Is Reform Possible?

By Thomas J. Reese, S.J.
Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly
September 12, 2003

Read an advance excerpt from an essay by Thomas J. Reese, S.J. on the impact of the sexual abuse crisis that will be published in the forthcoming book GOVERNANCE, ACCOUNTABILITY AND THE FUTURE OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH, edited by Francis Oakley and Bruce Russett (Continuum):

When people speak about reform in the church, they are usually speaking of changes in policy, such as birth control, married clergy, female priests, intercommunion, inclusive language, changes in the liturgy, lay preachers, and freedom to debate theological and moral issues. Many people thought Vatican II was just the beginning and that policies would continue to change in the church.

Also important, however, are issues of structure and governance, including greater involvement of priests and lay people in the selection of bishops, more input from priests and the laity in making diocesan policy, and increased authority for episcopal conferences. After Vatican II, new structures were created to enhance the role of priests and laity in church governance -- priest councils, diocesan pastoral councils, parish councils, and finance councils. Only the last, finance councils, were given real power, as could be seen in Boston when they said "no" to a settlement negotiated by Cardinal Law. The others were purely consultative.

But even bishops who wanted to use these bodies did not quite know how. Few priests or bishops had the experience or training to work with consultative bodies. Either the bishops tightly controlled the agenda and therefore suppressed initiative and free discussion, or they failed to provide leadership and the bodies foundered. Nor was it only the bishops' fault that these bodies failed. The laity did not understand them. Few were willing to do the homework and the committee work necessary to make consultative bodies work. The problem with democracy in the church is that it takes up too many evenings.

Great hope was also placed in episcopal conferences after Vatican II. The U.S. bishops' conference worked to implement the reforms of Vatican II in liturgy, ecumenism, and other areas. Its work became front-page news when it fought abortion and opposed American nuclear policy. But with its failure to pass a women's pastoral, the bishops' conference began a steady decline. Whereas in the past conservative cardinals like John Krol would respect the decisions of the conference, more recently cardinals would do end runs to Rome to kill conference initiatives. Rome even challenged the canonical and theological status of episcopal conferences.

But can we go beyond this and return to the ancient customs for the selection of bishops that was articulated by Leo I (440-61), who said that no one could be a bishop unless he was elected by the clergy, accepted by the people, and consecrated by the bishops of his region? This was a checks-and-balances system that would have been admired by the authors of the Federalist Papers. The appointment of bishops by the pope is a modern innovation that has no basis in church tradition.

Before there can be a change in policies and structures, there will need to be a change in attitudes. Bishops and priests need to respect and listen to the laity if anticlericalism is to be reduced. If seminaries train priests to think they have all the answers and they are God's gift to their people, then we are going to be in trouble. If bishops and priests are unwilling to listen and accept criticism, then they will not learn. If certain topics are not open to discussion, then the church will continue to act like a dysfunctional family where the important issues are never discussed.

There also needs to be a change in attitudes by the laity. The laity must recognize that we are now a "do-it-yourself" church. The laity can no longer simply complain to Father and then expect him to do something. You want a youth group, start it. You want a book club, start it. You want a speakers' program, make it happen. Priests are becoming too few and too old to be responsible for making everything happen in the Catholic Church. The laity was spoiled by an abundance of hardworking priests and nuns in the 1950s and 1960s. Those days are over.


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