Restoring the Community: What Next for the Church?

Restoring the Community: What Next for the Church?

This week, as American cardinals arrived at the Vatican for meetings with Pope John Paul II on the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, Boston College faculty members contemplated recent events and what they portend for Catholicism. Looking at the revelations and accusations of clergy misconduct, and the response of the hierarchy and laity alike, the faculty considered whether the meaning of "faith" had changed irrevocably, and if the crisis would unite or divide the Church. Above all, they were asked, what have we learned about the Catholic Church, and Catholics?

Stephen Pope

We have learned about the need for broad accountability within the church, the value of lay participation and inclusiveness, and the priority of pastoral to institutional considerations. We already knew about the tendency of institutions everywhere to be self-referential, protective of their own power, and prone to rationalization and self-deception.

Pope: "The most heartening the willingness of local pastors and the laity to take an active role in addressing the relevant issues on the local level."
The most heartening outcome of the present crisis is the willingness of local pastors and the laity to take an active role in addressing the relevant issues on the local level. This development brings many lay people into more active engagement with their parish community, but it has also been accompanied by an unfortunate and growing rift between the most powerful members of the hierarchy and average Catholics. The Church - both the laity and the hierarchy - will have to work hard to restore a proper sense of Catholic community.

I also believe Cardinal Law should meet with the victims and their families and hear what they have gone through.

-Pope is an associate professor and chairman of the Theology Department.

Thomas H. O'Connor

The current reports about child molestation have caused a serious crisis in the Catholic Church. The fact that the number and extent of such terrible crimes extend far beyond the United States makes it evident that this is not merely a local aberration (a few bad apples) that can be easily solved by jailing a few perpetrators or removing a number of ecclesiastical officials. There is no quick fix. Any effective solution to this tragic situation must involve a long and thoughtful process of substantial reforms that will extend throughout the entire institutional structure of the Roman Catholic Church.

Unless there is evidence that Church leaders are taking this matters seriously and are committed to making such systemic changes, I fear that the crisis will continue and the anger and outrage among loyal and committed Catholics will rise to even greater levels.

-O'Connor is University Historian of Boston College and author of Boston Catholics: A History of the Church and Its People.

Rev. Matthew Lamb

These horrendous scandals, which have harmed so many, resulted first and foremost from the horrific sins and crimes of priests who betrayed the call they had from Jesus Christ. That first betrayal in turn led to a betrayal of the trust of Catholics they were called to serve.

While attention has been directed at the pope, cardinals, archbishops and bishops, something very important has been overlooked. I wager that none of the priests who perpetrated these sins and crimes fulfilled the following five requirements for a good priestly life in Christ:

.reverently celebrate daily Mass;

.pray the Divine Office daily;

.spend an hour each day in prayerful communion with the Triune God;

.nourish their minds and hearts with daily readings from Holy Scripture and the writings of the great saints and scholars of Catholic wisdom;

.make a daily examination of conscience to deepen their awareness of being a sinner forgiven by God's grace, along with regular sacramental confession and spiritual direction.

No amount of so-called structural reforms will go to the roots of this scandalous crisis if they ignore the fundamental importance of these five daily elements in an authentic priestly life and practice.

-Fr. Lamb is a professor of theology.

Rev. Robert Imbelli

Since the issues are complex and these reflections must be brief, I simply offer three points for our ongoing discernment.

First, there has been a serious failure of leadership on the part of certain members of the American hierarchy. A key component of leadership is to consult widely and to listen carefully before decisions are made. Too often this has not been done. God's people, and among them the most vulnerable, have suffered the consequences of this failure.

Second, since it is not sufficient merely to appeal for wide consultation, structures must ensure that consultation and accountability be practiced. Some structures are in place. But too often they are ineffective. These must be reviewed, their membership broadened, and, if necessary, new structures need to be created so that a diversity of voices may be heard and differing viewpoints expressed.

I believe that all Catholics, whether "traditional" or "liberal" (though such designations do scarce justice to often valid concerns), would find common ground in the above observations.

Third, and most fundamentally, the meaning of "faith" has not changed as a result of this crisis. For the crisis, in its many dimensions, stems from infidelity, denial and self-deception. Hence, all Catholics are summoned to a more authentic appropriation of their faith, a deeper faith-filled living. Ultimately, this means a more radical conversion to Jesus Christ, the living Lord of the Church. Christ alone is, for believers, "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14: 6). To build on any other foundation is to build on sand, not rock.

-Fr. Imbelli is an associate professor of theology and a member of the Steering Committee of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative founded by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

James O' Toole

In one sense, the crisis has told us something very encouraging about the Church in this country. While the failures of the hierarchy in dealing with sexual abuse by priests have been sadly apparent, the response of Catholic lay people has been more positive, both in terms of concern for the victims and in working for structural changes that will prevent any recurrence in the future. American Catholics have taken completely to heart the teaching of Vatican II that they are the Church, and are working now to put that insight into effect. Parish-based efforts to assert the laity's proper role in the Church are widespread, and that will be one of the positive results of this very trying time.

O'Toole: "[People] are more careful to differentiate between the faith and the institutional structures of the Church which try to actualize it."
The notion of faith has not changed in all this, I don't believe, but people are more careful to differentiate between the faith and the institutional structures of the Church which try to actualize it. Those structures obviously change from one historical period to another, and we are in the midst of one of those changes. One parish group has adopted the slogan "Keep the Faith, Change the Church," and I think most Catholics would endorse that idea.

Catholics of all ideological stripes have been horrified at the hierarchy's response to sexual abuse, more concerned with institutional self-preservation than with the victims. In that sense, this has brought people together across previous divisions. I also sense a broad consensus for radical restructuring, though there will probably still be divisions over the details of that restructuring. Even so, there is widespread common agreement on the urgent need for change.

-O'Toole is a professor of history and author of Militant and Triumphant: William Henry O'Connell and the Catholic Church in Boston, 1859-1944.

Thomas H. Groome

About the institutional Church, we've relearned that it can be a broken and sinful structure, as well as a sacrament of the reign of God. We've realized, too, how much "ordinary" Catholics care about innocent victims, especially children; about our church and its good name; about this rich tradition of Catholic Christianity, and about good priests who are smeared by this as well. We have also come to realize more keenly that "we" are the Church, and must take responsibility for it, rather than leaving it to "them" to run things in our name.

Groome: "[The crisis] has forced us to clarify at greater depth what precisely is the focus of our faith."
We must embrace all the wonderful theology of baptism that was revived at Vatican II and put it into practice without further delay. In other words, if we - as lay people - don't participate in the mission and ministries of the Church, then it can never be the sacrament of God's reign in the world that Jesus' community of disciples should be. And, hopefully, it has made us Catholics a bit more humble about our "truth" claims; unless we live our faith as persons and as a community, our claims are simply not credible.

As Sept. 11 shifted our consciousness as American people, so this scandal has altered the attitude of Boston Catholics forever - and in many ways, for the better. For example, it has forced us to clarify at greater depth what precisely is the focus of our faith; and it is a person - Jesus Christ - not the institution of the Church per se. Now, the Church is important - even crucial - to Catholic Christian identity; we are a deeply communal faith. But the Church is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

So, the "heart" of our faith will always be the person of Jesus Christ; our faith is in God, in our scriptures and traditions, in this rich Catholic Christian heritage of sacramentality, spirituality, communality, and so on - the great deep structures of Catholicism that can still be "gifts for life." Painful as this has been, and continues to be, my hope is that it has helped to mature us in faith rather than diminishing our commitment to it.

This scandal has bewildered and embarrassed us so much, so broken our hearts, that it could actually unite us - much as a tragedy in a family can bring even its fractious members together. Maybe we'll figure out that the push-button issues that now divide "left" from "right" are not as important as basic integrity on the part of our Church; safety for our children within our parishes, institutions, and schools; honesty before ourselves and the world.

-Groome, a professor of theology, teaches at the Boston College Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry and is the author of What Makes Us Catholic: Eight Gifts for Life and Educating for Life: A Spiritual Vision for Every Teacher and Parent.


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