Friday, April 30, 2010

It's Critical That Catholics Find Their Voice

By Ken Trainor

Editor's Note: The following commentary was first published on March 27 at

Last week, I praised parishioners at Ascension for putting on a show and singing "with one voice." This week, I'm challenging all Catholics to find their voice - their prophetic voice.

As horrible as the priest abuse scandal is, the institutional cover-up is an even greater moral outrage, yet I rarely hear ordinary Catholics express their feelings about it.

Catholics, as a rule, are a quiet bunch. Loyal and obedient, they don't rock the boat. And the "boat" definitely resists being rocked. The Catholic Church actively intimidates and/or punishes the outspoken few. Critics are branded "enemies" of the Church.

Loyal Catholics disagree with many of the Church's official positions, but we suffer from a kind of learned helplessness. We compartmentalize, drawing sharp distinctions between parish and Rome, the faith vs. the institution, Church as the people vs. Church as bureaucrats - the bottom-up world of the Catholic Church as it's lived vs. the top-down autocracy that seems so distant, arrogant and out of touch.

Most of us make a private accommodation. What good would it do to speak out? The Church doesn't listen. Life's too short to beat your head against a brick wall.

But at what point does our silence make us complicit? In the film A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More uses silence as a defense. He opposes his king on the great moral issue of the day but won't say anything, publicly or privately. "Silence gives consent," he tells his accusers. "If you must construe something from my silence, you must construe consent."

We are a Church filled with Thomas Mores. "That's not real Catholicism," we explain to those who challenge us. "That's just the institution" - as if that lets us off the hook. But the distinction doesn't cut it anymore. The hierarchy undermined the Church's moral authority when they chose to protect the institution instead of its people. We are active members of an organization that has committed immoral acts in our name. If we don't speak out, are we not enablers?

Years ago, I interviewed Rev. Martin Marty, a distinguished Lutheran theologian and University of Chicago Divinity School emeritus, who advised sticking with our faith community because it grounds the individual and keeps us honest. At the same time, he said, the individual needs to keep that faith community honest by holding it accountable.

Of course, he comes from a Reformation tradition that began when its founder hammered 95 theses to the front door of the nearest Catholic Church. Ninety-five! They couldn't all be wrong. As it has been through much of its history, the Church was indeed corrupt and badly in need of reform. Instead of betraying his Church, Martin Luther was fulfilling his obligation as a Prophetic Catholic.

Luther wasn't wrong, and neither are we. It's time for rank-and-file Catholics to speak truth to power. It won't be easy. There will be pushback, especially from reactionary Catholics, who are not at all afraid to speak out.

Though I don't have 95 theses to hammer home, I do believe my Church is wrong on a number of important issues:

The role of women: Refusing to ordain women is not only foolish (ignoring an enormous talent pool) and unethical (blatantly discriminatory), it is also shoddy theology. Jesus respected women and had female disciples. Women should be on equal footing with men.

Birth control: Using responsible contraception puts us in mature partnership with, not opposition to, our God when it comes to procreation. Suggesting that responsible birth control demonstrates disrespect for life is also bad theology. The Church should make a clear moral distinction between proactive and reactive birth control (i.e. abortion). The Vatican's inability to condone condom use in Africa, meanwhile, has contributed to widespread loss of life from the AIDS epidemic.

Celibacy: Mandatory celibacy has produced an unhealthy culture that contributes to the abuse crisis. Celibacy is a "gift," as the Church maintains, only if priests can freely choose it. The priest shortage suggests many men instead choose not to be priests. Celibacy should be optional.

Homosexuality: If Jesus could break bread with tax collectors (St. Matthew), prostitutes (St. Mary Magdalene - she is a saint, right?) and his own betrayer (Judas Iscariot), we can certainly break bread with gays and lesbians. Christian communion was never intended to be selective. Why do we allow conservatives to redefine Catholicism as an exclusive club?

What Would Jesus Do? He'd say his Church is on the wrong track. Contemporary Catholics need to say so, too.

We need Catholics who love the Church enough to criticize it. This patriarchal, overly centralized institution cannot thrive until it starts to share authority, moving outward from the center to the periphery, as theologian John O'Malley puts it in his excellent book, What Happened at Vatican II. That was the overwhelming consensus of the council almost 50 years ago.

Catholics are leaving in droves - on principle - because they think Catholicism is becoming less and less Christian. Any institution that cannot tolerate dissent is, by definition, dysfunctional. Healthy organizations find a way to change with the times without betraying core truths. We can hope for another John XXIII to come along and throw open the windows, but this Church is not likely to change until ordinary Catholics find their voice.

It won't be easy, but the days of silent accommodation and compartmentalization need to end.

Silence, after all, gives consent.


  1. While I agree with most of this, I am somewhat dismayed to find a reference to Mary Magdalene being a prostitute. This is a 6th century tradition that has no basis in scripture or anything else. The Vatican has recognised this since at least 1969. (There is an article about it here.)

    And yes, she is a saint. Her feast day is July 22.

  2. Thanks, PrickliestPear. Ken Trainor makes an error there, and we made one in not noting it. He also misinterprets Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, don't you think? If we all emulated Thomas More we would stand on principle. I think he was beheaded for his. Thanks for speaking up.

  3. Paula,

    Yes, I thought that was a backward interpretation of A Man for All Seasons, but didn't give it a lot of thought.

  4. thank you thank you THANK YOU!! I left the Catholic Church 10 years ago over these exact issues. I admire the people who remain in the church and work for change. Maybe someday it will be a church people feel comfortable returning to.

  5. Questions: if celibacy contributes to the abuse crisis, does that mean that those who are unmarried yet living celibate lives are dangers to children? Does that mean that widows and widowers are more likely to abuse than those who are married? What a joke, to think that celibacy contributes to the abuse crisis, rather than a willingness to flaunt God's law, perhaps brought on by poor formation in the seminary and lack of support for priests from bishops and ordinaries.

    Also... what does "mature partnership with our God" mean? One might think that understanding the gift of our bodies and our abilities to procreate might be part of that. One might also think that obedience to the moral law, written on our heart and also enumerated by Christ and those he gave his legitimate authority to would be a much higher form of "mature partnership with our God."

    And while Jesus became man and is our brother, I'm not sure we should be striving for mature partnership with God, but rather strive to more clearly understand that our relationship with God is one that we cannot clearly understand but through God's revelation to us. While we can come to know God through our reason, we need revelation, too.

    Job's response to God is perfect for us when we are dumbfounded, confused, annoyed, or upset by God: "I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be hindered. I have dealt with great things that I do not understand; things too wonderful for me, which I cannot know. I had heard of you by word of mouth, but now my eye has seen you. Therefore I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes." Job 42:2-6

  6. "Using responsible contraception puts us in mature "partnership " with, not opposition to, our God..."
    Imagine my surprise, I thought I was a child of God, now I am told to be his "mature partner", maybe someday I can be his boss, that is if you are willing to give up the job.