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Catholic Theologians Debate Ills of Church Hierarchy

by Pamela Ferdinand
The Washington Post

The clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church has sparked an examination of the hierarchy's power, the role of the laity and the church's teachings on sexuality by theologians at America's top Catholic universities.

At Boston College, located across the street from the archdiocesan offices at the center of the scandal here, as well as at Georgetown University and the University of Notre Dame, the leading thinkers of the church are looking for ways to help the faithful grapple with concerns about the scandal and assist the church leadership in regaining people's trust.

The new round of lectures, studies, conferences and research on campuses this fall is likely to engender new tension in what has been a longtime struggle for Catholic colleges and universities: attempting to maintain their Catholic character and uphold church doctrine while remaining committed to academic freedom.

This week, Boston College, run by the Jesuit order, launched the boldest of these initiatives, called "The Church in the 21st Century." Some 4,000 people attended an opening forum, an event that coincided with the indictment this week of the first Jesuit priest in New England to be charged with sexual abuse.

The two-year program will focus on the role of the laity, sexuality and how the faith can be passed to future generations.

No topic or perspective will be off-limits, including controversial subjects such as the ordination of women, priestly celibacy, premarital sex, abortion, divorce and remarriage, said the Rev. William P. Leahy, the college's president. Instead, he said the resources and freedoms that characterize university life will be brought to bear on virtually every aspect of church life.

The project is an act of good will, not dissent, he said.

"The goals I have revolve around helping revitalize the Catholic community and promoting a more involved and informed group of Catholics," Leahy said. "I also hope that out of this will be a better church. I'm very confident of that."

By virtue of its location and resources, Boston College has a particularly distinct contribution to make to the church, said the Rev. John P. Langan, chair and Cardinal Bernardin professor of Catholic social thought at Georgetown.

"In a sense, they can be the brain of the Catholic community," said Langan, a former visiting scholar at Boston College.

At Notre Dame, an 11-member church study committee privately issued a set of recommendations to American bishops at its June conference, said professor John C. Cavadini, the theology department chairman. Among other suggestions, the committee recommended the establishment of a national registry of pedophile priests and a comprehensive study of the causes and context of the current crisis. A forum, called "Restoring Trust," is planned on campus for early October.

"Some people think there's only one way to respond, and in fact, I think there are several different ways, each with its own legitimacy and each peculiar to the particular genius of the place," said Cavadini. "How can you teach a ministry course without it coming up? How can you teach a sexual ethics course without it coming up? These discussions are so much part of what we do here that it doesn't seem like . . . we need to create courses to discuss this."

Faculty members at Georgetown also said scandal-related issues will inevitably arise there in classes such as "Structure and Governance of the Church," and "Religious Ethics and Moral Issues."

Chester L. Gillis, chairman of the university's theology department, said that Catholic colleges and universities may lead the way in helping the church by serving as an "intellectual leaven," formulating and testing ideas without the restrictions of canon law or institutional church bureaucracy.

"At this point, the hierarchy can use all the help they can get," he said. By addressing issues beyond the scope of sexual abuse, observers said relatively liberal Boston College is bound to roil its conservative archdiocese, with which it has had close yet occasionally contentious relations. Cardinal Bernard F. Law early on in his tenure questioned the college's commitment to Catholicism, while university faculty, staff and prominent alumni -- who include members of Law's inner circle -- have recently criticized the archdiocese's handling of clergy sexual abuse allegations.

In remarks at the program's inaugural event Wednesday, where a handful of archdiocese officials were scattered in the crowd, onetime Law confidant Jack Connors Jr. blasted the hierarchy for its failure to protect children and seek the truth.

"Those church leaders who have made a series of bad judgments may continue to hold on to their titles, but they will be leaders in title only," said Connors, a Boston College alum who is chairman and chief executive officer of one of the city's largest advertising firms. "A majority of Catholics are moving forward without them. Witness this crowd."

The college will not advocate a particular agenda and an effort will be made to present the official church stance on all issues, Leahy said. "One of the tasks facing the church and all Catholic institutions is to have a better understanding of why does the church teach what it teaches," he said.

Law has not responded to Boston College's program, Leahy said, and observers say the archdiocese clearly is not rushing to embrace it.

The Rev. Christopher Coyne, the cardinal's spokesman, said room for reform "obviously" exists within a 2,000-year-old tradition. But that reform, he added, "has to be within our understanding of who we are as a church."