Healing Power and Relationships


Jesus was willing to “empty himself” of all power for us and our salvation (Phil. 2:6-8).

 “When he had washed their feet and put on his clothes again he went back to the table. “Do you understand” he said “what I have done to you? You call me lord, and rightly: so I am. If I then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.” (John 12-15)

Jesus is acutely aware of the power of the Holy Spirit in and through him, especially in his cures. His use of power was for others and never for control or oppression. He demonstrated servant leadership in his washing of the feet of the apostles and had to constantly teach his apostles who bickered over rank and importance:

…anyone who wants to be great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be a slave to all. For the Son of Man Himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:44-45)

He cautions his disciples about claiming special status. (Matthew 23:8) His disciples are commissioned to continue his mission through the power of the Holy Spirit in his way of servant leadership.


COVID-19 teaches us the absolute necessity of competent and just use of power and authority to prevent harm and protect all in communal and global threats.

The pandemic has demonstrated the tragic consequences of leadership failure to accept their primary duty of protection and promotion of the common good.

Egregious examples of leaders using fear to promote self-interest, ideology and economic advantage were seen in wealthy and poor nations.

Many different types of well-coordinated expertise and leadership skills are necessary to respond to crisis.

Lessons: Crises such as pandemic, war and ecological disaster reveal deeply embedded cultural notions of power, position and authority

Power and the culture of the Church

Essentially, culture is a meaningful arrangement of society relationships, ideology, and power. Cultures are needed for a sense of order, consistency, identity and meaning but have a dark side which has been described as:

“a more concealed set of subjective attitudes often assimilated unconsciously over a long time. Together these habits of acting and interpreting can either imprison people within prejudices or they can become avenues toward authentic living, toward self-transcending choices that challenge the negative bias of any culture.” (Gallagher, 2003, p.24)  

Cultures are intimately connected to power which may be life-giving or coercive. This possibility of corruption demands a prayerful, critically constructive reflection on the culture of power in the Church that shapes relationships between clergy and laity and women and men that are contrary to the Jesus’ words and witness. There are now many theological, sociological and anthropological analyses of abuse of power in the Church.

Abuse of power, position and conscience is manifested in every aspect of clergy sexual abuse of minors from coercion and seduction in the individual assaults to ‘gag orders’ and threatening whistleblowers, denial and active cover-up.  Abuse of power by clergy is now also recognized in the Vatican Bank scandal, global abuse of Religious and lay women and vulnerable others, including seminarians and Church employees.

Pope Francis has undertaken both penal reform in Vos Estis Lux Mundi (2019) and reform of Canon law dealing with “Sanctions in the Church” (2021) for a wide range of power abuses.

Lesson: The culture of power in the Church has shaped relationships, roles and structures which now need reformation to the “mind of Christ”.

An ecclesiology for the post-pandemic world

Right use of power in the Church requires an ecclesiology of communion and mission. Many models and metaphors have been offered over the centuries to explore facets of the mystery of the Church.  No single model is complete in exploring the mystery. The Church is a living mystery that calls us forth into ever-deeper prayer and reflection on the living reality for all times and cultures. We need an ecclesiology for our time and for a wounded global Church.

 A new understanding of the Church rooted in personal encounter with Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit demands catechesis and evangelization and new structures and relationships that foster the mission. We need to resuscitate mutually supportive and accountable relationships between clergy and laity which witness to the radical equality of the baptized. The Triune God, who is in constant mutual love, invites all the baptized to accept their call to discipleship.

Right relationships between clergy and laity

In remarkable contrast to the words and witness of Jesus, our fundamental relationships have been shaped by an imperial, monarchical, hierarchical, patriarchal, clerical and Euro-centric culture since the 4th Century reforms of Constantine. The Catholic Church is characterized by sharp distinctions between clergy and laity, which have no Scriptural foundation, and an exalted, special character of the ordained. A theology of priesthood teaching that the ordained are “ontologically different” ignores the fundamental ontologically difference of baptism. This has been re-enforced since the 11th Century by mandatory celibacy in the Roman rite, and fostered hierarchy and clericalism.

Church teaching has stated clearly :

“Bishops and priests being, as they are, God’s interpreters and ambassadors …no nobler function than theirs can be imagined. Justly therefore are they called not only Angels but even gods, because of the fact that they exercise in our midst the power and prerogatives of the immortal God.” (1566 Catechism of the Council of Trent)

It is difficult to imagine Jesus’ response to the claim that the ordained are angels and gods.

This theme of special status is a consistent one. Pope Pius X taught:

“It follows that the Church is essentially an unequal society…with the pastoral body only rests the right and authority for promoting the end of the society and directing all its members toward that end; the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the pastors.”(1906 Vehementer nos)

These teachings have ensured the Church falls to the temptation of clericalism.


Clericalism has been defined as the conscious or unconscious concern to protect the interests and the privilege and power that traditionally has been conceded to those in the clerical state. Among its chief manifestations are an authoritarian style of ministerial leadership, a rigidly hierarchical worldview, and a virtual identification of the holiness and grace of the church with the clerical state and the clergy. It is reinforced by embodiments of special status in dress, address, and the “perks” of lavish lifestyles.

Clericalism results in loss of touch with both the call to the holy and with those whom they are called to serve which Jesuit George Wilson concludes is “the death of priesthood.” (Wilson, 2008) It is a sinful elitist contradiction of the radical equality of the Gospel and the priesthood of all the baptized. Pope Francis states clearly that clericalism:

“not only nullifies the character of Christians, but also tends to diminish and undervalue the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit has placed in the heart of our people… Clericalism must be understood as a challenge to the ongoing mission of Jesus in the Church and the relationships between disciples.” (2018, Letter to the People of God)

Lesson: The renewal of the post-pandemic Church requires the participation of all. Laity have learned that essential theological renewal and structural changes are in the control of those who have power, privilege and special status.

The priesthood of the baptized

Vatican II began a restoration of the fundamental priesthood of the baptized.

“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart to sing the praises of God…” (1Peter 2:9)

Lumen Gentium describes the Church as a community for mission and “a sign and instrument of communion with God and of the unity among all peoples” (Lumen Gentium, no. 1). It also acknowledges that “The Church is “at once holy and always in need of purification.” (Lumen Gentium, no.8).

In recognizing different charisms given by the Holy Spirit to the all the baptized for the Church works of witness, liturgy, community and service, it taught:

“… the distinction which the Lord made between sacred ministers and the rest of the People of God bears within it a certain union, since pastors and the other faithful are bound to each other by a mutual need” (Lumen Gentium, no. 32).

Imagine what relationships in the Church could be if we acknowledged our “mutual need” and develop mechanisms of support.

Ordained ministers have specific functions. The ordained priesthood is situated in their relationship to the community of faith and the priesthood of the baptized. Distinctions are for mission not power and status.

Formation and education of clergy and laity

There is an urgent need to reform the formation and education of the ordained and laity together. Formation sets the tone for relationships. A notable project brought together women and men lay and ordained to reflect on priesthood for our time (Boston College Seminar, 2018). They identified the specific roles of the priest in their relationship to the community of faith and the priesthood of all the baptized, preacher, leader of worship and prayer, and public representative. A February 2022 International Theological Symposium is planned “For a fundamental theology of priesthood.” which is open for all but intended for bishops. It will offer a renewed vision and a way of valuing all vocations while respecting what is specific to each. These and other efforts will be important in re-establishing right relationships in the Church.

This includes the ordained, those in ecclesial lay ministries, and the laity.

The formation of priests in the isolation of the seminary and the wearing of special garb distances from them the daily reality and concerns of the laity.  

The education of Bishops has focused on governance and management, not leadership for vision and service. This creates the pathology of hierarchicalism and non-accontability.

The education and formation of the laity to their role and responsibilities in the Church have been left to the homily, or sermon, for most. The Church is no longer in control of information overturning the distinctions between the teaching and the learning Church.  Interested laity can access many sources of information and obtain high levels of expertise.


Pandemic highlighted the work of the laity especially in Catholic education and sacramental preparation and care of the sick and the poor.

Pope Francis has instituted a new ministry of “catechist” with the apostolic letter Antiquum Ministerium. Across the world catechists are often leaders in their communities who teach the core principles of the faith and lead the community.

It is recognized that the laity have a secular role, “The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society is proper to the lay faithful.” (Deus caritas est, no.29.) However, their role in the governance of the Church is advisory, at most, making mutual accountability impossible.

Lessons Formation for new relationships of mutual accountability and support between clergy and laity are urgently required.

For Discernment:

What personal conversion of mind and heart is calling you? 

What are the key theological beliefs and practices in need of renewal to the mind of Christ?

What are the central organizational and relational issues are in need of renewal and reform?

Key readings

G. Arbuckle, 2010, Culture, Inculturation and Theologians: A Postmodern Critique, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn.

Jean M. Bartunek, Mary Ann Hinsdale and James Keenan, 2006 Church Ethics and Its Organizational Context: Learning from the Sex Abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, Rowan & Littlefield, Lanham, MD

Boston College Seminar on Priesthood and Ministry for the Contemporary Church, “To Serve the People of God: Renewing the Conversation on Priesthood and Ministry, 2018 Origins, vol. 48. No 31 484-493.

Stephen Bullivant, Eric Marcelo O. Genilo, Daniel Franklin Pilario and Agnes M.Brazal, eds., 2016 Theology and Power: International Perspectives, Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ.       

Jason Berry and Gerald Renner, 2004, Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II New York: Free Press.

Avery Dulles, 1987, Models of the Church, Expanded ed. Image Books, Garden City NY

Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea, Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church,1st ed. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University, 2007

Richard R. Gaillardetz & Edward P Hahnnenberg eds.2015, A Church With Open Doors: Catholic Ecclesiology for the Third Millenium, Collegeville Press, MN.

Michael Paul Gallagher, 2003, Clashing Cymbals: An Introduction to Faith and Culture, New York: Paulist Press.

Michael W. Higgins and Douglas R. Letson, 2002 Power and Peril: The Catholic Church at the Crossroads ,Toronto: Harper Collins.

Marie Keenan, 2012 Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power, and Organizational Culture New York: Oxford University Press

Paul Lakeland, 2004, The Liberation of the Laity: In Search of an Accountable Church, Continuum, NY.

Anne Louise Mahoney ed. 2021 Looking to the Laity: Reflections on Where the Church Can Go from Here, Novalis

Stephen J. Pope ed., 2004 Common Calling: The Laity and Governance of the Catholic Church, Georgetown University Press Washington, DC. 

Katarina Schuth, 2016 Seminary Formation: Recent History, Current Circumstances, New

Directions Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.

G. B. Wilson 2008, Clericalism: The Death of Priesthood, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN


Right relationships between women and men


The Gospels are filled with stories of Jesus and his amazing countercultural interactions with women as friends and disciples. Jesus learns much from his courageous and faith-filled mother Mary. He scandalizes the apostles by having a deeply spiritual conversation with the Samaritan women at the well who brings this news to others (John 4:39-42).

He reaches out to women on the periphery such as the untouchable woman with the hemorrhage, “Courage, my daughter, your faith has restored you to health.” (Matt 9:22) He is taught about his ministry by the brave Syrophoenician woman who begs for her daughter (Mark 7:24-30).

Women support Jesus throughout his ministry and at his death. A woman is the first witness to the Resurrection.


The quarantine and isolation of COVID-19 has resulted in what the United Nations has described as a “horrifying surge in domestic violence to women.”

Women have emerged as the hidden and underpaid heroines of pandemic. They provide care of the sickest and most vulnerable in hospitals, hospices, retirement homes and long-term care facilities at great risk to themselves and their families.

Women, essential on the front lines, have been excluded from political and strategic planning to cope with the crisis.

Lesson The Church cannot credibly reject all forms of violence and oppression against women and the vulnerable until it addresses its own sexist institutionalized structures and beliefs.

Women’s experience in the Church

Jesus’ relationships with women and their involvement in the early Church are in sharp contrast to women’s experience. Sadly, many women in the Church have lost hope that the Church can address these issues and witness true inclusive and equality between men and women. Official teaching states:

“In no way is God in man’s image. He is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no.37) and

…with respect for the rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent. (1964 Lumen gentium no.29)

Pope Francis has admitted:

I think particularly of the shameful ill-treatment to which women are sometimes subjected. The verbal, physical, and sexual vio­lence that women endure in some marriages…the reprehensible genital mutilation of women practiced in some cultures… their lack of equal access to dignified work and roles of decision-making. History is burdened by the excesses of patriarchal cultures that con­sidered women inferior.  (March 2016 Amoris Laetitia: no. 54)

Pope Francis has said:

It has been rightly pointed out that an analogy exists between translation as an act of “linguistic” hospitality and other forms of hospitality. This is why translation does not concern language alone but really reflects a broader ethical decision connected with an entire approach to life. (Scripturae Sacrae Affectus, 2020)

Pope Francis has established a Papal Commission on women deacons in the early Church. It has had a “rocky” reception. This relates to differing judgments regarding the role of women deacons in the early Church and issues related to the clericalization of deacons. It does not include ordination to the priesthood which is a topic we are not allowed to discuss.

The October 2018 Synod of Bishops calls for inclusion of women in all male decision-making structures as a duty of justice. Pope Francis has appointed an unprecedented number of women to Curial offices. Most notable is his February, 2021 unprecedented appointment of Xaviere Sister Nathalie Becquet as an undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops with voting rights. 

In his January 15, 2021 motu proprio Spiritus Domini, Pope Francis revised canon law to allow lay persons, male and female, to the ministries of lector and acolyte. Since this is formal approval of what has been in practice widely, the significance of the decision has been lost. Many episcopal conferences have ignored it. However, it is a crucial step in restoring the importance of the liturgy of the Word and in enabling the full and active participation of the whole people of God begun at Vatican II. It breaks the exclusive identification of authority with male gender and is a major step in dis-mantling clericalism.

Women’s insights

Pope Francis:

If certain forms of feminism have arisen which we must consider inadequate, we must nonetheless see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women. (March 2016 Amoris Laetitia: no. 54)

Catholic feminist scholars provide crucial insights for the healing and reconciling mission of Jesus in our post pandemic world. These include:

-Expand theologies of God which reject exclusive language and images of God as male which legitimates hierarchical structures.

-Exploration of the Trinity mystery of mutual, equal love.

-Women, who wash the feet of young and old, need to help restore Jesus’ servant leadership and use of power for others, never over them.

-Women’s roles from diocesan chancellor, vicar for Religious, finance officer and pastoral assistant need expansion.

Catholic feminist ethics, commits to equal personal dignity, equal mutual respect and equal social power for men and women and recognizes the relational wisdom of women.

-Men and women are calling for a renewed theology of sexuality which goes beyond the issues of abortion and birth control, embraces embodiment and rejects dualism where the body is sinful.

-This renewal from the feminist perspective is essential for the catechesis and formation of adolescent and young women today. (Keiser, 2015)

Pope Francis reminded us:

in the history of salvation, it was a woman who welcomed God’s word. …They are the protagonists of a Church that goes forth, listening and caring for the needs of others, capable of fostering true processes of justice…Listening, reflection and loving activity: these are the elements of a joy ever renewed and shared with others through feminine insights, the care of creation, the gestation of a more just world and the creation of a dialogue that respects and values differences. (October 7, 2020 message to the Women’s Consultation Group of the Pontifical Council for Culture)

For Discernment:

What personal conversion of mind and heart is calling you? 

What are the key theological beliefs and practices in need of renewal to the mind of Christ?

What are the central organizational and relational issues are in need of renewal and reform?

Key references:

Beattie, Tina, New Catholic Feminism. New York: Routledge 2006.

Cahill, Lisa Sowle, Sex, Gender and Christian Ethics. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Cahill, Lisa Sowle, John Garvey & T. Frank Kennedy eds. Sexuality and the U.S. Catholic Church: Crisis and Renewal. New York: Crossroad.  2006.

Carr, Anne. E., Transforming Grace: Christian Tradition and Women’s Experience. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Anne M. Clifford, 2001, Introducing Feminist Theology Maryknoll, Orbis Books NY

Farley, Margaret A, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics. New York: Continuum, 2012.

Johnson, Elizabeth, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. New York: Continuum, 1992.

Keiser, Doris M., Catholic Sexual Theology and Adolescent Girls: Embodied Flourishing. Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2015.

Patrick, Anne E., Liberating Conscience: Feminist Explorations in Catholic Moral Theology. New York: Continuum, 1996.

Salzman & Lawler, 2008

Sandra M. Schneiders,1991,  Beyond Patching: Faith and Feminism in the Catholic Church, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

  1. Schenk, 2017, Crispina and her Sisters: Women and Authority in Early Christianity,Fortress Press Minneapolis.

Elisabeth Schlusser-Fiorenza 1983, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, Crossroad, NY.