The Faithful Bear Some Responsibility for Their Religion

By Bill Tammeus
The Tallahassee Democrat [USA]
Downloaded March 23, 2004

In the wake of the recent national reports on sexual abuse by Catholic priests, this question is especially relevant for people of any religion:

What roles should followers of a faith play?

The National Review Board, made up of 12 members appointed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, pointed to that question when it recommended "meaningful participation by the Christian faithful in the church." The panel said church leaders "must listen and be responsive to the concerns of the laity. To accomplish this, the hierarchy must act with less secrecy, more transparency and a greater openness to the gifts that all members of the church bring to her."

Without an active role for parishioners, the appalling problem of sexual abuse by Catholic priests will never be solved. The same principle applies to other religions. For instance, if ordinary worshipers at mosques around the world don't help, the problem of terrorists who claim to be acting in the name of Islam won't be solved.

This is in no way to blame all American Catholics for sexual abuse by some of their priests, nor is it to blame all Muslims for terrorism. Rather, it's to say that when deep problems infect religious bodies, the members of those bodies have a duty to help solve them.

"We have to stop hiding behind the idea that this (sexual abuse) isn't happening in our church, our parish, our community," says Bishop Raymond J. Boland of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. "We must have more and more lay people getting their two cents' worth in and being listened to."

In Christianity, there are different understandings of what the church is, but there is also some common ground.

I used to teach sixth- and seventh-grade Sunday school at the Presbyterian church I call home. Sometimes I considered the task penance for sins I had not even committed yet. I taught for several years, so I may well be covered for some sins until I'm 104 years old.

Now and then I would ask students to draw a picture of our church. Almost invariably they would draw the building. "Nice try," I'd say, "but no cigar. Try again." Eventually, one of them would figure out that the church is not the building. Rather, the church is the people who are members of the church and who use the building. I loved seeing that light go on in their heads.

The Greek word often used in the New Testament for church is "ecclesia." It means "called out." In Protestant theology especially, the church is seen not as a voluntary organization like the Kiwanis Club. Rather, the church considers itself to be the gathering of people whom God has called out of the world and to whom God has given gifts of the Holy Spirit that the church needs - gifts such as the ability to teach or to make people feel welcome.

This understanding of church has echoes and parallels in other branches of Christianity and even in other religions. The Catholic church has a more hierarchical structure than Protestant churches, many of which hold to a view they call "the priesthood of all believers," but Catholics have experienced a growing role for the laity since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. A Vatican II document called "The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church" said that "the faithful in Christ," meaning church members, "have their part to play."

That part was understood to mean members would be more deeply engaged in parish life than before - and many have been.

The National Review Board, which chastised both abusive priests and the bishops who failed to stop them, is an example of church members working to solve a problem. Yes, they were prominent people with clout and bishops appointed them, but they represented and spoke for regular church members.

When the panel described an "epidemic of abuse" and "the shortcomings in the response of a number of bishops," it was the voice of the laity rebuking the hierarchy.

The National Review Board's report could even be seen as a challenge to Pope John Paul II, who early this year said this: "It is necessary to safeguard a balanced relationship between the role of lay people and that which properly belongs to the diocesan priest or pastor. Pastors ... should never be considered as simple executors of decisions stemming from majority opinions coming out of Catholic assemblies. The structure of the church cannot be conceived on simply human political models."

Abuse victims' advocacy groups also are examples of church members deciding to help fix what clearly has been a devastating problem for the church. In fact, Jason Berry, author of two books on sexual abuse by the clergy, calls this "the worst crisis in the church since the Protestant Reformation."

When we pledge allegiance to a particular religion, some of the responsibility for how it operates becomes ours. When members fail to accept that responsibility, they contribute to the problem, not to the solution.


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