Last month, at the height of the media coverage of the most recent sex abuse crisis, Father Francis Clooney, a professor at Harvard Divinity School and Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions, wrote in America magazine: “… it would be SO refreshing if all the men involved in responding to the abuse crisis would just stop talking and stop making (good and bad) decisions on their own, and ask women — our mothers, sisters, daughters — what they think we should be doing in our search for true honesty, forgiveness, reconciliation, power transformed into service, in a better Church.”
After reading Father Clooney’s article I began to think of what I might say if asked by Church leaders what they should do in their search for honesty and forgiveness. I think I would begin with listening.
When I go to confession I sit before a priest and confess my sins to him. When a priest goes to confession he also must go to someone who has been ordained a priest in the Church. Lay people and women are not permitted to administer the sacrament of reconciliation. The act of confession draws a priest and a lay person together only when it is a lay person confessing; a similar interaction does not exist when a priest goes to confession. In the laws of administering sacraments in general, this must necessarily be so, but is something missing without that redemptive exchange between altar and pew?
Something that frustrates and angers me about recent revelations regarding the Church is that it seems as though the Church acted as if above the law, not connected at all to secular society. The Church appears in an insular and worse, self-preservationist, manner at the expense of the victims of abuse. Confessions were made and penances administered internally, as if there was no “debt to society” to be paid and little or no debt to the victims or the communities in which the predators preyed (and prayed). Lay Catholics were, for the most part, left in the dark, not trusted with the information that there may be a few priests among them who posed a threat to their communities and children.
I believe the sacrament of reconciliation is a beautiful act of repentance and forgiveness. But, how wonderful, how powerful, would it be if a Church leader involved in this crisis came to a one of us, a lay person, a woman, a nun, to receive this sacrament? What if one of those leaders asked a mother or a victim of sexual abuse to listen to their confession? Not a public, impersonal apology, but a real act of contrition. Now, that would be sacramental. The Church, the bride of Christ, has long been conceptualized and even romanticized as female. Could it be time for this conceptualization to be actualized in living, breathing women, daughters and images of their Church, by sharing with them the ability to become instruments of sacrament? Lay people, women, the body and embodiment of the Church, would be able to be channels of forgiveness.
I get that that’s not the way it works, and, I admit the Church hierarchy listens to female Catholics. They listen both inside and outside the confessional. But it seems all that listening has not done much to subvert what many of us feel is a harmful and gendered power structure perpetuated by an out-of-touch Vatican. For years, the Church hierarchy has listened to their flock’s pleas for equality and transparency without, it seems, really hearing.
The power dynamic of listening is complex. Often in our culture we think of a listener as a passive figure, a recipient of knowledge, doctrine, or even indoctrination. However, in many instances, including the sacrament of reconciliation, the listener, as a conduit of forgiveness, as an advisor, is the one with the power to encourage change. I think the daughters of the Church and the community at large are ready for the opportunity to become that sort of listener.
Rebecca Curtin is a lifelong Catholic who both gets and doesn’t get the way things are in the Church. She is a 2008 graduate of Harvard Divinity School and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.