The Church in Crisis: Crisis Obscures Story of North Americans' Vibrant Faith

By John L. Allen Jr.
National Catholic Reporter [Denver/Los Angeles/Vancouver, Canada/Jersey City NJ]
Downloaded March 10, 2004

Editor's note: When John L. Allen Jr., NCR's Vatican correspondent, started out on a North American speaking tour recently, the editors asked him to check the Catholic pulse of the country from place to place, particularly in light of the latest reports on the sex abuse scandal.

In telling any story, the journalistic challenge is more than getting the facts right. It's choosing the right context within which those facts are set, so that people don't miss the forest for the trees.

As I've moved across North America the past two weeks, speaking at Catholic seminaries and colleges, attending major Catholic gatherings and meeting with local Catholic leaders, this point has been brought home to me time and again. The major Catholic story over this time has been the John Jay report on the sex abuse crisis, documenting just how systemic the failures were in priestly conduct and episcopal oversight.

The numbers are rolled out elsewhere in this issue of NCR: 4,392 accused priests and 10,667 alleged victims, totals that some experts believe still underestimate the true scope of the problem.

Yet as I move around, what seems clear is that the crisis, as unmistakable as it is, is not the whole story in the North American Catholic church. From Denver to Los Angeles to Vancouver to Jersey City, there is also a vibrancy in the North American church, a pastoral dynamism that has little to do with debates in the bishops' conference or on the editorial pages of The New York Times. Children are being educated, the poor are being fed, adult faith is being formed, small faith groups are meeting, and in general people are excited about their Catholic faith, even as they are humbled and dismayed by the latest revelations about the human failures of their church.

Only someone dependent upon the TV and the newspapers for their perceptions of the Catholic church could believe the whole story of Catholicism today is crisis and upheaval. There is also a clearly discernible elan about the church in this part of the world that would be the envy of most European Catholics.

That health, however, tends not to make headlines.

While I was in Denver, for example, I went out to the new Centro San Juan Diego, a center for Hispanic ministry housed in what was an abandoned girls' school. I met Sister of Humility Maria Luisa (Molly) Mu'oz, responsible for migrant care in the archdiocese. When I caught up with her, she was on her way to distribute sandwiches in camps for itinerant workers on the outskirts of town.

This is someone who is deeply, irreversibly Catholic. She told a story about confronting silk-suit-wearing evangelists for Protestant sects who showed up in the living rooms of her families. She bluntly accused these born-again zealots of forgetting their roots in Guadalupe devotions and processions for local saints. Despite being so caught up in the Catholic church, however, Munoz's mind is not on the sexual abuse crisis - it's on living the Gospel among the vulnerable population she serves. Few reporters know her name, especially in comparison with celebrity villains such as Cardinal Bernard Law and the now-deceased John Geoghan. Yet Munoz is, in a real sense, every bit as representative of American Catholicism as pedophile priests and do-nothing bishops.

Also while in Denver, I had the chance to reconnect with some old friends in the Capuchin Franciscans, who educated me in grade school and high school in Western Kansas. They include Fr. John Lager, who serves as vocations director and runs a soup kitchen; Br. Mark Schenk, the treasurer for the province; and Br. Gene Pellegrino, officially retired despite being still quite active, who was my drama teacher in high school. These are good, caring men, engaged in an impressive variety of ministries. In a time when it's fashionable to deride "clerical culture," these Capuchins reminded me how much I, and generations of American Catholics, have benefited from the love and service of men formed by that culture.

I was in Los Angeles Feb. 20-22 to speak at the annual Religious Education Congress, billed as the largest gathering of Catholics in the United States. Organizers report that this year they attracted 36,450 people for the four-day event, including 20,359 pre-registered attendees, 209 companies represented in the exhibit hall, and 183 speakers presenting 298 sessions.

The audiences included a mix of moderate-to-progressives - reflecting the general tenor of the Los Angeles archdiocese under Cardinal Roger Mahony - as well as more conservative Catholics. What impressed me was the general absence of rancor and the positive spirit of most participants. There were concerns and occasional disagreements; but most people seemed enthusiastic about their involvement in the church, almost independent of the broader national or international situation.

After both of my talks, people came up by the dozens to extend the conversation and to tell their stories. There were high school teachers, parents, catechists, social justice volunteers, parish workers and concerned lay and religious men and women. Almost all are engaged in service to the church, and while many had frustrations to express, few seemed on the verge of walking away.

In Vancouver, British Columbia, I had coffee with Paul Schratz, editor of The BC Catholic, the local Catholic newspaper, to get an overview of the local situation. And I spent a beautiful evening the night before Ash Wednesday at an ecumenical service at Holy Eucharist Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral. The beauty and warmth of feeling of that experience will stay with me.

In Jersey City, N.J., I gave a talk at St. Peter's College, where once again I found the same mix of deep concern for the church based on the crisis, but also resilience and even optimism about the church rooted in overwhelmingly positive personal experiences of faith and fellowship.

The point of recounting these episodes is not to minimize the gravity of the sexual abuse crisis. There is an urgent work of reform facing the church that goes well beyond documenting of the size and scope of the crisis, into issues of governance and accountability. Those questions will not go away.

At the same time, however, it would be a serious analytical mistake to assume that the church is in meltdown, or that ecclesiastical structures and clerical culture are entirely dysfunctional. If all politics is local, in a sense so is religion - and at the local level, there's much to be impressed with in North America. One finds a commitment and a love of being Catholic, which is undoubtedly more than church leaders sometimes deserve.

Though you won't find this story in most papers, the reality I've seen in these two weeks is that there is a dynamic, passionate network of Catholics on this continent awaiting inspired leadership. Imagine what might happen if they got it.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. He is currently on a speaking tour of North America.


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