Notes on Moral Theology: Ethics and the Crisis in the Church

By Keenan, James F. | Theological Studies, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Notes on Moral Theology: Ethics and the Crisis in the Church


Keenan, James F., Theological Studies


THE FIRST SUSTAINED ANALYSIS on the "scandal" in the Catholic Church was Peter Steinfels's perceptive and lucid A People Adrift, which sounded a clarion call for new forms of church leadership. (1) That summons was later substantiated by the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People's A Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States. (2) These works have been accompanied by essays and articles by theologians of every kind--systematicians, historians, canonists, and ethicists--recognizing that the scandal arose from what John O'Malley has called a "crisis of authority." Speaking of church leaders, O'Malley wrote: "there was something amiss in the way they understood their jobs, something amiss in their consciences--collectively." This crisis revealed "a widespread sense of systemic dysfunction" that was not limited regionally. As O'Malley noted, the first characteristic of this scandal was "its extent." (3)

As I begin writing this segment of the Notes on Moral Theology, the newly arrived September 25, 2004 issue of The Tablet [London] provides no fewer than nine articles highlighting the pervasiveness of the crisis: Michael Kirwan's study of religion and violence; (4) Elena Curti's account of an English parish unknowingly being assigned a priest with a history of abuse; (5) and, Austen Ivereigh's review of John Allen's recent book on the Vatican. (6) The same issue of The Tablet also reports on the scandal at an Austrian seminary and the frustration of Austrians over the Vatican's nonconfirmation of the resignation of Bishop Kurt Krenn; (7) the Tuscon diocese becoming the second U.S. Roman Catholic diocese to file for bankruptcy; (8) another instance of members of the U.S. hierarchy badgering Senator John Kerry, this time refusing to invite the third Catholic presidential candidate to attend the Memorial Dinner for the first Catholic presidential candidate; (9) the formal accusation of two Peruvian bishops conspiring to discredit the Archbishop of Lima; (10) the decision of the Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell, to ban a lay group of Catholics from meeting on church property; (11) and, the first trial of a Rwandan priest formally accused of genocide. (12)

These nine essays hardly cover the crisis in all its complexity nor do they look systematically at the crisis and the models of authority at its roots. A new volume of the journal Concilium entitled The Structural Betrayal of Trust does just that. (13) In that collection, theologians and other scholars examine the present crisis not simply as a phenomenon in the United States, but rather as a universal crisis within the entire Catholic Church. Moreover, the editors, Regina Ammicht-Quinn, Hille Haker, and Maureen Junker-Kenny, "theologians, women, and mothers," observe that to date, church leaders, particularly the hierarchy, are not looking to examine and reform the structural problems that prompted the crisis in the first place. They write:

We cannot avoid the impression that here a problem is being 'dealt with': some procedures have been changed, but otherwise the fundamental questions are being avoided. These fundamental questions are questions about the structure of a church based on a hierarchy which cannot be questioned by 'outsiders' and which as a result gives rise to structurally 'appropriate' mentalities--on the part of those who hold office and those who are dependent on them. (14)

Writing from Ireland. Enda MacDonagh echoes this stunning observation: "Where are we now, the community of Irish believers, the Irish Church? Still largely excluded from the process." Darkly, he concludes with the observation: "humility is only painfully gained through humiliation. (15)

In my segment of "Notes on Moral Theology," I examine the crisis and the need for structural reform: I survey the literature about the crisis as commented on by theologians and other observers. These reflections generally focus on the Church's three key constituencies: priests, laity, and bishops. …

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