Joseph Shaw

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Liberals demand female Church leadership from Pope Francis to solve abuse crisis

April 15, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — An open letter to Pope Francis published last week by two prominent Swiss Catholic leaders urgently asks that the pope take decisive steps against the “heresy of clericalism” as the “origin of sexualised power and its cover up.”

The letter hovers uneasily between adulation and criticism of the Holy Father. The authors are Zürich’s vicar general, Josef Annen, and the synodal president of the Catholic Church in Zürich (whatever that might be), Franziska Driessen-Reding.

The April 4 letter,  published in several Zürich dailies, states that the “Catholic Church is ablaze.”

“The terrible thing is that shepherds who were appointed to serve the Gospel Message are responsible for this firestorm,” the letter states, adding that Catholics in Zurich are leaving the Church feeling “alienated, indignant and bitter.”

According to The Tablet, the authors write, “Your clear words (on the subject) are important for us but they are not enough.” They perceive a parallel with the eve of the Protestant Revolt, when, according to them, the Church was “unwilling and incapable of introducing reforms”.

Again, they protest, on the one hand, that “We support you and favour a Church that excludes no one”, but on the other hand, “Time is running out”.

The historical claim of course is nonsense: a huge amount of reform was successfully undertaken in the decades before Luther’s heresy was promulgated. Two of Oxford’s greatest colleges are permanent reminders of this phase of reform, since they, like new institutions all over Europe, were founded to employ the underused resources of earlier religious institutions which had fallen into decay: Magdalen College (1458) and Christ Church (1525). That being as it may, what do these prominent Swiss Catholics think Pope Francis should be doing?

The Tablet summarizes their demands as “independent courts in the Church where Catholics can sue for basic rights; appointing women to leading positions in the Church; and synodal processes through which admission to Church offices can be decided regionally.”

I confess I have some sympathy for the first of these, although I may be understanding the idea somewhat differently from the Zürich writers. Canon law forbids the abuse of power in many ways but grants ordinary Catholics, both laity and clergy, very limited, if any, avenues for legal redress. If your bishop has wronged you, there is usually simply no way to sue for your rights in Church courts.

Were things different, it is certainly not only liberals who would benefit. For example, Fr Nicholas Rynne, the traditionalist Tasmanian priest I reported about here, has now been dismissed from his parish following criticisms from laity whose dispute appears really to be with the teaching and discipline of the Church, and without even having the chance to discuss the matter with the bishop. This is a pattern of behaviour, defying common sense as well as natural justice, which we have seen again and again.

It is less clear, however, what the other two Zürich demands mean. What “leading positions in the Church” do the authors have in mind, for example, when they demand that women be “appointed” to them, and what difference do they think it will make? It is presumably a roundabout way way of calling for the ordination of women to the priesthood, called for openly at almost the same time by a German Benedictine prioress, which would enable women to be bishops, cardinals, and prefects of Curian departments, or indeed pope. This suggests, however, that they are seeing Holy Orders primarily as a means to wielding power, an example of the clericalism which they claim with such earnestness to oppose.

One may also ask why they think women, if they were somehow to be elevated to these positions, would magically lead to a more just Church. Perhaps they cling to an outmoded and patronising view of women an angels who are incapable of sinning — a view taken from secular Romanticism and far from being the teaching of the Church. If so, they should consider the ecclesial bodies, and indeed the secular institutions, which have women in leadership positions, which amply demonstrate that women, like men, have inherited Original Sin.

The third demand, for local autonomy, may be a reaction to the apparent incongruity of Pope Francis praising “synodality” and local solutions to local problems, and then preventing the bishops of the United States from taking collective action against clerical sex abuse. On the other hand, the main effect of the modern experiment with permanent bureaucratic structures for national “bishops’ conferences”, has been the leaching away of bishops’ responsiveness to truly local needs, with power being accumulated by faceless functionaries sitting in committees in national capitals.

The authors of this letter apparently want such committees to monopolise power over appointments in the Church, which sounds like a way of preventing any diocese stepping out of line, and imposing a sclerotic consensus completely insulated from its consequences in parishes.

The relationship between bishop and diocese was compared by the Fathers of the Church to that of a husband and wife: it involves responsibility as well as authority. Today, however, secretariats of bishops’ conferences have arrogated to themselves power over every aspect of Church life. Thus Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster, in England, who set out a programme for renewing his dioceses’ schools, noted later that he had been criticised by colleagues because he hadn’t been given that particular responsibility by the Bishops’ Conference.

If Pope Francis hasn’t yet implemented the kind of program envisaged by the authors of this letter, we have something to be grateful for.

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Joseph Shaw

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Dr Joseph Shaw has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University, where he also gained a first degree in Politics and Philosophy and a graduate Diploma in Theology. He has published on Ethics and Philosophy of Religion and has edited a forthcoming book on the liturgy: The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Position Papers on the Extraordinary Form (Angelico Press). He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and Secretary of Una Voce International. He teaches Philosophy in Oxford University and lives nearby with his wife and eight children.