As Christians begin their celebration of the Easter season, the Catholic church seems stuck in Good Friday. Just when some would like to turn their attention to the profound mysteries of their faith, they are instead mystified by yet another round of horrendous sex abuse stories making headlines.
Most Catholics in the United States were convinced that the issue of sexual abuse by priests had been adequately dealt with after the last go round more than eight years ago. In many ways, it has been. U.S. bishops adopted strict policies of zero-tolerance after the abuse scandal exploded in 2002. Bishops are now required to comply with state laws for reporting abuse and to cooperate fully with authorities. For the most part the stories once again generating news in the United States concern old cases and the previous negligence of bishops to deal effectively and justly with the crisis. New to the controversy has been the suggestion by some that the Pope himself bears responsibility for lapses.
The recent reports indicate this is not -- and never has been -- a distinctly American church problem. The European Catholic Church is now experiencing what the U.S. Catholic Church did nearly a decade ago. Once reports from Pope Benedict's native Germany emerged that boys had been abused in a church-run school there, hundreds more from other European countries came forward admitting that they too had been victims of abuse decades ago. We have not heard the last of these stories. Africa and Latin America have yet to weigh in, but they will. Reports from those parts of the world will eventually emerge to increase the dismay of those who expected more diligence and, indeed, holiness, from religious institutions.
What is readily observable from the avalanche of reports is that the sexual abuse of minors is a systemic, worldwide problem. But it is not exclusively a Catholic or ecclesial one. It cuts across all faiths, institutions and family systems. Presently, however, it is the Catholic church in the spotlight, so it must take the lead in dealing with this issue in a transparent, effective and ultimately transformative way. Though its halo has been dimmed by past negligence, the church can still be a beacon of light to lead the way if it now proceeds with haste and unwavering conviction.
So then, what is the best way for the church to move forward? Dramatic failure requires a dramatic solution. Nothing gets the attention of the church and, perhaps the world, like a Vatican Council. The last one, of course, ended more than 45 years ago in 1965. While some would maintain that we have yet to fully execute the decrees of that Council, the world and the church have changed dramatically in the interim. The current crisis in the church can serve as the impetus for once again calling together the worldwide church community in pursuit of modernization, reform and spiritual integration for a new time and world.
What issues might this Council address? Many to be sure, but chief among them could be the current crisis confronting the priesthood. Certainly the issue of sexual abuse and the devastating toll it has taken in the church might be examined and addressed definitively, once and for all. In addition, while pedophilia and the sexual abuse of minors and priestly celibacy are not organically related, the abuse crisis has once again raised the issue of the necessity and relevancy of mandatory celibacy for diocesan priests. The majority of Catholics and priests want an open discussion about this issue, but up to this point, that has not been permitted.
It may be helpful to recall that, for the first millennium of the church, clergy were permitted to marry. Restrictions to that freedom were enacted due mainly to socio-political concerns that church property was being passed on to children and family members of priests. While the church also spiritualized the virtue of celibacy and implied its "higher calling" status, it was not originally considered constitutive of priesthood.
Today there is also the unusual and sometimes resented occurrence of priests from the Episcopal tradition being permitted to transfer to Roman Catholicism as priests with wives and families in tact. That does little to help the morale of a defeated celibate clergy who must sometimes then minister side by side with married priests who have more rights and privileges than the celibate ones do.
A Vatican Council could address this issue in an open forum. While the church indeed changes slowly, one thousand years of a celibate priesthood may be enough time now to reevaluate its value and relevancy. Of course, any change would not affect priests in religious orders who take vows and live in community, and it need not affect all diocesan priests. If the rules were ever modified, some priests might still choose to be celibate "for the sake of the kingdom," and for the sake of an undivided devotion to an absorbing and full time ministry. But celibacy would then be a free choice. For now, it remains a necessary and sometimes resented discipline if one is to function as a Roman Catholic priest.
Many feel that other issues should also be addressed if a new Vatican Council was ever convened. Women priests, sexual ethics, inter-religious dialogue, globalization and ecology are but some of the topics that get mentioned. Above all people seem to desire an open dialogue, simply to be able to talk about these issues in an adult forum where their life experience and hard-earned wisdom is acknowledged as a indispensable element in the establishment of church law and doctrine. This would mean that more than Red Hats gather for such a Council. The laity would need to be more than window dressing this time. They would rather be respected as serious deliberators who help the ecclesiastical hierarchy to shape a new and spirit-filled vision.
The metaphor often used for Vatican II is that of a window having been opened so that the fresh wind of a new Spirit could blow through. Many feel the air in the room has once again grown stale and even a bit rancid. Is it time to once again open the ecclesial portals for a new and mighty wind to blow through?
The Easter Season that we currently celebrate will end in seven weeks with the feast of Pentecost, the day commemorating the advent of the strong and mighty wind of the Holy Spirit filling the house where the disciples were and thus ushering in a new and courageous church. For many stuck in Good Friday the hope and dream of a new Pentecost might be realized if the church can once again allow that Spirit to lead it into a new and promising future. After all, Easter proclaims that new life is possible no matter how dark the tomb may appear to be.
Father Edward L. Beck, C.P. is a Roman Catholic priest of the Passionist Community. He is the author of three books, "God Underneath," "Unlikely Ways Home" and "Soul Provider," all published by Doubleday. In addition to conducting retreats and workshops on spirituality nationally and internationally, Father Beck is a religion contributor for ABC NEWS. He hosts a weekly TV and Internet show for ABC called "Focus on Faith" with Chris Cuomo of "20/20" and is also a commentator on religious and faith issues for various other media outlets including CNN and Fox Television. Father Beck is the executive producer and host of "The Sunday Mass," which airs nationally each week.