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Catholics need a place to call home.

It has become fashionable to dismiss “the institution” or “institutional religion,” particularly when it becomes the public embarrassment we’ve witnessed in the ongoing sex abuse scandal.

Sometimes I feel as if people -- friends and unknowns alike -- want to make sure I’ve internalized the fact that our children seem to be able to get along just fine ignoring all those hierarchical issues.

I know well the mantra, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” or “I’m into spirituality but not organized religion.” I say I know them, not that I fully understand them.

I don’t understand, either, how one can segment a life of faith into a part that is of the institution and another part that is not.

In the end, we are not angels. We need real places and people with whom to gather. We need our communities. We need some place to call home, an anchor in a tradition and history, no matter how inclusive and understanding we might be of other denominations and other faiths. And if we are gathering in that way, institutions are inevitable. Humans can’t organize without them.

That perhaps is why I care so deeply about what is going on with the church in this awful period of scandal. I need to get together with other people of like mind to pray, to plan, to work. I want to be a member of an institution that is healthy and credible.

Catholics, I really believe, want their leaders to have a strong voice inside the institution and out in the wider culture. Right now they don’t. If this paper is critical of the leadership it is because we know, with lots of others in the church, what is at stake.

If a bright side has begun to emerge from this dark period, it is a new openness to discussion that is occurring out of necessity. Our stories in this issue mention some of the brief comments made by two high-profile leaders about opening up the discussion on ordination of married men and of women. We carry a commentary by one priest and a homily by another. The two pieces are representative of much of the sentiment that has come my way in recent weeks through e-mails, phone calls and anecdotes. Priests who would never have broached such subjects from the altar a month ago are now openly discussing the need to revamp the clergy culture, to allow questioning of the all-male celibate clergy, to question the way authority is exercised in the church. I wish we could run all the commentary we receive -- we just don’t have the space.

It is too bad it took this degree of scandal to loosen the restraints. I feel sympathy for the U.S. bishops. They are caught between a bureaucracy in Rome that says such discussion cannot go on and increasing numbers of priests and laypeople who see such open discussion now as essential. I would bet a lot that many of the bishops would have opened the discussion months ago, if not years ago, but for fear of retribution from Rome.

I don’t know how they are going to get beyond that divide, but they have to find a way if they are ever to reclaim their positions as credible and trustworthy pastors. I hope they begin by not only encouraging the discussions to continue but also by listening.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, April 5, 2002