Future Uncertain for Catholicism in United States
Church's Current Crisis Could Lead to Decline or to Transformation

By David Gibson
Religion News Service, carried in The Charlotte Observer
Downloaded June 30, 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 recent meeting in St. Louis, the future course of American Catholicism remains 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. When Bishop Thomas O'Brien of Phoenix was arrested in the death of a pedestrian in a hit-and-run accident, the tragedy seemed to epitomize the church's haplessness.

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

In a sense, the scandal can be seen as part of the difficult transformations 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.

While the Roman Catholic Church is not a democracy, it has undergone a Velvet Revolution in the last generation as laymen, and especially laywomen, assumed roles once reserved for priests. 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 work full-time, and eight in 10 are women.

The laity are more involved than ever in the pastoral and finance councils that have become a part of parish life since Vatican II. But lay Catholics still lack decision-making power at the administrative level. That is where change must occur.

The Catholic priesthood also faces enormous pressures to change. The scandal only illustrates the larger crisis in the priesthood, decades in the making. 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. The shrinking numbers of vocations and large numbers of resignations (estimated at 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 tolerated by bishops so eager to find bodies for the pulpit that they often overlooked blaring warning signs of sexual pathology.

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 reassigned molesters.

That unequaled control over every aspect of the diocese is the legacy of a quasi-feudal system owing 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.

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 the resistance to disclosing the names of abusers.

That frustration boiled over 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 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.

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.

David Gibson is author of "The Coming Catholic Church." Write him c/o Religion News Service, 1101 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 300, Washington, DC 20036.


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