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Church in Crisis

Response: Reason for hope

Dear Jack,

What a wonderful surprise it was to hear from you. It provoked a flood of memories. What an equally sad realization that your letter was motivated by these dark days in the church. I wish I had a quick answer for your anger and your frustration. Your words reflect the sentiments of so many Catholics who are feeling hurt and betrayed.

Yet for all the awfulness of the moment, for all the broken trust and all the indications that “they still don’t get it,” there is reason for hope. And I am not talking about some airy, naïve hope that good will come out of evil. No, I mean a hope that occurs when arrogance and hubris are finally exposed for all to see and one senses that the tide has turned.

We are people of paradox led by the not-always-easy-to-discern promptings of the Spirit. So I am not surprised that at a time when we were riding high, we are cut low. Some said this was to be the Catholic era. We had all the answers to society’s ills. Our cardinals count presidents among their social circle. Our bishops are friends with the captains of global commerce. They curry favor with those who would take up their causes in the corridors of power. As a church we are connected and rich and influential.

Since the sex abuse scandal flared anew in Boston, all of that has changed.

What happened in Boston was that documents, once sealed, were opened, and ordinary Catholics and those outside the Catholic community heard the raw, unedited language of church leadership dealing with this problem. What they heard -- in transcripts and in letters among bishops and letters from bishops about sexual offenders -- was deeply disturbing. What emerged from those words on old documents was a portrait of the hierarchy that was worlds different from any the hierarchy would paint of itself. What was unmistakably clear is that its first concern was to preserve the reputation of the institution and to hide the activities of the offending priests. Almost missing, unless extracted under questioning, was concern for the victims.

What followed the new revelations in Boston was a profusion of apologies, many of which rang hollow and insincere. They were, after all, delivered under the duress of prime-time news coverage. It is tough for the leaders of an institution to pull off an apology, especially when that institution in recent years has attempted to spread the mantle of infallibility to far reaches of church practice.

But it isn’t only the bishops, Jack. We have deferred and gone along with the culture of secrecy and denial. Most of us have gone on planning the liturgies, teaching the kids, overseeing all manner of ministries while muttering under our breath.

That old condition seems to be changing, if the gatherings in Boston and elsewhere are any indication. I am hopeful because people have been galvanized by the issue of accountability. They are organizing and seem determined to insert some kind of lay structure into the church’s workings. Many are intent on not allowing cover-up and denial to happen again. Having lay people, men and women, single and married, at the decision-making levels of the church would certainly change some of the dynamics.

I also take hope from priests who are speaking out and organizing in ways that would have been unthinkable just six months ago. They, too, have had it with leaders they either don’t respect or can’t trust. For years, many priests went through contortions to maintain public fidelity. That loyalty has begun to switch. Caught between bishops and lay people, they are beginning to make a preferential option for the people. Fr. Bob Oldershaw, a pastor whose Easter sermon ran in last week’s issue, put it as neatly as one might in a phrase or two: “Loyalty has always been upward. It’s time to change direction.” Things have changed.

The release of the documents in Boston was like the release of water from behind a bursting dam. All the deference and politeness was swept away. The old constructs that kept things hidden were washed away, and the worst secrets were bared before the world. The old artifices that kept the scrutiny of the larger Catholic community and the wider world at bay are melting away.

I don’t know what will happen from here. I think things will get worse before they get better. Old hurts will continue to surface, more documents will be released, some will be unjustly accused. We will not get through this painful time easily or quickly.

I am certain, however, that things will not go back to the way they were. We are, as the cover of this issue suggests, breaking out of old molds. But my hunch is that the accountability and the transparency the bishops now say they desire will not occur overnight. It cannot occur, I am convinced, without some deep reforms and soul searching on the part of the bishops.

As you make clear, our leaders have been humbled and the entire church embarrassed before the world. Everyone, of course, is waiting for the June meeting of the U.S. bishops. It will be a media circus, and I don’t know how much clear thinking can go on in such circumstances. NCR has strongly advocated for years -- often to a world that wasn’t interested -- on behalf of the victims. Now I am concerned about the bishops’ wild swing from hiding priests to throwing them out on the slightest provocation. Neither strategy serves the truth or justice.

The bishops, once they put themselves in opposition to members of the community through denial, secrecy and countersuits, have a long struggle to gain credibility in the community again. I know they’ll have to come up with a national policy to satisfy the civil clamor for some accountability to those who have been abused. But the real problem lies much deeper, it always has. It may be that this crisis is, as Bishop Albert H. Ottenweller has called it, “a grace to help” in changing church structures.

Hang in there, old friend. I am glad the years have not completely worn away the bite of sarcasm that was always part of our give-and-take. Nothing against Presbyterians (though I doubt you’d get along easily with predestination), but don’t leave yet. A Jesuit friend is convinced we’re witnessing God’s action in history at the moment. We’ll see.

We’ve been fairly critical of bishops in recent weeks, and I think it is fair to speak of a conference that has failed its people for all the reasons we have cited. But individually, some bishops have understood and have tried to make a difference. I was reminded of one of them -- Bishop Raymond Lucker, who died less than a year ago -- last night as I was writing this response. It was an interesting bit of serendipity. A reader, who had been doing some research on Lucker, e-mailed me with information on one of the columns the bishop regularly wrote for his diocesan newspaper.

In interest of full disclosure, I considered Lucker a friend and a model bishop. He had no time for pretense, was comfortable with all people, read widely and retained an unbounded enthusiasm for his God, his church and the renewals that grew out of Vatican II. He had no tolerance for posturing, for secrecy or for church political intrigue or church-speak. He believed a lot of taboo issues should be open for discussion, he disdained censorship and he respected others’ religious convictions and spirituality. Long ago, he resigned himself to the fact that he would not go beyond the rural diocese of New Ulm, Minn. He was simply too threatening.

There are other bishops like him. Most of them are either retired or nearing retirement. Like Lucker, they have remained in small dioceses, for the most part, and in recent years they have been largely marginalized in the conference. They believe too much in discussion and negotiation; they don’t believe enough in absolute rules and saying yes to every directive from Rome.

Maybe they’ll be listened to in this new moment of humility. All the bishops -- and the rest of us -- would do well to listen to Lucker’s words. I’ll close with a generous helping of excerpts from that column he wrote in 1993 titled “We are being forced to our knees.”

These are difficult times for the church that we all love. …

We see confusion and dissent, religious ignorance, quarreling among ourselves, decrease in attendance at Mass, people alienated and dropping out, an ever-growing shortage of priests, struggle over gender issues and sexual misconduct.

I would like to focus on one issue: public scandals by the clergy and others in the church, especially over the issue of sexual abuse of minors. All too often, church leaders have failed to recognize the nature and severity of such abuse, have simply not known what to do about it. As a consequence, response from such leaders has looked like covering up, denial. Attempts at damage control have taken the form of manipulation of the press, have resulted in lack of concern for victims, families and for parish communities.

We need to acknowledge what we don’t know, and apologize for acting like we did know. We are still disciples and need to be taught, need to learn. We have to acknowledge institutional sinfulness.

I believe we are being forced to our knees, forced to recognize that we are not in charge, but rather God is in charge of the church. We are being forced to recognize that we are human. We are coming to acknowledge and admit that as a church (not just as individuals) we have made mistakes. We have a hard time admitting this.

Suppose we come to a point where through these scandals we lose all of our savings. Suppose in the process we lose power, prestige and control. We are not perfect. We are sinful people. We can’t solve all the problems. We have to live with ambiguity and gray areas. We are vessels of clay.

We will then come to recognize that we are servants. Jesus showed us how to rule by washing the feet of others. He told us that the princes of this world lord it over others, but it is not to be this way with us. We are called to be servants and to wash one another’s feet.

Yes, we are being called to our knees. I believe this applies especially to bishops, who for so long have carried the trappings of feudal lords with all of the titles and dress and privileges that go along with it. It seems to me that we are being forced to recognize that we do not have much power, and that is all right. We are called to be ministers of the word, of the worship of God, and the service of others. We come before the Lord and cry out, “I am alone and afraid.” “I am surrounded by those who hate me.” “Everything is gone.”

We come to a point where we admit we are powerless -- our lives have become unmanageable -- and there is a power greater than ourselves. We come before God and cry out, “Lord, you are my God. I need you.” All of us, church leaders and the faithful, are called to accept the Lord as the center of our lives. I am speaking of dependence on God, daily conversion, coming before the Lord in faith and prayer, seeking mercy and forgiveness.

I hope and pray that through the grace of God we will be able to respond to the present scandals in the church, reach out in love and healing to victims, reach out in forgiveness and reconciliation to perpetrators, and come before the Lord as a community of believers to recognize our need.

There’s my hope, Jack. We have the language and the imagination for dealing with this crisis and coming out a stronger and, I daresay, holier church to hand on to our children.

I am eager to catch up in other ways. And the white hair … it’s genes.

Be well,
Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, May 31, 2002