VOTF Chicagoland's open letter to the pope

Shortly after the piece headlined "Some bishops questioning clerical culture" was posted, I received an email from Anne Brennan of Voice of the Faithful Chicagoland about an open letter the group had written to Pope Benedict XVI in which they compare clerical culture with a deadly cancer threatening the church.

Whether one agrees entirely with the group's views, or its suggestions for correcting the abuses of the culture, it is a worthy contribution to the discussion, which I find occurring increasingly.

I'll have more on the subject in the future. Meanwhile, the full text of the Voice of the Faithful letter and contact information is pasted in below.

Voice of the Faithful, Chicagoland Northeast
An Open Letter to Pope Benedict XVI: A Cry for Reform tttttttttttJuly 31, 2010

Dear Holy Father -- Joseph, our brother in Christ,

We share with you deep pain and grief over the corruption that is coming to light throughout the worldwide Roman Catholic Church. We believe that Jesus is with us, weeping over his church as he once wept over Jerusalem. With every new revelation of clerical sex abuse and cover-up---and we have only seen the tip of the iceberg---we have become aware of a deadly cancer at the heart of the institutional church that is threatening to cripple its ability to nurture the faith of its members and to proclaim with any shred of credibility the good news of God’s Kingdom in Christ.

This cancer is the clerical culture. It sprang up, as we all know, in the Rome of Theodosius, when Christian leaders began to develop a cultic priesthood modeled on that of pagan Rome. This gave newly recognized Christian priests a privileged status in society and the requirement of abstinence from sexual activity the night before officiating at the public ritual. Over the centuries, the clerical caste took on more and more of the feudal structures and trappings of power. Today the Roman Catholic Church looks like a large, wealthy, highly organized multinational corporation, curiously dressed in the pompous trappings of an ancient feudal monarchy. Its princely bishops and priestly vassals encircle their papal monarch pledging unconditional loyalty and obedience, while many of the faithful serfs continue to pay, pray and obey their exalted leaders.

All too easily the “Princes of the Church,” attired in the royal robes and jewels befitting their sacred status in the celibate circle of power and privilege, become convinced that their mission to keep the church true to the apostolic tradition requires their blocking out the voices of the faithful, as if the Holy Spirit could not possibly be speaking to those outside the clerical circle. A collective blind spot, a scotoma, has persuaded them that they must proclaim all their teaching as absolute truth and demand unquestioning obedience of the faithful, quashing any hint of dissent with threats of excommunication and eternal damnation. To maintain their sacred authority, they readily assume that their top priority must be to safeguard the wealth, power and prestige of the clerical institution, even at the cost of the devastation of countless victims of clergy sex abuse. In spite of this sad picture, we the faithful see the Spirit working, even---and especially---in the providential disclosure through the media of the scandals of clerical sex abuse and episcopal cover-up.

Holy Father, Joseph, we know it is a hard time to be Pope. We find it is a hard time to be Catholic! In the church, as in the world, we believe each generation faces historic challenges and is called to meet them with courage. A wise person once observed that no one bridges a chasm with a few timid steps. The wide chasm between the vision of Jesus for his followers, which found its purest expression in the New Testament and earliest church practice, and the institutional Roman Catholic Church of today, can only be bridged by a bold leap of faith in the One who said: Fear not. I am with you always, till the end of time.

Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, in communion with the Bishops and the world-church’s best theologians, including a Father Joseph Ratzinger, took that leap of faith at the Second Vatican Council, bridging the gap between the vision of the New Testament church and that of the 20th century. Their leap across the chasm from a feudal model of church to a New Testament vision set in the modern world, demands a second more difficult leap, one that would implement that inspired vision of Vatican II through bold institutional reforms.

The actual implementation of the teaching of Vatican II has been impeded by members of the hierarchy who fear losing their absolute authority, as the Spirit-driven winds of change continue blowing throughout the worldwide church. The so-called “reform of the reform” is a misguided attempt to thwart the vision of the council fathers---and the early church---by moving the church backwards to the period of the counter-reformation, trying to establish its theology and liturgy and feudal structures of absolute authority as the norm, in place of the Gospel of Christ.

But the clerical scandals coming to light around the world have made abundantly clear that the cancer eating away at the heart of the church, the “clerical culture,” calls for institutional reforms that are now about 15 centuries overdue. Holy Father, we call on you to lead us in these reforms. We are confident that the Popes, Bishops and theologians of the 2nd Vatican Council, on earth and in glory, will be guiding us. We hear the call of the Risen Christ urging us: Joseph ... with my faithful People ... rebuild my church.

The task ahead is daunting. Renewal and reform of the institutional church according to the Gospel, which is an abiding task, is so much more difficult when institutions that took a wrong turn in the 5th century have become so deeply set in stone, literally and metaphorically, over the centuries. We believe the following are organically interrelated parts of the one bold leap of structural reform. It is a leap that could land us firmly on a 21st century path towards transforming the institutional church from a feudal monarchy to the People of God envisioned by Jesus and embraced by Vatican II:

  1. Resolve the sex-abuse scandal with unflinching courage and transparent honesty.
  2. Demand the full disclosure of clerical crimes, with the names and whereabouts of the perpetrators. Provide just compensation and therapy for the victims, apologizing without offering excuses. Seek appropriate church and state penalties for both priests who abused and bishops who enabled the abuse. Bishops who knowingly moved abusing priests from place to place, seeking to protect the priests and the clerical culture in utter disregard of the pain and suffering inflicted on vulnerable children and youth, should resign or be removed from their ministry---including Cardinal Law---and face criminal prosecution.

    Instruct the bishops to recognize their collective guilt for the scandal of their cover up. Their very humanity should have told them that the abuse of children and youth, whose angels always behold the face of the Father, is a heinous crime, singled out by Jesus for harsh condemnation and punishment. The church has had centuries to root out this evil but has been silent. It is outrageous for church officials to blame a modern secular culture, as if sexual misconduct by clergy were a problem unique to the modern era, or to trivialize the allegations of clergy sex abuse as malicious gossip, or to attack the victims and their lawyers as greedy, or to denounce the media as anti-Catholic when they report the truth. We believe the Holy Spirit is using the media and the lawyers to cleanse the church and avenge the innocent victims, the way the God of Israel used Cyrus to free his people. The truth will set us free!

  3. Restore the authority granted by Vatican II to the Episcopal Conferences.
  4. Direct each Episcopal Conference to establish a simple decision-making process that would be followed in resolving every major issue. It would involve the following steps: 1) holding listening sessions at the parish and regional levels to gather the views of all the faithful; 2) consulting with a team of theologians and relevant scholars; 3) debating and deciding the issue in an assembly of the national conference; 4) sending the decision to the pope for confirmation. This is the process envisioned for implementing the reforms described below.

  5. Restore the election of bishops to the local churches.
  6. Direct the Episcopal Conferences throughout the world to follow their new decision-making process to establish a procedure for electing their local bishops. It would include these steps:

    1. soliciting input from parishioners and priests regarding the qualifications for bishops and their recommendations of candidates;
    2. consulting with relevant theologians and advisors;
    3. assembling in conference to debate and then elect three candidates;
    4. sending the names and qualifications of the candidates to the pope for confirmation. This procedure is not new in the church. It was simply bypassed in the Vatican’s centralization of authority and power under Pope John Paul II

  7. Revoke the policy of mandatory clerical celibacy.
  8. Direct the Episcopal Conferences to follow the 4-stage decision-making procedure described above to come to a decision regarding the policy of mandatory clerical celibacy. The church’s policy of mandatory celibacy is not supported by any evidence found in the New Testament. Jesus called married people to carry out his mission. The first quality listed as a requirement of one chosen as bishop was to be a loving spouse and wise parent. Paul, in light of his exalted vision of the Risen Christ and the expectation of his imminent return in Glory, freely chose celibacy, even though he claimed the right to have a wife accompanying him as the other apostles did. He suggested that the first Christians would do well to follow his example, but freely, without any compulsion, according to their unique gift and calling by God.

    Early church history provides no support for mandatory celibacy either. After Theodosius made Christianity the state religion, church leaders established a cultic priesthood modeled on that of pagan Rome. Besides the exalted status and privilege accorded the new Christian priests, they were also bound by the law that required the pagan priests to abstain from sexual intercourse the night before presiding over the cult. This law of abstinence reflected the Roman elite’s denigration of sexual activity as beneath the dignity of rational men, akin to an epileptic fit. Women were viewed as the evil seducers to such subhuman and sinful activity. The “papal inquisition” of American nuns today is evidence that the male celibate hierarchy still feels a need to keep women under control.

    The glaring failure of priests to abide by this law of abstinence led finally to the imposition of mandatory celibacy in the 12th century. The equally glaring failure by priests, bishops and popes to live celibate lives through subsequent centuries up to the current era, is recorded in the history books and substantiated in recent sociological studies. Doesn’t this suggest that perhaps God is not bestowing the charism of celibacy on all those ordained to priestly ministry, in spite of papal edicts?

    The biblical evidence strongly suggests that the loving and faithful relationship of marriage is for most humans the best ground for nurturing healthy, holy persons capable of authentic Christian ministry. The call to celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom is also a time honored gift to the church, as is the call to single life. Each of these Christian vocations highlights different aspects of the mystery of Christ: the intimacy and fidelity of our relationship with God, the eye-has-not-seen-nor-ear-heard transformation of our relationships in Christ, and the uniquely graced quality of all our relationships, all our friendships, and all our various human pursuits.

    The church’s error has been in trying to impose the call to celibacy as a condition for ordination, commanding God, as it were, to bestow the gift of celibacy to fit our human purposes. It is based on false understandings of sexuality, bad theology, and an arrogant presumption that if we would be perfect, we should try to live like the angels, in spite of the command of the Creator in Genesis and the blessing of marriage in the Old and New Testaments as a sacrament of God’s relationship with us. As theologians have noted, it is marriage, not celibacy, that is celebrated as a sacrament of the church.

    The consequences of this fear and shame and repression of our sexuality are manifested in the various perversions of sexuality we have seen in the clerical sex scandals that have plagued the church through the centuries. It is also evident in the current obsession of the hierarchy with matters of “pelvic morality,” such as birth control, abortion, homosexuality, masturbation and premarital sex, as well as their fear and abhorrence of women. Repeating the same absolute prohibitions over and over, rejecting all attempts at dialogue, just further diminishes the hierarchy’s moral authority.

  9. Ordain women. Open all sacraments and ministries in the church to all the baptized without regard to gender or sexual orientation.
  10. Because of the cultural and political ramifications of this action, final implementation of this policy should be left to the discretion of local churches, with all due respect given to the needs of various cultures, while encouraging ongoing study and critique of the role of women in each society.

    Jesus gave ample evidence of the equal regard he had for women. They shared his table fellowship and accompanied him on his journeys, many providing for the needs of the disciples. They were his closest friends and most faithful disciples: Martha and Mary---Martha serving and professing faith in Jesus as messiah; Mary sitting at his feet listening, in the customary posture of a male disciple at the feet of his rabbi, and anointing his body for burial; the Samaritan woman at the well, bringing the good news to her towns people; the women standing courageously at the foot of the cross; Mary of Magdala, the “apostle to the apostles” sent by Christ to announce to them his Resurrection; the wife (probably) of Clopas, running back with him to Jerusalem to tell the disciples how they had recognized him in the breaking of the bread.

    The early baptismal hymn quoted by Paul rejoices in the equality of all in Christ--- neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free person, male nor female, but all one in Christ. Paul singles out for praise the women who were apostles and co-workers with him. The early church understood that Christ alone is priest, our one mediator, our great high-priest, forever living to make intercession for us. All who are in Christ through faith and baptism share in the one priesthood of Christ. While various members of the believing community, men and women, might lead or preside at the Eucharist, it was the whole community of the faithful who were “concelebrating.” The metaphor argument, that the priest should be male because he represents Jesus, the male priest, is simply fallacious. The priest does not represent Christ, but serves as leader of the community of men and women worshiping God in communion with Christ. Further, since the Risen Christ is neither male nor female, any gender based symbolism ascribed to the presider is meaningless.

  11. Replace the obsolete College of Cardinals with a representative College of Bishops elected by the Episcopal Conferences throughout the world.
  12. The number of bishops elected to this College of Bishops by each Episcopal Conference would be proportionate to the number of Catholics encompassed within the Conference. Such a body of bishops would be better able to fulfill the roles currently assigned to the College of Cardinals. It would strengthen the communication between the local churches and the pope and provide the pope with the enriching insights and practices of the various cultures. When convened as a conclave to elect a pope, this representative College of Bishops would better reflect the diversity of the world-church, both in its vigorous debate and its final selection. The winds of the Spirit could more freely fan into flame ever new waves of creativity and ministry. Not much breeze gets through hardened cement.

    An added happy consequence of dissolving the College of Cardinals would be the relinquishing of one layer of the princely attire and trappings of the feudal courts, which would hopefully lead to ongoing simplification. The new College of Bishops would also be able to offer the administrative expertise of their countries to help in developing a more efficient and transparent papal bureaucracy (curia). This might free the Pope from the powerful “false prophets” who urge resistance to the winds of the Spirit blowing through the church.

  13. Recall the Vatican produced English translation of the Roman Missal and restore the ICEL translation.
  14. A more modest immediate manifestation of the restoration of authority to Episcopal Conferences would be to recall the Vatican’s translation of the Roman Missal into English. This translation was created by a secret committee called to the Vatican in 1997 to discuss its objections to the third English version of the Roman Missal and Lectionary. It usurped the authority granted by Pope Paul VI to the national Conferences of Bishops to create their own translations of the liturgy into the vernacular for their people. It also revoked the original guidelines given, which called for rendering the meaning of Latin texts into an equivalent meaning in the vernacular.

    In 1963, eleven English speaking Episcopal Conferences formed the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, ICEL, composed of scholars from the different countries. The ICEL produced the first and second English translations, which were approved by the Vatican and used in the English speaking churches. A third translation of a 3rd version of the Roman Missal was completed but awaited Vatican approval when the secret meeting was held at the Vatican in 1997.

    The Vatican officials’ concern seemed to be the perceived loss of a feeling of transcendence associated with the 17th century Latin liturgy when it was rendered in the vernacular, the language of the worshiping people. They also objected to the inclusive language found increasingly in the English translations. The solution was to set up a Vatican committee to supplant the work of the ICEL with a translation more to the liking of the pope and the Vatican officials. New guidelines were issued calling for precise word-for-word translations of the Latin.

    The result is a text that sacrifices meaningful and flowing English with awkward and ungrammatical English, touted as a more sublime, sacred liturgical language better able to evoke sublime, sacred feelings. Reverent community worship flows from prayerful people, not from exotic texts. The Vatican English Missal does succeed, though, in eliminating inclusive language! Making a slavish translation of a 17th century text written in a dead language that was once the vernacular defies reason and borders on idolatry. What kind of male-only “sacred language” did Jesus use? Images come to mind of women pounding yeast into lumps of dough, a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wing, a woman sweeping her house in search of a lost coin, and prayer addressed to Abba, the vernacular for Father.

    The last thing the English speaking churches need at this time of upheaval in the church is this meaningless and expensive disruption of our worship to learn new (bad) translations of a Latin text of a 17th century Roman Missal. What we do need are ongoing efforts by English speaking liturgists, language specialist and theologians to develop ever more pastorally sensitive and beautiful expressions of our community prayer. Please take back this Latinized English translation of the Tridentine Missal and Lectionary and send us the third ICEL translation that has been hidden away in the Vatican archives.

Dear Holy Father, Joseph, we are counting on your intelligence and theological expertise, along with your openness to the Holy Spirit and common sense, to lead the church boldly through long-overdue reforms into a new era of Christian discipleship and ministry. Please don’t let fear and the deeply rooted scotoma of the clerical culture blind you to the current crisis and seduce you to feebly tweak at reform. Take the bold leap across the chasm. Our world is hungry for the good news of the Risen Christ, the news that a worldwide community of truth and justice, of love and peaceful collaboration is possible. This is the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed and that the church is called on to model and strive to achieve in the world, working alongside all people of goodwill.

We keep you in our prayers daily. Sincerely in Christ,

Anne Brennan ambrennan@comcast.net

Chicagoland Northeast Voice of the Faithful (PO Box 406, Winnetka, IL 60093)

Patricia Barnefield, Anne Brennan, Jean Cardwell, Gloria Callaci, Marguerite Delacoma, Colleen Keaveny, Sheila Mitchell, Noel Moran, Sarah Pedrazza, Dorothy Petraitis, Bettina Saccone

cc. Archbishop Pietro Sambi, Papal Nuncio
Francis Cardinal George, President of the USCCB, Archbishop of Chicago

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