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New book exposes power relations in the Catholic Church


Sharlene King
1 July 2013
Traditional power relations within the Catholic Church have hardly changed over the past century despite ongoing widespread dissatisfaction and disenchantment among followers, according to a new book by a Southern Cross University social researcher.

Catholics, Conflicts and Choices: An exploration of power relations in the Catholic Church is by Dr Angela Coco, a senior lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences.

Catholics, Conflicts and Choices presents 40 detailed interviews with lay people, lesbians, priests, nuns, and brothers, each discussing their personal struggles with certain Church teachings and practices.

“I set out to tell the stories of individuals who were seeking solutions to issues they had with the Church,” said Dr Coco.

“What the stories revealed was a culture of abuse within the Church: psychological, emotional, and for some, physical abuse. That cannot be tolerated in this day and age, anywhere, anytime.

“The stories in my book don’t focus on clergy sexual abuse. I wanted everyday conflicts. But there are parallels in the Church’s behaviours and responses.

“And it’s not only certain priests who perpetuate the abusive behaviour. It’s other Catholics as well. For example, lay people and members of the police force who support the priests and work to ignore or cover up things. These supporters don’t have a problem with maintaining the status quo.”

Dr Coco said the conversations illustrated different experiences of power relations – particularly different aspects of gender dynamics – within the organisational structures of the Church.

“Most of those I interviewed couldn’t resolve their conflict without seeking support and information from outside of the Catholic avenues available to them.

“The primary problem for followers is that their spiritual beliefs are theorised by male celibates, who have an experience of life that, for many, is totally different from lay people. That is all part of the power relations. In power relations those who get to produce the knowledge are the ones with the power. There needs to be a shift whereby lay peoples’ lives are recognised as being sacred as well.”

Dr Coco said of those experiencing difficulties within the Church’s power structure it was only the priests who appeared to have some room to manoeuvre and negotiate resolutions to their issues.

“If you’re a layperson you’re at the bottom of the Catholic hierarchy. If you don’t like how you’re treated then exiting the Church is often the only solution.”

Dr Coco said while the Church outwardly appeared to be responding to lay issues by doing research (for example, into women playing a more active role) or setting up commissions it seldom put those changes or recommendations in place.

Catholics, Conflicts and Choices is Dr Coco’s first book as a sole author and is based on her PhD research, awarded in 1999, which investigated Catholics’ conflicts with the Church.

Dr Coco was born and raised a Catholic. She was a regular church-goer and helped set up religious education in Noosa on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast in the 1980s. It was around this time she left her marriage, only to cease her Catholic practice at the age of 40.

She said her final exit was prompted by a parish priest preaching that divorced parents were destroying the community and leaving their children fearful they wouldn’t be loved anymore.

“So here I am a parent, but a non-custodial mother. I have no job, I have no income but I go to church on Sunday. I’m sitting there thinking I’ve worked really hard, I’m trying to teach my daughter about positive relationships, which I couldn’t do in the marriage for obvious reasons. What parent doesn’t love their child? Who’s telling this priest to say this?

“I became disillusioned by the fact the institution could still allow this kind of misinformation to be preached to the public.

“There’s a real lack of understanding among the priesthood about what goes on in the lives of lay people. Each week these sermons are delivered to congregations who can’t or won’t speak up to tell the priest he’s talking rubbish.”
Photo: Dr Angela Coco.