National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 17, 2003

By David Gibson
HarperSanFrancisco, 350 pages, $23.95
Claiming the future of American Catholicism

Reviewed by DENNIS M. DOYLE

David Gibson raises his powerful voice to detail what has happened in the Catholic sex abuse crisis and to say what should be done about it. I have a serious criticism of his text, but before I share it I want to sing loudly the praises of this author and of his important and engaging work. Gibson is a convert to Catholicism who worked for Vatican Radio for several years. He is an academically informed journalist of the highest caliber.

I could not say that the book is enjoyable any more than I could say that the film “Schindler’s List” is enjoyable. The subject matter does not lend itself to enjoyment unless one is entertained by stories of moral atrocities and human failings. Still, I would recommend “Schindler’s List” to all viewers. I even see it in significant ways, though of course with qualifications, as a hopeful film. The same is true of this book.

Gibson communicates clearly a wide range of facts about the current crisis. He frames this information within the context of the history of U.S. Catholicism. He is able, for example, to compare and contrast the lay trusteeship controversy of the 19th century with various situations and proposals of today. He is further able to discuss the history of U.S. Catholicism against the background of developments throughout the larger history of the global Catholic church. Even beyond that, he is able to describe current events and explain avenues for change in a way that shows an impressive grasp of contemporary discussions in theology, especially in ecclesiology. He does not write in an academic mode; there are, for example, no footnotes. He operates always in the realm of commonsense synthesis, but his mastery of the things one needs to know in order to do that well is impressive.

I will now introduce my criticism, which affects my overall reading of the book. Gibson says in the introduction, “My intent is to be informative rather than programmatic, to promote discussion about the issues at hand, which can in turn foster the communio that is the political coin of the church.” Now, one can say accurately that the book is informative and that it will promote discussion, but one cannot say accurately that the book is not programmatic or that it is purely irenic.

Gibson describes the types of changes he thinks are needed in the Catholic church, and he argues forcefully for those changes. Often he does this, as in the case of his advocacy of no longer requiring celibacy for diocesan priests, by description, prediction and quoting others. There is no doubt, however, as to where he stands on a range of issues. His overall agenda, which includes decentralization of authority, a better process for selecting bishops, more inclusion of laity in governance and worship, reexamination of church teaching on a range of moral issues, a greater acceptance of pluralism, and a full-scale attack on clericalism by reducing the lay-clergy gap, sounds much like the agenda that reform groups such as Call to Action have been promoting for many years. I have little problem with his arguing for these ends. I only have a problem with his self-presentation as one who, rather than taking controversial stands on debatable issues, is just telling it like it is.

One way that Gibson does this is by presenting his analysis and solutions throughout the book as representing a moderate and reasonable center in contrast to the extremes of the right and the left. Yet anyone can identify oneself as occupying the center. All one has to do is find someone to either side of oneself and label them the extremes. In the case of the celibacy requirement for diocesan priests, for example, to one extreme from Gibson are the libertines who would deny the importance of celibacy whatsoever and who would banish it from the church. To the other extreme are those who would hang on to this requirement in spite of all the obvious harm it is causing.

Gibson’s “centrist” position is to make the change gradually and sensitively. He correctly points out that many long-time liberals and conservatives now agree on this issue. He does not seem to allow, however, for the possibility that one could still make a moderate and reasonable argument in favor of continuing the requirement, even if it is a position with which he disagrees. Overall Gibson treats the issue as a no-brainer once one is properly informed. In his own mind, apparently, he is not being programmatic; he’s only telling it like it is.

There is a way in which Gibson could be interpreted as relatively “centrist.” If we use Richard McBrien’s categories of left, center-left, center-right, and right, Gibson is clearly center-left. McBrien himself agues that, in the current situation, the theological spectrum is distorted so that the center-left is the true center. If, however, one defines a centrist as one who takes seriously and listens empathetically to a wide range of voices across a broad spectrum, it would be hard to characterize Gibson in that way. He is generally dismissive of the right except in circumstances where they happen to agree with him. He blames the current crisis on conservative, authoritarian structures, policies and attitudes. He brushes away all talk that the crisis might also in some way be symptomatic of deep problems in American and First World culture.

Gibson might be right (that is, “correct”) in his judgments, but he is left in his ecclesial politics. There may be plenty of people more to the left than he is, but he is not a centrist by my definition. This matters because, whether done intentionally or not, trumpeting the decades-old center-left agenda as a moderate, centrist stance will be read by conservatives, not without reason, as manipulation. The book will thus lack full effectiveness for achieving the communio that I believe Gibson sincerely desires. In spite of this flaw, I find the book overall to be a substantial and worthwhile contribution to the current discussion from a talented and knowledgeable author.

Dennis M. Doyle teaches at the University of Dayton. He is the author of Communion Ecclesiology: Vision and Versions and The Church Emerging from Vatican II.

National Catholic Reporter, October 17, 2003

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