Showing the Way to Adult Catholicism

National Catholic Reporter
December 19, 2003

It is easy to imagine Catholics elsewhere reading about the current upheaval at Nativity of Our Lord Parish in Cincinnati and rolling their eyes, giving a frustrated sigh and thinking, ?One more piece of evidence that the laity are totally disregarded in the running of the church? (see story).

There is, however, quite another way to look at the issue. While we know none of the details of the dispute between the pastor, Fr. R. Marc Sherlock, and Robert Herring, the school principal he fired -- save for the comment that the two had ?philosophical differences? -- there is reason to be encouraged by the process the parish is following.

It became clear almost as soon as the announcement of the firing was made that parishioners were not willing to simply accept the firing of a longtime principal with impressive credentials who had an equally impressive record of achievement.

So first they gathered together. Organizing is an essential first step. Then they clearly articulated their case and took it to church authorities after the pastor refused to consider their request. When Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk decided that procedures already in place at the parish level should be followed by everyone, the issue went to arbitration.

Confrontation was kept to a minimum and everyone -- Sherlock, Herring and the parishioners -- are assured a just hearing.

In essential ways it is similar to the case in McAllen, Texas, earlier this year, in which members of Holy Spirit parish refused to accept the firing of four unionized parish workers. Using tactics similar to those used in Cincinnati, parishioners organized and conducted widespread demonstrations to get the attention of church authorities at the start. An eventual solution, however, was achieved through negotiations. All four workers were reinstated and the negotiators came up with a list of terms of the settlement, some of which remain to be worked out. Through it all, as far as we know, the intense process has been civil and respectful of differing points of view.

Though the hope is that truth will be served, justice done, peace restored and the community healed, the more important point in both cases is that adult Catholics were able to establish that they were more than widgets in an ecclesiastical machine, that their voices and their lives in the parish counted for something.

Catholics, as we are fond of noting, make up a wonderfully diverse family, often highly opinionated and unyieldingly possessive of their parishes. Order and unity is wonderful, but clashes are bound to happen. No community worth its humanity will have clear sailing all the time. The point is, can we also expect to have adult conversations, as Fr. Bryan Hehir urges us to insist upon, or will the demand be that we simply pray, pay and obey?

The Catholics in Cincinnati and McAllen, ultimately in cooperation with their leaders, are showing us the way to adult Catholicism at the local level. These may seem little matters, but religion, like politics, is ultimately local. The places where we worship, the people with whom we form our communities, the institutions, such as schools, in which we choose to invest our time and resources -- for many these constitute the stuff of religious expression in the day-to-day, worth the inconvenience of an occasional family squabble.


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