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Realistic hope as we struggle with vulnerability, lost trust

Addressing the annual Catholic Charities USA gathering in Chicago, prior to a joint meeting of the charity with the Catholic Health Association Aug. 3-5, Fr. J. Bryan Hehir, president and chief executive officer of Catholic Charities USA, used the period between the charity’s 2001 and 2002 meetings to describe the past year in the life of the United States since Sept. 11 and in the life of U.S. Catholic church.

He called his talk, excerpted here, “Leadership and Hope in a Time of Crisis and Conflict,” and used Catholic Charities’ nationwide activities as a backdrop.


What did it mean, Sept. 11, 2001?

One begins with simply shock and massive devastation. There is no other way than to begin with the facts -- the facts of human destruction and psychological shock. Personal, familial, national.

The shock and the devastation created a sense of radical vulnerability in the most powerful nation the world has ever known in recorded history.

A nation whose defense budget is more than the next eight countries combined found its life exploded before its eyes.

A powerful sense of vulnerability, we ought to remember, that much of the world feels every day. The kind of vulnerability that is felt in the West Bank and in Jerusalem, that was known in Bosnia, and Kosovo, and Rwanda and Haiti. The kind of vulnerability that comes from abject poverty in a globe that knows too much of it.

But for us it was different.

This hall knows we have our poor. This hall knows what it means for families and children to live with a sense of vulnerability in the richest nation in the world. But for the nation as a whole this was different.

We now knew we had a new kind of threat and we entered upon a new kind of war. For 50 years this society, from 1940s through the 1990s, lived with a kind of suppressed sense we could be threatened. We worried about missiles launched from the Eurasian continent that could, we always knew, strike New York, Washington and Boston.

But we never thought a missile would look like a civilian airliner. We never thought that the threat would not be generals and armies, but individuals. And so we come from that experience with a sense of shared vulnerability with many others in the world. We have not known it before in this way. The wars were always somewhere else, far away, even if we were in them.

We entered upon a new kind of war -- this is not the place to discuss it -- but the term “war” is inadequate to express what we are dealing with. It is more than military, more complicated than that, it is not short, quick and decisive, like the Gulf War. So it will be with us, I’m afraid, for a while to come.

What has it meant to us -- this shock and devastation, this sense of vulnerability?

It was not just devastation and loss and death. It was also an enormous sense of pride -- in people who would walk in, run in to burning buildings simply because they said, it is my duty. Vulnerability was our experience. Generosity and courage was the response.

Terror sparked a new sense of seriousness in the land. A very wealthy nation can often be frivolous in much of its life. Wealth provides a space to be frivolous, and there is much of our culture that is frivolous.

As an addicted newspaper reader -- three a day -- I felt the new seriousness in the op-ed pages. We wrote about more serious things, and in a more serious way.

A nation that is known for its radical individualism, in its response of generosity rediscovered a sense of solidarity. A nation that tends to glorify the private sector and the private dimensions of life, and underestimates the significance of public service and public life, learned to appreciate what it means for people to serve publicly.

It changed people’s career choices. It changed our sense of what needs to be done.

I do not wish to be utopian or simplistic. We’ve already seen some slippage in the last few months.

For Catholic Charities the immediate impact was to use the resources of this faith community as effectively as we could to respond to the devastation and death.

It is an extraordinary story. You understand what a resource Catholic Charities is. You can’t build that capacity overnight in the face of an emergency. It has to be honed and shaped and hammered together day-by-day, year-by-year, decade-by-decade so when crisis comes we know exactly what to do.

Beyond the local communities, our church generated $30 million. Indeed it generated much more than that, but some of it was provided directly, diocese to diocese.

Even within our network we shared more than money. Oklahoma had had its experience, and it contributed what it knew. The Albany diocese sent people to Brooklyn and Manhattan. It is the way the church is supposed to work. Competent, skilled, caring, cooperative, collaborative.

It is the way you galvanize the resources of faith and reason, of dedication and professionalism, of generosity and courage.

So we were part of the wider picture. And, beyond Catholic Charities, what Sept. 11 has meant needs to be seen also in the light of the role of religion generally. In this crisis, religion was seen as a place to gather, as a source of service, and as a community of sharing.

The Washington Post, not noticeably a religious journal, made the comment about two months after Sept. 11, that when the television wanted to know what the mind of the country was like after the disaster they asked psychologists. But without any detriment to psychologists, the Post made notice of the fact that where people went to deal with the sense of radical vulnerability was to churches, synagogues and mosques. Simply a place to gather when one senses the common experience of vulnerability.

So we gathered and prayed, and we gathered and reflected, and we gathered and reached for a source of support that was larger than we were. Because the crisis was larger than we were.

From these communities came service. And came organized, coordinated ways to share resources. Money, to be sure, but other things as well.

That mix of destruction, death, vulnerability, generosity, courage, service, sharing and prayer were all part of the fabric of how both the country and communities of faith responded.

What will Sept. 11 mean beyond today?

As we stand at the fault line of a new century and a new decade it is useful for us to think back on the past decade and forward to this decade.

The 1990s was characterized by the most extraordinary aggregate growth in wealth that the American economy has ever known. What our colleagues in Catholic Charities and other service agencies also knew, not so widely shared, was the sense that this most miraculous economic growth did not lift all boats. The rising tide lifted many but it left some behind.

We experienced in Catholic Charities in the 1990s rising demands for emergency services, the basic things of life -- food, clothing, housing, utilities. As we look at the decade we are now in, it is hard to believe that we can live by the assumptions of the 1990s.

I’m not a good enough economist to analyze the relationship between the attack of Sept. 11, the cost of the war we are in, and the impact all of that has had on the ability or inability to respond from recession. But while I can’t analyze it in detail, I think I can say for sure that the interaction of war and recession will mean that those of us who knew that the 1990s didn’t lift all the boats will surely have to be on the watch for ever more boats that don’t rise in the central tide of the American economy.

And as we watch and try to respond to those needs, the needs the prophets called “the widows, the orphans and the resident aliens” -- and all of them have living examples in the American economy today -- that as we watch for them and respond to them we will do so in the context of one enormous shift from the last decade to this decade.

Congress passed a $355 billion defense budget, and there is no likelihood there will be drastic change from a straight upward line in the defense budget over the next five years. That will dramatically impact our advocacy.

There will be the kind of competition for resources in the American public agenda that we knew during the Cold War and that in many ways was relaxed substantially in the 1990s.

Religion, however, is not about facts. It is about meaning, the meaning of our common vulnerability. A sense that if each of us is vulnerable so all of us are. And the sense that the sacredness must be protected in each of us.

There is a lot of talk about national security, about homeland security.

We will need to be sure that as a country we talk about personal security -- the security that comes from having a basic minimum of access to food, health care and housing. We cannot let that get lost in the larger debate on the material demands of security.

In a sense, religion acquired a new visibility last fall as people flocked to places of worship.

It is therefore somewhat striking that last week the Gallup Poll published a report that religion has declined in the public estimation in the country by mid-year.

Unfortunately, the major source of that decline was the crisis in the Roman Catholic church. And so I turn to January 2002.

What has it meant for us, the sexual abuse crisis?

It is remarkable that a case sparked a national crisis. It was unlikely that John Geoghan’s name would go down in the history of American Catholicism and spark public analysis of a kind that is extraordinary. Between January and Easter. I think it fair to say, no one was quite sure how broad or deep the crisis was. But by Easter it -- as the bishops prepared for Dallas -- was clear to everyone.

The crisis has two dimensions, the moral and legal -- the sin and the crime -- of sexual abuse of children by official representatives of the Roman Catholic church; and the second level -- the inability of episcopal leadership to deal with the crisis in a way that could contain it and correct it.

And so by the time we got to June, there was a double anger in the land. Anger at what had been done to children, and greater anger at what had not been done in the face of this crisis.

The bishops came to Dallas and have established a policy that is now under intense analysis and scrutiny from the country at a whole.

There is about all of this profound human tragedy. The tragedy of victims and their families, the tragedy of the complexity of relationships of bishops and priests, the danger that false accusations will be taken as real guilt.

It is precisely because the situation is so complicated that it is risky to take one theme, one idea, one word, and say it captures the problem.

But I will risk it.

The overarching structure of the problem, I think, is the question of trust. That is what it has become. And the trust question is twofold, trust within the community of faith -- people and their church and their leadership -- and then trust in terms of the moral authority of the Roman Catholic church in the United States.

Trust is intangible. You can’t quantify it. You can’t reduce it to numbers.

But like most things in life, the intangible things are more important than what you can quantify. This is not all reducible to cases, and sentences and financial payouts. It is about trust.

What will it mean for us from now on? My guess, not more than that, is the most important thing to say is that this is a long-term problem. How long I have no idea. But it is more important, I submit, that we have a consensus that it is long term -- and therefore it is not open to quick fixes -- than to know exactly how long it will go.

It is a multi-dimensional problem. Deep, personal issues. Victims with a lifetime legacy, a burden of suffering; priests in limbo; bishops caught in the most excruciating administrative vise; the financial stability of an institution that is regarded as the most stable in the minds of most.

Then there is this question of the public life of an institution -- the largest religious community in the country, the largest network of social services of any religious community -- that is relied upon for its moral vision, the question of our public authority.

As we go forward, Catholic Charities is a reference point in the public mind. USA Today, as it worried about the financial crisis in the church, immediately went to our statistics about who might not be served.

In some sense people use Catholic Charities to illustrate the two sides of the church’s life at the moment, a discouraging side that we have to deal with, and then a side that has been about service and care. That’s what Mark Shields, the national columnist, used in his analysis.

I do not seek to contrast those two things.

We are part of the church. We are part of the question. We do not want to set ourselves aside or apart from it.

Most people ask me what it will do to the finances.

That’s very important, but it is not as important as how Catholic Charities relates to the trust question. We are vulnerable like the rest of the church, financially and otherwise. But I would rather stress our potential in this crisis. We are actors, not simply victims or observers.

We do have a reservoir of trust in this society, built up from decades, centuries, of service. That is an enormous gift and we should make it available to the wider church.

Our social institutions -- health care, charities, schools -- live at the fault line of the church and the wider society. And that is a great place to be in this crisis. We serve everyone, not just Catholics. We have a record of competence and credibility and trustworthiness. We expend our lives trying to enhance the lives of others -- building back trust for the Roman Catholic church by the very things we do.

One unknown or unrecognized fact is that as this crisis emerges it presents, too, the larger question of the role of the laity.

And I am not sure we understand fully where all this will go in terms of the new role of the laity in Catholicism. But we ought not to overlook the fact that in our social service agencies -- schools, charities, health care -- the laity already leads. That’s already happened. That’s a valuable fact.

It is important for us to find our place, use our voice to contribute to the internal discussion in the church and the external building of credibility.

It is true that at this moment the church has no single center of leadership in a time of institutional crisis. Now I know and acknowledge and accept and affirm that there is no institution in the world that has a clearer structure of authority. So my point is not to contest that argument.

The question is how one moves from authority in principle to leadership in fact. How one provides a sense of direction, a galvanizing quality of consensus among the community of faith, and a style of collaboration. How one activates leadership.

When an institution is in a crisis, and no one will deny that we are, the question is to raise the bar of performance for each of us and all of us. How do we help to fill a gap that exists precisely at the level of leadership?

I speak of realistic hope, not easy hope.

Hope for us is a theological virtue, we believe it is a gift of God to us, and it gives to us a power, a real affective power in our own life.

Hope is the ability to face concrete reality in all its complexity, and not be overwhelmed or paralyzed by it.

Our need is to lift hope from a theological truth in which we believe, to a living reality. To bring it from the intangible mystery of our faith, to a style of living witness -- hope realized in people.

Hope for us is a double dynamic. It gives us a realistic basis for believing we are not alone and can do better.

To be a sign of realistic hope, we need unyielding clarity and honesty in our definition of how difficult the tasks before us are.

Albert Camus, the French Nobel prizewinner, the voice of the French resistance in War World II, was at best ambivalent about religion. His basic perspective on life was that there was no ultimate meaning in the universe. That in the end, things didn’t work out. Justice did not always triumph. The good did not always succeed.

Camus said the basic question in life is how you live with integrity when it all doesn’t make sense. He had a moral vision without a religious vision.

We see it differently. We hold to a vision that does make sense. We call it the kingdom.

We believe in the power of the resurrection, and we know there is such a thing as hope. But we have much to learn from a Camus. We must live with the same moral integrity in working out proximate solutions: achieving a bit more justice, showing a bit more compassion, a bit more generosity, a hard, daily, moral integrity.

Camus was invited by Paris Dominican priests at the end of World War II to speak as an agnostic on how he dealt with the problem of evil in life. He said, “It may not be possible for us to create a world in which no innocent children suffer. But it is possible to create a world in which fewer innocent children suffer. And if we look to the Christians and don’t find help, where else will we go?”

Poised between Sept. 11 and January ’02, I think people still ask Camus’ question of us.

National Catholic Reporter, August 16, 2002