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September 12, 2018

Oh, That Catholic Church

Patricia A. Kelly

Born, baptized and educated within it, I was a member for years. For most of my elementary school years, I had to ignore some things about the semi-cloistered nuns who taught in our school.


I remember sitting in church and redefining God in my mind, rejecting the idea that He was mean and punitive, and determining that, if perfect, he would be loving and understanding of what was in people’s hearts, not a guy who would send you to hell for missing church once.


I wondered, too, why girls had to wear head coverings in church, but not boys. I wondered, enraged, why girls were lined up to be berated for “allowing boys to take our clothes” during a school picnic. (They stole our shoes.)


One of the girls in my eighth-grade class was publicly humiliated, as in the comic play, for allowing boys to see up her skirts by wearing patent leather shoes. When informed, indirectly, that my recently departed and beloved grandfather had gone to hell because he had left the Church, it was more than I could take.


Fortunately, my high school nuns were wonderful, realistic and down to earth. It was healing and encouraging.


Nevertheless, I found myself drifting away. Why were lay people not supposed to read the Bible, but rather have it interpreted by clergy? Why did the nuns and priests I liked best, and who made sense to me, leave their vocations?


In adulthood, I read and learned more about Catholic history, and considered the possibility that those who became Protestants during the Reformation were reformers, rather than people who were too weak and sinful to follow the rules of Catholicism.


St. Peter, an apostle of Jesus, was the first pope, so the Catholic Church may well have been the first Christian church. Followers of Jesus were true believers, willing to be martyred for their faith.


But something happened. The Church became an aristocracy. Bishops, admonished by the Council of Trent in 1563 to live lives of simplicity and inspiration, wore garments woven of gold thread and lived in luxury, oblivious to peasants dying of want outside their doors. There were many regulations for Catholics, required tithing, and even the selling of indulgences.


The longstanding belief that celibacy and virginity were the highest state, as well as some possible concerns about priests’ heirs claiming church property, led to the confirmation at the Council of Trent of the 12th Century rule that priests should be celibate. This rule, not a tenet of faith, could be changed at any time.


Only men can be priests. Why? Because Jesus chose men as apostles, and the apostles chose men as their heirs. According to at least one Catholic theologian, men think in terms of structure and can thus manage the church better. Women are important, too, of course. They’re good at establishing closeness, a sort of spousal relationship, with God. This is an unchangeable tenet of the faith.


In 1870 at the First Vatican Council, the pope was officially determined to be infallible when speaking “ex cathedra,” on behalf of the Church on matters of faith or doctrine. This decision came when Vatican lands and power were under threat. Maybe it was a trade-off, increased spiritual power for decreased physical power.


In the early 20th Century, a young Vatican lawyer, Eugenio Pacelli, was instrumental in writing what was known as the “Code of Canon Law.” This document centralized power in the Church and put it into the hands of the pope, ending the formerly collaborative nature of Church hierarchy, with power shared among bishops and dioceses.


Pacelli, later to become Pope Pius XII, believed strongly in this centralization of power, which made him a virtual dictator. He appointed all bishops, his pastoral letters were infallible, doctrinal error was considered heresy, and priests were not only censored in their writings, but required to swear an oath of agreement to the Code at ordination.


Because the German Catholic Church was traditionally autonomous, and Pius so eager to bring them into the Canon Law fold, he collaborated with Adolf Hitler, who signed the agreement ending German Catholic autonomy. The pope remained silent about Nazism and persecution of the Jews throughout World War II, even allowing over 1,000 Roman Jews to be transported under his nose from Rome to Auschwitz.


Traditionally, stemming from the Council of Trent, discipline of a clergy member who “secretly sinned” fell into the hands of the bishop of his diocese, who could both discipline and forgive. Only murder is mentioned as an exception to this tradition. This certainly helps explain the scandalous secrecy regarding pedophilia among priests.


It’s very sad. The first Christian church, spiritual home of millions of innocent true believers, has been corrupted into a secretive, political, power hungry organization.


The faithful deserve better.


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