BC Opens Forum on Church's Future

BC Opens Forum on Church's Future

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Dedicated to Cardinal Newman's prescription that "great minds need elbow room," an ambitious academic inquiry into the current crisis in the Catholic Church was launched at Boston College Wednesday night with an address by a prominent American religion writer who seized sacred cows by the horn.

Longtime Newsweek Religion Editor Kenneth L. Woodward, speaking to a Conte Forum audience of 4,000, challenged the Church and Catholic universities to do a better job of passing on the Catholic faith. Woodward was keynote speaker at the opening session of The Church in the 21st Century, a two-year academic inquiry Boston College is sponsoring into the issues underlying the clerical sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.

Himself a Catholic, Woodward urged discussion of the ordination of women and married men, while noting his own opposition to either innovation. He encouraged a greater lay voice in Church affairs, but warned against too closely emulating mainline Protestant denominations that have been in steady decline.

And he credited the Church's defense of traditional concepts of marriage and family, but argued Church teachings against contraception have undermined its witness on abortion.

"My advice to Catholic friends...is 'Look before you leap' - that is, I see no reason why the Catholic Church should imitate those declining mainline Protestant denominations which ordain women, reject clerical celibacy and institutionalize lay leadership. Would-be Church reformers would do well to study the Protestant experience, where they would learn that tyranny by committee can be as stifling as tyranny by hierarchy."

Introducing the event, University President William Leahy, SJ, said The Church in the 21st Century project will focus on three issues: the roles of the laity, priests and bishops; sexuality in Catholic teaching and contemporary culture, and the challenge of passing on the Catholic faith to succeeding generations.

"Obviously, Boston College alone cannot resolve all the hurts and challenges facing the Catholic community today," said Fr. Leahy. "Nor does it seek to supplant bishops or others in the Church who must eventually respond to pressing issues.

"Our initiative intends to be respectful of the Church and its teachings and tradition, strive for balance and fairness in its programs, and promote healing and understanding in the Catholic Church.

"I realize that at times our initiative may generate disagreement and controversy. Faithful Catholics hold different opinions about many important matters, and it may well be, at times, that views and positions will become controversial or disputed.

"When that happens, we need to remind ourselves that Boston College, as a university, is committed to open discussion and to the objective consideration of the wide variety of opinions that can be reasonably argued."

Respondents at the event were Monan Professor of Theology Lisa Sowle Cahill, Prof. Roberto S. Goizueta (Theology) and Boston College Trustee John Connors Jr. '63, chairman and CEO of Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos.

Connors, a prominent executive who is one of the most active Catholic laymen in the city, sent a charge through the arena with pointed criticisms of the Boston Archdiocese's handling of clerical sexual-abuse cases.

"Those church leaders who have made a series of bad judgments may continue to hold onto their titles, but they will be leaders in title only," he said. "We need to open the doors, let in some fresh air, stop sweeping our secrets under the Orientals.

"The Church is the people," said Connors. "Our faith has lasted 2,000 years. Today, you and I are the stewards. We are the future."

Woodward responded to Fr. Leahy's plea for open discussion with an address likely to stir reactions on the academic left as well as on the clerical right.

"This initiative...emphasizes the importance of a Catholic university as the place where the church does its learning. If a university is not free to inquire, it is not a university. But if it does not understand and respect its role in the basic mission of the Church, it is not a Catholic university.

"I hope your project will be a sober and balanced probe. The culture of the American academy, unfortunately, has in general become more ideological - and therefore more intellectually predictable - since the late 1960s. It has also become generally hostile to all forms of authority other than its own. In light of this, your task will be all the more delicate if it is properly dispassionate, humbly intellectual rather than arrogantly academic."

Woodward said the time was "long overdue for a disciplined discussion of ordaining women and married men to the priesthood." But he noted he opposed both changes, for reasons he found "sociologically compelling," and warned that Protestant-style reforms would not necessarily change the Church for the better.

Woodward urged a "professionalization" of the priesthood that would bring standards and accountability to parish ministry, and at the same time, a greater attention by bishops to spiritual discernment than to careerism. "I'd rather a bishop with a knack for holiness than a head for business," he said.

He suggested the laity be given a greater role in running the institutional machinery of the Church, and also a voice in the appointment of hierarchy. "I see this crisis as an opportunity to demand and declare new criteria for choosing and judging bishops," he said. "It is within church tradition to give a voice to the clergy in the selection of bishops, and I see no reason why such a voice - or at least a taking of the pulse - could not be given to laity, as well."

[More of Kenneth Woodward's remarks are available through the BCInfo or Chronicle Web sites. For information on The Church in the 21st Century, see www.bc.edu/church21]

 

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