What Kind of Church Is This?

We have struggled this season with a number of deeply troubling issues related to the tragedies of sexual abuse of minors by priests in this country. The first wave of responses, rightly enough, has been to put a stop to systems and behavior patterns that pose immediate risks to potential victims. The next wave has devoted attention to fixing flawed structures and to matters of legal and moral justice. That so many of these initiatives have been forced upon the Catholic Church by concerned outside parties ought to be, and is, a source of significant disquiet for many of the baptized.

Among the painful lessons is the profound danger that comes when one separates theology from concrete life. This danger is posed not only to right thinking but, more important, to the well-being of innocent persons. In many academic discussions it has become so commonplace to separate ecclesiological theory from experience that it may seem incongruous to combine ecclesiology and sexual abuse in the same sentence. Yet the exigencies of real life have a way of intruding upon the seminar rooms and pulpits.


What kind of a church is it that perpetuates moral sickness and the violation of children but does not seem capable of recognizing it? What kind of ecclesiology is this that manifests itself in institutions and leadership patterns that are so obviously defective? What models of church are so disconnected from the lives of actual people that, left to themselves, they remain unmoved and untroubled by such “dangerous memories”? What follow are several insights for a chastened theology of church, correctives that have been thrust upon the collective Catholic consciousness during the past few months.

1. The church is not Jesus Christ. This apparently obvious axiom in ecclesiology has received scant acknowledgment in pastoral praxis, in the documents that emanate from teaching authorities and in sermons preached on Sunday mornings. Several implications flow from this simple principle. One is that nothing is self-evidently God’s will simply because some cleric, council or Roman dicastery has said so. While Jesus Christ can be afforded that kind of respect, the church is a more ambiguous reality. However intimately and beautifully interrelated are Jesus and church, they are not coterminous.

A related implication is that the reverence owed to the church, while real, is not the same as the deference due to Jesus Christ. That is because the quality of “holiness” attributable to each is not the same. The holiness of Jesus is such as to push aside all sin and darkness. The holiness of the church still allows for the possibility of harboring pedophiles. One who points out this fact in public is not thereby unfaithful, notwithstanding some recent episcopal comments to the contrary.

2. The church is the people of God. That this, one of the most fundamental images of Vatican II ecclesiology, labors so mightily in practice after two generations is a scandal of its own. All the charisms bestowed by Christ upon his community of disciples are enjoyed by virtue of baptism, albeit not in identical ways. The council was clear on this concept. This means that it is never the case that some of the baptized have great moral standing and others have none, even in deliberations over ecclesial identity and practice. When concerned relatives and friends point out to church leaders the possibility of serious sin in the clergy, it is not merely good organizational and communication strategy; it is good ecclesiology. It is taking co-responsibility seriously. The Christian response to such complaints is neither “You are mistaken” nor “Trust me to handle it.”

Likewise, the present warmed-over conversations over mandatory clerical celibacy, homosexuality and the ordination of women are exchanges in which every member of the church has a legitimate standing. For that reason, the conversations must be grounded in properly theological principles. These questions cannot be decided on the basis of which person has greater coercive power, or who has access to power in the first place.

3. The church is servant to the world. Human welfare is never to be subordinated to the image, or even to the good order, of the church. This is merely to acknowledge that the church is always in the service of an end greater than itself, namely the kingdom of God. While these two are not utterly separable, the practical consequence of making this priority real is to change many of the relative values of pastoral praxis. Under the control of such a model, concern for public scandal or for a pastor’s reputation is relativized in light of the physical and emotional harm inflicted upon young parishioners. Here Catholic orthodoxy is to be evaluated with greater appeal to the theological virtues than to the prescriptions of law and doctrine, let alone the rules of ecclesiastical decorum. Where was the kingdom in the chancery offices now embattled in lawsuits?

4. Church ministry is essentially relational. When trust is violated by priests who abuse, it disrupts an entire network of persons and groups. Ministry is not established by the conferring of title or status. Rather it is a summons from the body of Christ for the purpose of service within it. Hence it is little consolation to hear of the “defrocking” of abusive priests, as if this were an adequate or even appropriate response. While forced laicization, a juridical response, may be deemed necessary in certain cases, as an ecclesiological reality it is without coherence. There is no theology that can make sense of the idea that a man once ordained may be laicized later because of moral misdeeds, however abhorrent. Thus there is a forced recourse to a technical distinction between the canonical priesthood and the sacramental priesthood.

But what kind of a priesthood exists apart from any concrete community or explicit communion with a bishop? Such a notion of ministry is a thoroughly spiritualized concept that cannot account for the relationships present (or now absent) in the parishes where Catholics gather. This kind of so-called sacramental priesthood permits the church to remedy concrete crises of ministry, but only at the expense of removing every facet of relationality from the definition of what ministry is. We ought not to be consoled easily by such a response to this concrete tragedy.

If a theology of ministry that we profess to be adequate cannot account for the church as it really is and cannot be of service to it at a time of crisis, might this point to the need for correction in our prevalent abstract theological projects?

5. The church is one and many. Recently the attorney for an alleged abuse victim proposed a civil lawsuit that threatened to name the Vatican as a co-defendant. After all, reasoned the complaint, the church is one and universal. It would seem to follow that those in Rome stand in a direct line of moral and fiscal responsibility when harm is perpetrated by clergy. The proposal, however, was swiftly rebuked in at least one curial statement that reiterated that each Roman Catholic diocese is an integral church. Financial and legal affairs are to be negotiated at the level of the local church, said the statement.

That is not bad communio ecclesiology, but it is difficult to reconcile with the preponderance of teaching and church praxis during less fractious times. This is, after all, the same Curia that has asserted in magisterial documents the “ontological priority” of the universal church over the local churches. Such express communio ecclesiology will perhaps come as something of a surprise to readers of Liturgicam Authenticam, to the board members of I.C.E.L. and to the parishioners of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee. Among such constituencies, local integrity has seemed for a long time to count for little indeed in the actual life of the church. It compounds the scandal that litigation has elicited ecclesiological affirmations that the documents of Vatican II have been unsuccessful in bringing to the surface.

6. The pope is head of the college of bishops, and is not distinct from it. Noteworthy in the media coverage of the scandals has been the clamor for Pope John Paul II to render a decisive and unambiguous statement regarding the crisis. This is not an instinct of the secular press alone. But why should Rome be the place from which direction for this North American crisis ought to come? It is no diminishment of the papacy as the center of ecclesial unity to question this instinct. In fact, it is at the heart of our ecclesiology to question it. Is it not telling that so many automatically turn to St. Peter’s Square for guidance about almost any matter?

There are diocesan bishops in every place where sexual-abuse scandals have occurred, and they have rendered, in response, numerous statements and directives. But these seem incidental in the Catholic imagination of most people. More firmly in place in the minds of more of the baptized is a pyramid-shaped church, in which the pope and Curia act as the arbiters of truth and discipline on every subject. In some quarters this instinct has been both systematically instilled and actively cultivated. The result is that local bishops are viewed as credible only to the extent that they mimic the rhetoric from Rome. The bishops themselves seem painfully aware of this.

Why should one wait for the pope to pronounce on sexual exploitation when the U.S.C.C.B. and many other bishops have already come forward with their own statements? What is imagined to be lacking when a bishop denounces the exploitation of priestly power? When only one person speaks for “the church,” an intolerable weight is loaded upon that single person, and the concrete churches are deprived of available moral leadership in a time of scandal.

7. The church and its ministers are contextually situated in history. It has become commonplace in contemporary ecclesiology to speak of the gift of culture and the imperative that the church sink roots in every particular context. Stated in more philosophical terms, it is increasingly recognized that there is no visible church that can be contemplated from a singular and objectively neutral cultural perspective. This means that ecclesiology must concern itself with the existential situations of the people in the pews, without reducing its concerns to those alone.

At the moment, the faithful in Boston, New York, Palm Beach and elsewhere are reeling from allegations of abused trust on the part of their bishops. There are real injuries, real angers, real sorrows and real victims. The proper ecclesiological response is not to reiterate an abstract definition of what the bishop is and how he functions. In response to calls for Cardinal Bernard F. Law’s resignation, it has been rightly noted in Boston that the diocesan bishop ought to be regarded as a father figure in a loving family. As an ideal notion this would be adequate, but ideal fathers do not behave in the manner alleged in actual court documents in Massachusetts. To pass over this dissonance threatens to turn any theology of ministry into mythology. Is there any way that our current theologies of the episcopate can account for a bishop capable of committing grievous sin against his own flock? If not, why not? Are the only options available either to maintain an appearance of absolute moral impeccability or to remove the bishop from office?

8. The church is a sacrament of salvation. Another instinct of the Second Vatican Council was to propose an image of the church as an efficacious sign and instrument for mediating salvation to the world. Sacraments are physical, material, sensible realities that depend heavily for their mediating ability upon their coherence with the spiritual realities they signify. The eucharistic celebration, for example, must have a minimal resemblance to a human experience of dining; baptism must involve at least a few droplets of water that might signify an act of cleansing and life; and it has been often repeated that ordained priests must bear a certain physical resemblance to Jesus of Nazareth.

But what about sacramental ecclesiology? If the church is sacramental of salvation, then there is a corresponding requirement for some coherence between its concrete praxis and the values of God’s reign. Sacraments cannot be brought into existence by fiat. They must either exist in some fragmentary but real forms or else they are only ideas. We rightly declare sacramentally invalid Eucharists without food, confirmations without oil and marriages without consent. But where are the safeguards to prevent the church as sacrament from becoming a myth? Under what conditions is it no longer valid to speak of a sacramental quality of the church? Is a church that protects criminal behavior, obfuscates truth and ignores victims at least suspect as a legitimate sacrament? Isn’t even this enough to chasten our ecclesiology?

These insights do not exhaust the ecclesiological challenges imposed upon us by the scandals, but they do indicate that our theorizing about the nature of the church must be tethered to its concrete life. Eruptions of historical sin, mess and ambiguity threaten the integrity and credibility of the Christian community unless they are addressed in theology with honesty and courage. If the current sad season can serve to further this endeavor, then there is an opportunity for the darkness of sin to give way to newness and life.

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16 years 8 months ago
After perusing your issue dated, May 27/02..with its very balanced coverage of a until recently "taboo topic" for catholic periodicals,let me say just how much honesty and courage, integrity and credibility your pages produced, as Fr. Byron noted. The same could be said for all the other carefully crafted columns. Gratias Deo!

16 years 8 months ago
After perusing your issue dated, May 27/02..with its very balanced coverage of a until recently "taboo topic" for catholic periodicals,let me say just how much honesty and courage, integrity and credibility your pages produced, as Fr. Byron noted. The same could be said for all the other carefully crafted columns. Gratias Deo!

11 years 12 months ago
In the article “What Kind of Church Is This?” (5/27), J. Michael Byron refers to a judicial process, laicization, without noting that that there are several important principles that govern any canonical procedure. One of them is found in Canon 1341. It states that only after it has been “ascertained that scandal cannot be sufficiently repaired, that justice cannot sufficiently be restored and that the accused cannot sufficiently be reformed by fraternal correction, rebuke or other ways of pastoral care, is the Ordinary then to provide for a judicial or administrative procedure to impose or to declare penalties.” In this principle as well as others, canon law upholds the primary mission of the church, which is to heal and reconcile, not punish. Each time I read an article in your publication and an author refers to canon law, more often than not, the author makes an error in what he or she says, because of a lack of basic understanding of foundational principles.


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