Is new life ahead in the church?

This story appears in the Crisis in the Church feature series. View the full series.

The recent disclosure of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and the extent of depravity reported in the news are symptomatic of a church in crisis. It is no longer acceptable for the pope simply to issue a public apology nor is it sufficient for any group merely to reflect on what has happened by issuing position statements.

The church has a deep structural problem that is entirely bound to ancient metaphysical and philosophical principles, not to mention imperial politics, that at this point requires either a radical decision towards a new ecclesial structure or the acceptance of the possibility of a major schism.

The rock-solid church has crushed human souls and twisted authority into deceit. The male-dominated Christ center no longer holds and there is simply no solution or comforting words that can placate the extensive damage to fragile human lives that has taken place over the past decades. The evidence of abuse brought to light in the Catholic Church is simply unfathomable.

There is something profoundly intransigent about the structure of the church. It is not church structures that have caused the abuse, but they have masked predators hiding as priests in a closed caste system of clerical elitism.

The resurgence of abuse points to something deeply amiss, if not embedded, in church culture. "Culture" is a complex term that encompasses the set of operative meanings and values. Church culture is based on operative principles of hierarchy, patriarchy, careerism and the notorious notion of priestly consecration as becoming "ontologically changed."

The hierarchical pecking order from priest to pope has entailed obeisance in the quest for a higher position on the ladder of ecclesiastical success. Clericalism is a type of corporate ladder climbing and no different from the quest for power in the world of major corporations. Corporate power, like ecclesial power, is marked by the dominant male, akin to the evolutionary hunter who is "red in tooth and claw;" the priest-hunter can be cunningly deceptive at achieving his desired goal.

How did we get here? If the church is founded on the Good News of Jesus Christ, how did it become so radically disconnected from the itinerant preacher from Nazareth?

Structure concerns relationships, and the types of relationships that comprise church structure are based on outdated philosophical notions of nature, gender and personhood. Structures do not themselves cause abuse, but they can abet and/or cloak mental illness, predators and criminals disguised as priests.

The disguise is actually embedded in the dysfunction of the structure itself. The "don't ask, don't tell" culture of abuse in the armed services also applies to the institutional church. Walled in a fortress of ontological superiority bestowed by priestly consecration, one could effectively live a dual life insofar as one's brain can cognitively dissociate between abusive behavior and priestly function.

The dissociative brain is not quite schizophrenic or a split brain but is actually more deceptive because it can capture certain ideas and repeat them (such as the notion that abusive behavior is normal) while operating on an outer level of priestly ministry.

Dissociative behavior is reinforced by certain philosophical principles embedded in church structure and tenaciously clung to throughout the centuries. Two principles in particular stand out: first, the "ontology of higher being" idea, that is, the priest is on a higher level of being and closer to God by virtue of priestly consecration, and second, the priority of spirit over matter.

These misguided notions stem from the way hierarchy developed in the church. The hierarchical structure that presently defines the church can be dated back to the fifth century when the mystical writer Pseudo-Dionysius composed his treatise on the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy.

Dionysius introduced the term "hierarchy" to connote sacred order among the many different classes of people that comprise the church. The Dionysian notion of hierarchy was meant to reflect the many ways God shines through creation, but the term was corrupted in the Middle Ages by William of Saint Amour who used the Dionysian hierarchy to reject Franciscan friars as teachers at the University of Paris — a role that William claimed duly belonged to clerical priests and not those of religious orders.

Hence the notion of hierarchy as a ladder of ontological distinctions (for example, priests are of higher being than laity) was a medieval construct that became entrenched in the mind of the laity.

A second philosophical flaw is the Platonic notion of the body as inferior to the life of the spirit, giving rise to several different outrageously flawed ideas, including the notions that women are intellectually inferior to men and the source of sin; that sex and sexuality are inferior qualities of human personhood and need to be closely monitored, as these can easily lead to sin; and that the corruptible body needs to be disciplined and subjugated to the spirit.

David Noble (The Religion of Technology and A World Without Women) provides convincing historical evidence to support his thesis that the principal aim of Christianity, like science, is to restore the fallen male Adam to divine likeness.

His thesis is based on the myth that Adam was created before Eve and thus received the breath of life directly from God; hence Adam is the true image of God and Eve is a weak imitation. Eve is the reason Adam lost his divine likeness along with his immortality, his share in divine knowledge and his divinely ordained dominion over nature (the "fall").

Because Eve was the problem, she cannot be part of the solution. John Scotus Erigena in the ninth century claimed that at the resurrection sex will be abolished and nature will be made one — only man — as if he had never sinned.

It is no secret that even the best medieval theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure, held that women do not have fully formed intellects, an idea that can be traced back to the philosophy of Aristotle.

It is unfortunate that Pope Leo XIII in his 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris wedded the church to the theology of Thomas Aquinas, thus making Thomas's theology the official theology of the Catholic Church. By doing so, the church adopted the Thomistic-Aristotelian metaphysical framework based on matter and form, substance and essence.

Thomas Aquinas was a brilliant 13th century theologian who contributed to the church a vast corpus of theological insights. However, by making his doctrine official teaching, the church turned a deaf ear to modern science and to other theological ideas, such as the notion of the primacy of Christ formulated by the Franciscan theologian Duns Scotus.

Although the Catholic Church has supported modern science, reflected by the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences, it has not adopted the principal scientific shifts of modern biology, evolution or quantum physics, despite the fact that these areas are pillars of modern science. As a result, the official theology of the church is based on the ancient cosmology of Ptolemy and the medieval Thomistic-Aristotelian metaphysical synthesis.

Even the most recent report of the International Theological Commission omits science entirely from the task of theology today. As a result, the foundations of theology remain out of sync with nature; the understanding of the human person is outmoded in many respects; and the core doctrines of creation, salvation and redemption are based on outdated cosmological principles.

Despite the turn to the historical subject in Vatican II, the cosmological framework for official Catholic theology is the pre-Copernican, geocentric Ptolemaic universe. It is not surprising that the Ptolemaic cosmos blended nicely with Newton's universe, allowing the church to maintain a static inert framework of substance and form.

Barbara Taylor Brown, an Episcopal priest, compares the institutional church to Newton's world, a vast machine made of parts and obeying fundamental laws — a world, she indicates, that can be easily controlled and manipulated. She writes in her book The Luminous Web :

Human beings were so charmed by the illusion of control Newton's metaphor offered that we began to see ourselves as machines too. Believing that Newton told us the truth about how the world works, we modeled our institutions on atomistic principles. You are you and I am I. If each of us will do our parts, then the big machine should keep on humming. If a part breaks down, it can always be removed, cleaned, fixed and replaced. There is no mystery to a machine, after all. According to Newton's instruction manual, it is perfectly predictable. If something stops working, any reasonably competent mechanic should be able to locate the defective part and set things right again. …Our "God view" came to resemble our worldview. In this century, even much of our practical theology has also become mechanical and atomistic. Walk into many churches and you will hear God described as a being who behaves almost as predictably as Newton's universe. Say you believe in God and you will be saved. Sin against God and you will be condemned. Say you are sorry and you will be forgiven. Obey the law and you will be blessed (38-39).

Newton's world was a closed system. A closed system views organizations as relatively independent of environmental influences; problems are resolved internally with little consideration of the external environment. Without any new input of energy, a closed system will eventually wear down and dissipate.

Open systems on the other hand can migrate into new patterns of behavior because the system interacts with the environment; closed systems are rigid and largely impenetrable, while open systems are chaotic and far from equilibrium.

The church is a closed system. Rules, fixed order, dogmatic formulas, unyielding laws, patriarchy, authority and obedience under pain of judgment and death, all have rendered the church impervious to evolution and to the radical interconnectivity that marks all levels of nature. A closed institutional system in an evolutionary world is bound to die out unless new energy can be put into the system or the system itself undergoes radical transformation to an open system.

The turning point for the church's retrenchment from science can be marked by the Galileo affair in 1633 when Cardinal Bellarmine rejected Galileo's confirmation of the Copernican heliocentric system, stating that acceptance of heliocentrism was contrary to Scripture. Although Pope John Paul II apologized on behalf of Galileo in 1984, by mid 20th century the church had not accepted Big Bang cosmology or evolution as fundamental to doing theology.

Alfred North Whitehead wrote in 1925: "When we consider what religion is for mankind, and what science is, it is no exaggeration to say that the future course of history depends upon the decision of this generation as to the relations between them." Ralph Burhoe, the visionary behind the journal Zygon: Journal of Science and Religion, said that the discoveries of 20th century science, born from the creative human spirit in search of understanding, have far out-paced the ancient myths of world religions causing "people everywhere to lose credence or faith in the models or myths as formulated in their traditional religions." He wrote that if religions are to be regenerated, they would have to be credible in terms of this age of science, a point highly consonant with the vision of Jesuit Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Can We Rebuild?

While the reconciliation of science and religion may seem pedantic and marginal to the abuse crisis, it is perhaps the most fundamental work that lies before the church and world today. Without bringing science and religion into a new integrative relationship, there is no real basis on which to construct a new philosophical understanding of theological truths or of human personhood.

All the apologies in the world and all the position papers carefully written will not make an iota of a difference to the "substance abuse" that marks the church. Unless fundamental levels of consciousness change, we cannot attract a new reality.

In this respect, academic theology is as much to blame for the abuse crisis as the hierarchy itself, insofar as the academy of Catholic theology perpetuates a substance ontology and remains essentially entrenched in ancient philosophies and cosmologies.

In theology departments, one can teach a course on Science and Religion as a particular area of interest, but "yoking" science and religion is not necessary to doing theology in the 21st century, nor has the academic field of science and religion impacted the pedagogies of either science or religion.

Teilhard de Chardin was adamant that the philosophical shifts brought about by modern physics and biology demand conceptual and pedagogical shifts in science and religion. "Evolution is a general condition," he wrote, "to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems must submit and satisfy from now on in order to be conceivable and true."

Science has greatly shifted our understanding of nature, including human nature, biological nature and physical nature so that every aspect of theological doctrine must be reevaluated in light of evolution and modern physics. Every seminary curriculum should include Big Bang cosmology, evolution, quantum physics, neuroscience, depth psychology and systems thinking.

Incorporating science into seminary education will not preclude abusers, but over time the formation of new structural systems that are more consonant with nature as cooperative interdependent systems might allow for greater transparency, interdependency and accountability.

To accept modern science as part of theological education and development of church doctrine is to recognize the full inclusion of women in the community of biological life. The inability to accept women as fully capable intellectual beings has been a real stumbling block for the church and, in our postmodern age, the exclusion of women from all forms of leadership and service is no longer acceptable.

Systemic reorganization as well as scientifically-literate theological education must include women at all levels of formation. There is no adequate theological argument for excluding women from Holy Orders. On the other hand, ordaining women priests would help signify the inclusivity of the church as community or at least prevent the church from realizing the finale of Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, that is, total destruction.

Towards a New Future?

The Church needs a new direction, one pointing not upwards but forward, not towards "heaven above" but a new future of healthy relationships. Beatrice Bruteau describes a shift in consciousness from a domination paradigm to what she calls a "Holy Thursday" paradigm, marked by mutuality, service and Christian love. To be "in Christ," she writes,

"is to enter into Holy Thursday by experiencing some death and resurrection, letting an old modality of consciousness die and seeing a new one rise to life. It is to abandon thinking of oneself only terms of categories and abstractions and seeing oneself as a transcendent center of energy that lives in God and in one's neighbors — because this is where Christ lives, in God and in us."

We fragile, vulnerable humans are "cooperative co-creators" and it does make a difference how we live our lives. The shocking news of the abuse crisis crushes our hearts, but God's heart is broken as well; the body of Christ is crucified over and over again, for when one member is abused the whole body is abused.

But our faith must remain unshaken. Christ is risen from the dead; the final word is not death but Life. We will rise from these ashes, but we cannot stand still nor can we turn back. Our hands are now put to the plow and we must forge a new path ahead. The church will be born anew, for God is doing new things.

[Ilia Delio, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Washington, D.C., is the Josephine C. Connelly Endowed Chair in Theology at Villanova University. She is the author of 16 books, including Making All Things New: Catholicity, Cosmology and Consciousness (Orbis Books 2015), and the general editor of the series Catholicity in an Evolving Universe.]