A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

A Testing Time for the Church: An Interview with Harold Attridge

Harold W. Attridge, Sterling Professor of Divinity at YDS, was dean of the School from 2002-2012 – the first Roman Catholic appointed to the position. He has written widely on New Testament exegesis, Hellenistic Judaism, and early church history. As a Catholic churchgoer and layman, he spoke to Reflections in September, soon after a grand jury report of widespread child abuse by priests in Pennsylvania over decades as well as mounting controversy around Pope Francis’s response to the crisis, and new demands that bishops be more accountable and transparent in the way they handle allegations.
On the perils of the moment and reforms now in place …
It’s obviously been a terrible testing time for the Catholic Church. The horrible story of the pedophile scandal has been with us 16 years now – the church’s great failure to protect minors and vulnerable adults from harm. Important new commitments have come out of this traumatic period. The “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” (the “Dallas Charter”) was produced in 2002 and has seen revisions in 2005, 2011, and this year. It has several provisions, which include ensuring a safe environment for children, making prompt responses to allegations, cooperating with civil authorities, and disciplining offenders. By now many dioceses have created new structures and protections – training staff, vetting, putting an oversight body in place. Each diocese is now expected to have a review board that advises the bishop in case of an allegation. The majority of members of the review board are to be laypeople who are not employed by the diocese. I’m glad to see the letter that the Hartford archdiocese’s Office of Safe Environment released in August, outlining the detailed pragmatic steps it has taken – children’s training, adult training, thorough background checks. The National Review Board, which advises the bishops on the crisis, came out with a very strong statement, saying there needs to be real change in the Church’s culture, “specifically among the bishops themselves.”
On the future of celibacy …
Any number of people have said there are some more fundamental things the Church could do. One of them is to reconsider celibacy. It’s clearly a church rule that wasn’t adopted as mandatory until the High Middle Ages in the Latin Church. There’s no theological reason to have a general rule that says celibacy must be necessary for ordination. After all, Eastern Rite Catholics and Orthodox have married priests. (That is, married men can be ordained, but an unmarried priest cannot marry.) And the Latin Church includes a number of married priests who came into the Church from another denomination.
There remains another perennial question about ordination: Will women ever become Catholic priests? I’d have to answer: Not in our lifetimes. This is something I would like to see, and the current exploration of ordaining women deacons, which happened in the early Church, may lead to women’s ordination, but it will be a long time coming.
On eliminating clergy privilege …
Another idea on the table – in Australia, for example – is to eliminate clergy privilege in the confessional. A proposal there stipulates that priests must report abusers if they hear about it in confession. Until recently that rite has been protected: Clergy aren’t required to reveal what is said to them in confession. Many Catholic leaders are opposing it, saying the law won’t have the desired effect. It will just discourage people from going to confession. The Archbishop of Sydney says the law won’t protect children but ensure that the subject never comes up in confession.
On checks and balances and sin …
Some will argue that we should be able to dismantle abuses of power by doing away with the hierarchy, the whole edifice. I don’t see how that’s the solution. Wherever two or three are gathered, someone will be in charge. Five hundred years ago, the Reformation called for the elimination of celibacy, the elimination of bishops – hierarchies – and we might say the results were mixed. Abuse of power still happens. Sin will be a reality as long as there are humans. Politically speaking, the nation’s founding fathers thought about this problem and installed a set of checks and balances to restrain the authority of any one branch of government. I think the Church is moving in that direction – checks and balances. Progress is slow. But the framework is there to recognize a sharing of authority, a recognition that the authority of bishops isn’t absolute. I certainly hope that the Church addresses the structural problems laid bare by the continuing sexual abuse scandals. Dealing with the issue must involve not just the traditional hierarchy, but also lay men and women. I believe that the current scandals will lead the faithful to insist that they have a vital role to play in assuring the Church’s adherence to its highest ideals. I certainly hope that the bishops agree, otherwise their continued leadership will be problematic.

Issue Title: 
Sex, Gender, Power: A Reckoning
Issue Year: