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Spotlight Report

Colleges examine crisis in church

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 4/21/2003

MEDFORD - The new syllabus says it all: Sexual abuse. Women's ordination. Authority and dissent in the Church. Homosexuality and priesthood.

For years, the Rev. David M. O'Leary, a lecturer in comparative religion at Tufts University, has offered an annual course on introductory Catholicism.

But this year, he decided to tear up his program and offer a new class: ''Catholicism in Crisis.''

All around the country, and particularly in Greater Boston, academic scholars, especially in the fields of religion and theology, are rethinking their teaching and their research in light of the clergy sexual-abuse crisis that has rocked Catholicism the past year. They are writing books, offering new courses, and hosting conferences that are bringing a new sense of relevance and edge to previously arcane and obscure fields.

''Almost any course today that's in theology, philosophy, history, at some point is going to engage in some form in the questions arising out of where the church is in the US today,'' said the Rev. William P. Leahy, president of Boston College. ''I just don't think you can be a theologian today in the church, or a philosopher or a historian, and not think about what the sexual abuse crisis has done in terms of how Catholics understand authority and the role of the hierarchy and what lay people can and should do with the church.''

Leahy said the impact of the sex abuse crisis on Catholic intellectual life is without parallel in American Catholic history.

''People look at what's gone on in the US Catholic Church today and say, `When have we ever had such an upheaval, such problems,' and I don't think we have in the church in the United States,'' he said. ''Historically, if you look at the 2,000 years of history of the Catholic Church, we've had these moments when we've been very much ravaged by things such as the bubonic plague, the Reformation, the French Revolution.''

Evidence of the dramatic impact of the sex abuse crisis on academia is everywhere. Just in the past several weeks, Yale University hosted a conference on ''Governance, Accountability, and the Future of the Church,'' Siena College in upstate New York held a symposium called ''Trusting the Clergy? The Churches and Communities Come to Grips with Sexual Misconduct,'' and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, in New York City, sponsored a continuing- education program it billed as ''The First National Conference on Clergy Abuse.'' Next month, Santa Clara University, in California, is hosting a national conference on the crisis aimed at producing a scholarly book, while Le Moyne College in Syracuse has partnered with a polling firm to study Catholic attitudes toward the church crisis.

''I'm thinking any course on Catholicism that I ever teach, these issues will have to be discussed,'' said O'Leary, a moral theologian who is the first Catholic to serve as university chaplain at Tufts, a private university that was long-affiliated with the Universalist Church. ''I don't think you can teach Catholicism any more without addressing these subjects. If you teach Catholicism without talking about sexual abuse, you're whitewashing.''

O'Leary has his students read original Vatican documents explaining church positions on homosexuality, gender, and authority, and then writings by theologians on those issues. He also had his students read a report on sexual abuse in the church written in the early 1980s, warning bishops about the prevalence of the problem. His students have written research papers on subjects such as celibacy, Catholicism and democracy, and the role of women in the Bible.

''I'm active in the Catholic community here at Tufts, and this was something I was paying attention to in the papers, and although it never affected my faith, I definitely did find it very disturbing,'' said student Robert C. Curry, a 21-year-old junior from Meriden, Conn. ''And the course title was controversial, so it caught my interest.''

The Tufts class is one of a handful already underway - at Fairfield University in Connecticut, religious studies professor Paul Lakeland is offering three sections of a new course called ''Crisis in the Church'' this semester. But at universities across the country, new courses are being developed and curricula rethought because of the crisis.

At Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, psychology professor Paul R. Dokecki is planning to offer a new graduate course, ''Human Science Inquiry into Clergy Sexual Abuse,'' this fall. Robert W. Hough, a religion professor at Central Michigan University. spent a semester in Boston talking with laypeople and has adjusted his Religion 101 course to include discussions of the abuse crisis. Daniel G. Moriarty, a professor at Albany Law School, has incorporated a discussion of the conduct of Catholic bishops into a course on white-collar crime.

''I've been talking to people who teach courses in basic Catholicism, and for some months now they haven't been able to avoid this, even on the undergraduate level, because students are expressing outrage. So whether you planned it or not, you have to spend some time on this,'' said Jon Nilson, an associate professor of theology at Loyola University Chicago and the president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

Boston College, reflecting its Catholic identity, its location in the Archdiocese of Boston, and its size, has launched the broadest effort. Leahy is traveling around the country, holding sessions with alumni to talk about clergy sexual abuse, while on campus, courses are being reconceived, seminars are being held, and papers are being published. Leahy has ordered a revision of an introductory Catholicism course targeted at freshmen, and has asked several departments to develop new courses in response to the crisis.

Not only are universities creating new courses, but academic and religious publishers are revising their booklists to offer new books about the crisis, and professional associations of scholars, from the Society of Christian Ethics to the American Psychiatric Association, are adding sessions on the controversy to their annual conventions.

The crisis is also changing the practice of theological study, forcing theologians, previously an insular bunch, to become better at communicating their ideas to the public, either directly or through the news media.

The intense investigation of the crisis in the church by scholars is occurring at a potentially awkward time for Catholic universities, which are just emerging from a bruising debate with church officials over whether Catholic colleges are Catholic enough. About two years ago, the Catholic bishops of the United States decided to require theologians teaching at Catholic universities to sign statements promising to present authentic Catholic teaching - a requirement that most have chosen to ignore.

''One effect of the crisis is that it is going to cause something of a return to introspective Catholicism,'' said Stephen J. Pope, the chairman of the theology department at Boston College, who said that in recent years theology departments such as his have been focused on expanding the study of world religions. ''The crisis has underscored the significance of the church for the lives of average Americans, and it has called for a very important set of reflections on how the church is related to the state. There's also been a quantum leap in the concern about the role of the laity in the church.''

Some people have been prevented from speaking publicly on the crisis because of the tension between Catholic colleges and bishops. The Rev. Donald B. Cozzens, a former seminary rector who has written about the number of gay priests, spoke at the Yale conference, but was kept off the printed agenda because the archbishop of Hartford had expressed concern about Cozzens, a conference organizer said. James E. Post, the president of Voice of the Faithful, said he was barred from speaking at the University of Dayton, and Mark D. Jordan, a professor of religion at Emory University who writes positively about gay relationships, gave a speech at Boston College that was not publicized because the organizers feared controversy.

Patrick J. Reilly, president and founder of the Cardinal Newman Society, a national organization that seeks to strengthen the Catholic identity of Catholic colleges, warily welcomed the universities' embrace of crisis-related research.

''The church as a whole needs to be discussing these issues, and they are, but the real concern is that, even within the Catholic colleges, there is an overwhelming bias, especially among theology or religious studies departments, against the church hierarchy and the church as it is currently structured,'' he said. ''There's a lot of dissent, and unfortunately, I think a lot of this discussion is simply borne out of latent hostility toward the bishops.''

The conversations are taking place largely without the participation of the main decisionmakers of the church, bishops, and they involve issues of sexuality and power that church leaders have often been loath to debate.

''Dialogue is much more characteristic of universities today; it's something we're more comfortable with,'' Leahy said. ''The bishops of the United States are so involved with the issues arising from sexual abuse - the legal fronts, the financial fronts - they're not there yet in doing the things that universities find more natural.''

But university officials insist that their discussions will affect the broader church, by training Catholics of the future, by exploring ideas that are too controversial to be discussed outside academia.

''Events such as we've sponsored, or other things that have gone on in this country, have influenced the mindset of Catholics - it's helped them articulate their own positions - and they've also heard other people speak, so it's stimulated their thinking,'' Leahy said. ''And I think we are going to see a continued focus on education. What we've been doing is just a beginning.''

Michael Paulson can be reached by e-mail at mpaulson@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/21/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.


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