A businessman commented to me recently: "I wouldn't want the Vatican's public relations people handling my company. Why do those men keep shooting themselves in the feet?" His reference was to the spate of ugly stories emanating from the Roman Catholic hierarchy. A 15-year-old girl, on the eve of her Confirmation, is subjected to a special interrogation, and her mother is excommunicated for her work as head of Rhode Island Planned Parenthood. Twenty-four nuns are threatened by the Vatican with loss of their vocation and livelihood because they called for dialogue on abortion and said that Catholics may and do differ on that subject. Charles Curran, a gentle and committed priest, is fired from his teaching position because of his modest differences with the Vatican on sexual ethics. Jesuit sociologist Terrance Sweeney is ordered by the Vatican to destroy his research on the divided attitudes of Catholic bishops on clerical celibacy and the ordination of women.
Why is it that this archaic behavior is front-page and prime-time news? What relevance does a hierarchy committed to such muscular thought control have in a modern democracy?
The broad public interest in Catholic questions is not morbid. Catholicism is not an American sideshow. The Catholic church is a major part of our national and international life. Our taxes assist the universities where the Vatican is attacking academic freedom and integrity. Catholic University, where Curran has taught, is chartered in the District of Columbia and receives federal monies. Hierarchical lobbies affect legislation on reproductive rights and other matters. It is naive to underestimate the potential for good or for ill that lies in religious bodies of this magnitude. Journalistic interest and civic concern are well warranted.
As a Catholic theologian I can appreciate the public confusion over the shocking harassment of women, children and scholars by the hierarchy. Behavior like this could edify no one. What is going on? The answer is: a power struggle of classic proportions.
From Vatican I in 1870 until Vatican II in 1962, Rome controlled Catholic theology. In that period, theologians were priests and subject to obedience. With Vatican II, laymen and women entered theology on university campuses where academic freedom is sacred. The laity became theologically literate and ecumenical.
The Vatican has taken poorly to this loss of power and is struggling to regain it. Sexual and reproductive ethics is the chosen ground for this struggle. It need not have been so. The pelvic zone is not the focus of biblical morality and religion. In Galileo's time, the chosen ground was physics and astronomy, but the issue was the same: power.
The Vatican claims supernatural authority to control Catholic thinkers. In reality, the issue is not supernatural authority but the authority of "13th- or 17th-Century minds over 20th-Century ones," as University of Chicago professor Langdon Gilkey has written.
In healthier moments of Catholic history, the search for truth rested on a tripod: the hierarchical pod, the laity pod, and the pod of research theologians. In history, each pod has erred and been corrected by the others, and at times each pod has led the others. The Vatican today wants to return to a hierarchical unipod. Its model is authoritarian, and hence the unseemly conflicts that fill the media. Authoritarianism insults persons. In the words of Boston College's Matthew Lamb, authoritarianism relates to authority as rape relates to love.
Because of authoritarianism, it was long thought that the idea of a Catholic university is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. This offends both Catholicism and history. The very concept of a university was, in fact, created by Catholic Christians at the end of the 12th Century in Paris and Oxford. From the beginning, there was a valiant effort to make the university independent of bishops, kings and Parliament. The idea was that it would be a place where many minds can compete freely together in the service of the truth.
Catholic universities in this country have struggled for a century to prove that they were full-fledged institutions of learning and that their interest in Catholic history and thought did not impede their untrammeled search for truth. By receiving federal monies, they struck a bargain with the American polity promising full academic freedom. The Vatican is now threatening that bargain, and this should be of concern to all citizens, not just to Catholics.
There are enormous resources in the Catholic tradition that can be of benefit to human society. Scholars like Charles Curran who have long served and loved that tradition are fighting not just for their jobs, but for the very credibility of Catholicism in the modern world.