Unheavenly Days for the Catholic Church

By R. Scott Appleby
New York Times [New York NY]
September 7, 2003

The first sentence on Page 1 of "A People Adrift" sets forth the stakes. "Today the Roman Catholic Church in the United States is on the verge of either an irreversible decline," Peter Steinfels writes, "or a thoroughgoing transformation."

Hyperbole? Not if two reliable witnesses are to be believed. Steinfels, who writes the Beliefs column for The New York Times (and was once the paper's senior religion correspondent) enjoys a well-deserved reputation for equable and exacting reporting and analysis; sensationalism is not his metier. He is also a seriously committed Catholic intellectual, for whom the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago, stands as a model of consensus-building, moderately liberal episcopal leadership.

David Gibson, a religion writer for a variety of publications and a former correspondent for Vatican Radio, is a convert whose zeal for his new faith is expressed not by intemperate judgments but by incisive observations, a playful wit and a passion for what the author Rosemary Haughton once called "The Catholic Thing" -- the capacious, sacramental religious imagination that operates by analogy rather than linear logic and perceives virtually everything human (including the body and sexual love) as occasion for a graced encounter with the divine mystery. "To some it would seem hypocritical for Catholics to stay in the church at this point, or at best an indicator of unjustifiable passivity," Gibson admits. "Then again, maybe it's the sign of a first-rate intelligence."

"At this point" things do indeed look bleak. The revelations of a pattern of sexual abuse of children and young people by a small but significant percentage of priests over the course of 40 years, and the even more damaging disclosure of systematic shielding and reassignment of such priests by their bishops, both authors agree, have placed American Catholicism at risk. Legally and financially, it is open season on the church; across the nation, dioceses face hundreds of millions of dollars in payments to victims (and their attorneys). The laity, especially the most vulnerable in society, will be footing the bill. Despite the best intentions of church leaders, services to the poor and needy will continue to be cut, schools and churches closed and essential ministries jeopardized as funds are diverted to cover the costs of the scandal.

Morale may be at an all-time low. Since 2002, five Catholic bishops, including the cardinal archbishop of Boston, have resigned; two others barely escaped indictment. A dozen bishops have been subpoenaed to testify at grand jury investigations.

So much for the good news. However debilitating the current scandal, both Steinfels and Gibson contend that it is symptomatic of a deeper crisis roiling the American church, a malaise that has been building since Vatican II (1962-65) transformed the face of modern Catholicism -- or, depending on one's point of view, since Pope Paul VI dashed the hopes for genuine, abiding transformation by repudiating the recommendation of his own committee and reaffirming the traditional ban on artificial birth control in 1968. The church faced the stark alternatives of decline or reform before the sexual abuse revelations, Steinfels asserts, "and would do so today even if this shocking sexual misconduct had never occurred."

The signs of decline are indeed grim: in church attendance rates, the number of priests per lay Catholic, knowledge of the faith and the participation of women, Latinos and young Catholics. Accompanying the dispiriting data are constant, mutually demoralizing skirmishes between American Catholics of left and right -- professional ideologues who seem to agree only that the American bishops are feckless leaders. (Progressives blame episcopal timidity on the decidedly noncollaborative, nonconsultative style of the strong-willed Pope John Paul II, while conservatives castigate the bishops for indulging the left's supposed love affair with decadent American culture.)

Countering these dismal trends is the stunning fact of postconciliar lay initiative in the church and the world. Thirty thousand "called and gifted" lay Catholics, 80 percent of whom are women, have entered pastoral ministry and are now working in over 60 percent of the nation's 19,000 Catholic parishes. Gibson notes that nearly that many are in training, making the number of lay and potential lay ministers higher than the number of active priests. These women and men are now indispensable to the vitality of local Catholicism -- they conduct religious education and social justice programs, oversee preparation for marriage and other sacraments, and serve as administrators in the nearly one-fifth of the parishes that do not have a resident priest.

Meanwhile, the laity are inheriting the mantle of institutional leadership of a vast network of Catholic universities and colleges, parochial schools, health care facilities and hospitals, and charitable and social service agencies. Facing all of these institutions is the pressing question of Catholic identity -- defining what it might mean in our day to be a "Catholic" relief agency, university or hospital. With typical rigor and thoughtfulness, Steinfels probes: "What is the church accomplishing with its considerable investment of resources in these institutions? Are they continuing to be fed spiritually, intellectually and financially by the American Catholic community -- and to feed it in turn? Or are they spinning off into a kind of separate planetary system, where they will support themselves on the basis of government funding, medical insurance payments, tuition and fees for services, where they will continue to do good work, but where their relationship to the religious life of the nation's largest church would be minimal and peripheral?"

The transition to lay leadership is both inevitable and uncertain. How will lay Catholics, committed to supporting their own careers and families, replicate the low-cost, labor-intensive service of generations of celibate nuns and priests? Is lay ministry, on the scale it is needed, even viable? The current generation of lay ministers operates in the absence of an officially approved ecclesiology (theory of the church) that would make theological sense of their role alongside that of the priests.

And after the boomer generation passes into history, who will assume responsibility? To chilling effect Gibson quotes the 30-something Boston College theologian Tom Beaudoin, who describes the perceptions of some of his fellow young Catholics: "The post-Vatican-II church is often a place of self-deception, abusive silence and double talk, especially about sexuality and about power. . . . We know now that our church can cover up its spiritual deficits as well as WorldCom or Enron can cover up their economic losses." Not exactly the sensibility of a generation ready to step up to the plate.

As they fill in the contours of the crisis in Catholicism, Steinfels and Gibson occasionally speak in the first person, with insight and concern, and each offers reasonable proposals for reform that are distinguished by mature consideration of what is and is not possible to achieve within the framework of a 2,000-year-old global and truly multicultural institution. Indeed the proposals are quite modest, perhaps to a fault, given the goal of "a thoroughgoing transformation" of the Catholic Church in the United States (Steinfels), to be produced by a lay-led "revolution from below" (Gibson).

Such a transformation, they acknowledge, will require the hierarchy to engage in frank and uncensored discussion of grievances and differences with the laity. It will require cooperation with, not humiliation of, responsible lay reform groups like Voice of the Faithful. It will also require lay Catholics to address the moral, spiritual and institutional dimensions of the crisis with an honesty and moral courage born of deep conviction that the church is still worth profound personal sacrifice.

The greatest triumphs of Christian societies were forged in the church's darkest hours. This is a dark hour. Shedding light on it, as these fine journalists have done, is no doubt the sign of first-rate intelligence.

R. Scott Appleby, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, addressed the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States at their national conference in Dallas in June 2002.


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