Church Authority

See the source imageA few years after I was baptized, I was enrolled in Catholic high school. It was an experience in “real world” church authority. My school was run by two orders, one for each half of the school, for girls and boys. Many lay employees, too. I had many fine teachers who encouraged and challenged me. I think back to Chemistry, Physics, AP English, all my Math instructors, Latin, and German.

On the other hand, there was one lay brother who “absolved” us of our sins in a class prayer service. That seemed to be the last straw in a series of weird happenings. A few days later, another lay brother came in to finish off the semester. One lay teacher liked to gossip about other students with the in-crowd. A few brothers we were warned off to avoid. One we weren’t warned about was said to have eloped with a graduated senior from the girls’ side of the school.

Elsewhere in my life, a scoutmaster ejected for adultery, and various neighbor and extended family misbehaviors. So I recognized that adult authority is not an automatic pass for respect. I took the same attitude with me to college and into employment. I would watch professors and employers carefully and when respect was earned, I was willing to give it.

I don’t know that I was anti-authority as much as I was the equivalent of an agnostic on it. Doubt before proof.

Fast-forward to what I would call the cover-up scandal of 2002. I was certainly aware of sexual misdeeds among clergy, religious orders, and lay employees. The difference for me was that I became aware of bishops blundering their management responsibilities on a scale that far surpassed the relatively lower percentage of priest-abusers.

Before 1986, there may have been excuses of ignorance. But between that year and 2002, the bishops collectively ignored evidence presented by fellow priests. A few bishops did take action. My priest friends in my current diocese report that Archbishop Hunthausen took credible action once he heard Fr Tom Doyle’s report to the USCCB. The bigger problem from the institution’s eyes in that decade was the promotion of peace. So, for the pope of the day, doubt.

So today, I look upon church leaders with a broad swash of doubt. I’ve noted Catholics lapse into bad behavior repeatedly. It seems to make no difference if they are liberal or conservative. The notion that a Catholic can self-will herself or himself to virtue based on either a bleeding heart for the poor, a wish for artful liturgy, or an indulgence for things pre-conciliar is laughable–or it would be if it weren’t the matter of grave sin. I’m not surprised that Pope Benedict XVI inched forward on some issues, especially when the institution was embarrassed. Pope Francis has acted a little more quickly. But like his two predecessors, he seems ill-served by those whom he trusts in the hierarchy. He’d do better to add Marie Collins to his gang-of-nine.

I’ll wait and see how things turn out. I suspect Pope Francis is the best we could have hoped for in terms of a pope willing to move forward on issues of abuse and cover-up. If people begin speaking out against him, I doubt they will be marginalized as squeaky wheels were in the 1978-2013 era.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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