Expectations for the ongoing Summit in Rome on sex abuse in the Church are rather low, not without good reason. Personally, I am not expecting much of the pope and bishops, and will not be surprised when, as Christopher Altieri has recently put it, this meeting with no clear statement and no clear vision wraps up with no clear agenda for moving forward.
What I do find exceedingly strange is the disdain one encounters in certain quarters in the Church for open discussion by all Catholics on a regular basis about practical and structural reforms to deal with the sex abuse crisis. Part of this—as I wrote on CWR last August—comes from a misapplication of the notion of “scandal”.
But part of this, I now think, may come from an old theological mistake that lives among us, if in deformed and largely unconscious fashion. As G.K. Chesterton once observed, old heresies never truly die. They periodically show up again, sometimes masquerading as something else and sometimes playing themselves.
I regularly assess at least half of my incoming students (the ones who identify as Christian—and the Catholics are rarely different in any statistically significant manner) as being—quite unintentionally mind you—at least semi-Arian in their Christology and full-blown modalists in their view of the Trinity. When pressed for details, what usually emerges is that they do not flatly deny the divinity of Christ, which is why I call them semi-Arians, but they are entirely unaware of Chalcedonian orthodoxy about the two natures of Christ (that is, until they take my class). In addition, they see nothing wrong with the idea that the one true God sometimes plays dress-up: some days as Father, some days as Son, and sometimes as the Holy Spirit—the latter being the Trinitarian person about whom they are the most ambivalent. That God the Father is not the Son who is not the Spirit, but that all three are nonetheless one in nature while distinct in persons, is a bridge too far for them.
But these are undergraduate freshmen with no background in dogmatics or heresiology. What about churchmen in the highest hierarchical echelons today, with years of seminary study and advanced degrees? What excuse have they—and certain theologians for that matter—for what one might call their crypto-monophysitism?
Monophysitism in its original form was something of an overreaction to, and over-correction of, the Arianism which preceded it. If Arians were dodgy on the divinity of Christ, monophysites overreacted in the other direction, stressing the divinity of Christ at the expense of his humanity, which sometimes seemed to be an afterthought to them.
The Church, of course, anathematized the idea and its successor, monotheletism. But it haunts us still, and even appears in the ideas some people put forward for solving the current sex abuse crisis. Crypto-monophysites insist the solutions are purely spiritual and have nothing to do with the humanly designed and maintained structures of the Church. They say we must pray and fast more while awaiting more pious bishops and perhaps popes to enforce this encyclical’s dictates or firm up that apostolic exhortation’s apparently woolly bits. But discussions of structures of power and their reform are nowhere to be found.
Last month in Iasi, Romania, at the inaugural conference of the International Orthodox Theological Association, I gave a paper on the problems of power and obedience in the Church. There I recounted the numerous times I have been told that discussions of power, and discussions of practical structural reforms in the Church, are little more than crude exercises in “ecclesiastical engineering,” as one monsignor sneered in my presence several years ago .
When pressed, these nay-sayers proffer no rational arguments, but emerge as what the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre would call emotivists: they feel uncomfortable with discussions of power and reform. They feel the very notions are out of place in the Church as the divinely constituted Body of Christ. This is what I call crypto-monophysitism. It focuses only on the “spiritual” or “divine” nature of the Church, ignoring the human in all its messy and often unsavory details. These are the people who, if they had been present at the Last Supper, likely would have recoiled in horror from an actual foot-washing, piously insisting instead that Jesus simply pray for their feet magically to be made clean.
But why not look at practical reforms to ecclesial structures? Why not honestly discuss power? Why not candidly admit that the current centralized papacy is an historical aberration and, I would argue, a theological disaster? What is to be lost by examining the monopoly on power that bishops have in their dioceses, and priests in their parishes, neither needing to have any formal input from the people of God in councils and synods until and unless these clerical overlords deign to “consult” the people from time to time?
If the present crisis has done anything, it is to force Catholics to realize that few, if any, should be entrusted with the kind of power clergy have in the Church today. The present system whereby bishops are in practice accountable to nobody is not traditional (or Traditional) in any sense of the word; nor is it a part of the “divine constitution” of the Church. It can and must change, and no degree of discomfort with this fact can be allowed to hold back the necessary changes—from the parish to the papacy—that the Church should now undergo.
Angelico Press will soon be releasing my book Everything Hidden Shall be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power. Whatever readers may come to think about its proposed reforms, at the very least it cannot be said that my proposals shy away from discussions about the material matters of the Church in her human nature, including the recovery of necessary structures of accountability to prevent abuses of power and sex in the Church. Writing the book, the famous words of St. John Damascus were regularly rattling through my mind; in his Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images, this great doctor of the Church stoutly insisted:
I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honouring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God.
I, too, venerate the Church in her material and spiritual natures. But this veneration does not blind me to the need for profound material-structural changes that are supported (but not supplanted) by the secondary spiritual works of fasting, prayer, and penance. The changes I propose were all mined from earlier Catholic and wider Christian traditions to show that there are other ways—deeply grounded in history and theology—to structure the Church and to break up the monopolies enjoyed by popes, bishops, and priests. The need for such discussion has never been more urgent, and the deeply corrupted human structures of the Church must now be openly examined and subjected to radical reconfiguration–not least because the psychodynamics of power in the Church have for too long been used to give cover to the many sexual pathologies that lurk under the label of “obedience” and are supported by demands for silence from the victims.
Ultimately, the reforms I propose—to parish councils, diocesan synods, regional episcopal conferences, and to the priesthood and episcopate themselves—are to be found in earlier Catholic history, and still found even today in many parts of the Christian East. The Church has forgotten many of them, and my book will have achieved its purpose as an aide-mémoire if the Church remembers and reinstitutes these practices so that the human nature and structures of the Church, purged of sinful abuses of power and sex, no longer prevent the world from seeing the divine splendor and dignity which comes from the Church also being the spotless bride of Christ.