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Small, long-smothered voices shake the walls


I’m beginning to wonder if we’ve been overlooking the real meaning, the ultimate impact, of two of the most powerful lines of scripture: “And a little child shall lead them” or, alternatively, “Let the little ones come unto me.” Pedophilia, the abuse of children, has finally unmasked for all to see the operational principles of an organization that has been able for years to ignore, reject -- even disdain -- the cries of multiple other groups of the ignored and abused.

Like the survivors of clergy sexual abuse, whole streams of people have been crying out for ages to be listened to, to be heard, to be seen, to be included. In a church that newly calls itself “the people of God” but clearly still thinks of itself more narrowly in terms of the pre-Vatican II definition of the church -- “those faithful in communion with the local bishop who is in communion with the Bishop of Rome” -- hearing is not its strong point. In a church such as that, questions do not need to be addressed; they can simply be denied on grounds of “unity” or “obedience” or “faith.” But to ignore the questions of women was one thing; to ignore the children was entirely another. To dismiss married priests was one thing; to protect pedophile priests was another. To claim ultimate authority by the clerical one percent of the church was one thing. To reject the authority of the people in the pews who, the new Code of Canon Law says, have not only the right but the duty “to make known their needs to their pastors” is entirely another.

In a system that cared more for its clerical image than it did for the people it purported to serve, theologians, canonists, scholars and women all went unattended with their questions, ignored in their concerns. The balance of hierarchy, laity and scholars, which Thomas Aquinas defined as the fullness of the church, seemed lost forever. The clerical culture of silence, exclusion and sacred domination simply stopped the church cold, struck questioners dumb, drew up the drawbridge on discussion after discussion: birth control, homosexuality, celibacy, married clergy, divorce, the role of women in the church. Those questions, we were told, had been answered once for all, were determined in heaven, were answered in male clerical synods, were not to be broached by the likes of the barbarians at the gates.

But the children, it seems, have put an end to the silencing. Pedophilia, rank at the base, rotten to the core, is changing all of that. Thanks to pedophilia, the mask of perfection, of unassailable privacy in a public institution, has been torn away for all to see. The small voices long smothered are, as sure as the trumpets of Joshua, shaking the walls of the clerical city of God. What we won’t do for ourselves, we will do for our children.

It is clear now, in ways it was never clear before, how much damage is done to the church itself, ironically, by the kind of silence that makes it impossible for the church to admit its weaknesses, to deal with its questions, to heal its wounds. The determination to avoid scandal by denying it has become the biggest scandal of them all.

It is even clearer now that the whole church is not best served by having its theology, its administration and its judgments determined by only the smallest part of it. By excluding from its decision-making inner circles the very people who are best equipped, most prepared to deal with the issues assailing it in this new world, is to cut itself off again from the scientists who could have saved it from the Galileo debacle and the scripture scholars who could have saved it from literalism and the social scientists who could have saved it from racism and the women who could have saved it from sexism.

It is obvious now, thanks to the children, that the culture of sacred domination is dead. The notion that there is a clerical caste out there more moral than we, wiser than we, more sacred than we has eroded before our very eyes. From the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, to CORPUS: The National Association for a Married Priesthood, to the Catholic Theological Society of America, to the Woman’s Ordination Conference, to Voices of the Faithful, group after group is rising up to call the questions that, for the sake of the church, must be resolved by the whole church if the movement of the Holy Spirit everywhere is to live in this church at all or only its structures are to be honored.

Now we have nothing left to do but be church together -- laity and clergy, women and men, old and young, weak, sinful, forgiving, caring and honest about the challenges that face us every day.

Indeed, the veil of the temple has been rent by its children. Behind the curtain of silence, exclusion and domination are all the rest of the questions that, if not resolved, will simply shake the timbers to the dust once more. It happened in the 16th century with the posting of Martin Luther’s list of questions. We should have learned then that questions do not go away; they only eat like termites at the foundations of a building.

“Once you bring life into the world,” Elie Wiesel wrote, “you must protect it. We must protect it by changing the world.” Well, maybe, but this time it looks as if it’s the children who are protecting us.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, author and lecturer, lives in Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, June 21, 2002