As the Catholic hierarchy sweats in the harsh glare of media scrutiny, as they backpedal about investigations into past and current abuse, and get defensive in all the wrong ways, the question “Should the pope resign?” is valid — the man at the top has been harboring criminals. There is no defense for this. There is no defense for those who shuffled around priests known to be guilty of rape and assault and other forms of abuse, be you the pope, a bishop or cardinal.

But now is also a moment with extraordinary potential for grassroots reform in the Catholic Church, and Catholic theology offers a powerful history and tradition of ground-up resistance and civil disobedience in its feminist, womanist, mujerista, and liberation theologies.

So what can these theologies offer in response to the abuse crisis?

Well, they call for no less than a revolution.

A-Theology-Of-Liberation.jpgAt their core, feminist and liberation theologies are concerned with the abuse of power, righting injustice and discrimination, dismantling oppressive hierarchies, and clearing space for the disenfranchised to have a voice in the tradition and a central role in its transformation. By their very nature these theologies are grassroots and practical–they start and end with everyday Catholics, the very people who have been denied power, who have been oppressed and silenced. In the 1970’s, the liberation theologies of Gustavo Gutierrez, Jon Sobrino, and Leonardo Boff were instrumental not only in addressing poverty, but toppling oppressive governmental regimes that perpetuated poverty and forbade dissent. For five decades feminist, womanist, mujerista, and asian-feminist theologians (all types of liberation theology) like Elizabeth Johnson, Lisa Sowle Cahill, Diana Hayes, Ada María Isasi-Díaz, Dorothee Soelle, among many others, have been speaking out about the rights of women and children, and in particular, addressing the problematic implications for all Catholics of an all-male, hierarchical governing body.

For these same reasons–how powerful liberation theologies are in restructuring oppressive hierarchies–the Vatican has issued statements lashing out against them, publicly silencing theologians for speaking out, perhaps most famously with Leonardo Boff. (See the following Vatican documents for examples, “Instruction on Certain Aspects of “Theology of Liberation,” “Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation,” and “On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church”–all of which came out of the office of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during Ratzinger’s tenure.)

Isn’t the average Catholic today–those of us still in the pews–now also the disenfranchised in the wake of this second wave scandal? The abuse and criminal negligence rampant throughout the hierarchy has marginalized all of us. Staying Catholic does not equal approval of the pope, does not make someone complicit in criminal behavior. Our faith and our tradition are being stolen out from under us by a powerful few who fear responsibility and are terrified of being held accountable for harboring criminals and perpetuating abuse for decades in the process.

But liberation theologies speak directly to us, the marginalized Catholics, and provide us frameworks to move from disgust, dismay, paralysis, and disempowerment toward transformation and change.

And if the vast majority of us are now the disenfranchised, it is from this place that we can begin to remake the church. The Vatican is so embattled and its power undermined by the scandal that the center of the Catholic Church has shifted sideways as a result–if we claim it from this place on the margins. If we speak in large numbers from this place as Catholics who are the Church.

We have strength in numbers. There are far many more of us than them. And liberation theologies empower the average Catholic to enter into theological discourse. They take theology from the hands of the few, from the pope, the cardinals, and the bishops, and put the task of theology into our hands. They anchor the Catholic Church in the laity and its ordinary priests and nuns, effectively dismantling the hierarchy’s power and redistributing it on a grassroots level, where it obviously belongs if the hierarchy’s behavior tells us anything at all.

These frameworks of resistance and reform are the very structures that empowered me to stay, to remake my own place and sense of Catholic identity in a way that gave me a strong voice and solid place to stand. I do not speak as a Catholic approving of the hierarchy–absolutely not. I speak as a Catholic disgusted by it, certainly, but who also knows that reform must happen from within and will happen via those of us who stay and make it happen. I speak as a Catholic empowered by liberation theologies.

We are living in a different world than in the 1980’s when the Vatican lashed out at liberation theologians, requiring their silence. Between today’s technologies and the widespread disgust at the Vatican, the places where and opportunities for lay Catholics and disenfranchised victims to speak up and out are many–and the Vatican can do nothing to stop this.

For the Catholic laity, for the theologians and clergy who want change–in not only leadership but overall institutional reform and what the Catholic tradition stands for–now is the time for us to speak up and loudly.

For a particularly powerful, thoughtful, and thorough perspective on reform, please see feminist theologian Mary Hunt’s article, “Father Does Not Know Best: How To Fix the Catholic Church” at Religion Dispatches.


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