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As the Catholic Church continues to appear in scandalous headlines, I find myself in the strange, timely position of teaching an undergraduate theology course called “Church in Controversy” at Fordham University. We spend four months examining historical and contemporary controversies—from fourth-century christological debates to the contemporary sex-abuse crisis —in the Catholic Church, an institution that claims to communicate God’s very presence to the world. Indeed, it’s where I’ve met God, in encounters profound enough for me to commit my career to researching and teaching theology from within the Catholic tradition: the imaginative exercises of Ignatian spirituality; the candlelight, chant, and silence of Taize prayer; the strands of prophecy and liberation that my favorite theologians draw from sacred texts.

But these days, my relationship to the church feels brittle, strained. I see our ecclesial structures and culture obscuring, rather than illuminating, the mystery of God. I find myself at a loss, furiously dissatisfied with hierarchical leadership, political in-fighting, and even well-meaning but lukewarm calls for reforms that fail to address the depth of our brokenness. How can I offer my students perspective on this “church in controversy” when these controversies threaten my own relationship to the church?

I joke with colleagues that this class could be subtitled “Mary Kate Airs Her Emotional Baggage Twice a Week.” I privately worry—jokes aside—that honest discussions of these controversies will disillusion my students, feel like church-bashing, cause them to lose interest in faith.

* * *

My class is comprised of nineteen students, desks arranged in two concentric semicircles. One theology major, two Catholic Studies minors, sixteen others who are simply fulfilling their theology core requirement. Some are altar servers for on-campus masses, others were raised Catholic but no longer practice, and a handful belong to other religious traditions—Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism. A few are agnostic.

In the first few weeks of the semester, we warm up with some history: the early church’s loosely structured network of communities, ecclesial institutionalization in relationship with the Roman Empire, the Reformation, the articulation of papal infallibility (it wasn’t until 1870!). Catholic students are the most surprised by this material—they’d largely presumed that their monolithic institution has always looked the way it does now.

Historical perspective frees our class from an overly rigid understanding of tradition, which is, in truth, alive and developing. I assign these early controversies to provide a sense of how we got here, and my students take the discussion a step further—using the precedent of the past to imagine how a future church could evolve, or reclaim enlivening practices from the past. An agnostic student raised by a Jewish parent describes a “raw feeling of joy” at Nostra aetate, expressing hope for continued interfaith openness. Several women get particularly fired up over women’s leadership in the early church, using the evidence of house churches and female deacons to construct an argument for increased female governance today.

* * *

“Who do you mean when you use that word, church?”

This question becomes a refrain that I’m constantly invoking to challenge my students, both in their writing and speaking. When they say “the church,” they mean the hierarchy. I don’t think this is a lazy elision. It reflects how most Catholics and non-Catholics alike perceive the church. Only the leaders count.

“Do lay people count as the church? Do those of you who consider yourself Catholic count as part of the church?”

At first they think I’m being pedantic, but eventually it makes a difference. The constant interrogation of what we mean by “church” reframes whose voices we listen to in the controversies we study. I assign magisterial documents promulgated by bishops and popes—but we also read texts by academic theologians, treatises by dissenting Catholic activists, news articles, and personal testimony from ordinary parishioners.

This strategy makes a palpable difference, particularly among my LGBTQ students. Many of them had assumed they’d have to choose between their Catholicism and their sexuality, two incompatible identities. We read documents from the USCCB and CDF laying out church teaching on sexuality; I see in their faces and read in their reflections the pain and frustration of being designated “intrinsically disordered.” But then we peruse the website of the Out at St. Paul Ministry, and read an essay by Deb Word, a Catholic activist and mother of a gay son who shelters homeless LGBTQ youth. All of these voices comprise “the church.” Hannah, an activist student involved in social justice programming in the Bronx and El Salvador, announces at the end of class that this material has made her feel more connected to the church.

These are the days when I feel a little more hopeful.

* * *

In the Catholic press, I see little frank discussion or analysis of what seem to me the obvious, interlocking factors of cover-up culture.

Once we begin studying contemporary controversies, one-on-one office hours conversations turn personal. Students who attended Catholic high schools visit most frequently. “I was always taught the Catholic Church was perfect,” I hear surprisingly often. “I didn’t realize there were controversies or disagreements.” I’m surprised to learn that a few of my students have started attending mass on campus during the semester.

Others are more emotional, sharing experiences of harm in churches, catechesis, and Catholic schools. Many students ask me about my own faith: why I chose to study theology, why I am Catholic. I try to answer honestly, without turning this into an emotional-baggage-airing episode.

On the day we read Ordinatio sacerdotalis, John Paul II’s 1994 apostolic letter articulating “the reservation of priestly ordination to men alone,” the daily student presentation is electric. I take a seat in a student desk, and Laura steps up to the podium, voice trembling with articulate rage. She’s chosen each of her words precisely to communicate the text’s argument and her visceral reaction to it. She describes how she used to feel empowered and encouraged at her all-female Catholic high school—“I thought I could do anything.” Reading the official pronouncement barring women from ordination reminds her of an experience at a parish youth group. A male peer teased her by insisting that women are submissive to men in the church. The youth group leader tried to defuse the situation, but couldn’t refute the claim. Laura hasn’t been back to church since.

I am on the verge of tears. But I take a deep breath, resume my place at the front of the classroom, thank Laura for a courageous and honest presentation, and manage to facilitate a discussion.

* * *

We watch the film Spotlight to begin our unit on the sex-abuse crisis. I caution everyone in advance: this material is heavy and dark. The class discussion that follows is animated—even my quietest students have something to say.

“These dioceses... PAY for the retirement of abuser priests, and then... they PAY lobbyists to oppose extending the statute of limitations for sexual abuse accusations?!” David pieces together these two bits of information from different New York Times articles. Looks of disgust spread around the room.

In the Catholic press, I see little frank discussion or analysis of what seem to me the obvious, interlocking factors of cover-up culture: mandatory celibacy and its frequent violations; an all-male priesthood; and ecclesial teaching condemning homosexuality. Euphemistic critiques of “clericalism” avoid these lightning-rod topics, while polarized ideologues try to blame the entire crisis on just one of these factors. I want my students to have nuanced, well-informed conversations, but I struggle to find reading material to anchor our analysis.

I decide to assign four blog posts by Michael Boyle, a former seminarian who writes carefully and candidly from his own experience. I give a massive caveat: blogs are not scholarly peer-reviewed journals or mainstream news sources. But that lack of deference to entrenched authority also frees bloggers to challenge the status quo in ways that academics and journalists cannot.

I’ve never been so nervous to walk into my classroom—I feel like I’m about to broach a significant ecclesial taboo. My non-Catholic students are unfazed by the material, but those raised Catholic appear uncomfortable discussing desire and struggle in the lives of priests. My highest-achieving student—a theology major who attended an elite Catholic prep school—stammers, “I have never before thought of human beings.”

And there it is: the most concise and profound definition of “clericalism” I could imagine.

* * *

On our last day of class, a quiet student who was raised Protestant sends me a surprising email. Apparently she hasn’t told many people, but she’s been in RCIA classes all semester. While taking the first steps toward becoming Catholic, our course has exposed her to the depths of controversy within the institution. “I know what I am getting myself into,” she says.

The impulse toward cover-up is driven by fear: that Catholics will abandon the church when its problems come to light. Sometimes this fear comes from self-preservation, sometimes out of a desire to protect the faithful. But teaching Church in Controversy has convinced me that the opposite is true: that historical perspective, an expansive definition of the church, and sheer honesty can only help us to advance the Gospel. Reckoning with the ways our church falls short carves out space for the possibility that we might do better.

Mary Kate Holman is a doctoral candidate and Senior Teaching Fellow in theology at Fordham University. Her research areas include ecclesiology, feminist theology, and the history of the nouvelle théologie.

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