Review: Father Does Not Know Best: How to Fix the Catholic Church, by Mary E. Hunt

(Hunt’s essay appeared in Religion Dispatches magazine on April 5, 2010.)

Feminist theologian Mary E. Hunt is among a growing chorus of Roman Catholics calling for Church reform following the recent pandemic of revelations about child sexual abuse and cover-ups in the priesthood in Europe and North America. These revelations point to a need for “substantive structural change in Catholicism,” she writes. I will argue, however, that there can be no substantive change that is not first of all theological.

Hunt blames the hierarchical model of the Church, where each individual in the chain of authority (priest, bishop, archbishop, pope) is answerable only to those higher in the chain. This essentially feudal model of governance resists accountability both to the laity and to civil authorities. She writes,

Priesthood is a male-only society where those who are higher in rank judge those who are below them. No one else’s judgment matters—not lay colleagues, not women, not other ministry professionals, and certainly not the parishioners. Catholic clergy belong to a small, shrinking, and exclusive club. Many socialize with each other, vacation together, sometimes date each other. They project a holiness and piety that may or may not correspond with reality.

The hierarchical problems are compounded by Catholic doctrines regarding confessional secrecy and papal infallibility. Both, says Hunt, are misunderstood and misapplied, resulting in, respectively, (a) a clerical culture permeated by secrecy, where criminal activity is not reported to the proper authorities, and (b) the widespread and mistaken belief that the Pope always speaks for God and that his putative authority somehow percolates down through the ranks to the priests. The latter problem results in what Hunt calls “creeping infallibility” and “Father knows best” thinking.

Hunt recommends dismantling the existing pyramidal structure of the Church and replacing it with a “pinwheel” model, with “networks of local base communities that communicate and cooperate around the world.” “Withholding all money from parishes would give the process a jumpstart,” she concludes.

As appealing as Hunt’s model is, it cannot be implemented without a serious re-examination of the theological underpinnings for the pyramidal model. The hierarchical issue is tightly interwoven with all other issues of Catholic faith and practice, including the culture of secrecy that made the abuse cover-ups possible. But Hunt, a theologian, prefers not to engage on theological issues. She apparently does not view the confessional or the doctrine of papal infallibility as problems in themselves, pointing instead to the “confusions” and the “misunderstandings” that have surrounded them. In her words,

Two Roman Catholic theological confusions make the problems even more complex. One is the notion of secrecy and the other is a misunderstanding of infallibility.

The papacy’s declaration of its own infallibility in certain matters (dating from 1870) clearly needs to be reversed. How does Hunt think the authoritarian structure of the Church is going to be challenged without this happening? Historically, the purpose of the infallibility claim was to shore up papal authority at a time when the Church’s power was being challenged in Europe. The pyramidal structure was already in place, and the infallibility claim only reinforced it.

Hunt can’t very well expect a structural reconfiguration without theological justifications. Her pinwheel model doesn’t stand a chance as long as authority pulses in only one direction and that authority is thought to emanate from God Himself through his vicar on Earth. How are Hunt’s “local base communities” to argue with the one who has been given the keys to the kingdom of heaven and speaks for God?

If Catholics really want local power, they must first of all address these theological issues. Withholding financial contributions may indeed send a message that parishioners are dissatisfied, but it is a gesture without real content. It shows resolve but lacks ideological clarity. While reformers continue to demonstrate their theological befuddlement, orthodox elements will continue to frame the issues, set the constraints, and stonewall.    

The real problem may be that an insufficient number of Catholics want local power. Seventy percent of the world’s 1.1 billion Roman Catholics are in developing countries, and the vast majority of those are poorly educated and unpracticed in participatory forms of governance. Presumably, they remain Catholic either because the Church’s model of centralized authority suits them or because they are willing to put up with it in exchange for what the Church offers them.

The confessional is another matter that needs closer scrutiny. Confidentiality is of course necessary (up to a point) if there is to be a confessional, but is the confessional itself necessary? And could Catholics be happier and healthier without it? Other Christian churches appear to function quite well without one, though they usually find other ways of exerting control over the most intimate thoughts and desires of their parishioners.

Dr. Hunt, like other reform-minded Catholics, has begun to glimpse the inherent and endemic authoritarianism of her church, but she still refuses to see its totalitarianism—or, I should say, its historical tendencies toward totalitarianism, as it is now everywhere embedded in secular states. Totalitarianism aims to control every aspect of an individual’s existence, from birth to death and, if possible, on through eternity, including every thought that he or she has. Privacy is out of the question, as is any possibility of escape.

The confessional is an instrument of totalitarian control. Anyone who doubts this should look more closely at the Church’s teachings about sexuality—especially masturbation, which is probably the most universal and frequent sexual practice of all. These teachings work in tandem with the confessional to create feedback loops of guilt, which the Church then uses to bind the faithful more closely to itself. In the case of masturbation, the Church induces guilt about something which is perfectly natural and healthy, then tells the believer that he or she must confess and seek forgiveness. The confessional becomes a recurrent opportunity for the confessor to reinforce the teaching and prime the guilt. The guilt then only worsens, because the confessing individual does not usually stop masturbating and, in fact, should not stop in some cases, if he or she wishes to be psychologically and physically healthy. (Besides the near-term benefit of lessening stress, masturbation also lowers the risk of prostate and cervical cancer.) The more we learn about human sexuality, the more nonsensical and, indeed, toxic the Church’s teachings are revealed to be. Its intransigence about them only boosts already high levels of cognitive dissonance among the faithful and contributes to public perceptions that the Church is sclerotic and dangerously out of touch with reality. This is not a healthy scenario for anyone, not even the magisterium.

Hunt may seem radical to many Catholics, but I find that she is not radical enough by many orders of magnitude. Of course, I am speaking as a secular humanist, and so my hopes and expectations for reform would obviously far exceed hers. Considering that my influence among Catholics is virtually nil, I can only hope that her calls for a new wave of reform will be heard. Then I look forward to the next wave, and the next, and the next.


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