The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church

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Democracy in the Catholic Church

By James Carroll, Globe Columnist, 5/14/2002

LIKE MANY Catholics, my firm connection to the church is centrally a matter of the Eucharist. The sacred meal of the Mass, affirming the ongoing presence of Jesus Christ, feeds a gnawing hunger for meaning and hope. At a time when church leaders themselves so gravely undercut the meaning of the faith and sow reasons for despair, the Mass, ironically, seems more essential than ever. This may explain why Mass attendance apparently is up, even in troubled parishes. We Catholics have never needed our good priests more.

The way Catholics now receive communion at Mass offers an object lesson in the deeper significance of the current crisis. It used to be that those approaching the communion rail would kneel and, tilting their heads back and opening their mouths, they would offer their tongues onto which the priest - only a priest - would place a consecrated wafer.

We never gave this procedure a thought until, with the reforms of Vatican II in the late 1960s, it changed. No more kneeling. No more outstretched tongues. No more communion rail, even: What had been an effective barrier between sanctuary and church was removed. Now lay people as well as priests distribute communion. Now Catholics receive the sacred bread in their hands, to place it in their mouths themselves.

This subtle reform has tremendous significance and contemporary relevance, for it means that Catholics are no longer infantilized by a feeding gesture appropriate only to small children. The kneeling posture of subservience is gone, marking members of this community as of equal standing. Every Christian, not just the ordained, is worthy to handle the body of Christ. The hierarchy of virtue, with some assumed to be more worthy than others, is gone.

These changes symbolize a mature church with members treated as fully of age, but the Catholic Church, alas, is not really like that. When the further reforms of Vatican II were stymied by a reactionary pope and his lackey bishops, the infantilizing culture of Catholicism survived. Such church leaders love to speak of the church as a family, but always assuming that they are the parents - ''Father'' - and everyone else is a child.

One of the reasons Catholics are in such shock at the betrayals by priests and bishops is that Catholics continued to regard them, as children do parents, as morally superior people. That they are not comes as a big surprise. ''Father'' is mortal, too.

In fact, Catholics who have come so fully of age in other ways remain religiously immature. Superbly educated in a range of diverse disciplines, the Catholic laity tend to be theologically illiterate. Responsible for universities, municipalities, companies, in church Catholic lay people still do little more than take up the collection or arrange the flowers. And when they have dared diverge from the paternalistic authority structure, making their own decisions about birth control, for example, Catholics have done so in the manner of adolescents, defying authority slyly rather than openly.

In the face of the criminal Vatican rejection of condoms for HIV prevention, Catholics have been passive instead of outraged. That Catholics seeking divorce have willingly submitted to the humiliations and lies of the annulment system is another signal of immaturity. By submitting to the paternalistic church structure, otherwise adult Catholics have allowed the culture of church dishonesty to worsen to the point of the present pathology. We all share responsibility for this catastrophe.

But the present crisis makes it impossible for Catholics to continue this childish arrangement. Once the myth of the perfect parent is broken, the young can grow into adulthood, taking responsibility for themselves. Catholics can never regard priests and bishops uncritically again, nor can they cooperate any longer in the small dishonesties that have spawned such massive betrayal.

Now when Catholics go to Mass, the already-in-place symbols of maturity and equality must be matched with new political structures, which means, of course, that the most ecclesiastically incorrect word of all must at last be spoken aloud. The next time someone tells you the church is ''not a democracy,'' reply that that is exactly the problem. Checks and balances, due process, open procedures, elections, a fully educated community, freedom of conscience, the right to dissent, authority as service instead of domination - all of this must come into the church.

Here is the lesson: A power structure that is accountable only to itself will always end by abusing the powerless. Even then, it will, paternalistically, ask to be trusted to repair the damage. Never again. Not only the discredited Cardinal Law must go, in other words, but the whole system that produced him. Full democratic reform is the Catholic Church's only hope. If we can take the body of Christ in hand, we can take the church in hand, too.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

This story ran on page A15 of the Boston Globe on 5/14/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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