A visit to the campus of St.
Meinrad's Archabbey in February 1996 provided a pleasant diversion from
the daily routine in Evansville. The day before, the Archabbey's public
relations department had issued a news release stating that it would not
cooperate with an investigation being conducted by the American
Association of University Professors into the dismissal of Sister Carmel
Elizabeth McEnroy, a former ethics and philosophy professor at the
The good sister had been
terminated the previous April for signing an open letter to Pope John
Paul II, published in the National Catholic Register, which argued in
favor of the ordination of women in the Roman Catholic Church. I began
thinking about McEnroy's courage and victimization in light of the
recent reports of Catholic priests molesting children and teen-agers
almost 25 years ago and the church-imposed silence in the interim. Were
McEnroy and the 1,500 church practitioners who joined her back then
trying to tell us something about the moral bankruptcy within the
institution to which they had dedicated their lives and passions?
But we should not be shocked at
all of this -reports of debauchery within the cloisters are as old as
the church itself. Indeed, we can turn to as seminal a source as
Giovanni Boccaccio, the Florentine muse of the 14th century, who upon
inventing the idiom of the short story described much about the human
frailties of Renaissance culture.
Written in 1348, the second story
of his magnum opus, "Stories From the Decameron," Boccaccio spins a tale
of Abraham, a Jew, and Giannotto di Civigni, a Catholic, two rather
well-to-do Parisian residents and friends. Our dear Giannotto has for a
time been attempting to persuade his Jewish acquaintance into abandoning
the elder faith for fear that he might ultimately be doomed to the
furies of hell in eternity. After several rather passionate
conversations, Abraham agrees to travel to Rome and observe the church
leadership at close range and to contemplate the fate of his personal
Upon returning from his Roman
holiday, Abraham reveals to Giannotto that among the church leadership
"from the highest of them to the lowest of them, they all shamelessly
participated in the sin of lust, not only of the natural kind but also
the sodomistic variety, without the least bit of shame. And this they
did to the extent that the influence of whores and young boys was of no
importance in obtaining great favors." Further qualifying the extent of
the gluttony and avarice of the church practitioners, Abraham reported
that while he did not approve of them or their behavior, after some
serious thought he had come to believe that the Holy Spirit was the true
foundation of the church - hence, the current increasing membership -
and therefore he had decided to be baptized immediately in Giannotto's
home parish, Notre Dame Cathedral, and nothing could keep him from
converting to the faith.
No higher authority can be found
on the treatment of children than Jesus Christ, whose emphatic teachings
in Capernaum, on the banks of the Sea of Galilee are recorded in Matthew
18:5-9 and Mark 9:42 : "And whosoever shall offend one of these little
ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were
hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea."
With the implied image of pruning
the vineyard of the church, he also instructs us: "Wherefore if thy hand
or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is
better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having
two hands or two feet to be cast into the everlasting fire."
While Sister Carmel Elizabeth
McEnroy and Boccaccio's fictitious Abraham both experienced epiphanies
that had life-changing consequences, we have yet to witness such courage
in church leaders. Projecting a leadership crisis of secrecy, threats,
intimidation and the quiet protection and reassignment of what in some
cases may have been criminal offenders, church authorities and the
faithful must re-examine the antiquated patriarchal mind-set that
abides, fosters and protects such despicable anti-social behavior.
Likewise, we all must also be
mindful that our public and private morality cannot be sufficiently
purchased or measured in the form of financial rewards to the victims
and families of those affected by past misdeeds.
While McEnroy's signature
continues to haunt church leaders, Roman Catholicism must find its own
institutional epiphany and cleanse itself from within if it is to remain
relevant to the moral challenges of the 21st century.