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In his homily on April 15, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the need for penance as a response to the abuse crisis:
“The pain of penance, that is to say of purification and of transformation, this pain is grace….”

I have to wonder how many thousands of times priests and religious participated in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and admitted to the crime of child sexual abuse and then were given absolution. It cheapens the notion of grace when these criminals were not required by their confessor to report to the authorities before receiving absolution. How else could they show true repentance? How else could they express a commitment to accepting responsibility for real personal change and the avoidance of future sins of abuse?

 Certain bishops, such as Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, have recommended not offering the Eucharist to those who have a public record of supporting abortion rights. Has anyone ever suggested not offering the sacrament of Reconciliation to those who have a public record of child abuse? Or to those who have privately confessed the crime of child abuse on multiple occasions but have refused to take public responsibility for these crimes? God’s grace is not the magical removal of guilt and responsibility, and the born should be offered at least the same protection as the unborn. Such selective imposition of restriction to a sacrament cheapens the idea of God’s grace, reducing it to a political weapon.

 To quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer,

“Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before … Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and self all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.”

Up until now the abusive priests, bishops and religious have been offered and have relied upon only a cheapened notion of grace. There has been no transformation. It is time for them to pay the cost; it is time to pluck out from our church those that have caused it to stumble.


Every April, spring comes to the earth. No matter how bleak things have been through the winter, no matter that all our grass died in the hardest cold spell in decades, all is greening once again.

Catholics should draw hope from this. There has to be a death for there to be a resurrection. If we can experience the death of clericalism, misogyny, and financial and moral corruption in the very governing structures of our church, then there is the chance of a Catholic “spring.”

Imagine a new church. What would it be like?

I dream of a future church where gender is not a qualifying factor in the discernment of vocation. A future church where celibacy is not a pre-requisite to priesthood. A future church where authority is decentralized from Rome to national bishops conferences, where the “power” of the papacy is that of spiritual leadership.

Imagine if, instead of palaces, the pope lived in monastic simplicity and prayer was the currency of favors. We wouldn’t need cardinals. The position of pope could be voted on by the bishops conferences in conjunction with the national leaders of all the religious orders. The pope would not have to be multi-lingual, professorial, or even male. The primary quality would be holiness. And there could be a limited term, just as there is for provincials of religious orders. I can’t help it, these dreams give me a flicker of hope.

In an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times (see below for the link)  I am reminded of some of the reasons I choose to remain Catholic. Here are some excerpts:

A Church Mary Can Love ,  By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF. Published: April 17, 2010

It wasn’t inevitable that the Catholic Church would grow so addicted to male domination, celibacy and rigid hierarchies. Jesus himself focused on the needy rather than dogma, and went out of his way to engage women and treat them with respect.

The first-century church was inclusive and democratic, even including a proto-feminist wing and texts. ….

Yet over the ensuing centuries, the church reverted to strong patriarchal attitudes, while also becoming increasingly uncomfortable with sexuality. The shift may have come with the move from house churches, where women were naturally accepted, to more public gatherings.

The upshot is that proto-feminist texts were not included when the Bible was compiled (and were mostly lost until modern times). Tertullian, an early Christian leader, denounced women as “the gateway to the devil,” while a contemporary account reports that the great Origen of Alexandria took his piety a step further and castrated himself.

The Catholic Church still seems stuck today in that patriarchal rut. The same faith that was so pioneering that it had Junia as a female apostle way back in the first century can’t even have a woman as the lowliest parish priest. Female deacons, permitted for centuries, are banned today.

That old boys’ club in the Vatican became as self-absorbed as other old boys’ clubs, like Lehman Brothers, with similar results. And that is the reason the Vatican is floundering today.

But there’s more to the picture than that. In my travels around the world, I encounter two Catholic Churches. One is the rigid all-male Vatican hierarchy that seems out of touch when it bans condoms even among married couples where one partner is H.I.V.-positive. To me at least, this church — obsessed with dogma and rules and distracted from social justice — is a modern echo of the Pharisees whom Jesus criticized.

Yet there’s another Catholic Church as well, one I admire intensely. This is the grass-roots Catholic Church that does far more good in the world than it ever gets credit for. This is the church that supports extraordinary aid organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Caritas, saving lives every day, and that operates superb schools that provide needy children an escalator out of poverty.

This is the church of the nuns and priests in Congo, toiling in obscurity to feed and educate children. This is the church of the Brazilian priest fighting AIDS who told me that if he were pope, he would build a condom factory in the Vatican to save lives.

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