Theologian Gina Messina-Dysert

Dr. Messina-Dysert weighs in on the challenges facing the Catholic Church and the future of Catholicism in America.

A feminist theologian and ethicist, Gina Messina-Dysert's work is influenced by her activist roots and experience working with survivors of rape and domestic violence. She's the director of Claremont Graduate University's Center for Women's Interdisciplinary Research and Education and a visiting assistant professor at Loyola Marymount University. She's also co-founder of the international project, Feminism and Religion, and a contributor to the Rock and Theology project, which explores the rock music-academic theology relationship. Her book, Rape Culture and Spiritual Violence, is scheduled for release later this year.


Tavis: With a new pope about to be chosen in Rome and the church under severe criticism for its handling of sexual abuse cases, what is the future path for the more than 77 million American Catholics?

Gina Messina-Dysert is a professor of theological ethics at Loyola Marymount University, LMU, raised Catholic. Today she questions via the tenets coming from the Vatican and is deeply engaged in the ongoing debate about the future of Catholicism in America. Professor Messina-Dysert, good to have you on this program.

Gina Messina-Dysert: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

Tavis: Let me start with the obvious. I think a lot of – I happen not to be Catholic, but even those of us who aren’t Catholic are trying to figure out, because this has never happened in like, what, 600 years. Certainly this has never happened in our lifetimes that we’ve had an “ex-pope”. So what is the status of an ex-pope?

Messina-Dysert: Well, this is a great question, right? I mean, certainly this is a significant, historical event, as you pointed out. This is the first pope to step down in 600 years and one of only 10 in the entire history of the Catholic Church. So having an ex-pope, people are really curious as what does this mean? Will his ring be smashed? Will he continue to be infallible?

And the answer is, you know, it seems that the Vatican is kind of figuring this out as it’s moving along. Most recent report said that they are going to smash his ring and the pope will no longer be infallible once he steps down as of February 28. So these are interesting questions that people have, and I think the Vatican itself is really trying to figure this out because this really is unprecedented.

Tavis: So, for the Catholic Church, if he is like the voice of God on earth, but he’s still living while there’s another pope, like are there two voices now? Like how does that – I’m not trying to be funny. I’m just trying to figure out how that actually works.

Messina-Dysert: Sure, right. So right now, as reports are stating, the pope will no longer be infallible and he will no longer be making any kind of statements on behalf of the church and there will only be one leader. So whoever the new elected pope is, that will be the only leader of the Catholic Church.

Tavis: As a Catholic, do you – I want to phrase this the right way. I don’t want to be in any way disrespectful to the pope, but do you accept, do you buy his reasons for stepping down? Do you buy the timing of his stepping down?

As you well know, there are all kinds of articles and people digging into this trying to figure out what this means and why he would do this at this point in time because it is in fact so unprecedented and nobody saw it coming and we know the turmoil the church has been going through. I’m just curious as to your assessment of the timing and the methodology and the rationale for why he’s stepping down.

Messina-Dysert: Of course, of course. Well, I mean, as you said, people were stunned. This is a big surprise not happening, again, in 600 years. So there’s a lot of questions. The timing? He made the announcement two days before Ash Wednesday and just before Easter which led people to speculate.

Why would you be stepping down during the holiest time of the year? Why not wait until after Easter? So people have these kinds of questions and continue to have these kinds of questions.

I think his statement was interesting. I don’t think he’s stepping down because of health reasons and I don’t think that’s what his statement was saying. Whether or not there are other issues that will come up later that we’ll find out about, I mean, I guess time will tell the story.

But, you know, there are many reports that are coming out about, you know, different things, that this decision was made last year, that there were other things that have played into this decision, but people have questions. So I think that, you know, as I said, time will tell the story.

It may be just that, yes, he’s decided that it’s a good decision to acknowledge that someone who is feeling frail is unable to lead the Vatican. And in that case, I mean, he’s making a great decision for Catholicism because he’s bringing the church forward into the 21st century and acknowledging we need strong leadership and perhaps that he’s unable to do that.

Tavis: Ah, now we’re getting into the good stuff because that notion of bringing the church into the 21st century could be deconstructed in just 18 million different ways. So let me come at it from this perspective.

I’ve seen a number of reports of late where young people are being asked, young Catholics are being asked, about the future of their church and whether or not their church is ready to move into the 21st century. When you hear that phrase, what do you hear? When the very question is asked, is the Catholic Church ready to move into the “21st century”, unpack what you hear in that very question.

Messina-Dysert: Well, I mean, this is a great question because, you know, specifically we’re talking about American Catholics, for instance.

Tavis: Right.

Messina-Dysert: You know, a recent survey showed that 70% of American Catholics are not influenced by Vatican teaching and this goes directly to the point that the Vatican is really out of touch, right? American Catholics, 90% of American Catholics believe in using contraception. 60% want women’s ordination and more than half want same-sex marriage.

So what does it mean to move forward in the 21st century? And I think it’s what really progressive Catholics are calling for, a church that is expanding and growing with the times. So the hope is, with new leadership, that perhaps this is something that we’re going to see, at least moving towards these kinds of things.

Tavis: Let me pick apart what you’ve just said and I want to move beyond the notion of Catholicism. We’ll come back to it in a second. Because this argument could be leveled at any – this argument or, put another way, the framing of this issue could be applied to any particular religion or faith. That is this notion of a church that is growing, to your phrase, with the times.

Let’s split that into two parts. A church that’s growing, I totally get. Nobody wants to be with a church that’s regressive, that’s losing members, that isn’t, you know, expanding and growing into different parts of the world. So I get the growing part.

I guess what I get troubled by is this notion of a church that’s growing and changing “with the times”. Here’s what my issue is. If you’re Catholic, if you’re Pentecostal, if you’re Protestant, whatever you might be, you could be Buddhist, how does a church have a responsibility to “change with the times”? If this is what you believe, if these are the tenets of the gospel – I use that word with a small “g”.

Messina-Dysert: Sure.

Tavis: If these are the tenets of your gospel, of your faith tradition, then why does a church even feel pressured? Catholics are really hard on their church to change with the times. I don’t want to be in a church, quite frankly, that’s changing “with the times”. I want a church that stands for what it believes and believes what it stands for and doesn’t change with the whims of the membership.

So why does the Catholic Church above other institutions, as I see it at least, find itself in this conversation all the time about whether or not it’s ready to “change with the times”? Does that make sense?

Messina-Dysert: Yeah, and this is a really important question. I think that, you know, when you’re talking about the gospel and you’re talking about the teachings of Jesus which, of course, you know, is the foundation of Catholic teaching, we’re talking about a message that focuses on liberation, and I think that you need to focus on that message and what does that mean when we’re looking at today’s society?

Who’s being marginalized? Who are those who are being oppressed? And how do we stand in solidarity with those people? So that’s really what the mission of the church is, so we need to examine that mission against what is happening in the world today. So that’s what I think that means.

Tavis: So that means that, in theory, the kind of pope that progressive Catholics would want would look like what? Give me a profile of the kind of pope that progressive Catholics would want to see installed.

Messina-Dysert: Well, if I’m being honest, progressive Catholics would want to see a woman pope, so we know that that’s not going to happen any time soon, right? But we want to see a pope who recognizes what it means to adhere to that mission of working to liberate those who are at the margins of society. That needs to be the focus of the church.

Tavis: How does the Catholic Church do that beyond very progressive programs like Catholic Charities? I understand very clearly, before you answer, there’s a distinction between justice and charity, between justice and philanthropy. I get that distinction very clearly. But a church that ought to be working for the “liberation” of the disenfranchised means what? What’s that look like?

Messina-Dysert: Well, I mean, if we just look at how the Catholic Church is structured currently, I mean, we see a church that certainly is sexist, right? It excludes women from leadership roles. I mean, there’s huge issues there. And if you’re talking about liberation and you’re thinking about, again, this mission of Jesus, Jesus did not exclude anybody from his mission nor did he appoint anyone as being ordained, right?

So this is – you know, in its structure, the Vatican is working in an oppressive way. So working to move away from that, first of all, I think is really key. I mean, that’s just talking about issues related to women. We certainly can see various ways the Vatican structure is oppressive.

And in addition to that, I think right now the reason we see such a mass exodus happening in the church is because people see a structure, a Vatican, a church that is focused on protecting its image rather than serving the needs of the people. So this is the problem that we see here and what I think progressive Catholics and Catholics in general, frankly, how they want to see the church change.

Tavis: I take your point that, on the one hand, the numbers indicate that there is an exodus – your phrase, mass exodus. One could debate that, I guess, but certainly an exodus from the Catholic Church. But is also the case, as you well know as a student and teacher of this, is that where the church is growing fastest happens to be in places where people of color populate. We’re talking Africa, we’re talking South America, we’re talking – you know these areas better than I do of where the church is growing.

What do you make of the fact that the church is growing fastest in areas where people of color populate and we tend to think – I certainly think of people of color in my work so often as those who are at the margins, who are disenfranchised politically, socially, economically, culturally, and yet they’re the ones who are the fastest-growing new membership of the church? How do you juxtapose that?

Messina-Dysert: Well, this is a good question. I mean, I think about Catholic social teaching and, again, this mission of Jesus. You know, as this tradition is being spread and people are learning about this mission and thinking about how they apply that to their own lives, this idea of Jesus, of someone who was oppressed and experienced oppression, learning this kind of religion, I think, can be very freeing for persons. So I think it makes sense that it’s growing in these areas, absolutely.

Tavis: Does that mean, then, that there is any chance whatsoever that someone, say, out of Ghana, a cardinal out of Ghana, might have a shot at being pope?

Messina-Dysert: Absolutely.

Tavis: You think so?

Messina-Dysert: I think so. You know, personally, I see Peter Turkson as being, you know, a great candidate to be the next pope and I’m excited about him as a possible choice particularly because he does represent an area where we have one of the fastest-growing populations of Catholics.

And in addition to that, you know, his role as president of the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice, I think, gives him a different kind of perspective and a perspective that people want to see in the church.

Tavis: What would happen if the pope turned Black and there were a mass exodus turned Black African and there were a mass exodus from the church as a result of that? How would Catholics even spin that? What would the public response be to an exodus from the church because of a certain person being selected?

Messina-Dysert: Well, I don’t think that there would be a mass exodus because of that, again, going back to ideas about the basic foundation of Catholicism. And I think if people did choose to leave the tradition, then those people need a serious lesson in what it means to be Catholic and what the mission of Jesus was.

Tavis: More broadly, what are the possibilities that somebody outside of Europe might be selected? I mean, you’re talking about American Catholicism.

Messina-Dysert: Sure.

Tavis: What are the chances in our lifetime that we’d ever see a pope from the U.S. of A?

Messina-Dysert: You know, it’s possible. It’s interesting. There’s been reports recently that Timothy Dolan has…

Tavis: Dolan out of New York is on there?

Messina-Dysert: Is on the short list, right?

Tavis: Yeah, I’ve been reading that, yeah.

Messina-Dysert: Yes, and he also said – I don’t know if you saw this just recently in the last couple of days, he said, “If anybody thinks I’m going to be elected Pope, they’re smoking dope.” This was his comment…

Tavis: The cardinal said that?

Messina-Dysert: This is the words of the cardinal.

Tavis: Wow [laugh]! All right, Cardinal Dolan, yeah!

Messina-Dysert: Yeah, he certainly doesn’t see this happening. But at some point, you know, I think it is possible that we could see an American pope. We could see, you know, a Canadian pope, sure. I mean, these are the people who are on the short list right now. You know, that said, it’s going to really depend on, you know, who these cardinals elect.

Of course, we know 67 of these cardinals were appointed by Benedict the 16th and the rest of them were appointed by John Paul II. So whoever is voting in this council are going to have particular ideas about who they want to see in that position and their ideas are probably going to be very similar to the ideas of…

Tavis: Speaking of cardinals who get a chance to cast a vote, this is a very big issue here locally in L.A. where we sit. But because this program is viewed nationally and internationally, for that matter, and because the pope obviously is an international icon, this local L.A. story has become a national story because of the implications. I had no idea that Cardinal Mahony who was in charge of the L.A. – what do you call it? The L.A…

Messina-Dysert: Archdiocese.

Tavis: Archdiocese, right. So Cardinal Mahony who’s no longer in that position, but apparently still retains a vote for the next pope.

Messina-Dysert: Right.

Tavis: So, okay, I get the part that, you know, once a cardinal, you still get a chance to vote for the next pope. I get that. What was stunning for me is that he gets to retain that vote while he’s under a cloud of suspicion right now for payoffs and other stuff allegedly when he was in charge of the Archdiocese around this sex scandal issue.

So this stuff is coming out more and more every day about what he knew and what he did and how they tried to hide, etc., etc. With all respect to Cardinal Mahony, he gets to go to cast another vote? That was stunning to me.

Messina-Dysert: Well, you’re certainly not alone in that. It’s stunning to many and many feel that Mahony should not be allowed to participate in this event, with the recent events here in Los Angeles. We see how, you know, documents continue to demonstrate how he was so complicit in the cover-up of the sex abuse scandals, particularly locally in Los Angeles. And he has been relieved of his duties, right?

I personally find it incredibly problematic that he would be able to participate in the selection at all. It’s disturbing, bottom line. It’s disturbing.

Tavis: You’re still a practicing Catholic.

Messina-Dysert: I am.

Tavis: Why?

Messina-Dysert: Well, first of all, you know, I was raised Catholic. It’s part of my identity, for sure. But also beyond that, I feel like, you know, when you see something that needs to change, you cannot make that change from the outside. So I think it’s important for people who see the change that needs to happen in the Catholic Church to remain part of the structure and to work towards that change. So I see that as part of my own mission.

Tavis: Do you think there are enough voices like yours in this country and around the globe to actually see some of those progressive changes through?

Messina-Dysert: I think there are. I think there definitely are. You know, the way the structure is set up, and certainly this is an interesting time. It’s been dubbed the new inquisition era, right, in the Catholic Church?

People know that, if you speak out, you’re going to be limiting your job opportunities, right? You could lose your job, you could be refused appointments or you could be excommunicated from the church. I mean, these are very real threats and this is the way the Vatican has sought to kind of keep these movements from growing, but they haven’t been successful.

People have retained their power. People have not allowed the structure itself to have power over them and have recognized really what is the mission here and what does it mean to stand at the margins. What does it mean to stand in solidarity and how do we work to make these changes, and that is happening.

Tavis: What would you say – I’m really curious about this – has been the most – again, here’s that word progressive. What’s been the most progressive change in the Catholic Church in your lifetime to your mind?

I’m just trying to get a sense of – you just answered before that you believe that this change is possible and I’m trying to ask now the back story to that which is what evidence you place on the table that that is possible. So what’s been the most progressive change in the church that you celebrate at least or see in your lifetime?

Messina-Dysert: You know, this is a great question.

Tavis: I mean, to date in your lifetime.

Messina-Dysert: To date in my life time.

Tavis: Right.

Messina-Dysert: This is a great question and I really honestly don’t know how to answer that.

Tavis: First of all, stop. I appreciate that. I appreciate that answer, before we go any further. You know how many times on this show I ask a question and people try to fudge their way through the answer as opposed to just saying I don’t know? I don’t know how to answer that.

I tell people all the time, it’s okay to say I don’t know. I do it all the time. If you don’t know, you don’t know. You ain’t got to lie or try to – anyway, that was a personal Tavis moment. Forgive me for that. But back to your answer, though.

Messina-Dysert: That’s great. That’s a great question and I don’t know what the most progressive moment I would say would be for me so far. Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of moments that aren’t progressive and that are disappointing and hard to deal with.

Tavis: I asked that because, obviously, the hope is. So that on what do you build your hope eternal that the church that you love so much and are remaining inside of will ever be more progressive, change, catch up to “the times”?

Messina-Dysert: Well, I guess it’s because I know what the foundation of the church is and I believe it can be what the foundation is and I’m surrounded by really amazing people who also hold that hope and I believe in numbers. You know, if we keep working towards this, that we can see change. I just want to point out that I think the resignation of this pope – let me say this.

Tavis: Sure.

Messina-Dysert: The resignation of this pope, perhaps this is the most progressive thing that I’ve seen in my lifetime because, with his resignation, he’s acknowledging that tradition can change. So if the pope can resign, then women can be ordained, then we can use contraception, right? Then people can participate in same-sex relationships in a loving way.

So that, I think, would be the most progressive thing that I’ve seen is the acknowledgement that tradition can change.

Tavis: You worked your way into a very provocative answer, professor, and I accept it [laugh].

Messina-Dysert: Thank you.

Tavis: So let me follow you again. Of the issues that you’ve listed tonight and, by my count, you’ve listed four or five that are on your “progressive” agenda. I’m sure there are many more, but four or five in this conversation you’ve raised. I’m curious because I want to track this years from now and you’ll come back on the show years from now and we’ll see how you did.

On the issues that you’ve listed tonight or whatever else may be on your list, where do you see the most likely chance for break-through? I’m asking what specific issue do you see the greatest chance for break-through where the Catholic Church’s leadership is concerned? Would it be women? Contraception? You tell me.

I’m just trying to figure out what issue on your agenda you think presents the best chance for you to open a hole and run through it successfully.

Messina-Dysert: Right. Well, I think that with Peter Turkson as a possible candidate for pope and, of course, this is not at the top of my list, but I think there’s a really good chance for an end to the requirement of celibacy for priests and that priests may be able to marry. So I think that that’s possible. That’s something that people have talked a lot about being a possible piece of his own agenda.

So I think that that is something that we may look to happening sooner than, you know, some of these other issues. I think women’s ordination, I’d love to say I see that coming soon. I don’t see it in my lifetime.

Tavis: At the top of this conversation, I was talking about a news report that I saw on one of the networks. They were talking to young people and the interviewer said to a group of persons they were talking to as a follow-up. How many of you would feel safe leaving your child with a priest?

And as you might imagine, there was significant dis-ease with the very notion of leaving a child with a priest. Can the church get past this scandal?

Messina-Dysert: Listen, I think the church needs to take its own advice and it needs to ask for forgiveness, right? It’s time for the church to acknowledge its sins and to repent.

And until it does that, until it lays all the cards out on the table and says, yes, here is everything and we are sorry and let’s start working towards the healing of those who’ve been abused and have really suffered at the hands of this scandal, until that happens, I don’t see the church moving forward, no.

Tavis: If you were making an appeal to priests, if you were making that appeal, what would you say to those persons who are considering going into the priesthood as the best reason to do that? I’m asking that because we know over the years that the number of persons going into the priesthood has diminished as well.

Messina-Dysert: Right.

Tavis: So you can’t continue a church without people to lead that church. We’re talking about one guy tonight, the pope, but in this country, we’re going to need more people. You’re going to need more people going into the tradition, into the faith, to be the leaders of the church. So what’s your best appeal to persons who might be considering going into the priesthood?

Messina-Dysert: I think if persons are considering going into the priesthood, it should be so with the idea of, again, advancing this mission of Jesus and what we look at as the foundational messages of the gospel and what it means to be engaged in Catholic social teaching and being able to focus on the people in a positive way and not get caught up in image issues of the Catholic Church, which really has been the downfall up until this point.

Tavis: I appreciate your candor and your insights.

Messina-Dysert: Thank you.

Tavis: Gina Messina-Dysert is a professor here in Southern California at LMU, and I’m honored to have had you on the program.

Messina-Dysert: Thank you so much.

Tavis: My pleasure. That’s our show for tonight. I’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, goodnight from Los Angeles, thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: February 25, 2013 at 12:05 pm