Social roots of crisis in Catholic Church
BY GREG MCCARTAN
The crisis facing the Catholic Church today, far from being a "sex scandal" as it is depicted in the big-business media and by many pundits in the bourgeois press, has deep social roots, particularly in relation to the advances made in the battle for women's liberation.
For several decades now the fact that official church doctrine teaches that women are inferior has put the institution more and more at odds with the views and beliefs of growing numbers of women and working people not only in the United States, but in Ireland, Italy, and elsewhere.
As women increasingly became part of the U.S. workforce and fought their way into "nontraditional" jobs after World War II, the battle for women's equality gained momentum and scored important victories, like the 1973 Supreme Court ruling decriminalizing abortion. For women, the right to control their own bodies, including the use of birth control and access to abortion, became one of the central features in the struggle against their second-class status and the systematic discrimination they face as a sex.
A recent Gallup Surveys poll reported changes in the attitudes of men and women in the Catholic Church from 1987 through today. Between 1987 and 1993 men and women's support for the church's teachings against the use of birth control and abortion continued to erode. In 1987, more than 60 percent of all Catholics thought that individuals could still be "good Catholics" without obeying the church's teachings on birth control. By 1993 70 percent of respondents held that view. Today only 14 percent of men and 7 percent of women agreed that church leaders should have the final say on whether the practice of birth control is right or wrong.
Views on abortion rights
Similar trends are evident in the abortion debate. In 1987, about two-thirds of the women and half of the men surveyed said that "good Catholics" needed to obey the church's ban on abortion. In spite of the rulers' bipartisan campaign to undermine a woman's right to choose, after a decade less than half of both men and women thought it essential to adhere to Rome's dictates. And by 1999 only 22 percent of men and 18 percent of women said that church leaders should have the last word on whether women who are Catholics can advocate free choice regarding abortion.
In a 1996 editorial following the reelection of William Clinton as president, the liberal National Catholic Reporter described the course of some among the Catholic Church hierarchy as "the latest episode in a lesson, now 23 years long, on how the politics of the Catholic leadership has done little but neutralize and marginalize the Catholic presence in U.S. society."
The paper said that it "appears once again all the gambles taken on behalf of opposing abortion above everything else came up empty." Cardinals John O'Connor of New York and James Hickey of Washington backed the Catholic Campaign for America, which was organized to oppose the reelection of Clinton by mobilizing antiabortion forces. "In the end," the paper stated, "Catholic voters largely ignored all the hot button rhetoric and were one of the largest factors in the Clinton victory."
The open and raging debate reflected in the Reporter articles surfaces in many other ways.
One incident along these lines happened in 1999, when Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who figures prominently in the recent exposure of church officials' cover-up for priests who sexually assaulted minors, banned a Catholic group that advocates women's ordination from church-affiliated buildings. The Massachusetts Women-Church group had gotten local Jesuits to cosponsor two conferences on the role of women in the church that were held on Jesuit property and were attended by some 450 people. Law ordered the Jesuits to deny use of their facilities to the organization.
Barbara Maher, a leader of the women's group, told the press that the controversy will "raise consciousness that there are reform-minded, faithful Catholics who do not feel comfortable with the language and direction being forced upon us by the hierarchy. There is no dialogue about the future of women and women's place in the future."
'Women robbed of our dignity'
A year later sister Elizabeth Johnson, a church theologian, told a meeting of 3,700 people in Milwaukee that "women have been consistently robbed of our full dignity as friends of God and prophets" due to "theories like [Catholic Saint] Augustine's who claimed a man taken alone was fully in the image of God, but a woman was fully in the image of God only when taken together with man who is her head; or philosophies like [Saint Thomas] Aquinas's which argued that women are misbegotten males with weak minds and defective wills." Johnson is a professor at Fordham University in New York and a former president of the Catholic Theological Society.
Another reflection of how the Catholic hierarchy is crossways with the advances in the fight for women's rights was seen during the debate on stem cell research last year. The National Conference of Bishops supported a prohibition on "embryo-destroying research entirely," claiming that an embryo is a person--the same basis they use for opposing the right to abortion.
One opinion columnist in the Wall Street Journal noted last July that U.S. president George Bush got himself into "a hole playing political games with embryonic stem-cell research" because the White House "confuses the Catholic hierarchy with rank-and-file Catholic voters. There is really no longer a distinct Catholic vote in America; on issues like stem-cell research and abortion, Catholic views are little different than non-Catholic views."
Marriage and the family
The teaching of the Catholic Church on marriage, its opposition to divorce, and views on the family are increasingly at odds with the reality of life for working people in the United States and other countries.
Over the past half-century a historic change in the family structure has taken place. The number of children born to women who are not married now stands at 31 percent in the United States. The percentage of households headed by married couples dropped from 80 percent in 1990 to little more than 50 percent today. And there has been a sharp increase in the rate of divorce since 1960.
Between 1950 and 1998 the percentage of working-age women who hold jobs outside the home nearly doubled, rising from 33.9 percent to 59.8 percent. The number of women incorporated into industrial production increased dramatically in the second half of the 20th century, with a notable rise in the number of women who began to fight their way into jobs from which they had traditionally been excluded. Women who are raising children account for most of the increase since 1994, with the proportion of working women who have children less than one year in age rising from 49.5 percent in 1990 to more than 55 percent in 1996.
One reflection of the consequences of these trends came in Ireland in 1995, when a referendum on making civil divorce legal passed by 9,000 votes, ending a decades-long ban. The votes from the working-class districts in Dublin weighed heavily in the outcome, but even in rural areas the "no" vote was 15 percent lower than in a similar referendum in 1986. It was the most serious rebuff to the influence of the Catholic church on legal and political life in some years, in a country whose population is 93 percent Catholic.
Even with the divisions between the views of the Catholic archbishops and cardinals and lay people in the United States, the U.S. church is seen as something of a renegade by Rome. Syndicated columnist Peggy Noonan, writing in the Wall Street Journal, pointed out that the pope chose "not to govern the church strictly," mostly because he knew that "the American cardinals...tend to view his directives as suggestions."
The church hierarchy used its power and money to cover up cases of sexual abuse by priests and acted above the law, wrote Noonan. There is the "racketeering dimension," she noted, "the fact that a RICO suit has been brought, could be brought, against the church, charging that it acted as an institution to cover up criminal behavior by misleading, lying, and withholding facts. The church has long attempted to keep priest abuse cases quiet through the paying of hush money--estimated at a billion dollars so far--to families instructed to sign confidentiality agreements."
Another problem for the church hierarchy as the gap grows between its stance and the real views, practices, and doubts of the "faithful," is the hoarded wealth of the church and the lifestyles of many bishops, archbishops, and cardinals--never mind the pope and his retinue.
Writing on the eve of the pope's meeting with American cardinals, Noonan stated that the pope should know that "many of the cardinals he will speak to have grown detached from life as it is suffered through by ordinary people," a fact that is not new in the church. "The princes of the church live as princes of the world," she wrote. "They live in great mansions in the heart of great cities, dine with senators and editors.... They are surrounded by staff who serve them, drive them, answer their call." In short, they live bourgeois lives.
Protecting vast real estate holdings
In face of a growing number of lawsuits, the church has moved to shield its land holdings from plaintiffs seeking damages for the actions of church officials. The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article entitled, "Besieged Church Tries to Protect Vast Real Estate." In Rhode Island, where 38 sex-abuse suits are pending in state court, the Providence diocese has stated that its Aldrich Mansion and attached 85-acre estate is owned by a nonprofit corporation created more than 100 years ago. The church-owned company holds real estate valued at more than $44 million.
In Stockton, California; Dallas, Texas; and other cities, church officials have acted to move similar holdings into legal setups so they cannot be considered in awards settlements.
Another tack is being taken in Chicago, where Cardinal Francis George suddenly announced last week that he was considering selling the $15 million Queen Anne-style mansion, located in a plush neighborhood two blocks from Lake Michigan. A New York Times article noted that Cardinal Law in Boston "has been pressured to sell the chancery's 15-acre compound, including his residence, to offset mounting legal expenses." The falling fortunes of Law, once one of the leaders of the church in the United States and an outspoken opponent of a woman's right to abortion, reflects the social roots of the crisis.
Some on the right are using the crisis to press forward the culture war and urge a return to traditional "Catholic morals."
Rod Dreher, writing in the National Review, pointed out that the "overwhelming majority of priests who have molested minors are not pedophiles.... They are, rather, 'ephobophiles'--adults who are sexually attracted to post-pubescent youths, generally aged 12 to 17." Dreher discussed the extent of homosexuality among seminarians and priests and the fact that "Rome has explicitly discouraged the ordination of homosexuals since at least 1991... to little avail in most U.S. dioceses."
'A conservative reform'
Dreher concluded by arguing that there "is every reason to believe that a conservative reform--replacing dissenting or milquetoast bishops with solid, no-nonsense men; making the seminaries safe places for heterosexuals loyal to Church teaching; and restoring the priesthood to a corps of chaste, faith-filled disciples--would result in a tide of good men seeking holy orders."
In a May 8 column entitled, "Anti-Catholicism at the New York Times," Ultrarightist Patrick Buchanan took issue with a piece by Bill Keller, whom he termed an "apostate Catholic who enjoys being called a 'collapsed Catholic.'"
Buchanan slammed Keller for stating that "probably no institution run by a fraternity of aging celebates was going to reconcile itself easily with a movement that embraced the equality of women, abortion and gay rights. Most Catholics ignore the pope on contraception as they do on divorce and remarriage, abortion, sex out of wedlock, homosexuality and many other things Rome condemns as violations of natural law."
The church is in crisis today, responded Buchanan, "not because it failed to adjust its teachings and practices to the sexual revolution, but because it tried both to be true to its teachings and to keep in step with an immoral age, which is an impossibility. The way for the church to restore its lost moral authority is to retrace its steps, even if it means leaving lost souls like Bill Keller howling in the wilderness."
Although the church and its hierarchy have long since ceased to be an independent social force, a ruling-class force in its own right, it remains a bourgeois institution upon which the superwealthy ruling class depends to help perpetuate its state power and its rationalizations for the continuation of the social order it dominates. This point was brought home by an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, which admitted some shortcomings in the church, but defended the institution. "When we look across the breadth of modern American life, in short, we see the institution of the Catholic Church as one of our great assets. The current scandal will have served some purpose if it forces America's bishops to take more seriously accusations against their misbehaving priests. But we aren't about to join those whose real agenda is to leave the church crushed and humiliated."