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Issue Date:  October 6, 2006

From the Editor's Desk

Puzzling out the changes

If by some of the ready measures available -- money, members, church attendance -- the Catholic church in the United States easily classifies as one of the strongest and most vibrant on the planet, by other measures it seems it might also be the most unsettled and the one most in search of itself and what its future holds.

That’s one impression I get from gatherings like those covered by Joe Feuerherd in this week’s cover story about two groups discussing the future of the church.

As dangerous as it is to generalize in characterizing groups, one comprised invited speakers, church insiders, if you will, for a gathering at The Catholic University; the other was a less formal gathering of “outsiders” brought together by Celibacy Is the Issue, a group that opposes the celibacy requirement and arranges for married priests to perform sacramental functions through its “rent-a-priest” program.

The two conferences, of course, encompassed only a fraction of thinking about where the church is headed and why. In any given month, one might find the calendar full of discussion groups and more formal organizations meeting around similar subjects.

And the description that Feuerherd wrote of the groups in Washington might serve a host of others as well. “Both groups shared a commitment to ‘church’ -- an organized community of believers. But defining exactly what that community is, who should lead it, and the boundaries it should observe separated the two meetings.”

The point that seems clear is that everyone agrees the church is changing. We can sense that something, perhaps many things, are shifting. Demographics alone tell us that; so does the dwindling of the priesthood and the increase in the number of lay ministers. There are subtler shifts, too, like the changes in perception of authority and credibility of the hierarchy as a result of the sex abuse crisis. There is no doubt the community has been harmed by the deceit and cover-ups, but to what degree is unknown.

And so we continue to search, to try to puzzle out, to lay out what we know and to attempt to see some far horizon. Perhaps the best summary is that of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who strangely would lay most of the fault for what’s wrong with the church and hierarchy on the ethos of the 1960s, and who concluded that no one knows where things are headed.

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One sign of the search is the proliferation of Catholic groups or those inspired by Catholics. One of the more recent to emerge around here is Kansans for Faithful Citizenship. The group was formed largely by Catholics disturbed at the way in which they believe that certain leaders from the Catholic and evangelical Protestant communities are reducing politics and citizenship to a few narrow issues. They want to broaden the discussion and want a fuller representation of the Catholic social tradition. I was asked recently to speak to the group’s first conference, which drew about 120 people on a Saturday to a hotel in Overland Park, Kan.

The gist of my talk was that there is no single way to be a good voter, whether one is Catholic, Muslim, Jewish or other. The full text of the talk can be found on the Web site at in the Special Documents section. As the campaign season heats up this November and then into the next presidential cycle, I really think religious people, Catholics especially, have to be careful not to give up their franchise too cheaply. When God is perceived as a party regular who blesses our political strategy -- whether it’s over abortion or the war in Iraq -- we’ve sold out religion and reduced God to our dimensions. And politicians of all stripes get off easy when the “religious” community becomes predictable and narrows its interests to a few issues.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 2006

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