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Adrienne Langlois '10: Toward a more productive dialogue on the Catholic Church and religion

In the wake of any disaster, both victims and bystanders find themselves haunted by difficult questions. The recent child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church is one such disaster. With such a widespread range of harm and a confounding reaction from the Vatican, the scandal has sparked many tricky discussions.

Initial reactions, especially those on Brown's campus, have been concerned mainly with the question of "What is wrong?" In a recent column, Dominic Mhiripiri '12 sought to distance the wider array of Christian religions from Catholicism by criticizing the institution of the Catholic Church. David Sheffield '11 took Mhiripiri's criticisms further, using the scandal as an opportunity to criticize religious belief in general.

Both columnists are correct to revile the widespread abuse of children by Catholic priests and the Church's subsequent cover-up. But simple condemnation of the actions of members of the Church hierarchy does little more than fan the flames of increasingly vitriolic rhetoric. "What is wrong?" is indeed an important question to ask. But it needs to be accompanied by others, most importantly, "How can we make sure this never happens again?"

To answer these questions, one must delve deeper than simple generalizations based on anger and actually seek to understand the offending institution. In portrayals of the Catholic Church as corrupt, monolithic and infallible, critics overlook the nuances of doctrine, institutional structure and history that help explain the Church's response to the sexual abuse scandals and initiate a productive critique. While it is true that the institution has been manipulated in the past to maintain power, focusing overwhelmingly on this fact overlooks the true reasons for the Church's responses.

Take the concept of infallibility. Contrary to popular belief, the Pope and Church are not constantly infallible in every statement or action they choose to make. Papal infallibility, "ex cathedra," is a specific convention which has only been invoked seven times in the history of the Church.

Infallibility is a controversial doctrine which has been critiqued and condemned heavily from both inside and outside the Church, but contrary to Mhiripiri's statement, it is based in the interpretation of multiple scriptural references, as is the rest of Catholic doctrine and dogma. In the wake of the Church's tremendous conservative power today, it is easy to forget that Christianity was once a minority faith whose members were tortured and killed for their beliefs. The Catholic Church's otherwise puzzling response is a continuation of this same history of defensiveness.

Such an explanation of the Church's actions certainly does not exonerate the institution's response to these sex scandals or its many other negative actions and inactions throughout its long history. But it does provide a framework in which to initiate productive reform.

Reform is possible. Although the Church is undeniably conservative by nature, history reveals the institution is indeed amenable to reform and even reversal of its decisions. The Council of Trent, initiated in 1545, responded to the critiques of Luther and Protestantism with vigorous reform, even as it sought to reaffirm the power of the institution. Similarly, the Second Vatican Council of 1962 was a reaction to increasing calls to modernize from inside and outside the Church hierarchy.

The Church has even reversed its statements under harsh pressure. One recent example comes in the case of the military government of 1960s Brazil, a country in which the Church has historically held powerful sway. The Church had initially supported the conservative government for its opposition to communism, but when many of its bishops and priests were violently suppressed for their more liberal views, the Church was ultimately forced to change its position and condemn the dictatorship.

This reversal did not simply occur because the Vatican felt that its institution was under attack, but because thousands of members of the Catholic hierarchy openly and vocally opposed its position. A concerted effort of vocal opposition could have a similar effect in the case of the recent Church sexual abuse scandals.

Simplistic critiques of the Church, and of religion more generally, not only close the door on the potential for reforming an institution and preventing future horrors, but also prevent productive dialogue by implicitly dismissing those who choose to remain within the religion to engage in this reform.

People continue to participate in institutions even while strongly disagreeing with decisions and actions made by their leaders because they believe they themselves can be agents for change. Remaining in the Catholic Church in hopes of reforming the institution is not so dissimilar from continuing to participate in the American electoral system when one's desired candidate is not elected.

Of course, I cannot claim to speak for all those who espouse a religious faith, or even those who identify as Christian or Catholic; everyone's spiritual (and aspiritual) experiences are different. It is this diversity of experience we must draw on as we seek to open a dialogue to answer these questions about a very difficult subject.

Adrienne Langlois '10 is indeed Catholic and would like to initiate a full-scale campaign to establish liberation theology as a viable doctrine of the Church.



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