For Catholics, Gradual Reform Is No Longer an Option

St. Joseph Catholic Church in Hanover, Pa.CreditCarlos Barria/Reuters
St. Joseph Catholic Church in Hanover, Pa. Credit Carlos Barria/Reuters

I often use a handy metaphor to explain to my students how feminists have historically differed among themselves in their approaches to bringing about change in patriarchal institutions. Some feminists seek a place at the table; others want to reset the table. The former hope to promote gradual progress from within an existing framework of norms and organizational structures; the latter demand nothing less than radical, wholesale reform.

When it comes to the Roman Catholic Church, I have always been a “place at the table” kind of feminist. When asked how to integrate women more fully into the life of the church, I offer reasonable strategies. Bishops could, for example, recognize that the call for leadership might flow as much from the sacrament of baptism as from that of ordination, and appoint more women to leadership positions at all levels of church governance.

Tuesday’s grand jury report about clerical sexual abuse in Pennsylvania has changed my mind. The sickening revelations — over 1,000 victims, more than 300 priests, 70 years of cover-ups — have propelled me directly to the center of the “reset the table” camp. We need to rip off the tablecloth, hurl the china against a wall and replace the crystal with something less ostentatious, more resilient and, for the love of God, safer for children.

Long before I was a historian and a professor, I was a child in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The parish and the schools and the priests and the sisters formed me as a person of faith. I am still blessed by the grace of all the many sacraments I received there: baptism, first communion and then twice-weekly Eucharist, regular confession, a memorable confirmation (during the blizzard of 1983) and many years later, matrimony. I treasure memories of equally sacramental moments experienced during annual service trips, weekly volleyball games of the Catholic Youth Organization and daily laughter-filled conversations with the boys and girls who became lifelong friends.

In 2005 a grand jury report from Philadelphia tainted those memories, naming as it did two sexually abusive priests who had served at my parish and several more who taught at my high school. Even in the midst of so much grace, it turned out, sin had abounded, and I wept for the victims, who had been my classmates and neighbors.

Tuesday’s grand jury report, which involves six other Pennsylvania dioceses, has also devastated me personally. Many names are familiar: I attended college in one diocese, and have researched and written about two others. Above all, I know Pennsylvania Catholics, who are generally more inclined than Catholics from elsewhere to place Father or Monsignor or Bishop on a pedestal and deem him above criticism or even suspicion. The consequences of gullibility, to our shame, are made manifest in the report.

I mourned privately 13 years ago, but today I state publicly that the church must come to terms with the sins of its past and reform itself so thoroughly that they will never be repeated in the future. People can point out, and they surely will, that the Catholic Church has not cornered the market on sexual abuse of children and young people. Yes, I realize that. Nonetheless, it is clear that the scale of the abuse is magnified in an institution whose leaders time and again chose self-preservation over the protection of the most vulnerable people entrusted to their care.

People will say that there is still holiness in the church, that there are many priests and bishops with good and pure hearts, and they are right. But there are times when the sin is so pervasive and corrosive that it is irresponsible to talk about anything else, and this is one of those times. My once-polite requests for incremental reform have morphed overnight into demands that church leaders voluntarily relinquish their place at the head table.

Imagine hearing abdications of power along the following lines in Sunday homilies, in diocesan news conferences, or in statements from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

“We were granted privileges because we were meant to represent Jesus Christ on earth. But Jesus said that we should humble ourselves like little children if we want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and also that anyone who harms a little one ‘would be better drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone around his neck.’ We are no longer worthy of your sacred trust.

“We are ready to listen humbly, first of all to victims and their advocates, who might tell us how to begin to ease suffering and to make recompense. We welcome prosecutors and lawyers and historians into our archives, so that the full truth, however damning, might be known. We acknowledge that our system of seminary education is deeply flawed, and ask how it might be reformed so as to produce leaders who thrive as human beings. We submit to new layers of oversight, because the ones we ourselves imposed failed so miserably. We are listening. We are learning. We ask for God’s mercy, and yours.”

Will we hear statements like these? Unlikely. But we are owed nothing less from our ordained leaders as collective atonement for the sins of their brothers.

Kathleen Sprows Cummings is an associate professor of American studies and history at the University of Notre Dame and the author of New Women of the Old Faith: Gender and American Catholicism in the Progressive Era.

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