The Crisis, St. Thomas & The Laity

When we launched "The Good Word" a few years ago, we hoped it would be a place to meditate on events in the news in light of Scripture. For Catholics the news these days focuses largely on the church itself, so it seems fitting to take up the issue of the sexual abuse crisis on this blog, as John W. Martens did a few weeks ago.

So, we offer here an analysis of the crisis in light of the story of St. Thomas. Father Robert Beloin, the Catholic chaplain at Yale University, began his sermon last week with that famous Gospel account, and then outlined the "perfect storm" facing the church. What makes his reflections worth reading, we think, is his rather provocative argument that the laity deserve at least some of the blame for the current mess. Thanks to our publisher, Jan Attridge, for bringing this to our attention, and convincing Father Bob to send it along. For a full text of the sermon email me.


We need Thomas’ courage to live in the Church today. With so much disheartening publicity about the Church, with so much confusion about how things could have possibly gotten so bad, it would be easy to go behind locked doors and keep our religion private, away from the messiness of community, imperfect by definition. We need to be like Thomas: courageous, not afraid, out there and not hiding behind locked doors...

Our Church is experiencing a perfect storm: three dynamics have gotten us into a heap of trouble: first, the lack of a robust accountability for priests – they are only accountable to the bishop; second, the lack of a robust accountability for bishops – they are only accountable to the pope; and third, a passive laity that does not demand a voice in the important organizational affairs of the Church where their expertise could make such a difference.  Given those three factors, a perfect storm would inevitably hit – it was only a matter of time....

The factor of a passive laity does not get much attention but it too is a factor in our crisis. There is a parish in this Archdiocese where a new pastor arrived and announced that since the parish never had a finance council he was not going to start one and he was disbanding the parish council because he said, “I don’t do meetings.” The response of the laity was “OK Father.”  There is another parish in this Archdiocese where a new pastor disbanded all the Small Church Communities that had been meeting in the parish for more than four years. The response of the laity, with some objections, was ultimately “OK Father.” Some priests see a parish as “their parish” and too many parishioners passively accept it.....

We are in for some painful days.  After it all, the Church will emerge the better, the holier. Several new movements in the Church, such as the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, can help to get us there.

There is a clear awareness that changes need to be made; the Church that we love cannot go back to business as usual. Living in this period, we will know what it was like to live during the reformation that began with Martin Luther in 1517 and the counter-reformation that began with the Council of Trent in 1545 and ended in 1648 after the 30 Years War.  Read your Church history and see those 131 years of turmoil.  As I said in my Easter homily, the Second Vatican Council taught that the Church is semper reformanda - always reforming. The Church did not collapse over turmoil in the past and the Church will not collapse now.  But it will have to change and because of your baptismal calling, you need to step up to the plate and be an important part of this dynamic, changing, improving Church.

So, it’s a privileged time to be Catholic: helping the Church to make changes for the sake of future generations.  Come to the Eucharist this morning and pray for the grace to see how you can bring your gifts and talents to promote the improvement of the Church. It will not be easy. For the journey, like Thomas, be skeptical but don’t become cynical and more than all, take courage and with courage work and pray that our Church may become something of beauty once again.  For in the presence of beauty - we feel more alive.

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Mike Ashland
8 years 9 months ago
Reidy's third leg of the three dynamics, a passive laity, is ridiculous.  "Yes, Father.  Ok." is born out of the complete and utter lack of collegiality in the selection of said pastor.  Yes, some diocese pay lip service to the selection of a pastor by holding "listening sessions" and needs assessments.  But the parish, the laity, do no choose and hire the pastor.
Until this changes, the lay congregation is powerless beyond withholding tithe (the consequences of which are born by the staff and congregation, not the pastor) and/or not attending Mass.  As parish numbers have dwindled, we don't see change.  We see consolidation.
This perfect storm calls for a new Council, a change to the democratic leadership of the early church that institutionalizes the accountability Reidy recognizes is lacking.
James Curry
8 years 9 months ago
The Church must make its peace with democracy.  It once made its peace with imperial rule and later with feudalism and monarchy  It must and will eventually come around. 
In the meantime, there will be discord, because free people will ultimately not be arbitrarily ordered about.  If the Church persists in its monarchical regimes, it will lead to nothing good for the institutional Church.
Rebecca Mandala
8 years 8 months ago
The laity has certainly attempted to speak out - I've seen parishioner battling "conservative" hard line pastors and "liberal" hard line pastors. It always ends with the pastor insisting that he is the authority - and the bishop always backs the pastor. I agree that the laity need to speak up, but this does little to nothing if the hierarchy believe they have no right to speak.
Mike Evans
8 years 8 months ago
Secrecy is the key to power. The church is consumed with secrecy at every level. No one wants open meetings, real dialogue or any attempts at genuine collaborative ministry. Consultation is often a joke - as in 'I heard your comments but I will make my own decision.' No wonder laity slowly withdraw and decide instead to go fishing or play golf. And our kids are quick to point out all the inconsistencies of the church and the disconnects between what is preached and what is practiced. I am not hopeful for much change until a new council is called and a few new windows opened. The air in here is stifling the Spirit.
Alec Niedermaier
8 years 8 months ago
The inherent problems that so many Catholics and parishes as a whole deal with today are obvious, but I hesitate nevertheless to insist that the best - or only - solution is to move towards the democratization of Church governance. There are numerous factors other than the failings of church hierarchy at work in this 'perfect storm,' two of which are the sever lack of authentic leadership at the local, parochial and diocesan level as well as an absence of true communication between laity and clergy. On the one hand I feel terribly unengaged by my local pastor - and have felt so in every church I have attended. I seriously ask myself if it is wrong to expect a pastor to personally seek out his parishioners - especially young ones - and engage them in any way possible in the spiritual and physical life of the church. On the other hand, I sense there is vast divide in terms of communication between laity and their clergy. Communication in terms of expectations, needs, doubts, weaknesses and concerns, all forms of communication that draw these two groups together in the common pursuit of the Kingdom.
As a 23-year-old, I'm totally shocked to hear myself say this, but I don't necessarily want to see the democratization of the Church. Rather, I (and I think many other Catholics) desire to be inspired and motivated, heard and individually engaged by true and grace-filled leaders at all levels in the church. That's how I interpret the lives of the earliest bishops and their congregations, whereas today hierarchy seems more a matter of promotion than anything else.
Indeed, the voices of all lay persons need to be acknowledged and taken heed of, but as lay persons we also need to recognize the awesome and holy potential (for it's only through God's mercy and grace) of being led by truly holy persons. And we who are serious about our faith must speak up, demand and defend such a lofty standard. To the clergy, thus: Engage us.  
John Raymer
8 years 9 months ago
What you are implying is that the governance of the Church needs to change from its current model, which is the Royal Court of an absolute monarch, to a modern democratic model. As long as the Church is modeled after a Royal Court none of the changes you advocate can happen because lines of power and authority run in the wrong direction. As it stands now, priest are accountable to their bishops, bishops to the pope, and the pope to God. If the pope or a bishop is not up to the task, then all under him are left without adequate accountability. There is no mechanism for the people to speak - except with their feet and wallets.

Since the Magna Carta, each major country in Europe has experienced a similar perfect storm at least once. Eventually, each major country reformed their governance to a more modern system. Conservatives in those countries typically made strong objections based on the Divine Right of Kings, dynastic succession, and all sorts of other reasons. But those arguments all eventually passed away. In some cases, the passing of the old regime was peaceful and orderly. In others it was as violent as the guillotine and Lenin. Where the passing was peaceful, constitutional monarchies evolved; where it was violent, the kings and their nobles were executed and the countries became republics.

St. Paul the apostles wrote, "when I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away my childish things." Are you saying it is time for the Catholic Church to put away its obsolete form of governance?

8 years 9 months ago
I too have been waiting for a rebellion in the pews. I hear a lot of venting, of grinding of teeth, of pain and anguish.
Again, if all these pedophile acts had been only committed by women, our hierarchy would have had a field day. We would be nailed by the fingers and toes on the front door of churches - excommunicated, burnt at the stake. 
But correcting one's own kind (ask a doctor or a lawyer to admit that a colleague should be corrected) is another matter.
As a layperson, I quit contributing to our parish when the Bishop told his priests that they could not have altar girls. 
We laypeople can stop supporting Rome financially and we women can stop working in our parish until matters are straightened out. We can also say no when a priest takes a decision that goes against the Spirit.
We think we have no power because we give the hierarchy our power. The day we keep our own power, things will change.
I will not hold my breath though, for I have as little hope for a rebellion in the pews (it may be easier to move to an Anglican or Episcopalian church) as for transparency from Rome.
John Raymer
8 years 9 months ago
Hope in the Resurection is the hardest part of our faith. Like Thomas, we just can't see past the cross. We may have witnessed many miracles along the way - lives transformed, people healed, the poor fed - but we can't see past our own death. We cannot accept that we must die to ourselves - all our ways, hopes and dreams - before we can be born anew.

That is where our Church is today. It is very hard to see past our impending death as an institution to the resurection beyond. But unless we accept the humiliation and suffering, enter into the cross as Jesus did, we will stay stuck in our sin.

The coming transformation is most frightening. St. Peter could not accept it and denied Christ three times. St. Thomas could not accept it on testimony but required his own proof. Can we accept it? Are we ready to replace the mitre with the crown of thorns?
Jeanne Follman
8 years 9 months ago
I see these options. To haul a term back from the old days, consciousness raising (e.g., continuing the dialog here and elsewhere to get to a clearer understanding of the past, present and the way forward). Moral suasion, for those who have ears to hear. Papal disobedience, like the nuns are engaging in by not filling out the visitation questionnaires. Exercising the power inherent in the fact that we pay for just about everything. There are things we can do.
Paul Kelley
8 years 9 months ago
I question ranking a passive laity on the level with the other two serious issues. Some members of he laity have made strenuous efforts not to be passive and to seek the changes which many feel as necessary. I refer particularly to the Voice of the Faithful. The bishops have I believe been mainly hostile to this organization. Many do not permit it to meet on parish grounds. Cardinal Law in Boston at one point issued a ban against new groups being formed in local parishes. Cardinal O'Malley, his apparently more benevolent successor, hasnot lifted the ban. If it seems the laity is too passive it is because thehierarchy will not tolerate it being otherwise.


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