Women are the ones who will help fix the Catholic Church
(COMMENTARY) This is the time of year when Hollywood loves to release horror movies. The weeks before and after Halloween have included past forgettable motion picture schlock like “Jeepers Creepers” in 1991 and “Gingerdead Man” in 2005. This year, “The Nun” has been foisted upon movie-goers featuring a demon named Valak who, disguised as a Catholic sister, terrorizes a convent.
In real life, the Catholic Church’s boogeymen aren’t women, but men like Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the hundreds of Pennsylvania priests accused of molesting children and teens over the last few decades. The bad guys here are all men. Those who were victimized were children, teens and young people – all in large part males.
In “The Nun,” there’s enough evidence near the end of the film to know Valak is alive and a potential sequel in the works. But how will the real-life saga of “Uncle Ted” and predator priests end? That’s a question best left to the Catholic laity. The solution to the Catholic Church’s ills won’t come from the clergy – certainly not if Pope Francis and others protect the likes of McCarrick – but from the flock. And it will be women who will lead the way.
“Women really are the lifeblood of the [Catholic] Church, just as we are the heart of the family. It is impossible for us to stay silent in the face of this failure to act,” said Mary Rice Hasson, who directs the Catholic Women’s Forum, a network of Catholic professional women and scholars. “I continue to hear daily from women who are shocked and angry about the betrayals – past and present – that continue to come out in the news. Women want answers – and we want the church hierarchy to act.”
The McCarrick scandal reached all the way to the pope’s doorstep after accusations were lobbed at him by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano in a memo over the summer claiming the pontiff knew all about allegations and even rolled back sanctions that had been placed on him by Pope Benedict XVI.
While liberals in the church argue that allowing priests to marry and ordaining women are solutions to the problem, they aren’t. Those radical changes could cause the church to splinter. Instead, the real reform will come on the grassroots level by women who already exert a lot of influence at various levels within Catholic institutions. While the church is very much a patriarchy, the scandals also come during the #MeToo movement, a reckoning where men have acted in horrible, and often criminal, ways towards women in places ranging from boardrooms to newsrooms. The #CatholicMeToo movement gained traction on Twitter at the peak of the scandals in August. The summer, a typically quiet time in the news cycle, is always ripe for a story – any story – to get ample media coverage. The mainstream press, often too focused in shielding the pontiff and vilifying Vigano, don’t really appear interested in #CatholicMeToo, let alone how the church would resolve these issues.
“We empathize with the victims, we work closely with priests and bishops in our service to the church, and we are the everyday evangelists who bring the love of Christ and the truth of our faith to everyone we encounter,” Hasson said. “If we cannot trust our spiritual fathers to be honest about what has gone wrong, and to be transparent about how it will be addressed, how can we evangelize with confidence?”
Illustrating this larger point is the open letter Catholic women sent to Francis in August. Since then, the letter has been signed by some 47,000 women. The letter states, in part: “We are wives, mothers, single women, consecrated women, and religious sisters. We are the mothers and sisters of your priests, seminarians, future priests and religious. We are the Church’s lay leaders, and the mothers of the next generation. We are professors in your seminaries, and leaders in Catholic chanceries and institutions. We are theologians, evangelists, missionaries and founders of Catholic apostolates. We are the people who sacrifice to fund the Church’s good work. We are the backbone of Catholic parishes, schools, and dioceses. We are the hands, the feet, and the heart of the church. In short, we are the Church, every bit as much as the cardinals and bishops around you.”
Hasson is among the prominent signers of the letter, saying the women involved in this effort “love our church, and they are heartbroken and appalled, not only at the underlying abuse, but also by an ecclesial culture that looked the other way in the face of egregious sexual abuse and misconduct.”
The clergy, meanwhile, is trying to do damage control. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York announced on Sept. 20 the appointment of a former federal judge to review how the archdiocese handles cases of sexual abuse involving both minors and adults. The review will be spearheaded by Barbara Jones, a former federal judge, and focus on whether the archdiocese is following the protocols approved by the bishops in 2002 following the revelations by The Boston Globe involving prelates there. It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that Dolan’s appointment is a woman with a past that includes serving as arbitrator in the NFL’s case against former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice, who received an original two-game suspension in 2014 after a domestic violence incident left his girlfriend unconscious in an elevator. Rice was later banned indefinitely after a video of the incident was made public.
The next big event is the annual U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting. The annual gathering, to take place in Baltimore from November 12-15, will feature a rally put together by The Silence Stops Now Coalition. The group is made up of several organizations who are committed to ending the culture of sex abuse. How many people come to protest that week will make a big difference in regard to news coverage and potential impact on the American church. The pressure the laity put on the church – and especially women – has the potential to impact the future in a meaningful way.
As Hasson put it: “The people in the pews have a right to have confidence that the clergy are committed to living the church’s teachings on sexual morality, not saying one thing and doing another.”