Church Chat

Not a day goes by without the emergence of some new and damaging information in the ever-unfolding pedophile-priest crisis rocking the Archdiocese of Boston. To date, more than 80 area clergymen have been named as child molesters, and thousands of pages of once-secret files have exposed the Church’s cover-up of child sexual abuse by its priests. Bernard Cardinal Law has resorted to hiding from the media crews that have become fixtures outside the chancery.

But what does all this mean for the Catholic Church? Will its influential role in shaping public policy fade? Frances Kissling, who heads the Washington, DC-based reform group Catholics for a Free Choice, will participate in a debate on those questions and more at an upcoming forum titled "Sex, Scandal, and Power: Is this the End of the Catholic Church’s Political Influence?", hosted by the Women’s Studies Program at Harvard, the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at City University of New York, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. I caught up with Kissling recently to discuss the decline in the Church’s authority caused by the ongoing scandal.

Q: What kind of a Catholic are you?

There are many kinds of Catholics. There are pious Catholics, for whom being Catholic means, "I go to mass on Sunday; I pray the rosary." There are Catholics who follow the social-justice message of the gospel. There are intellectual Catholics for whom theologians like Thomas Aquinas are most important. There are conservative Catholics who believe whatever the pope says. And then, there is what I call "Catholics in resistance." I’m a Catholic in resistance. Changing the Church characterizes my staying.

Q: How has your faith been tested by the clergy sexual-abuse scandal?

My faith has never depended on the institutional Church. There is a profound distinction between the Vatican, the Curia, the Holy See, and my life as a spiritual person. I’ve always seen the sacramental side as meaningful, and the governing side as often corrupt. Abuse of power comes as no surprise, whether it’s sexual, financial, or personal. My belief that the Church’s governing structure is corrupt has only been reinforced. But it doesn’t present me with a problem because I never thought the structure was a divine creation. It has been, to use the buzzwords, an elitist patriarchal entity, and these entities have a tendency to corruption.

Q: What’s your take on last week’s meeting of American cardinals at the Vatican?

It had all the trappings of the way in which large corporations act when they’ve gotten caught with hands in the cookie jar. The pope made a generic statement honoring victims, but victims weren’t there. He chose to meet with upper management. The cardinals went in with a line about what should be done, yet came out with no improvements. They think they can get away with spin. It was a disgraceful show of contempt for victims, with no recognition that the bishops and cardinals are the problem, not the solution.

Q: Five months ago, before the scandal blew wide open, how influential would you say the Church was in matters of social and public policy?

It was an influential force at both the state and federal levels. Take the decision by the Republican Party to make a monumental attempt to court conservative Catholics. The party gave [prominent Catholics] a skybox at the [2000 Republican] convention. One of the first events that George Bush attended after becoming president was dinner at Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s house. The Church’s power in the State House is also well known. It has access, writes bills, lobbies. On a number of social issues, it wins.

Q: When you consider Church leaders like Bernard Cardinal Law -- an outspoken figure on abortion and other issues -- what do you see today?

One sees a broken man. His physical persona is different. He doesn’t stand as straight. He speaks with less firmness. He’s simply not as visible. His moral authority is profoundly eroded. What will be interesting to see as we move into the 2002 election cycle is how many politicians want a photo op with Law. The number will be far less than it was two years ago.

Q: Articles suggest that people aren’t walking away from the teachings of the Church, so how could this scandal harm the Church’s stature?

The Catholic laity has already rejected the moral authority of bishops on divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, contraception, abortion. So their faith is untouched. But the scandal harms the Church’s stature in the public-policy arena. The bishops have been unable to speak with moral authority on sexual issues inside the Church for 30 years. Now they’ll have great difficulty speaking with authority on those issues outside the Church.

Q: As far as crises go, how would you say this one measures?

It’s not as big as the Protestant Reformation, but it’s close. It will mark the Church in a negative way for hundreds of years. The American Church’s current leadership will never recover. They may never retire, because the drive to protect the patriarchy takes precedence over everything. But this scandal has vastly eroded their authority. Church leaders have misused their power in other ways that have caused suffering. That they have the clout to deny condoms to people with AIDS in the Third World is a scandal. That they could be complicit in the deaths of 600,000 women yearly who die from botched abortions or unsustainable pregnancies is a scandal. If this sex-abuse scandal contributes to diminution of political power of bishops, that’s a good thing.

This article originally ran in the Boston Phoenix.

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