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Church in Crisis: Viewpoint

To save the church, make its problems our own


Catholics, myself included, surely do love their church. Love accounts for the anxiety we feel as we pick up each day’s paper, for months now, and for the deep sadness that informs our conversations about the evil of clerical sexual abuse those papers report. Angry as we are at the lifelong suffering inflicted on so many innocent children and young people, few of us will “leave the church.”

Membership in the church is not like that. We are not “in the church” as much as the church is in us. When we gather, with our priests, at Mass, we are not part of a club we have joined but more like a large extended family. We are less familiar with each other than our parents were in the old country or the old neighborhood, but we are family still. Bad music and dull sermons and crying children and even an occasional feeling of being alone in a crowded church, all of that is there, but with it a taste of communion. The bond among us is rough and incomplete, with ever so many broken places. Yet still, for so many of us, it is an essential expression of who we really are. Or, perhaps better, a reminder of the kind of people we hope to become. Our attendance “at church” may be irregular for long periods of life, we may have grown skeptical about one or another church pronouncement, but at the key moments of our lives, at marriage and childbirth, at separation and death, we come back to church and, sometimes at least, we know we are home.

Harvard’s distinguished literary scholar, Robert Kiely, writing of our current scandals in The Tablet, the British Catholic newspaper, reminds us that these acts of violence against children, this corruption of respected traditions of pastoral care, these “are not simply problems for bishops and church officials; they are problems for all the people of God.” He cites the “breathtaking” words of St. Paul: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:19-22). Kiely suggests that we look beyond bishops and prominent advisers and remember those ordinary Catholics, known to all of us, who “figure out, day by day, little by little, how to keep the faith and the practice of it.” Now they must save their church.

In big trouble

These are not pious words. Our community is in big trouble. All those problems we have worried about, declining numbers of priests and sisters, chronic indignities inflicted upon women, the erosion of moral authority in matters of human sexuality, the inability to develop an effective witness on questions of human life and public morality, pastoral failures of all kinds, we Catholics knew these were our church’s problems, and therefore somehow our problems, but we never provided ourselves with a way to make them our own. Now, facing a far greater problem, we will have to make them our own, probably without an invitation from those we have trusted to care for our community’s common life. At stake is the integrity of the Catholic church in our own hometowns. For the sake of the community, we will have to put aside for now many real differences among us and issue to one another a modest but serious call to action.

What is needed, in part at least, can be discerned from the experience of sister churches across the country. Here are some of the ways Catholics take responsibility for the life and work of their local church:

A diocesan pastoral council, gathered with the bishops and representatives of the clergy, religious and laity of the diocese. To work effectively, this council must have a clear mission, by-laws providing for regular meetings and open procedures, access to all information, including financial information, authority to review and revise diocesan policies, and management oversight for diocesan administration. Provision can be made to insure that the bishop has the authority he needs to fulfill his pastoral responsibilities, which he shares with his priests and people, for the unity and integrity of the local church. To get there may require independent action, organization and pressure from outside, but structures of such shared responsibility of this sort are an essential element of reform.

Shared responsibility

A successful diocesan pastoral council requires as a foundation effective parish councils with real power in all matters related to the life and work of each of the diverse congregations across the diocese. It requires as well a strong Senate of Religious to insure that the voices of sisters, brothers and religious order priests are heard in the shaping of diocesan policies and priorities. Each diocese already has a presbyteral council of priests who are supposed to share fully in the pastoral care of the local church. So far most of these bodies have failed to develop clear standards of pastoral practice, or even reasonable policies governing the recruitment, training, assignment, evaluation and professional standards of priests (and neither have bishops, for that matter). Bishop and priests together must do that, now.

They are unlikely to do so unless these goals are worked out in partnership with others in ministry and with lay people in their parish and diocesan councils. Finally, the many new ministers who do so much of the daily work of the church, deacons, lay professionals, experienced volunteers, also need to organize, develop a sense of professionalism, and share responsibility for church policies and priorities through team ministry and their own independent professional associations.

There is more to the church than parishes and chancery offices. The same spirit of shared responsibility must inform all church-related institutions. Catholic colleges and universities, with their independent but deeply committed boards of trustees, provide the rest of the church with successful models of shared responsibility applicable to other Catholic institutions of education, medical care and human services. Only a few Catholics, preoccupied with submission to the Vatican, doubt the value of these autonomous Catholic institutions. They distrust that same independence and personal responsibility when it expresses itself in the lives of most lay Catholics. Most Catholics respect the work of Catholic hospitals, social service agencies and colleges and universities. Leaders of those works of the church should be represented in diocesan planning and governance.

Finally, the church needs vigorous, independent lay movements. Institutions naturally tend to bureaucracy, and nonprofit institutions often end up staff- dominated. Equally important, the parish system naturally inclines toward moderation, to comfort more than challenge its members. Revivals and parish missions, popular devotions associated with religious orders or local traditions, and apostolic movements aimed at vigorous witness to the truths of faith are thus necessary components of a healthy local church. A well-organized local church will welcome the challenges of dissatisfied voices, be they charismatics worried about the depth of faith, pacifists or pro-life activists worried about the moral integrity of the church, advocates for one or another group feeling ignored or disrespected, or traditionalists worried about the authority of the pope or the theological illiteracy of the people. A healthy local church welcomes movements and make provision for regular dialogue with those who warn the church of complacency or corruption. In a church like St. Paul’s “household” of faith, all voices need to be heard.

These reforms have precedents and even working models in place in this country. There are first-rate, respectable theologians and canon lawyers who can explain how this way of being the Catholic church is better than the unaccountable hierarchical structures we have struggled with too long. There are organizations and experienced professionals who help parishes and dioceses develop collaborative structures. Obviously these reforms are no substitute for ongoing renewal of faith and worship and prayer and social ministry. Organizing the church in forms of shared responsibility will not solve all our Catholic problems, but it will make those problems our problems, problems we can work on together.

Hands and heart of Christ

Why bother? Because Catholics, and many other Christians, have strong convictions about the unity and integrity of the church, which is supposed to be, most simply, the body of Christ, the very presence of Christ in each particular time and place. That is not an abstraction but the heart of eucharistic sacramental practice. That translates into two practical, communitarian goals. One is to be in fact “the people of God” by working together to build the church and carry out its mission of service to the human family. To be credible as a “people of God,” Catholics, for all their differences, have to work with one another to make the church and its ministries flourish; they cannot just show up occasionally to “help Father.” Our second goal arises from the fact that the church does not exist for its own sake, any more than Jesus did. It is not simply a vehicle to get us into eternal bliss. Its mission is to be, in this place, at this time, the hands and heart of Christ, caring for one another and for the least among us, making visible and believable the promise of the kingdom of God, the hope for a future of peace, justice and freedom.

Revelations of abuse disclose genuine evil at the heart of the institutional church. Many will question why Christians need such institutions anyway. For Catholics who have long seen papacy, hierarchy and ordained ministry as crucial to the historical, human character of the Christian vocation, there is now a clear need to face the truth of genuine corruption. Reform of organization and renewal of mission form together the vocation of being Christ for everyone. Lay people once left the leadership of both organization and mission to bishops, priests or religious orders. Now they have no choice but to join forces to bring the changes that are needed. Here in our community the only real question is, who will issue the invitation to get started?

David O’Brien is director for the Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture and the Loyola professor of Roman Catholic Studies at Holy Cross College, Worcester, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, May 31, 2002