are.

Since the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, millions took to heart the theme that the church is the "whole people of God," including the laity. People thought that they would have a voice, not just in local affairs, but in the church at large. People raised issues important to them - sexuality, divorce, birth control, the role of women, how bishops are selected, the Church's role in public life - only to be ignored or receive condescending pats on the head from a hierarchy pretending to be tolerant.

In recent years, the Vatican has cut off discussion on key topics of concern to laity, silenced priests who speculate about the validity of some doctrines, attempted to seize control of institutions of higher learning, and reminded non-Catholic believers that, while they may be in some sense "Christian," only the Roman Church is the real deal. When the Voice of the Faithful organization arose last year, some bishops responded by slapping the members with the label "dissident" and forbidding them to meet on church property.

Archbishops like Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned from his Boston post in the wake of the sex-abuse scandals, Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, and the whole Vatican curia were nurtured in a time when the princely and authoritarian nature of the Church prevailed. When such men set their priorities, they look to Rome rather than to the concerns of the people under their care. Their world is defined by canon law and Vatican rulings, not by the needs of the gritty neighborhoods outside their cathedral walls or the challenging questions of their intelligent laypeople.

A few bishops and thousands of priests lament the Church's medieval structure and try to work around it. There are progressive parishes where priests do not repress dissent; instead, they value the opinions of the laity - even when it comes to interpreting official teaching and practices.

But the real power in the Church remains far from the people, who have no say in choosing their pastors, let alone their bishops. This was not always the case. The Vatican's authority grew in the 18th and 19th centuries so that Rome could protect churches from interference by secular powers, who often had the authority to name bishops or reject a Vatican appointment.

Huge numbers of laypeople disagree with the Church's official teaching on contraception, ordination for women, priestly celibacy, divorce, and other things. And they are losing respect for an institution that behaves like a 17th century European monarchy.

Many bishops have said they were chastened and contrite after meeting with victims of clerical sexual abuse. They acknowledge that those meetings helped them grasp the reality of the situation.

Are they willing to meet with women or married men who feel called to the priesthood? With cradle Catholics critical of some doctrines? With remarried Catholics who want to receive Holy Communion? With gay and lesbian Catholics who do not feel that they are "intrinsically disordered"?

The sexual abuse scandal will eventually fade. But if bishops continue to stress their authoritarian role, cower before Vatican representatives, or retreat into medieval traditions when confronted by questioning Catholics who love the Church, the authority abuse scandal will increase.

Charles Austin's e-mail address is


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.