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Interview with The Sacred Site

On the American Catholic Church.

Interview formerly on the Australian Broadcast Corporation site, with Stephen Crittenden, 2001.

"If there should be a democratisation here in the United States, it would be difficult for national Catholic churches elsewhere not to begin asking themselves whether they too couldn't, and shouldn't, introduce more democratic procedures in order to prevent themselves from happening into similar difficulties. "

Jack Miles is the author of God: A Biography and Jesus: A Crisis in the Life of God. He's a former Jesuit seminarian who left the Catholic Church to become an Episcopalian. He recently wrote an article about the long term impact of the clerical sexual abuse crisis in the American Catholic Church for the magazine Crosscurrents.

JACK MILES: I don't know that the American Catholic people have yet quite grasped the importance of their role as a national Catholic Church within the greater Roman Catholic Church. There is still, I think, a tendency to think that European Catholicism is normative, and that the American Catholic Church is an immigrant church not really essential to what happens in the Church as a whole.

But because the United States as a country is so important in what happens in the world as a whole, and because our population is after all not small, and the number of Catholics is about 1 in 5 in the general population, the combination is potentially of enormously consequence for the Church as a whole. If there should be a democratisation here in the United States, it would be difficult for national Catholic churches elsewhere not to begin asking themselves whether they too couldn't, and shouldn't, introduce more democratic procedures in order to prevent themselves from happening into similar difficulties.

STEPHEN CRITTENDEN: JACK, IT OCCURS TO ME THAT ONE OF THE THINGS THAT MAYBE HASN'T BEEN ARTICULATED YET - BUT SURELY WILL BE - IT'S NOT SO MUCH ABOUT DEMOCRATISATION AS IT IS ABOUT PROFESSIONALISATION OF THE PRIESTHOOD - THAT WE'RE GOING TO ULTIMATELY SEE A DEMAND THAT THE PRIESTHOOD BE RUN ALONG MUCH THE SAME LINES AS ANY OTHER PROFESSIONAL ORGANISATION, LIKE DENTISTS OR DOCTORS OR LAWYERS - AND INDEED THAT SOMEONE LIKE CARDINAL LAW, AT THE TOP OF THE TREE - SOMEONE LIKE THAT NEEDS TO BE TREATED LIKE THE C.E.O OF ANY OTHER MAJOR CORPORATION - AND WHEN THEY DON'T COME THROUGH THEY NEED TO BE GOT RID OF.

JACK MILES: The way the Church runs at the moment, it's like a corporation that has a CEO but has no board of trustees. There is no higher authority in the diocese than the bishop himself. To introduce something like a lay board of review which would correspond to the trustees who represent the stockholders in the life of the corporation, would be a major innovation. But I believe that the institution of board of trustees exists in our economies only because democracy is the culture of our political life. The two go together.

STEPHEN CRITTENDEN: BUT WHAT ABOUT THE FACT OF THIS HUGE CENTRAL BUREAUCRACY IN ROME, THOUGH - EVER INCREASING IN ITS OWN PRETENSIONS, ITS OWN IDEOLOGY EXPANDING - WHILE ON THE GROUND HERE IN AUSTRALIA AND IN AMERICA, THE REALITY IS ONE OF DISSOLUTION AND DESPAIR?

JACK MILES: What has brought the matter to a head for me, has been thinking about what will happen if important new procedures for safe-guarding against abuses like paedophilia are put in place by the conference of American Catholic Bishops when it meets next month.

It's very interesting to learn that if this Conference adopts a set of new procedures, it lacks the authority to impose its own procedures on itself. After thinking the matter through, debating, discussing, taking reports, doing research, the Bishops of the United States must send their best thoughts to Rome and ask Rome to "please impose it upon us, because we do not have the authority to impose it upon ourselves".

This is a very strange way of running an organisation of this size, and I think the consequences of it are those we are now seeing. It would be very interesting - in fact, historic - if this meeting of bishops were to dispense with that further step and simply adopt some new procedures and defy Rome to revoke them. Because imagine the position that the Roman authorities would be in if they were to revoke procedures put in place to protect children from paedophiles!

STEPHEN CRITTENDEN: THAT RAISES THE QUESTION WHETHER WHAT'S REQUIRED FOR LONG TERM CHANGE IN THE CHURCH IS A MAJOR CRISIS LIKE THIS ONE - HAPPENING IN A LARGE NATION LIKE THE UNITED STATES - AND THEN FOLLOWED UP AS A RESULT BY A MAJOR ACT OF DEFIANCE BY THE SENIOR CHURCHMEN IN THAT NATIONAL CHURCH.

JACK MILES: That last step you mentioned is the crucial one. And that is the key question. Will there be that revolt, that act of defiance?

STEPHEN CRITTENDEN: YOU KNOW THERE'S A GREAT QUOTE BY A 19TH CENTURY] EX-PRIEST, FELICITE DE LAMENNAIS - "CENTRALISATION INDUCES APOPLEXY AT THE CENTRE AND ANAEMIA AT THE EXTREMITIES".

JACK MILES: Isn't that wonderful! That's splendid! That's really remarkable!

STEPHEN CRITTENDEN: SORT OF ATROPHY FROM THE TOP DOWN…

JACK MILES: Here's a more rough-and-ready slogan that I remember hearing when I worked for the Los Angeles Times: "Authority is 20 percent given and 80 percent taken". And if the bishops wait for Rome, in its wisdom, to propose a reorganisation that will give them more power, they'll wait forever.

STEPHEN CRITTENDEN: YOU WROTE A FASCINATING ARTICLE RECENTLY IN THE MAGAZINE CROSSCURRENTS. AND TO ME, WHAT WAS FASCINATING ABOUT THAT PIECE WAS THAT IT BECAME A KIND OF MEDITATION ON THE SECOND COUNCIL - YOU IMMEDIATELY JOINED THE DOTS BETWEEN THE SEXUAL ABUSE CRISIS IN THE AMERICAN CHURCH AND THE QUESTION OF PAPAL AUTHORITY, AND YOU SAID IT WAS THE AFTERMATH OF THE SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL THAT HAD REALLY MADE YOU LEAVE THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND BECOME AN EPISCOPALIAN. HAVE WE ACTUALLY SEEN SOMETHING HAPPEN HERE THAT HAS REALLY UNDERMINED THE PAPACY?

JACK MILES: If it doesn't, then the anaemia that you refer to will continue. Nothing is predetermined. If the bishops, provoked by, or prompted by the laity, choose to take the authority that really cannot be denied them, then a large change will occur.

But is it impossible to imagine drift even in such dramatic circumstances as these? No, it's not. You mentioned my article in which I referred to the Birth Control Crisis of 1968 and the Papal encyclical 'Humanae Vitae', which reaffirmed the traditional blanket Roman Catholic ban on the use of all methods of birth control except Rhythm. That has brought about just the situation that de Lammenais was talking about. It was an act of apoplexy on the part of Pope Paul VI, and it has brought about the kind of anaemia among Catholics - all of whom are following their consciences on this matter - but because they're following their consciences and practising birth control, their sense of commitment to their own church has grown somewhat more anaemic, you see?

STEPHEN CRITTENDEN: WELL IT SEEM TO ME THAT FOR THE LAST FORTY YEARS OR MORE, THERE HAS BEEN A KIND OF SULLEN STANDOFF BETWEEN THE CATHOLIC HIERARCHY AND CATHOLIC PEOPLE OVER SEXUALITY. IT'S FINALLY CLEAR THAT THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE HELD OUT - THE WOMEN WHO HAVE TAKEN THE PILL, WHO HAVE LISTENED TO THEIR OWN CONSCIENCES - THEY'VE WON. IT'S ALMOST LIKE THE CARDINALS HAVE NO CLOTHES. THEY HAVE TO STOP TALKING ABOUT SEX NOW - DON'T THEY?

JACK MILES: I think they do. And that if there is a continuation of the kind of stonewalling I've been hearing about in such places as the Archdiocese of New York, there will most likely be some kind of action from still further down, from among the priests or among the laity. Northing is predetermined, but that is my best guess.

There was a description in Commonweal magazine of a recent meeting between Cardinal Egan and some 400 or 500 priests from the Archdiocese of New York. It was billed as a dialogue, but he spoke first. And then the priests divided into tables of ten, where they had conversations amongst themselves and were allowed to deliver questions in writing to the Cardinal, who remained seated with two aides on the stage while these table conversations took place. Afterward he offered answers to selections from among the questions that had come in, but there was no moment in this meeting where any priest was allowed to stand and address the other priests in the presence of the Cardinal. And the general mood that entered this hall with Cardinal Egan, according to Commonweal magazine, was one of paranoia. He saw someone there dressed in civilian garb and had him expelled. He ordered people to check to make sure that doors were closed. This is not the attitude of a pastor, obviously. This is the attitude of someone who sees himself as being on the run.