In his closing address at the February 2019 meeting on the protection of minors in the church, Pope Francis noted, “It is difficult to grasp the phenomenon of the sexual abuse of minors without considering power, since it is always the result of an abuse of power, an exploitation of the inferiority and vulnerability of the abused.” In a story we know all too well by now, sexual predation has created an epic crisis in the Roman Catholic Church, created by its all-male clerical hierarchy. The abuses are global in scope, affecting tens of thousands of people in more than a dozen countries and reaching back almost 70 years.
Despite the application of educational safe environment programs, sexual abuse awareness and safety certifications, extensive norms and procedures for handling allegations, and sharp consequences for abusers spelled and often meted out, the problem of the clerical abuse of power has continued. The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, passed by the USCCB in Dallas in June, 2002, and its recent revision published in June 2018, marked a pair of turning points in the church’s approach in the United States. New revelations, however, of years of abuse suffered by women religious and male seminarians, as well as uncertainty concering the newly enacted measures for episcopal accountability, demonstrate that the crisis persists and there is still much to be done.
Given the enormity of the crimes, both in depth and scale, what can individual Catholic clergy, among them permanent deacons like myself, do in addition to speaking out, educating themselves, keeping up to date on certifications and following the norms and procedures provided by the church? The answer to that question has been provided by many of the women in our midst who are feminist, womanist and mujerista theologians and who have been telling us for far too long about the problems in the church related to unequal hierarchies of power.
What can individual Catholic clergy do in addition to speaking out, educating themselves, keeping up to date on certifications and following the norms and procedures provided by the church?
Foundational notions of gender and sex
Given that much of this power, as Anne Clifford has argued, is unequally vested in an exclusively male clergy, it is connected to the broader abuse of male power over women and subordinate males in a paternalistic society. Thus the foundational notions of gender and sex that underlie the way the church operates and exercises power in the world require uncovering, analysis, critique and reconstruction on a new foundation of equality and openness.
Theological critiques of 1) the persistent use of masculine language for the divine, 2) the ideologies of gender difference that always place women in subordinate positions and 3) the overwhelming restriction of church leadership roles to males can help us learn to resist and reverse the clericalism, authoritarianism and misogyny often characteristic of an all-male clergy. By rethinking the theology of complementarianism, a theology with a long history and deep roots but more recently connected to Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, we can refuse to justify the privileging of men in leadership positions and the exclusion of women from similarly prominent roles.
We can begin to address more thoroughly the lack of representation for women and overreliance on traditional male decision-making authority in the church at all levels. While we cannot practically go so far as some feminist theologians like Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza have argued—that nothing short of the dismantling of the all-male hierarchy and its replacement by a truly egalitarian model of leadership can redeem the Catholic Church—the spirit in which such a radical critique is offered is more than warranted and should inform our efforts at thoroughgoing reform.
By rethinking the theology of complementarianism, we can refuse to justify the privileging of men in leadership positions and the exclusion of women from similarly prominent roles.
True Servant Leadership
Within the existing structure given by church documents and guidelines that direct the vocation of the clergy, we can commit ourselves to continuing a series of efforts, inspired by these women theologians, to transform the exercise of clerical authority on a day-to-day basis within individual parishes and in relationship with individual parishioners. This effort must begin with the recovery of the foundational ministry of the deacon as servant, an original position and responsibility given through ordination to all clergy and unrevoked by later consecrations as priests or bishops.
As called for by the Second Vatican Council in the dogmatic constitution “Lumen Gentium,” the role of the deacon, aside from sacramental and spiritual responsibilities, focuses on “the duties of charity and of administration as well as works of social assistance...[and] to promote and sustain the apostolic activities of laymen” and laywomen. All clergy are thus to model “the essential availability of the deacon to others [which] is a practical expression of sacramental configuration to Christ the Servant, received through ordination and indelibly impressed upon the soul.”
While some feminist, womanist and mujerista theologians like M. Shawn Copeland and Ada María Isasi-Díaz rightfully question whether the church has the right to call those already in subordinate positions to further subservience, many of the men who serve as deacons in the United States are ethnic minorities, many have had (and continue to have) working-class occupations and some had only a high school education before entering formation. True servant leadership, true diaconal service, leverages the experience of subservience into the empowerment of others, treating them not as handmaids to one’s own plans and ambitions but serving as a vehicle for the plans and ambitions of others, stepping aside to serve another when the task at hand is completed.
True servant leadership, true diaconal service, leverages the experience of subservience into the empowerment of others.
A ministry of equals
Because one of the key missions of the contemporary diaconate is the empowerment of the laity, and as men who mediate between the sanctuary and nave, who facilitate understanding and cooperation between laity and clergy, it is particularly important for male deacons to empower women in the church. More than demonstrating mere openness to women in leadership, deacons must empower women to lead prayer services, preach at all occasions allowed by canon law (essentially any gathering besides eucharistic celebrations), develop and lead parish educational and ministerial programs and represent the parish community at local and regional gatherings.
As Mary Henold and Natalia Imperatori-Lee have argued, ordained men have a responsibility to facilitate non-ordained women and men to engage in ministry as equals and particularly to empower women in ways that do not fall back on stereotypical roles of women as only receptive nurturers. All of the gifts and calls, talents and effort, regardless of gender, that are asked of the laborers in the vineyard are needed, and in “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis has opened the door to such a transition, loosening the bonds of rigid complementarianism and supporting women in leadership roles.
Ordained men have a responsibility to facilitate non-ordained women and men to engage in ministry as equals and particularly to empower women in ways that do not fall back on stereotypical roles of women as only receptive nurturers
The Power of Language
To reinforce the call of all to serve and to be empowered to use one’s gifts for the reign of God, the language we use needs to reflect the universality of this mission. We must remove wherever possible sexist, gendered and racist language and images related to God in prayers, preaching and everyday religious practice. The current tendency of many male religious elites, who often seem threatened when women speak with authority, to try to speak over women and otherwise put women “in their place” and to use unsettling and dominant oversight of the activities of women in the church must be erased from our practices.
We can only do so if we rigorously change our language, in person and in liturgy, to be as inclusive, as unrestricted and as empowering as possible. Elizabeth Johnson reminds us that the most “effective way to stretch language and expand our repertoire of images is by uttering female symbols into speech about divine mystery.” While the Scriptures should be read as given, many of the spontaneous and informal prayers and petitions said at liturgy have no need for masculine references for the divine, and one certainly does not have to use frequent masculine references and images in preaching. In fact, given the preponderance of masculine language in Scripture and formal prayer, an emphasis on less masculine and more inclusive—if not outright feminine—imagery and language must be cultivated and deployed.
We must remove wherever possible sexist, gendered and racist language and images related to God in prayers, preaching and everyday religious practice.
An Opportunity Not to Be Squandered
Concretely, male clergy in the church can also openly and vocally support the ordination of women to the permanent diaconate in a way that will transform the very nature of the diaconate in line with the original call to service for all clergy. The admission of women to the ranks of deacons is an opportunity not to be squandered to change the foundational order of the clergy and thus all clerical behavior and attitudes, since in Kelly Brown Douglas’s memorable phrase, “when the subjugated come to the center” they change not only how we talk but also how we understand. If we simply create a more inclusive version of the present reality, we may not be addressing what is really at stake.
To see women proclaiming the Gospel and preaching on the Word at Sunday liturgies, the only day when the majority of Catholics experience their church in a public and official way, would provide a female role model that many Catholic women rightly see lacking among the clergy today.
All of these changes are within the power of current male clergy to embrace. They require no change in church teaching. (The most controversial, advocating for ordination of women to the diaconate, is clearly now becoming a viable option.) All of them are bound together in the fight for the liberation of all women from the oppressive structures of society, for equality, inclusion and even prominence in decision-making at all levels of authority within the church. We clergy need to rethink our approach to ministry through wide research and consultation among women of diverse ethnicities, languages, sexual identities and classes.
To see women proclaiming the Gospel and preaching on the Word at Sunday liturgies would provide a female role model that many Catholic women rightly see lacking among the clergy today.
Models of Christ the Servant
Many think we in the church should not bother ourselves with issues of gender, race and power, that these questions are a modern preoccupation driven by secularism, the sexual revolution and identity politics. Yet the question of who identifies with whom has always been a critical question, as have questions of race/ethnicity, class and gender, going as far back as Paul’s famous quote in Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The claim that these divisions are overcome in Christ Jesus signifies both that they are deeply important distinctions and that as the followers of Jesus Christ we must struggle to make the overcoming of these distinctions real.
We do not accomplish this by ignoring them, by making them appear to go away in a homogenizing synthesis of white, upper-class male power. That illusion has been at the core of the distorted power relations that made the abuse of children, young men and women possible in the first place. We have the responsibility to make the claim of Paul in Galatians real, to empower others to transform the way in which power in the church is exercised and when doing so, to step aside and truly lead as models of Christ the servant.