Catholics around the City Seem to Be Ready to Welcome Their New Bishop with Open Arms

By David Gibson
Star Ledger [New Jersey]
June 22, 2003

More than a year after the Catholic hierarchy gathered in Dallas to try to head off the galloping clergy sexual abuse scandal, and in the wake of their most recent meeting last week in St. Louis, the future course of American Catholicism still seems uncertain.

Charges and countercharges between bishops and their critics still fill the air, nasty legal disputes still command headlines, and victims continue to come forward with accounts of awful misdeeds. When Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien of the Phoenix diocese was arrested in the death of an innocent pedestrian in a hit-and-run accident last week while driving home from a confirmation Mass, the tragedy seemed to epitomize the church's haplessness.

But what the scandal too often obscures is the larger crisis in the church that predated the scandal. And this crisis, rather than pointing to an inevitable decline, can instead illuminate an inspiring Catholic future that is far different from anything that has gone before.

In a sense, the sex scandal -- primarily the efforts by bishops to conceal past offenses, which is the heart of the scandal -- can be

seen as part of the difficult transformations that have been taking place since the historic reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

Stepping back from the immediate revulsion at the sex scandal, one sees how much the church has changed in recent decades and how those changes still point to an unprecedented reimagining of Catholicism's three interconnected constituencies: the laity, the priesthood and the hierarchy.

With all the focus on the clergy, it is easy to forget that laypeople account for more than 99 percent of the Catholic faithful. As the 19th-century Cardinal John Henry Newman said of the laity, "The Church would look foolish without them." That was true in the 19th century, and it is even more so today.

While the Roman Catholic Church is not a democracy, it has undergone a Velvet Revolution in the last generation as laymen, and especially laywomen, have taken over roles once reserved for priests.

The growing presence of laypeople in ministry is especially striking. Today, more than 30,000 lay ministers work in the nation's 19,000 parishes, distributing communion, comforting the sick, serving as chaplains, and teaching the faith to the next generation. Some 70 percent of them work full-time, and 8 in 10 are women.

"Everyone knows that most Catholic parishes in this country would have to close up tomorrow if it weren't for women," says Luke Timothy Johnson, the Catholic writer and Emory University New Testament scholar.

This is partly due to the dramatic elevation of the laity's role by the Second Vatican Council. But it also stems from necessity. With the steady decline in vocations since the 1960s, laypeople have become indispensable to church life. Already there are more lay ministers than active priests working in parishes, and that disparity will continue to grow. The laity are also more involved than ever in running the nuts and bolts of parish life through parish pastoral and finance councils that have become a part of church life since Vatican II.

But lay Catholics still lack decision-making power at the administrative level. That is where change must occur.

All too often parish councils exist only on paper, or are peopled with uncritical friends and relatives of the pastor. Laypeople have to lobby for a place at the table, starting with their own parish, and then with their diocese.

Unfortunately, one of the lesser- noted revelations of the scandal was the reality behind the stereotype of Catholics as passive churchgoers who prefer the "Father knows best" style of religious life. The lay activism that has grown up since the scandal broke is long overdue and may have averted some of the worst aspects of today's crisis.

As David O'Brien, a religion professor at Holy Cross College, put it: "Our failure was not theological or spiritual, but political."

Politics is at the heart of a lay- led resolution to the crisis in Catholicism. Such an approach stresses realistic and workable goals of transparency and collaboration that are also the quickest routes to a renewed morale.

Obviously, the Catholic priesthood is also facing enormous pressures to change, and it must now do so under a media glare sparked by the worst scandal in the history of the American church. But the scandal only illustrates the larger crisis in the priesthood, decades in the making, and which is only now playing itself out on the public stage.

The central reality of the crisis is the stark dropoff in vocations to the priesthood. In 1965 there were 994 ordinations, while in 2002 the church ordained 479 new priests. Today there is one priest for every 1,200 American Catholics, double the ratio since the 1950s. The shrinking numbers of vocations and the large numbers of resignations (estimated at a rate of 12-15 percent) continue to reduce the number of priests, while the number of Catholics continues to rise, passing 65 million.

The result is an overworked, stressed-out priesthood where dysfunction has been allowed to flourish by bishops so eager to find bodies for the pulpit that they often overlooked blaring warning signs of sexual pathology.

Moreover, the decline in the number of priests, especially as lay ministry was burgeoning, fostered a siege mentality in clerical circles that led to a self-protective "clericalism" that was the original sin of the scandal.

In fact, the sexual abuse scandal came about not because Catholic priests are demonstrably more prone to child molestation than other men, but because bishops (and some fellow priests) covered up for the abusers for so long that many abusers could claim dozens, sometimes hundreds, of victims. In that sense, the scandal was about the wider crisis of the abuse of authority rather than sex.

The scandal cast a harsh light on this clericalist mentality, and marked the beginning of the end of its dominance. While the resignation of Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law last December was rightly seen as a watershed, it is critical to recall that it came only after 58 of Law's own priests signed a petition calling on him to resign.

"It feels to me like one of those pivotal moments in the history of the church, like the Edict of Constantine, the Orthodox-Catholic split, the Protestant Reformation or the Second Vatican Council," Father Emile R. Boutin Jr., who signed the petition, told the Boston Globe.

The scandal has also led to indispensable new efforts to better screen seminarians for psychosexual problems and to train future priests for the rigors of celibate life.

And it has spotlighted the growing opening toward an "optional celibacy" that will characterize the priesthood of the not-too-distant future, a sea change in church life after nearly a thousand years that will send a powerful signal that Catholicism is entering a new era.

While celibacy was not the cause of sexual abuse, and while a married priesthood is not necessarily the answer to priestly dysfunctions or shortages, for years now bishops have become increasingly vocal about the need to ordain married men to the priesthood so that Catholics can have access to the Eucharist, the underlying sacrament of Catholic life.

Their lobbying is having an effect. In the past 20 years, hundreds of married priests in the Episcopal Church and other Protestant denominations have converted and become married Catholic priests in good standing, all with the (deliberately) quiet approval of Rome.

This points to a future priesthood that will be a mix of what has been called a "wild" and a "domesticated" priesthood -- celibates and married men -- similar in structure perhaps to the system in Orthodox Christianity.

There is no doubt that the bishops, collectively, have been the "bad guys" of the scandal. They had sole responsibility for assigning priests, and too many of them abused that authority by reassigning molesters.

That unequaled control over every aspect of the diocese is the legacy of a quasi-feudal system that owes much to the rise of the monarchical church in the Middle Ages and its endurance into modern times. But that all-encompassing authority also means that bishops, more than anyone else in the church, can do more, and more quickly, to reverse the damage done over the past 18 months.

Again, this change is less about doctrine than it is about politics.

The traditional mandate of the bishop is "to teach, to sanctify and to govern." It is the third aspect of the bishop's brief -- administration -- that remains the source of so much resentment among the laity who do not understand why so many bishops continue to resist disclosing the names of abusers and how much the cases cost the diocese, which is of course funded entirely by the people in the pews.

That frustration boiled over last week in the clash between some prelates and former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, the tough- talking Republican the bishops appointed a year ago to head the National Catholic Review Board, the lay group the bishops created to oversee their implementation of the church's policy against sexual abuse.

Keating compared the bishops to the Mafia, the bishops fired back, and Keating resigned with a nasty parting shot: "To resist grand jury subpoenas, to suppress the names of offending clerics, to deny, to obfuscate, to explain away; that is the model of a criminal organization, not my church."

If Keating's rhetoric was out of bounds, he hit at the crux of the crisis -- the battle over collaboration in governance, essentially a political dispute whose outcome will determine, more than anything else, if and when the crisis will be resolved.

Crucial to the discussion of the hierarchy, of course, is the fate of the man atop the hierarchical pyramid, Pope John Paul II. This year John Paul became the fourth-longest-serving pontiff in history, and there is a natural tendency to see his reign as the norm.

But that is not the case, historically, as each papacy takes its own course. And history is destined to be made again, and soon. John Paul is elderly and ill, and the campaign to succeed him is already underway. Bishops are increasingly vocal about wanting a less-intrusive Vatican that allows them more leeway to respond to the needs of their local congregations. As in most institutions, the pendulum swings between centralization and decentralization, and the Catholic Church is no different.

John Paul himself, despite his reputation as an authoritarian, has also encouraged debate by inviting a discussion about papal primacy, saying that he is open to a "new situation" in regard to the exercise of papal authority. That in itself is revolutionary, and has contributed to the sense that the church is changing in major ways.

Clearly, the Catholic Church is at a perilous juncture. But Catholicism's crisis is an institutional crisis as much as a crisis of faith, and the institution can yield to activism and concrete solutions in a way that doctrine does not. Focusing on nuts-and-bolts reform is the most realistic and immediate way to a more collaborative church that can lead to a broader reinvigoration of Catholicism. And that reform is well under way.

This is not to say that all the pain and suffering was a necessary price, or that change will come without a struggle. The near-future of the Catholic Church is a close call. There is a sense right now that scandal-weary Catholics are resting on a handy plateau, figuring out where they are and where they have come from.

The pressing question is whether the plateau is only a temporary halt in an inevitable downward slide, or a resting spot on the way toward an unexplored summit.

In the end, and to an extent they may not even realize, American Catholics themselves -- laity, priests and bishops -- will provide the answer.

David Gibson, former religion writer for The Star-Ledger, is author of "The Coming Catholic Church" (HarperSanFrancisco), to be published June 30.


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