National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 24, 2003

Boston College forum focuses on issues below surface of crisis

Chestnut Hill, Mass.

As Boston College launched the second year of its initiative, “The Church in the 21st Century,” participants took a closer look at issues of renewal raised over the past year in the course of the project, which arose primarily in response to the scandal of clergy sexual abuse (NCR, Oct. 11, 2002).

“After more than a year of listening, programs and activities, we have learned a great deal about the state of the Catholic church in America,” Jesuit Fr. William P. Leahy, president of the university, told an audience of about 2,500 people at the public forum held Sept. 18.

“It is evident the problem of sexual abuse by priests and bishops and its toleration at the highest levels have brought into public view issues that have been simmering below the surface for many years,” he said.

Leahy identified three key issues:

  • The gap between Catholic teaching on sexuality and Catholic practice.
  • Discontent among many priests and laypeople, especially women, about their roles.
  • Deep concern about how the faith is passed along to the next generations.

In his opening remarks, master of ceremonies Jack Connors Jr., chairman of the Boston College board of trustees, said, “We are getting good around here at closing parishes, closing schools and cutting back on … social services.”

But Connors added: “Our great faith was not built by closing buildings or closing minds.”

Moderator Tim Russert of NBC’s “Meet the Press” facilitated a lively, wide-ranging conversation that lasted an hour and a half. Panelists included Fr. J. Bryan Hehir, president of Catholic Charities; religion writer Peter Steinfels; Notre Dame Sr. Mary Johnson, a Catholic college professor; elementary school principal Catalina Montes; and two Boston College undergraduate students, junior Patrick P. Downes and senior Elizabeth M. Paulhus.

Pastoral, practical questions

“What must the church do to restore credibility and trust?” Russert asked Steinfels, New York Times religion columnist and author of a new book, A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

“My first suggestion would be at every level of the church, from the parish to the episcopacy, that without minimizing the importance of theology and doctrinal issues, we emphasize the pastoral and practical questions -- and whenever possible the empirical questions -- whether it be parish life, religious education, or issues of sexuality and family,” Steinfels said.

One identifiable issue that all six panelists agreed upon was the importance of a dynamic celebration of the Sunday Eucharist in parish life.

Student panelists Downes and Paulhus spoke about the critical importance of good liturgy in nurturing and sustaining faith life and to church renewal.

“BC does it like no other,” said Downes, referring to the university’s Sunday evening liturgy, celebrated by a Jesuit priest “who is in touch with who people are as human beings.”

“It’s very central to the sense of community,” said Paulhus. “One of the key elements to renew this church is to feel that we are community.”

To engage Hispanic Catholics more effectively, said Montes, principal of the Thomas Gardner Elementary School in Allston, Mass., “Good preaching and good music need to be present on Sunday morning at Mass.”

A “vibrant” Eucharistic celebration, she said, “shows the people that we’re praying together, that we’re here to support each other.” Because so many Hispanics are immigrants, they need to feel both the “warmth” and “welcome” of community, she added.

Johnson, a sociology and religion professor at Emmanuel College in Boston, expressed her concern about the growing trend of priestless parishes and the effect of that phenomenon on the celebration of the Eucharist.

“There are 2,500 parishes that don’t have resident priests, and if things progress, 6,000 parishes will have to close,” she said.

Johnson pointed to one Southwest diocese that has only nine priests.

“Already there is great concern that Catholics are not able to enter into the eucharistic celebration on a weekly basis,” she said.

“For the church in America,” Johnson said, the loss of the Eucharist “would be such a shock to the central nervous system that it would affect the rest of our church reality.”

The ordination of women and issues of sexual morality also emerged as key to the discussion of the church’s future.

“Not a lot can be said against women’s ordination,” Paulhus said. But she added, “This is an area where conversation is closed with the Vatican.” Nonetheless, she pointed to the important role that women already play. “Eighty-five percent of non-ordained roles in the church are held by women.”

Johnson said she personally does not “feel called to the priesthood.” But she said there is “tremendous support” for the ordination of women in their religious orders.

Steinfels suggested opening the question of ordination of women to the deaconate. He pointed to centuries of early church experience, adding that to make “women part of orders” would give them a “special relationship to the bishop and a role in decision-making.”

The role of gay Catholics

One issue of sexual morality that emerged during the conversation was that of the role of gay Catholics in the church. “In terms of homosexuality, homosexuals feel that they, too, are immigrants to the church and don’t feel as if they have a home” or that “they fit into the scheme of things,” said Downes.

It’s “very scary,” he said, that the church was so slow to respond to sex abuse but so quick to speak out against civil marriage for gays. “Decisions are just coming down, and there are no discussions,” he said.

“Many homosexual Catholics are saying, ‘Wait a minute. Where did my identity go, as a person, a human being, and as a follower of Christ?’ ”

He added, “If someone is to feel the presence of God within themselves, whether women or homosexuals, who is the church to limit their potential?”

“The Church in the 21st Century” initiative is scheduled to continue throughout the 2003-2004 academic year.

Freelance journalist Chuck Colbert writes from Cambridge, Mass.

Related Web Site

The Church in the 21st Century

National Catholic Reporter, October 24, 2003

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