I have been asked to reflect on two questions: What has it been like being a Catholic male? What am I thinking now?
I am a cradle Catholic, youngest of five children, born in 1945, to Italian immigrant parents in Rochester, NY. Our home was within walking distance of three churches, St. Andrews, St. Philip Neri, and Annunciation, two of which are now closed. Like most Catholics, I first learned about the faith from my mother, a devote Catholic who attended mass regularly, prayed the rosary, attended women’s sodality meetings, and made yearly pilgrimages to area shrines. My father, on the other hand, rarely attended Mass or engaged in expressions of religious piety. My mother’s widowed and childless uncle, Zio Luigi, who lived with us until he died at age 101, was my caregiver before I started school, while my parents worked outside the home . A gifted storyteller who spoke mostly Italian, Zio Luigi would entertain me for hours with captivating stories from the Bible, a copy of which we did not possess. Pope Pius XII’s photo was prominently displayed in our kitchen.
Mama wanted me to go to St. Andrew’s grammar school, but, having heard stories about principal, Sr. Dorthea’s penchant for disciplining naughty boys with a yard stick, I opted for public school #39 instead. In 1957, although admitted to attend McQuaid Jesuit High School, I decided to to go to Ben Franklin Junior-Senior High School. There, in the eighth grade I met the girl who would become my wife of now 46 years, Gloria Skalny. Formal religious education for me took place in released-time classes taught at St. Andrew’s school where the Baltimore Catechism had an ready answer for any question I could pose.
Later, I learned that the Church, throughout most of its history, has discouraged Catholics from questioning its teaching authority, the Magisterium, sometimes severely. During the Middle Ages, for example, the Holy Inquisition approved the use of torture and burning at the stake by civil authority to deal with heretics. The laity’s role was said, derisively, to be, “pay, pray, and obey.” Popes were absolute monarchs.
One of my memories of those days is being invited by a Lutheran classmate of mine to attend his confirmation. As required of a dutiful Catholic then, I had to ask permission of my pastor, Mgr. George Eckl, who reluctantly gave it, but only if I refused to participate in the ceremony. Why? Protestants were heretics.
The Good Friday liturgy included a prayer for the conversion of “perfidious” Jews, who, according to the 1900 plus year doctrine of anti-Judaism, were Christ-killers and rejected children of God. Ours was the one true faith and only means of salvation; error, i.e. other religions, had no right. Eating meat on Fridays was a mortal sin punishable by eternal damnation in hell, as was missing Mass on Sundays.
In 1963, I graduated high school and went off to Columbia College in New York City. During my freshman year, I went to a performance of “The Deputy,”a controversial play which accused Pope Pius XII of failure to take action or to speak out against the Holocaust, a human catastrophe of unimaginable proportion. The playwright, Rolf Hochhuth, alleged that Pius’ “silence” was criminal, inhuman, and cowardly. As a non-critical thinking, “pay, pray and obey,” pre-Vatican Council II Catholic who believed the pope could do no wrong, I was scandalized by the play and rejected Hochhuth’s premise as preposterous. Meanwhile, my college professors were challenging me to question my belief systems, to open my mind to differing points of view, to be wary of absolutist claims, and to avoid non-critical thinking.
After graduating from college in 1967, Gloria and I planned to marry. There was a problem, however, because she was not Roman Catholic. She was raised in the Polish National Catholic Church, a schismatic church that broke from Rome after Vatican Council I, over, among other reasons, the dogma of papal infallibility. After a good deal of soul searching and hand wringing, we agreed to be married in her church, St. Casmir’s, but, to raise our children as Roman Catholic. In September, 1967, I entered Cornell Law School and Gloria began working as an grammar school teacher.
In law school I learned how to analyze complex cases and fact patterns according to legal principles; how to formulate conclusions based on fact; and how to advocate persuasively for a proposition or cause. At the same time, Gloria and I settled into married life, which did not include regular attendance at Mass. Sunday mornings were spent reading the New York Times. Three years later, my law degree in hand, we returned to Rochester, where, after passing the bar exam, I began to practice law and Gloria began her teaching position with the City School District. We lived in the Charlotte neighborhood of the NW district from where I was elected twice to Rochester City Council. In September 1981, our only child, Kate, was born. As previously agreed, Gloria and I sought to have Kate baptized. We approached Fr. Jeremiah Mohnahan, pastor of Holy Cross Church, who agreed to perform the rite, but suggested we join the parish. We did and eventually I became a lector and parish council member; Gloria volunteered in the co-op babysitting service available to parents of young children during one of the Sunday masses.
I was elected to my first of two ten year terms as Monroe County Family Court Judge in 1986. The following year we moved to the Town of Pittsford and became parishioners at the Church of the Transfiguration. Gloria, Kate, and I then began attending mass together, regularly. Gloria felt she had found a spiritual home. We both became active in the parish. In 1993, at the suggestion of founding pastor, Fr. Gerald Appelby, an consummate priest and homilist, I began to discern whether to enter the deacon formation program of the Diocese of Rochester. After much reflection and prayer, at age fifty-four, with Gloria’s concurrence, I decided to enter the program. Incredibly, Gloria decided to enter the St. Bernard Institute’s Master of Theology degree program and study along with me. We would do this, in addition to working full time jobs and raising an adolescent daughter.
Four years later, in 1998, I earned a Master of Theology Degree from St. Bernard’s and was ordained a permanent deacon by Bishop Matthew H Clark. Gloria received her degree the following year. I served 12 years as a deacon at Transfiguration; Gloria served there 7 years as pastoral associate. I am currently in my fourth year of jail ministry under the supervision of Sr. Judy Green. Over the years, Gloria, an unabashed feminist, has become disillusioned with how women are treated by the institutional church. disappointed that they are not fully recognized for their gifts.
My courses at St. Bernard’s included Theology of Church and Church History. Some of what I learned troubled me, quite frankly, especially the Church’s attitude toward and treatment of Jews through the centuries. Several weeks after retiring from the bench in 2007, Rabbi Laurence C. Kotok, Senior Rabbi at Temple B’rith Kodesh in Rochester, invited me to participate with a number of others in planning and team-teaching an inter-disciplinary, multi-session adult education course eventually entitled “The 2000 Year Road to the Holocaust — An Interfaith Project of the Greater Rochester Community.”
Looking for projects to keep me busy in retirement and wanting to study the Holocaust in depth, I accepted the invitation without hesitation. Eager to use my college, law school, and judicial skills to research a topic that had troubled me for many years, beginning with reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” in junior high school, I began my inquiry. In identifying and weighing the historical evidence, I was determined to keep an open mind, while simultaneously hoping that my conclusions would exonerate Pope Pius XII in particular, and Christianity in general, from complicity in the Holocaust. The course began in October, 2008 at Temple B’rith Kodesh. Four hundred plus students took it, which was offered three times between 2008 and 2011.
Curriculum developed for my portion of the course became the nucleus of my book, published December 26, 2012, entitled “The Holocaust, the Church, and the Law of Unintended Consequences, How Christian Anti-Judaism Spawned Nazi Anti-Semitism, A Judge’s Verdict.” Not surprisingly, the book has sparked controversy, particularly among traditionalist Catholics who view the Church as a perfect society and repository of changeless truth. And view popes, perhaps because of what has been termed “creeping infallibility,” as incapable of wrongdoing. These non-critical thinkers perceive public questioning or criticism of the Church, regardless of its merits, as disloyalty. They reject important principles decreed by Vatican Council II like the primacy of a well-formed conscience over obedience to external authority.
(As an historical aside, Gregory XVI, pope from1831to 1846, who banned railroads in the Papal States allegedly because their promise of increased mobility would lead to unrest among an already rebellious population, termed freedom of conscience, an “absurd and erroneous maxim.”)
Vatican Council II, a watershed event in church history, accomplished a great deal of much needed reform within the Church, including repudiating and reversing anti-Judaism. In “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” (Nostra Aetate) it decreed: No collective guilt can be attributed to Jews, past or present, for the death of Jesus; God’s covenant with the Jewish People is valid and not revoked; The Jews are not forsaken or condemned by God; and anti-Semitism is a sin and has no place in Christianity.
The key to understanding Vatican II is best expressed in two phrases that characterized it, namely, the Church is semper reformanda (“always in need of reform”) and the Church is Populi Dei (“People of God”). These phrases reflect a new self-understanding /model of church, de-emphasizing the then existing institutional model, a monolithic, unchanging, dogmatic, and insular institution, in favor of a less doctrinaire, more pastoral, more ecumenical, and more egalitarian model.
Leadership in the institutional model was hierarchical in nature, symbolized by a pyramid, with the pope at the top, then in descending order — archbishops, bishops, priests, religious, and at the bottom, the laity. Those at the top “possessed” the truth; those below “received” the truth; the laity’s role was to be docile and compliant (i.e. “pay, pray and obey.”) Under the institutional model, church authority was absolute and not to be questioned; independent thought was discouraged and repressed, as noted previously, sometimes severely.
The decrees of Vatican II, on the other hand, recognize that popes and bishops do not have a monopoly on truth, nor do they receive supernaturally infused knowledge or wisdom at their episcopal ordination or installation. Rather, all the faithful have a role to play in the process of determining divine truth, including the laity. “The laity are entitled, and indeed sometimes duty-bound, to express their opinion on matters which concern the good of the Church. (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church). Docility and passivity, therefore, are discouraged. All the faithful, through the sacrament of baptism, are expected to participate fully in Christ’s role of priest, prophet and king, not just the ordained. In the people of god model, symbolized by a circle, church leadership is diffuse and shared, not concentrated at the top. sensum fidelium (“sense of the faithful”) is required to validate doctrine, not a decree from a pope or a dictate of a bishop. When popes, bishops, priests, deacons, and religious, all of whom are subject to human foibles and sin, stray from core gospel values, they should be held accountable.
According to Fr. John W. O’Malley SJ, distinguished professor of Church History at Weston Jesuit School of Theology and preeminent Vatican II scholar, who for a time was silenced by the Vatican, while Catholics are obligated to take full and serious account of church teachings and guidance, they must ultimately be guided by the inner law of a well-formed conscience, which is the ultimate norm in making moral choices. Specifically the Council decreed:
“Deep within our conscience we find a law which we have not laid upon ourselves, but which we must obey. Its voice, ever calling us to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in our heart at the right moment…For we have in our hearts a law inscribed by God…Our conscience is our most secret core and our sanctuary. There we are alone with God whose voice echoes in our depths.” “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes)
(and) …“It is through our conscience that we see and recognize the demands of the divine law. We are bound to follow our conscience faithfully in all our activity so that we may come to God, who is our last end.” “Declaration on Religious Liberty” (Dignitatis Humanae)
Fr. O’Malley summarized his view of how the Church changed in style as evidenced by the Council’s choice of vocabulary employed in its sixteen documents:
“…from commands to invitations, from laws to ideals, from threats too persuasion, from coercion to conscience, from monologue to conversation, from ruling to serving, from withdrawn to integrated, from vertical and top-down to horizontal, from seclusion to inclusion, from hostility to friendship, from static to changing, from passive acceptance to active engagement, from prescriptive to principled, from defined to open-ended, from behavior-modification to conversion of heart, from the dictates of law to the dictates of conscience, from external conformity to the joyful pursuit of happiness.”
Fifty years has passed since Blessed Pope John XXIII convened the Council, yet the legacy of Vatican II remains in dispute. Fr. Richard P. McBrien, author of “The Church, The Evolution of Catholicism,” and “Lives of the Popes,” for example, has asserted that Pope John Paul II “betrayed the ‘Spirit of Vatican II,” by, among other things, censuring and/or disciplining liberal theologians like Tissa Balasuriya, Hans Küng, Jacques Pohier, Edward Schillebeeckx, Leonardo Boff, Charles E. Curran, and Matthew Fox. In an address to Roman curial officials in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI argued that Vatican II did not represent any kind of “rupture” with previous ecumenical councils of the Church. This was the case, he opined, because, in all of its essential details, the Church cannot change.
Based on research and analysis for my book, I have concluded that among the primary causes of the Holocaust were unquestioning obedience to authority and lack of self-generated initiative grounded in a well-formed conscience. It is noteworthy that during the Holocaust religion in Europe was overwhelmingly Christian.
I have also concluded that factors contributing to institutional and individual complicity for the Holocaust, namely – clericalism, authoritarianism, triumphalism, Juridicism, lack of transparency, secrecy, unwillingness to admit error or permit scandal – also contributed to the worldwide priestlyl sex abuse scandals, a primary reason cited, in survey and survey, for decisions to leave the Church.
Notwithstanding that Roman Catholics are currently the second-largest religious group in the United States, one in ten Americans is an ex-Catholic. Former Catholics now comprise the third largest Christian denomination. And if it were not for the infusion of Catholic immigrants, especially from Latin America, the American Catholic Church would be shrinking dramatically. The same phenomenon is occurring in European churches. The Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project tells us that the percentage US Catholics who report attending mass weekly has declined from 47% in 1974 to 24% in 2012.
Moreover, according to a 2012 survey of former Catholic residents of Trenton, N.J., other top reasons for defections, in addition to the sex abuse scandals, include: 2. The Church’s stance on homosexuality: 3. It’s stance on divorced and remarried Catholics; 4. Perception that the hierarchy is too closely tied to conservative politics; and 5. The status of woman. One person surveyed said this, “If the Catholic Church does not change it archaic view on women, it is going to become a religion that survives on the fringe of an open-minded, progressive society.”
How has the Holy See responded to the polarizing issue of women’s ordination?
In 1976, international experts of the Pontifical Biblical Commission concluded, with a majority of 12 to 5, that there were no scriptural objections to priestly ordination of women. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, successor of the Holy Inquisition, under the direction of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI, however, rejected this advice and wrote its own negative assessment.
Since then, Rome has refused to listen to protests and challenges offered by bishops, theologians, scripture scholars, and women’s organizations from all over the world. Rather, local bishops have been enjoined to suppress any further discussion. In a 1993 letter to bishops worldwide, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote, “The bishop should prove his pastoral ability and leadership qualities by resolutely refusing any support to people who, either as individuals or as groups, defend the priestly ordination of women, whether they do so in the name of progress, of human rights, compassion, or for whatever reason it may be.”
In 1994, Blessed John Paul II wrote an apostolic letter, (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis), stating that the question of priestly ordination of women is no longer open to debate. His 1998 apostolic letter (In Motu Ad Tuendam Fidem) and accompanying commentary by Cardinal Ratzinger, characterized defending the ordination of women as tantamount to heresy. Anyone who holds that women can be ordained priests is “no longer in full communion with the Catholic Church.” Pope Francis last year declared the issue “a question settled definitively by Blessed Pope John Paul II.” The ancient dictum Roma locuta est,causa finite est (“Rome has spoken, therefore the case is closed”), apparently lives on today’s papacy.
This situation troubles me as does the Holy See’s censure of women religious. In April, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI appointed an American bishop to rein in the largest and most influential group of US nuns saying that an “investigation” found that the group had “serious doctrinal problems.” The Vatican’s censure assessment charged that members of Leadership Conference of Women Religious (“LCWR”), with a membership of 1,500 representing 80 percent of Catholic sisters, had challenged church teaching on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood, and promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” The sisters were also reprimanded for making statements that “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.”
News of the action took the LCWR by complete surprise, according to its communication director, Sr. Annemarie Sanders, who noted that LCWR leaders were in Rome for what they thought was a routine annual visit to the Vatican when they were informed of the outcome of the secret investigation, which had begun four years earlier in 2008. “I’m stunned,” said Sr. Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby founded by women religious. Her group was also cited in the censure, along with LCWR, for focusing its work too much on poverty and economic justice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage. “I would imagine that it was our health care letter (in support of the Affordable Health Care Act) that made them mad,” Sr. Campbell said, “We haven’t violated any teaching, we have just been raising questions and interpreting politics.”
Regarding the censure, a statement from Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued last April said Pope Francis “reaffirmed the findings of the assessment and the program of reform.”
Why do situations like these trouble me? They violate the Spirit of Vatican II. Polarizing issues within the Church, in my judgment, should be discussed freely and openly without fear of reprisal. That’s one way needed reform will happen within a 2000 year old institution. The oldest edict of natural law is — change of die. Doctrine does indeed change over time. Pre-Vatican II, for example, the Church condemned freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, separation of church and state, and usury, among other things. And it sanctioned, among other things, anti-Judaism, slavery, segregation, and subjugating women. St. St. Thomas Aquinas, pillar of the medieval church, reflecting the patriarchal mindset of the time, described women as “misbegotten males.”
Muslim slaves manned papal galleys until 1800. It was at the urging of Protestant Britain that the papacy condemned the slave trade in 1839. And not until 1888, after every Christian nation had already abolished slavery, did the Vatican finally condemn it. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 primarily because he refused to recant his view that the sun revolved around the earth. Galileo recanted, so his life was spared.
Most Catholics don’t realize that priestly celibacy had its origins in the 12th century and that in the first millennium, priests, bishops – and at least thirty-nine popes – were married. Nor do they realize that St. Anastasius, pope from 399 to 401, was succeeded by his son, Pope St. Innocent I; or that a century later Pope St. Hormisdas’ son St. Silverius was also elected to the papacy.
Lord Acton assured British Prime Minister William Gladstone that Pope Pius IX’s condemnation of democracy was not as bad as the papal massacres of the Protestant Huguenots. Acton’s famous maxim, “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely,” was written to describe Renaissance Popes and the dogma of papal infallibility. Blessed John Henry Newman argued that there have been periods when the body of believers has been truer to the faith than the hierarchy. Newman was silenced for saying it, but his historical arguments were not refuted.
In short, the Holy Spirit resides in all of God’s people, so all God’s people deserve to have their voices heard, most especially when speaking truth to authority.
Anthony J. Sciolino
January 22, 2014