Thursday, November 7, 2002

(Read previous blog to see where this begins)

Since trust is the issue, and what we are after is a process that is trustworthy no matter who is in charge, the next question, it seems to me, is – is the current way of organization of the Church a help or hindrance to that process?

What we’re talking about is specifically a structure of leadership that is essentially ordained, composed of pope, bishops and priests. Body of Christ, People of God, yadda, yadda. All true. But do you know what? Take away all the parish councils and lay employees and what do you have? You still have the clerics arrayed in their hierarchical splendor. You still have your church leadership. When you get down to the nitty gritty, in terms of church governance, that’s the bottom line.

It seems to many that the specific organization of the hierarchy at this moment in time is, indeed, a hindrance to a transparent process of response to clerical sexual abuse. The reasons are simple, for they are the same reasons that any group, whether they be priests, fire fighters, doctors, teachers or nuns tend to close in on themselves: protection of their own and the reputation of the vocation.

And the question is – how to overcome that in terms of the Catholic clerical culture?

There are many suggestions, some doable, some not. Married priests would surely infuse a new spirit into the Catholic priesthood, it’s said. Making sure that there were no homosexuals admitted into the priesthood would eliminate the widely acknowledged gay subculture in the priesthood, one that leads to a great deal of secret-keeping and explicit and implicit blackmail, it’s said.

Well, maybe. Well, maybe not. But in either case, that’s not what the bishops are about next week, and not what’s in their area of responsibility at the moment.

Two possible angles of action remain, then:

Involving the laity in the process and mandating sanctions for bishops who fail to follow the process and allow sexual abusers to remain in ministry.

The first possibility seems reasonable and necessary, but even so, it sends waves of fear through the wary souls of some. They fear that the wrong people will be involved – either those with a radical agenda, or those who are nothing but yes-people for the episcopacy. They fear a dilution of decision making in the Church.

After all, take a look at your parish council. Good people, indeed. But do you really want the likes of the duly elected parish council of St. Grandiose telling the rest of the diocese – including you – what to do? And, as Kenneth Woodward pointed out in his recent speech at Boston College, given the wretched state of theological understanding among most adult Catholics, it is dangerous to speak unthinkingly of handing decision making responsibilities over to those who have only the most tenuous understanding of faith, and what understanding they have is, for the most part, firmly grounded in 2002, with little historical perspective.

But…on the other hand…there are some who are out there arguing that to involve the laity in the process, and to give them real power – for the sake of checks and balances and keeping the episcopacy honest and transparent – is a violation of some sort of immutable tradition of Church leadership in which no one except the ordained have made decisions about church administration.

Well, there is no such immutable, consistent tradition.

Certainly, what has not changed is the sense that the ordained, as heirs to the apostles, are gifted with the responsibility of faithfully transmitting the Gospel and administering the sacraments. It is through their ministry and service that this is accomplished, nourishing the rest of us to do our own part in following Christ and ministering to others. But…

When it comes to the business of church-building and maintaining, woven into the frankly monarchical tradition of leadership are, all along, in and out, sometimes stronger than others, the laity, playing a role, not just in the institutions dedicated to the works of mercy (schools, hospitals, service to the poor, devotional life), but also in the leadership of the backbone to it all – the diocesan and parish structure of the Church. The laity have played roles in selecting bishops and calling men to priesthood. Lay rulers have convened church councils and dismissed them. Lay rulers have appointed bishops and dismissed them. Groups of laypeople have started parishes from the ground up, purchasing land, building the church and calling in a priest to serve. Granted, some of this “lay involvement” is not anything we would desire today, coming, as it did, out of decidedly non-democratic societies and cultures that were perfectly comfortable with an organic understanding of the relationship between church and state. But the fact is – it is there. It is there in our past, it is there in our tradition. Lay people have not been simply paying, praying and obeying for the past 2,000 years. Central to the life of the lay baptized is, of course, the apostolate to witness to Christ in the world, in the family, in every aspect of every day life. But – it is so important to know and understand this – lay involvement in church administration on the parish and diocesan level – involvement with a meaningful role - with yes, I’ll go ahead and say it – power – is not a new idea nor one that is unheard of in our tradition.

So to scoff at the possibility of involving laity in the process of protecting children and youth from clerical sexual abusers in a way that is meaningful and real is not only unfair – it is ignorant.

To be continued….

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