Dear Broken Brethren:
As Pope Francis gathers with Roman Catholic bishops in the Vatican this week in a summit designed to address clergy sexual abuse of minors, I have had several conversations with individuals suggesting that the Catholics have a big problem. While I hope the magisterium experiences some breakthroughs in discipline and oversight through an event largely organized by Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich, it would be a serious mistake to suggest this is somehow an issue confined to the ranks of Roman Rite clergy.
Clergy sexual abuse of minors is not a problem that will be resolved by permitting priests the stability of marriage. To be sure, the recent revelations of the Southern Baptist Convention regarding their own clergy sexual violations highlight the fact that abuse is neither a Catholic nor a Protestant tragedy, nor is it somehow exacerbated by any unique stress created by living in celibacy, a condition not required of Baptist clergy.
Likewise, the suggestion that an injection of female clergy into the hierarchy would have a moderating effect on the behaviors of male domination implies the problem is little more than that of a fraternity house gone off the rails in a misguided but monstrous protection of the brotherhood. Our own tradition, PC(USA), ordains women not because the boys were out of control, but because we believe the gifts necessary for ordained ministry are given by God’s Spirit irrespective of gender.
The primary difference between us (Presbyterian Church USA) and them (Roman Catholics) is not merely who we are willing to ordain, but what we mean by ordination. For Presbyterians, ordination is not a sacrament, which means my office as a Presbyterian minister is not an outward visible sign of God’s presence or grace, whereas the sacramental office of priest or deacon in Roman Catholic theology mediates the very presence of God, a declaration now creating a massive human resources nightmare for the home office in Rome.
To be sure, I do not believe the dehumanizing violence of molestation, abuse, seduction or rape is somehow more likely in one system or another. Our all too human capacity to sin requires authority to be granted in contexts of accountability, and accountability was a core principle of the Protestant Reformation, which humanized the clergy by locating sacraments as the work of the whole church rather than the practiced ritual of a single individual. For example, a quorum for the celebration of Communion in our church is three--the minister, an elder and a communicant; and our Book of Order confines that small number to the extraordinary occasions of a hospital call or shut-in home visit. Ordinary Presbyterian Communion must take place in the context of a worship service with the gathered people of God. Contrast that to an individual priest serving eucharist to himself--alone in his study, a priest is the full embodiment of the church, a theological position which I believe desensitizes pastoral leadership to the presence, purpose or power of the congregation: the church is not us, it’s not them, the church is me.
I realize my thoughts this week may seem a tad anti-ecumenical, but that is not my intent. I truly pray for our Catholic brothers and sisters as they find their way through the tragedies of commission and omission that have devastated the lives of victims. Nor am I suggesting that our polity creates immunity from immorality; we Presbyterians are just as capable of scandalous abuses of power. But what we say about ordination does have consequences in how we discipline and who we hear.
Inviting you to learn more about Presbyterian theology during our Lenten series on TULIP Calvinism, I remain,