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David J. O'BrienAugust 13, 2012

My friends and I have worked for many years for renewal and reform in the Catholic Church. We took heart from the Second Vatican Council, the 1976 Call to Action Conference, the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letters on racism, war and economic justice in the 1980s, the awakening of Latinos and the commitment of new immigrants and the amazing generosity of Catholic women. To our great satisfaction, renewal has happened, and is happening, in our American church, but reform is another matter. A Vatican II report card might give renewal a B-plus. But reform, even in the very best dioceses, would only get C-plus, and in too many places a well-deserved F.

At the end of the Call to Action conference (the American Catholic Church’s first and only national convention), Cardinal John Dearden said that we had begun “a new way of doing the work of the church in the United States.” If we had carried out the cardinal’s vision, if we had built shared responsibility in parish and diocesan pastoral councils, if we had formed self-confident associations of diocesan priests, religious and laypeople, and if Catholic academic, medical, social service and ministerial professionals had acted responsibly, then the scandals of clerical sexual abuse would have ended between 1984 and 1993. Files would have been opened, new systems of accountability established, pastoral priorities reordered and priesthood reformed. Criminals would have gone to jail and incompetent administrators would have been turned out of office.

That did not happen, however. The moderate, realistic, nonideological reforms of Cardinal Dearden’s new way (reforms that would have given shape to the term “the people of God”) are not in place in a great variety of parishes, dioceses and institutions. Church reform has its deep and mysterious dimensions, to be sure, but the basics are not rocket science. We know, and have known, how to ensure transparency, accountability and shared responsibility in ways that support the mission of the church; that strengthen, not weaken, the authority of pastors; and that ensure the integrity of the community of faith. But all that did not happen. What was lacking among us was neither knowledge nor imagination but will and skill, commitment, organization, strategy and tactics. Our failure was not theological or spiritual, but political.

Talking Politics

If we are serious about changing the church, what we must talk about is ecclesiastical politics. Keeping the faith may be pastoral and spiritual, but changing the church is political. People have many different ideas about changing the church. Politics is the process of sorting out those ideas and making choices among them. In history, Catholic factions who were upset with conditions in the church would call on the government, in best cases the king, to carry out reforms. But the state cannot help us; it is our responsibility as Catholics to make our church a more genuine community of shared responsibility and thus a more genuine witness to the presence of Christ.

Three critical factors will shape the life of the church in the United States in years to come: the universal church, American society and the social composition and location of U.S. Catholics. Each factor has a political dimension.

The Universal Church. What happens in the Vatican and among our sister churches across the globe will make a big difference for us. The Holy Spirit is at work through people. Some good people are working hard to slow the process of renewal, strengthen the church’s central offices, reverse its ecumenical and interfaith initiatives and moderate its ministries of service to development and peace. But renewal is not over; millennial-era synods around the world have offered considerable evidence of post-colonial vitality and deep commitment to human rights in churches worldwide. There is still hope that Catholicism can once again be a communion of local churches rather than a multinational clerical organization with branch plants in each country. In the universal church of the future there will be winners and losers, as there were at Vatican I and Vatican II. As we have learned in our own American Catholic politics in recent years, organized people often gain ground, while those not well organized are disappointed.

Although we often trusted the powerful men’s religious orders to take care of our political concerns in Rome and across the world, their political strength has now waned. That has left U.S. Catholics who are interested in church reform standing alongside women religious outside the walls of the Vatican. Gazing down at us are the grinning faces of restorationists, who may have little support back home but are welcome in Vatican offices.

U.S. Society. What happens to our country will to some extent determine what happens to our church. The American people’s radical freedom, restless quest for community, accelerating religious and spiritual diversity, heroic and paradoxical dedication to their country and its highest ideals touch us because we share them. So do their retreat from civic responsibility, temptation to narcissism and abuse of power. We Catholics are American insiders. Saying that U.S. society and culture will help shape our Catholic future does not mean that we are passive playthings of cultural forces beyond our control. No, we are active participants in shaping a common life as Americans that is no less real because we deny responsibility for it. What we Catholics do to our America, not just what our America does to us, will make a difference in the future of our church.

The Face of U.S. Catholics. How will we provide pastoral care for this ever changing church? New immigrants arrive, Latinos struggle for self-determination through the encuentro process, religious orders spend their limited resources caring for their aging members, and middle-class Catholics become more evangelical, more congregational and more detached from the organizational life of the institutional church. Ours is the bewildering church the Rev. Andrew Greeley once referred to as “do-it-yourself Catholicism,” with genuine explosions of new energy in the charismatic renewal, the peace movement, a distinctively Catholic branch of the women’s movement and apostolic movements like Focolare and Sant’Egidio. Schools, hospitals and social service institutions flourish with the help of lay professionals and collaborative boards. Thousands of lay men and women carry on many of the church’s pastoral and social ministries.

But the organization does not work well. After Cardinal Dearden’s Call to Action, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin struggled to build that new way of doing the work of the church. But Vatican II bishops were replaced by more cautious men; priests’ organizations all but disappeared; religious orders lost numbers and influence; and the burgeoning cadres of deacons, pastoral assistants and directors of religious education never organized. Their ministries continued, but the common life of the church in the United States shriveled. Rather than contest the ground, pastoral leaders adopted the congregational option: we have a good parish and don’t need to go to meetings. In the resulting vacuum Catholics became divided, even polarized. When Cardinal Bernardin suggested a Catholic Common Ground Initiative, other cardinals insisted that the only thing needed for unity was the Catechism of the Catholic Church and guidance by the Holy See. In that climate divisions deepened, pressing pastoral problems were ignored, and our church experienced some yet undetermined degree of corruption. So we face a political challenge.

An Organized Lay Movement

Few things would better serve the needs of the church than an enthusiastic, self-confident, engaged Catholic lay movement to keep the faith and change the church. Toward that end I make a series of appeals:

1. Ask in the church the political questions you would ask in any other public forum. Who is in charge and how did they get there? What is the relationship between power and authority? Are we depending on the good will of an individual bishop or pastor, or are we building systems that express shared values and common objectives?

2. Say yes to all invitations to genuinely shared responsibility. Catholics do need to work together, and there is no virtue in opposition. Say yes when our parish or diocese tries to find structures of decision-making that mirror the body of Christ and when we are invited to help make parish and diocesan pastoral councils more effective. Say yes when boards of Catholic agencies doing good work need assistance.

3. Say yes to independent associations. You will be asked to choose: parish councils or school advisory boards, Voice of the Faithful or Call to Action? If you are a priest, your choice may be between the presbyteral council and an independent forum for priests. The answer is a Catholic both/and, not either/or. Cooperation and negotiation work well when participants are genuinely empowered. There are such things as premature, incomplete and phony collaboration. Parish and diocesan pastoral councils will improve when priests, pastoral staffs and laypeople are better organized and better understand their distinct vocations.

4. Make a preferential, but not exclusive, option for the laity. Think lay. Ask what each church decision or proposal means from the point of view of ordinary lay men and women. Pastoral care in our society requires dialogue, communication, relationships of mutual trust and understanding. Any layperson, for example, could explain that having two priests visit a family to determine whether their claim of clerical sexual abuse is valid is not a good idea. The lay viewpoint is vital.

5. Think about the church as it is on a Wednesday morning at 10 rather than on a Sunday morning at 9. The church is the people of God, the body of Christ, the very presence of Christ in this particular time and place—all the time, not just when people gather at the church. The test of Christian discipleship is the life we live. Catholics everywhere should recapture an idea once identified with Chicago Catholicism: that ministries, structures and prayers should be appropriate to the Catholic community, since its people are scattered in workplaces, households, neighborhoods and public squares.

6. Recognize lay holiness and talk about it. According to Vatican II: “It belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will. They live in the world, that is, they are engaged in each and every work and business of the earth and in the ordinary circumstances of social and family life, from which, as it were, the very web of their existence is woven” (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” No. 31).

7. Affirm and ask the help of laypeople who work for the church. Talk to lay ministers and religious sisters and brothers. Ask yourself: Are they paid well? Do they have good working conditions, access to adequate resources, a place at the table when pastoral policies and priorities are established? If not, why not? They are not mini-priests, after all. If they were organized, and if they would work with like-minded groups, that could make a difference.

8. When you get discouraged, think mission. The why of our church is as important as the what. Our piety and practice, our ministries and offices, are supposed to serve the mission, the purpose, the work of the church. If Jesus came to make known the meaning of life and history, and if after Pentecost Jesus lives on in his church, then there is great work to be done. We can only do it together. Our mothers and fathers sought for us education and material resources so we could have choices they never had. They did not expect us merely to maintain the church and hand it on, but rather to use our freedom and power to keep the faith and, if necessary, change the church so we could change the world the way God would want it changed. In a time of crisis for church leaders, we have to help one another keep that hope alive.

9. The church is all about people. It is a voluntary organization, as our children keep proving to us, that works through persuasion, not coercion. Many of our past problems came about because we did not trust each other. Restoring and preserving trust begins with simple encounters, like the ones used in the interfaith organizing process. Changing the church begins with getting to know each other well enough to work together to make our church, to make us, the presence of Christ. Our rootless young people have a deep hunger for friendship. It is a gift of grace in our churches, mosques and synagogues. As we work toward church reform, let us look for leaders who genuinely like people. As we do, we may witness a renaissance of pastoral life. All the rest will follow. In that spirit let us do the best we can to keep the faith and change our church.


This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:


An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the canonical state of deacons. Deacons are ordained clergy, not laypeople. 

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Mike Daniels
11 years 6 months ago

Amen!  The world desperately needs a passionate and animated Catholic laity. My favorite quote from this piece is - "Few things would better serve the needs of the church than an enthusiastic, self-confident, engaged Catholic lay movement to keep the faith and change the church."  We have some great movements in the church none more vibrant than the Cursillo.  Lay Catholics need a "mountain top" or "upper room" experience to ignite a spiritual fire in their lives, and give them a since of mission in the Church.   I highly recommend anyone who wishes to animate their spiritual life and help grow the Church to make a Cursillo weekend.  As a deacon in the Church, I believe the Holy Spirit is working though us in a unique way.  We have one foot in the world and one foot in the Church.  We bridge a gap between the world and the Church.  But I fear most deacons are too timid.  In most dioceses the deacons are far too independent.  Deacons need to join together in their mission to bring the world to Christ.  As lone rangers our impact is limited.  Thank you America Magazine for continually challenging the Church to be more inclusive, more ecumenical and more engaged. Your mission is so very important. You are the voice for so many of us.

11 years 6 months ago
David J. O'Brien needed to change little from what he had said ten years ago in order to remark thoughfully on today's discomfort with the way things are in our Church. Those great disappointments of ten years ago are more deeply disappointing now than ever. While his positive designs for action need to become imperative directions from an active faith, I do not think they adequately challenge the very real political weal of bishops and priests. I am a priest with fifty years of service to the people of God as to the Body of Christ himself. When I hold and consecrate the bread and wine of Eucharist I hold in my hands the self offering of both the Body of Christ and of the People of God. From inside the sacredness of such a moment I offer the following reflection on the hierarchy of which I am also myself a part.

Pope John Paul II addressed the wrongs there have been over the centuries of the Church in this world. The Bull of Indiction of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, Incarnationis mysterium (November 29, 1998) prayerfully advises a purification of memory. I have myself prayerfully considered how we priests and bishops for the Body of Christ are obliged in justice to undo the wrongs priests and bisdops have committed. Surely, Pope John Paul did not encourage a purification of memory to exempt us from learning from the tragedies for which we plead mercy from both God and all humankind. However, asking forgiveness and apologizing for the wrongs there have been is only a first step toward restorative justice.

It took some twenty centuries to find the courage of a John Paul II to ask forgiveness for previous centuries of abuse. One thinks with him of the treatment of the Moors in Spain, the persecution of the Jews into our own day, the support of human slavery and the abuse of the Amerindians. (In 2000 the sex abuse scandal was not on the list of John Paul II.) Asking forgiveness, however, is only a first step. Two further steps are required if our sincerity is to suffer no doubts. Second step: there must be the promise that such wrongs will not happen again. And the third step: finally and crucially we must be able to explain, not excuse, why such wrongs happened in the first place. Only this third step is able to establish a convincing witness for the sincerity of any request for forgiveness. The explanation, not an excuse, for these past crimes must be given by the highest authority of the Church. There are plenty of competent scholars who could be employed to research such a document, as is the case with all pontifical pronouncements.  A scholarly book or article in a journal is entirely inadequate to the task of recovering and owning a respectable Christian position of leadership with Gospel values. To conclude with brevity: Only the highest authority of the hierarchy can repudiate its own mistakes, its lack of oversight and compromised Gospel values. Implementing the process of restorative justice is itself only a first step toward union with the Heart of Christ for his Church as the sacrament of communion with God and all the peole on earth (Lumen Gentium, 1.). A passion for knowing the will of God and the practice of skilled discernment will be the Lord's answer to our prayers for change in the Church. "...and begin with me!"
11 years 6 months ago
Two great comments above. Thank you Deacon Mike and Fr. Jerome.
Eileen Gould
11 years 6 months ago

I am very touched by Fr. Knies' heartfelt comment above. However, the sex abuse problem is only one of myriad problems in the Church. The hierarchal nature of the church can only be compared to the Rule of Kings, being the last one standing, along with Elizabeth II's in England. How is the power, control and wealth of the Holy See comparable with the good that comes out of it? What has it done to enhance its relationship with American Catholics, other than to stack the College of Cardinals with followers rather than leaders and, insult of insults, lift Cardinal Law out of Boston and criminal abuses into a cushy Cathedral in Rome. Really, Icould go on and on because, at 86, I have a long memory and do not fear saying it like it is. That's some of the bad news. The Good News is:

I love Jesus' Universal Catholic Church with a fervor more than I ever have. I believe in Teilhard's evolutionary spirituality. I believe that the Holy Spirit works slowly. I believe that Catholic thought (in surprising areas) professors of philosophy, small faith communities, bible studies (!) and the people in the pews has undergone unbelievable changes since the 1930's, 40's and 50's. The Body of Christ is no longer a medieval church.

I love my local Church with an unbelievable fervor. It has all the earmarks of the very model of the church of the future. Overflowing with social action endeavors, funeral/wedding hospitality, something for everyone to belong to and add to and learn from. And, we like each other! These feelings aren't made up in my head. They are palpable. Visitors have actually told me so. The Big Problem:

Truth be told, there are just so many who want to move forward, just as in American politics. But there are many, probably in the majority, who love Jesus just as much as I do, but their nature prefers not only to stay as they are but want to go back....to the 30s, the 40s and 50s. There's just one thing I can hang on to (and funny, I won't be around to know): you just can't stop progress.

(Love this magazine. Wish I'd had a Jesuit education.)



Ralph Anderson
11 years 6 months ago
What an exellent article by David O'Brien, which has become increasingly more relevant over the years, of the leadership in the Roman Catholic Church.  I have the utmost respect David's outreach and leadership, when he was a professor at Holy Cross College in Worcester.

I was blessed to have attended Barlin Acres, the Worcester Diacese program for educating and traning  candidates to be ordained to the diaconate.  The Worcester Diocese, under the leadership at the time of Bishop Flanigan, was the only Roman Catholic Diocese in the country to admit ecumenical candidates, of which I was one.  During that period, Worcester became the leader in ecumenical activitiy in the entire nation.   It was an exciting period in which to have lived and experenced the the joy and the fellowship of our fellow brothers and sister in the Lord.

Somewhere along the way, our relationship faded and our local ecumenical office was closed.  It had always been my hope that some day the Anglican Church would be reunited with our Roman Catholic brotherrs and sisters.  But my hope has faded, and I have been forced to go "undergound."  

Your Brother In Christ,
deacon ralph anderson
11 years 6 months ago
Can change in church take place within such a strong structure? Are there any hierarchal leaders or cheer leaders for change? Is everybody important too happy with the status quo to respect ideas, old or new?
  Who will lead the charge?
Mike Evans
11 years 6 months ago
Sadly, our parishes are now minimally staffed with foreign born and trained priests who have little connection to American culture or any of the post Vatican II experiences that enlivened our country. Most come from countries with no experience with deacons. Most do not relate well with women in leadership. Our nuns are collector items where they still exist. Our liturgies are barely passable and the new missal is a bust. People are finding the church more and more irrelevant to their daily life and retreating into their own devotional favorites in search of consolation and community. Our entire organizational structure is designed in secrecy and need to know. The whole structure is top heavy and inbred. And our kids and grandkids are being left behind - no one is meeting their needs. The Spirit is providing many remedies but no one is listening.
Ralph Anderson
11 years 6 months ago

How sad the current stiuation appears to be in the leadership of the Church.  However, there do appear to be parishes where the focus seems to be exlusively on the parish and not on the church leadership.  It is my hope that this will model for the local parishes in the future.   It appears that it will be a slow process of evolution.  Keep praying about the situation and never loose hope.   

One word of Quaker wisdom which has become very powerful for me over the past several weeks: 

"I do not know the way; way will open." 

This insight speaks to the deep mystery that Jesus experienced.  He asked that the cross be taken from him.  Perhaps in His humanity he "did not know the way" to handle the suffering it would involve and did not know how the resurrection would happen.  Yet He knew that God would find a way to lead Him through suffering and death into the resurrection, so he prayed, "Thy will be done."  Jesus trusted His Heavenly Father would "open a way' to accomplish the mission for which He had been sent to earth. 

?Al?l ?of us have significant areas in our lives and ministry where "we do not know the way."  Jesus has a word for us: "I know that you do not know the way.  Trust that I will open a way."  ???


? ?

Leonard Villa
11 years 6 months ago

I sort of knew where this was going when I noted the phrase "Vatican II report card although nothing from Vatican II was quoted or referenced. But then the F for reform indicated that the Vatican II referenced was one that never happened. It's a Vatican II imagined. But the hermaneutic principle in the essay is the bad ecclesiology referring to a "multinational clerical organization with branch plants" as oppposed to a "communion of local churches." That does not sound like Lumen Gentium actually by Vatican II on the nature of the Church. Any notion of government by consensus has to be consistent with Lumen Gentium to be styled "Vatican II." That document makes it pretty clear that the Church is hierarchical and not a liberal democaracy. The vox populi is not the source of government or doctrine or discipline.

The Church teaches the following: Sometimes, however, the idea of a "communion of particular Churches" is presented in such a way as to weaken the concept of the unity of the Church at the visible and institutional level...For this reason, "the universal Church cannot be conceived as the sum of the particular Churches, or as a federation of particular Churches"(41). It is not the result of the communion of the Churches, but, in its essential mystery, it is a reality ontologically and temporally prior to every individual particular Church.I See Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of the Church as Communion approved by Bl John Paul II in 1992 I am not getting that from the essay above.

Regarding the notion of purification of memory, certainly if this means acknowledging the past sins and weaknesses of members of the Church in historical fashion and remembering the principle Ecclesia semper riformanda. The Church must always be reformed but always within the context of orthodoxy. Hence our models are the great reformers: Francis, Dominic, Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Vincent De Paul, De Sales, Ignatius, Catherine of Siena. There are your models!

Also the claim that Cardinal Dearden was not "ideological" is not explained although Cardinal Dearden has been described by Thomas Reese as an "unobstrusive liberal." Whether that is ideological requires an analysis of Cardinal Dearden's tenure. Political liberalism today is intensely ideological with the ideology "creating" reality because its intellectual pedigree is a radical subjectivism whereby only ideas are known and real. That's why everything with liberals is fluid so to speak. However, liberal/conservative can only have Catholic meaning in the context of orthodoxy which is determined by the Church and not by individuals or local churches.

Maggie Rose
11 years 6 months ago
love the pic of the pew-sitters. count me in for that group.

we lay folks don't have power and privilege in the church. good thing, imo. we who remain in the pews love our faith, live in hope of life, and invest ourselves in good works guided by the doctrines and the religious of this amazingly beautiful church. and still i know that the hierarchy needs to return to its original charisms and be as christ was to strangers, to his followers, and to the power structure of his day.

and those charisms have nothing to do with the democratic processes of a confederation of churches, but it has everything to do with right thinking followed by right actions and offering correct guidance back to the laity. it cannot be "back to the laity" if it didn't start there by listening and consulting. dictatorial methods are used when leadership fails. if leadership is done correctly (and oh how i pray for that charism!) then our current powers that be, i.e. the hierarchy will have nothing to fear from a confederaton of local churches guided by prayerful people in love with their church. can the hierarchy give over to listening and consultation? so far, i have to give a resounding "no. doesn't look like it." but my prayers and attendance continue as do many others i imagine.

excellent article. thank you. it is true: both/and appears to be the way to strength through unity. those who remain either/or ... well, bless their hearts what can i possible say to comfort them?! [rhetorically asked]
James Palermo
11 years 6 months ago

            Many people remain in the Church or are drawn to it, because of their faith in Jesus Christ, who declared the greatest commandment is to love God and to love our neighbors. We long for a loving community and find hope in the Church’s inspired social teachings. 

            The reality of the Church is that most faithful members are not aware of the Church’s social teachings and are either indifferent to, or strongly opposed to progressive initiatives.  And too many of our leaders are concerned almost exclusively with creedal orthodoxy at the expense of helping us live lives of Christ-centeredness. Sermons are too often focused on theology and hermeneutics in a manner that skirts controversy and lulls into believing that we need not confront the myriad injustices that hide Christ from the world: love of neighbor regardless of race, or sexual orientation; excessive corporate and personal greed; the imperative for living wages and the right of workers to join unions; the obligation to provide healthcare for everyone; the obligation to provide financial security for the elderly and infirmed – in other words, all the issues that have been addressed beautifully as part of the Church’s social teachings.

            Change in the church cannot take place in an environment in which there is no room for questioning or dissent by individuals, who are required to believe even the unbelievable dictates from an autocratic hierarchy. There is no way to change an institution that defines “dialogue” as being a process in which the hierarchy assists us in accepting their pronouncements.




11 years 6 months ago
I was only the fifth laymen in the country to be named Diocesan Superintendent of Catholic Education in 1971. During my advancement to that position, I had the opportunity to follow the leadership of a bishop and priest/superintendent who firmly believed in meaningful lay involvement. Their leadership called for the establishment of boards of education invlolving parents as early as 1965 - even before parish councils were launched. They promoted the development of just wages and uniform personnel policy for lay and religious staff.

During my tenure in the diocesan office, it became quite clear that pastors still called the shots regardless of the direction and policies issued by the diocese and affirmed by the bishop. I have remained very active in Church ministires and participative decision-making ever since my time in the diocesan office and my opinion about pastoral independence has been reaffirmed. 

This actually works quite effectively when the pastor is a secure individual who is not threatened by participative decision-making.

I may have concerns about Rome being out of touch with the needs of the American Church and I fear that we still have not fully realized the fall-out of the sex-abuse scandle, but my greater concerns for the future of the Church are our inability to more effectively instruct the faithful on the real presence of the Lord in the Eucharist and the fact that we are losing the battle with all kinds of societal influences that work against the meaningful involvement of our youth.

Perhaps prayer is the answer! 
Stacie Court
11 years 6 months ago
Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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