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Church in Crisis

College launches project to respond to crisis

Chestnut Hill, Mass.

The U.S bishops sometimes ask, what is the Catholic identity of our colleges and universities? They should have been here the evening of Sept. 18. That identity was on full display as Boston College inaugurated its “Church in the 21st Century Project,” a multi-year series of public lectures, workshops, panel discussions, and scholarly conferences, all designed in response to the crisis in the church.

The crisis -- prolonged here by a steady stream of allegations of sexual misconduct by priests -- has roiled no other diocese as much as the Boston archdiocese. Feelings range from shock, horror and disgust, to anger, outrage, betrayal and confusion.

Still, more than 4,000 people turned out at the Conte Forum on the Boston College campus for the opening event, “From Crisis to Renewal: The Task Ahead,” featuring a keynote address by a nationally recognized religion editor, as well as responses to his speech from two professors of theology and a prominent local Catholic businessman.

If the kickoff event is any measure of Boston College’s seriousness of purpose, school officials left little doubt that scholarly, as well as pastoral resources, can assist the church in the process of healing, restoring trust, and renewal.

The opening event positioned Boston College, which has always had a strong presence in the region, not simply as a think tank. Rather, the university demonstrated its intention to engage the church in all its fullness.

Other Catholic colleges and universities, both locally and nationally, have held symposia and colloquia, but no other school has established a formal and sustained program in response to the crisis.

Just across the street

Located across the street from archdiocesan offices and Boston Cardinal Bernard Law’s residence -- often focal points of the crisis here -- Boston College stands poised to make an important, if not unique, contribution.

Jesuit Fr. William P. Leahy, the school’s president, promises an open and freewheeling discussion on a variety of topics, including controversial ones, for example, the church’s hierarchical and power structure and the restriction of the priesthood to celibate men.

Broadly defined, the Boston College initiative has three focal points: the role and relationships of laymen and women, priests and bishops; sexuality in Catholic teaching and contemporary culture; and the challenge of passing along to succeeding generations a vibrant and living faith.

During his keynote remarks Kenneth L. Woodward, a contributing editor of Newsweek, touched upon all three focal points. “It is shocking to realize how much institutional self-delusion prevails in the American church, even more shocking to realize that the bishops -- and the Vatican -- have been so unwilling to examine, or even to acknowledge, the many disconnects between what is taught and what is believed,” he said.

In addressing the relationship between the laity and hierarchy, Woodward said: “It is simply not true to say that the laity is uninvolved in the life of the church. But it is true that the laity has no real voice in making important decisions, and none at all in the decision-making processes of the Holy See. Clericalism of this form is wrong.”

To right this wrong, Woodward suggests viewing the crisis as an opportunity. “It is within church tradition to give a voice to the clergy in the selection of bishops, and I see no reason why such a voice --or at least a taking of the pulse -- could not be given to the laity as well,” he said.

Woodward also waded into the stormy waters of gender and sexuality. “Most Catholics, I would argue, experience the institutional church as feminine: Holy Mother the Church,” he said. “I have argued elsewhere, the Catholic church was ‘feminized’ long before there was a feminist movement.”

On matters of sexuality, while holding as normative a Catholic understanding of marriage, “possible only between male and female,” Woodward, nevertheless, raised the question: “We must ask whether and how we also ought to encourage monogamy among homosexuals.”

Woodward’s final perspectives concerned passing along the faith, which, he said, “goes to the heart of what it means to be the church.” He said, “I wonder would Boston College, or any other Catholic university, be willing to withhold a diploma from any Catholic student who did not pass a sophisticated, mandatory test designed to measure a student’s grasp of the forms and content of faith?”

Thoughtful responses

Responses from two theologians and a businessman were equally thoughtful and provocative. Roberto S. Goizueta, professor of theology at Boston College, for instance, agreed with Woodward’s observation: The Catholic church is the “most culturally and racially diverse religious organization in the world,” Goizueta said.

Yet, “the church is often perceived as a Western, European institution,” while “most Catholics live in the so-called Third World, where one finds the fastest-growing segment of the global Catholic population,” he said. By this decade’s end, however, most U.S. Catholics will be Hispanic.

“It is significant that response of many Latino Catholics -- particularly immigrant and poor Latinos -- to the present crisis has been noticeably different from that of middle-class white Catholics,” Goizueta said. Moreover, “Since the scandal broke in January, the Latino community has held rallies, marches and vigils in support of the church,” he said, referring to a Los Angeles Times article several months ago.

Moreover, Goizueta said: “The church structure that so often marginalizes Hispanics, the structure that facilitates the coddling of criminals and the cover-up of sexual abuse, may be the same structure that facilitates the defense of poor immigrants when the vast majority of Americans, Catholics or otherwise, couldn’t care less.”

Yet, he said, “To Euro-American Catholics hungering for a faith that will move them ahead and a community that will inspire them, Latino Catholics bring a deeply felt, vibrant faith and, as Ken Woodward noted, a more organic sense of church.”

Boston College professor of theology Lisa Sowle Cahill, who also responded to the keynote address, said the crisis “is not ultimately about sex but about trust, not only about the morality of sex with minors -- which we all agree is wrong -- but about the morality of the institutional response that allowed the abuse to go on for so long,” she said.

Cahill agreed with Woodward, too, that “sex should be part of a committed relationship, and that both sex and marriage are meant for nurturing the next generation,” she said.

“There are, however, complications,” she added, referring to unions of gay and lesbian couples and those marriages where “the love once present ends or is violated.” She also asked: “What about the many couples, otherwise good Catholics, who live together while intending eventual marriage and parenthood?”

On the matters of gender and sexuality, Cahill offered a different perspective from that of Woodward. “He refers to the church as a grand phallic pyramid inhabited by a lot of womblike circles,” she said. “He defends the all-male celibate priesthood on so-called ‘sociological’ evidence that people, especially men, prefer sexist churches; but finally, he vouches for the ultimately feminine character of religion.”

Still, Cahill said: “I don’t know where to go with this. But gender obviously has a lot to do with whether the inclusion of women in the Catholic ‘inner sanctum’ would or would not create a healthier and more Christian atmosphere, enabling, among other things, better formation of men committed to celibacy.”

To live an inspired life

Cahill’s final comments concerned the faith life of young Catholics. “I think Catholic college students and young adults hunger for some way to live a challenging, inspired life in a culture of materialism, transience, cynicism and superficiality,” she said.

“Today’s young adults don’t need ‘permission’ to disobey rigid sexual norms of the past -- nor will their hearts be won over by abstract, dogmatic or technical defenses of sexual rules that never connect with their experiences.

“They want concrete ways to envision their own lives as different from what passes for sexual sophistication in the culture, while still maintaining bonds with their peers.”

Perhaps the most pointed response to the keynote address came from Jack Connors Jr., a 1963 Boston College graduate and trustee.

“Those church leaders who have made a series of bad judgments may continue to hold onto their titles, but they will be leaders in title only,” said Connors, a founding partner and chief executive officer of Hill, Holliday, Connors and Cosmopulos, an advertising firm. “A majority of Catholics are moving forward without them. Witness this crowd.”

Yet, “I’m very uncomfortable with those who have decided they’re going to stop supporting the activities of the church,” Connors said. “But one part of the temple of power is money, and that’s an important asset that needs to be redirected where it’s going to do the most good, and for the moment that may be at the local level,” Connors said.

Still, he said, “When theologians are silenced, when innocent priests are ousted without an opportunity to defend themselves, when the laity is kept from substantive participation, the church fails to pursue the truth,” he said. “We need to open the windows. We need to let in some fresh air and we need to stop sweeping our secrets under the Orientals.”

“The church must change,” Connors declared. That line drew a standing ovation.

Freelance journalist Chuck Colbert writes from Cambridge, Mass.

Related Web sites

Church in the 21st Century Project

Archdiocese of Baltimore Child/Youth Protection

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests

National Catholic Reporter, October 11, 2002