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 Archabbey.

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 religious future.

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.





David Coker is an Evansville free-lance writer.  His email address is oldcars55@aol.com