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An unsettled realm.  In crisis comes opportunity

photograph of Kenneth Woodward


The current crisis of sexual abuse by the clergy is one of trust. It says much about the widespread lack of trust in the American Catholic Church that we are now witnessing the construction of see-through confessionals, windowed cubicles where priest and penitent can be seen but not overheard. It says even more about the failure of the Church to pass on its tradition that so few Catholics bother with the sacrament of Reconciliation, in the first place. That many of the sins left unconfessed are sexual in nature is a guess—but a guess that evokes the widespread gap between what the Church teaches about human sexuality and what, polls tell us, Catholics both lay and clerical are willing to accept. Windowed confessionals: The image parodies the call these days for institutional transparency.

I think we still don't know the full dimensions of this crisis, nor do we have any long-term solutions in hand. Indeed, the medical profession itself does not know yet what makes a man a pedophile or an ephebophile. That is why this Church in the 21st Century initiative is so important. It is shocking to realize how much institutional self-delusion prevails in the American Church, more shocking still to realize that the bishops—and the Vatican—have been unwilling to examine or even to acknowledge the many disconnects between what is taught and what is believed. This has been going on at least since 1967, when, as it happens, Newsweek magazine became the first organization of any kind, Catholic or otherwise, to poll U.S. Catholics on what they think of their Church. Now, of course, such polls are routine—indeed they are almost a cliché of reporting on the Catholic Church, designed, I guess, to show once more that substantial numbers of Catholics do not agree with some of the Church's moral teachings. They are also a form of flattery: When was the last time you saw a similar poll of Methodists, or Unitarians, or Seventh-day Adventists? Even so, the Church leadership has lacked the courage to take such data into account. I'm reminded of a once robust order of missionary sisters that is now unable to retain the few novices it attracts but—as a matter of principle—refuses to ask those who leave after a year or two what prompted their decision.

This initiative is important for another reason as well: It emphasizes the importance of a Catholic university as a 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.

Audience members at the Church in the 21st CenturyThe time is long overdue for a disciplined discussion of ordaining women and married men to the priesthood. In fact, informal and often undisciplined discussion of these issues has been going on for decades. If the bishops feel they cannot study such issues themselves, Catholic scholars ought to provide this service for them. And I speak as a Catholic who is comfortable, maybe too comfortable, with the present division of labor in the Church. I am not a lay minister, nor do I aspire to be one. I'm not even an usher. Indeed, I've always felt that the Women's Ordination Conference should focus first on diversifying the International Brotherhood of Church Ushers. Come to think of it, we'll probably have ordained women sooner than we will have female ushers.

For the record, I count myself among those who are opposed to ordaining women and even married men, for reasons that I believe are sociologically compelling. My advice to Catholic friends who think otherwise 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, and where children of clergy form their own support groups. The lesson of comparative ecclesiology is that there is no perfect way to structure a church, which means that renewal is always an ongoing process.

The Church in the 21st Century project is timely. As I speak, there is an initiative circulating among the American bishops that seeks to convoke a plenary council of the American Church, something that has not been done since 1884. And in New York, a group of Catholic lawyers and jurists are pressing the region's bishops to convene diocesan synods to discuss the crisis—in my view, a much sounder approach.

In some important dimensions, we already know what the American Church in the 21st century looks like. First, we know that its membership is changing from one kind of diversity to another: That is, the immigrants of old are being replaced by the new immigrants, mainly from Hispanic countries, whose sense of Church is, I might say, more organic than that of the culturally assimilated, post-Vatican II Anglo baby boomers. We should remind ourselves that the Catholic Church is and always has been the most diverse communion on the face of the Earth, a fact that seems to escape some of its critics in the media.

Secondly, we know that because of the sharp decline in vocations to the priesthood and, among women, to the vowed life of religious communities, the Catholic Church in the United States is well into an era where lay ministries are coming to predominate over the clerical. Just look at the statistics. The American Church has about 45,000 priests, most of them 55 years of age or older, of which a third are members of religious orders. One parish in six has no resident priest. The Church has some 80,000 women religious, also a rapidly aging population. But it now has, at last count, 13,277 permanent deacons—all male, most of them late middle-aged—and at least another 29,000 lay ministers, most of them women, who work more than 20 hours a week for the Church. And there are thousands of lay men and women who work in diocesan ministries and as paid office workers, not to mention the thousands of volunteers who work less than 20 hours a week for Catholic parishes and Catholic schools. Most Catholic theologians, as a matter of fact, are now lay women and men.

It is simply not true to say that the laity are uninvolved in the life of the Church. But it is true that the laity, especially women, have no real voice in making important decisions and none at all in the decision-making processes of the Holy See. Clericalism of this kind is not only wrong, but unnecessary and inefficient.

But what do we mean by "Church"? Consider for a moment an image of the Church that I find useful. It's not so much a theological model as Avery Dulles has elaborated, but a kind of working image. I see the Church as a pyramid, with countless circles floating inside it. The pyramid reflects the Church as a hierarchical institution, with the pope at the top. The circles represent all the innumerable ways in which members of the Church come together to form communities and to create specific missions. My point is that the pyramid is a large and fecund place that allows a host of circles to be produced within it. I'm thinking not only of individual parishes and dioceses and religious orders; I'm thinking also of the countless Catholic organizations, from the Blue Army to the Catholic Workers. I think too of the thousands of Catholic high schools and colleges that, at their best, shape the identities of individual Catholics through experiences, attachments, and lifelong connections. My own Catholic formation, for example, took place in my childhood parish. It was deepened at St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland and later at Notre Dame University. In my self-understanding, these last two communities lie closer to my core identity as a Catholic than does my present parish.

Parishes, I believe, are necessary but insufficient forms of communion within the Church. As a journalist, I find my roots in the Church nourished regularly through the communities of conversation created by Commonweal, America, First Things, and other more scholarly publications. In short, the Church as pyramid provides the unity without which there can be no diversity.

The same image can be considered from another angle, the angle of gender difference—the sort of thing that Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan likes to study. In this view, the pyramid is masculine, stressing authority, hierarchical organization. The circles are feminine, stressing mutuality and cooperation. Few Catholics, outside the clergy, experience the hierarchical in their lives. On the contrary, most Catholics experience the institutional Church as feminine: Holy Mother the Church. As I've argued elsewhere, the Catholic Church was "feminized" long before there was a feminist movement. Indeed, to the extent that the energies of organized American religion in general are devoted mainly to the nurturing of the young, to the extent that religion in America is privatized, localized, and inevitably domesticated in individual congregations that function like extended families, I would argue that religion in general is experienced as feminine rather than masculine. In any case, we know that on any given Sunday, in any given church, Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, there are always more women than men in attendance. And as any Christian pastor—male or female—will tell you, Sunday night to Sunday morning on the congregational level, the clergy operate in a world that is essentially bleached of males. And so it has always been.

Those who claim the current crisis is the most serious since the Reformation are guilty of gross hyperbole. I know of no one who has left the Church because of episcopal malfeasance—though I do know of Catholics who have abandoned the faith entirely because they were sexually molested by a priest. Many Catholics do expect a rethinking of the Church as institution and are open to practical changes. Thus, we need to ask what the relationships between bishops and priests and laity are and ought to be. I can't provide the answers, but I have some thoughts.

Two years ago, I was in Rome during the last International Synod of Bishops, and I was discouraged to see that after 30 years that body is still debating the question of collegiality as if it were an issue of authority, rather than a matter of practical administration of a huge, worldwide Church. Collegiality is also needed at the diocesan level. According to the New Testament, authority in the Church is to be understood as service. Thus Catholics justify the hierarchical pyramid by saying the pope is the servant of the servants of God. His brother bishops are called to serve the people of the diocese, especially the priests in their care. The priests in turn serve the laity, not the other way around. But we lack standards for judging how well service in the Church is rendered.

Given that the Holy See is the last Renaissance court, it is not surprising that bishops look up and over their shoulders toward Rome to see how well they're doing. The result is conformity and timidity. Rather, they should look to the priests and the people of the diocese for mutual criticism and confirmation. Though authority is conferred on bishops from above, this does not make a bishop authoritative, any more than ordination confers holiness. Yes, I know the priesthood is a calling, but this fact should not prevent us from demanding professionalism in directing the Church, the diocese, the parish. Indeed, the best and happiest priests I've met tend to be those who have acquired a profession as well as ordination. With professionalism come standards, and with standards comes accountability. With thought, perhaps we can all come up with standards that, in the best sense, would professionalize the parish ministry.

For example, one thing every parish priest must do is prepare and give sermons. But surely I am not the only one who wonders why, at a time when this pope has seen fit to revive the practice of giving indulgences, there is still no time off in purgatory to be earned by those who Sunday after Sunday endure sermons better left unpreached. And I must say, sermons by permanent deacons are usually worse. A small matter, you may say, yet the Sunday sermon is unfortunately still the only encounter with the scriptures that most Catholics experience. Where are the professional standards in the ministry of the Word?

With a shortage of priests, perhaps the Church ought to reconstitute several orders of preachers who do nothing but that, making a circuit of parishes—say, twice a month—and allowing parish clergy two weeks to prepare their own sermons.

For their part, bishops usually possess at least one professional credential, a degree in canon law. Now, canon law is important, not the least because it protects the rights of members of the Church. But surely wisdom, prudence, and spiritual discernment are more important in a bishop. After all, a bishop can always hire a canon lawyer; I'd rather a bishop with a knack for holiness than a head for business. And by holiness, I do not mean personal piety, but the sort of wisdom that comes from deep immersion in the gospel and in a life of prayer and pastoral service. Consider this: The late Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop of Westminster, single-handedly transformed the image of English Catholicism by manifesting in his person and office the best qualities of a Benedictine monk, an order he entered at the age of 12. Yet he also got things done as English Primate. Or consider the Dalai Lama. He carries the burdens of government in exile, not to mention the future of the Tibetan people. And he carries them very well. Yet his primary identity, the one that means the most to him, the one that sustains his charismatic leadership and his personal candor is that of Buddhist monk.

I view the current crisis as an opportunity to demand and to declare new criteria for choosing and judging bishops. 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 extended to the laity as well. And however bishops are chosen, we ought to discourage careerism in the hierarchy and require something more of our bishops than management capabilities.

In any case, management of a diocese does not require clerics in financial posts. Given that we have a shortage of priests, I see no reason why we cannot begin to replace most diocesan officials with lay professionals. Since an increased lay management of the Church is inevitable, let us make virtuous our necessity: It would not be at all difficult for one or more Catholic universities to create programs specifically designed to train lay women and men in Church management.

The idea is not problem-free, of course. The laity have no special purchase on virtue. As it is, though, our bishops already rely on the unrecorded and unacknowledged advice from buddies in business and the legal profession, who in turn are paid in the cheap coin of the Renaissance court system—dinners with the cardinal, private audiences with the pope, and the satin sashes of the Knights of Malta. If the bishop is to be a teacher, as tradition holds, then let us have men steeped in learning, let us have bishops who, when they speak, have something to say.

Above all, let a bishop's bond with his priest be one of father to sons in Christ, colleagues even. Fathers do not automatically throw their sons out of the house when they are accused of wrongdoing. Neither do they shield their sons from the law when found guilty. And they do not put the honor of the clan or the Church above the truth, on the pretext of avoiding scandal. Commitment to the truth and to those who serve in the priestly ministry is not too much to expect.

Another concern of the Church in the 21st Century initiative—the living and passing on of faith—goes to the heart of what it means to be the Church. Catholics are hardly alone in wrestling with this issue. Beginning in the late 1960s, when the flood of baby boomers reached adolescence, most religious institutions either indulged their young by jettisoning hard demands or ignored them altogether. The Catholic Church lost at least a generation of young people through misconceived catechesis, dumbed-down, childlike liturgies, and other foolish enthusiasms following the Second Vatican Council. But mainline Protestantism has suffered the most, in part because the otherwise laudable ecumenical movement—which began decades earlier as an intra-Protestant affair—blunted differences between historic traditions and unintentionally encouraged the kind of church-shopping that has virtually destroyed all but the most sentimental denominational loyalties.

In the 1960s, liberal Protestants jettisoned their church camps and youth groups, and woke up in the 1980s to find out that most little Presbyterians do not grow up to be adult Presbyterians, but something else, or, just as often, nothing at all. Catholics, in part because of their school systems, and especially, I think, because of their all-male high schools, have done a marginally better job in retaining their young, but only marginally. In fact, mainline denominations like the Episcopalians would be half their current shrunken size were it not for an influx of divorced and otherwise disaffected Catholics. Put another way, the Catholic Church, though growing through immigration, has become the farm system for American Protestantism—and especially for the fastest-growing sector of American Christianity, the no-name, non-denominational community churches that preach a Christ who was born yesterday.

Overall, the most nuanced studies indicate that less than a quarter of American adults are seriously religious, and we're not talking about Mother Teresas here. Another 30 percent are nonreligious or outright opposed to religion. Some scholars tell us that the high tide of religious belonging and identity associated with the 1950s was a historical anomaly. That may be true, but the more important point is that, well into the 1960s, religious denominations were also social and cultural enclaves. One rarely entered the doors of a church other than one's own. Southern Baptists no less than Catholics provided age-appropriate education in stages for the young. And where neighborhood and religious boundaries roughly corresponded, as in parts of Boston, traditions were assimilated like family recipes. Such religious subcultures have largely disappeared. And so have the intact intergenerational families that inhabited them.

More and more, Catholic parishes resemble the intentional communities of Protestant congregations. New circles of belonging replace the old. And today's parents must contend with the vast power to form identity exercised by an omnipresent, commercially driven, media-saturated youth culture that barely existed when I was young. To be a religiously concerned parent today is to find oneself immersed in guerrilla warfare on all cultural fronts. Indeed, the so-called revival of religion in recent decades owes most of its salience to parents enlisting help from religious congregations—any congregation—in the rearing of their children.

Formation is still the key to passing on any religious tradition from one generation to the next. The question is, who or what is the forming and the informing agent? It is said that adolescence is a stage in life where young people seek their own identity. But the opposite is at least as true: The young assume identities, and identification is what the media sells in order to survive. If parents are not committed to a faith, if they do not have an adult's grasp of its contents, their children will be indifferent to religion. Catholics can no longer count on the easy formation that once came with the old enclave culture. Now the effort at formation must be conscious and persistent—high on intellectual content and strong on personal commitment. In the context of contemporary American culture, even more than in contemporary Third World cultures, the primary agents of Catholic formation are parents and grandparents, not only formally but informally, by the way they live and by the way they die. Parents must make their children realize that to be Catholic is not only to be distinctive, but quite often to be at odds with the culture of public education, the media, and entertainment. Children should be taught that, as Christians, they will always live in tension with the powers of the world. This is not an easy lesson to teach, or to accept, when, at present, Catholic pulpits are reluctant to announce, as Dorothy Day liked to remind us, that "it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God"—meaning, it is terrifying to allow oneself to be genuinely an instrument of God's will.

The same applies to Catholic schools. Students there should be taught that the purpose of an education is not simply to gain a credential or otherwise achieve a given competence in order to survive and thrive in life. And yet I fear that this is the message that most Catholic universities give. I am old-fashioned enough to think that the Catholic universities exist to train students to be critics of the world they are about to enter, that criticism being rooted in the Catholic vision not only of social justice but of the utterly unique hope that Christ brings to the world. But I wonder: Would Boston College, or any other Catholic university, be willing to withhold a diploma from Catholic students who did not pass a sophisticated mandatory test to measure their grasp of the forms and content of the faith? And if you did do that, how many of your students do you think would pass?

In short, I see no point in talking about the laity's role in the life of the Church if the graduates of our best Catholic universities are uninterested, or unable, to enter into that loving, critical conversation with the past, without which there would be no tradition.

A moment ago I observed that religious traditions used to be passed on through religious enclaves or subcultures. Here I want to add that, on matters of sexual morality and behavior, those enclaves—Protestant, Catholic, Jewish—exhibited a remarkable degree of consensus. Nearly all, I think, agreed that sex outside of marriage was wrong, and so reinforced certain limits and taboos about dating. Divorce was rare: tolerated, but frowned upon. In this environment, only Hollywood celebrities and trailer park trash cohabited without benefit of marriage. Abortion was a crime as well as a sin. And gays and lesbians were culturally closeted.

Today the reverse is true. In matters sexual, American society is normless. Living together is not only tolerated, but regarded as a practical first step toward marriage—though more often it leads to yet another live-in partner. (Why is premarital sex so seldom premarital?) Indeed, some social scientists now talk of starter marriages, which, like starter homes, are seen as a transition, to second and even third marriages. Abortion-on-demand is the law of the land. Abortion is widely practiced as a form of birth control and represents the only instance in law in which the snuffing out of human life—a phrase prohibited in the media—is tolerated for any reason. What matters is individual choice. Indeed, some Protestant denominations—the United Church of Christ comes to mind—see their pro-choice position on abortion, not as an endorsement of abortion, but as a natural extension of the principle of individual interpretation of scripture. And in politics abortion remains the one consistent benchmark issue separating the two major parties.

In this context, Catholic sexual norms appear to be not only eccentric, but dangerously sectarian, possibly even un-American. This is not altogether a bad thing. It is a tribute to be disrespected for the right reasons. To the extent that Catholic understanding of sexual morality and marriage are rooted in the Gospel, what the Church teaches will always be distinctive—and difficult. That does not mean that what the Church has taught in this area has always been right or even healthy: Certainly it is true that its norms have never been uniformly observed by Catholics themselves.

For example, the effort to ground opposition to contraception in a universal natural law, as in Humanae Vitae, not only hasn't persuaded otherwise committed Catholics, it has also demonstrated that nature and its laws are not so transparently obvious to others of good moral will. Indeed, nothing has so hobbled the Church's witness on abortion as Humanae Vitae. Nothing has distanced more women from the Church, and I suspect nothing has so compromised the consciences of priests in and outside of the confessional as that single encyclical—much of which, by the way, I think is very good.

At its best, Catholic teaching makes a strong case that sexual intercourse means or should mean what marriage means: mutual commitment to the other. Even in marriage, I would argue, there is no such thing as safe sex. That is, the emotions raised, the intimacy realized, the commitment implied—these are always flammable. If sex means what marriage means, we must ask what Catholics mean when they marry. I know of no one who thinks that Catholics are any more prepared for marriage than other people, least of all for the lifelong commitment and fidelity that Catholic tradition envisions. This is a huge pastoral problem that I think ought forcefully to be addressed. Likewise, most Catholics are not at all clear about the annulment process. Most annulments, I am told by canon lawyers, are granted because at least one spouse did not intend marriage as it is understood by the Church or because he or she lacked what is called due discretion. Yet given the self-sacrifice that marriage demands, how many among us can say that we entered marriage with due discretion? My wife tells me she didn't—all the time.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that the Church owes it to society to insist on the permanence of the marriage bond. After 40 years of sexual revolution, even the Joe Namaths among us want to make good marriages and make them last. Even the most jaded of my journalistic colleagues tell me they would kill their spouse if he or she cheated on them. There is a wisdom in the Church's treating marriage as a sacrament, and realism in its insistence that a good marriage, like a good life, requires the grace of God.

There is, finally, the question of homosexual marriage. If you feel, as I do, that marriage is possible only between male and female, and that procreation and the rearing of children is one of the purposes of marriage, still we must ask whether and how we also ought to encourage monogamy among homosexuals. I do not think civil unions endanger the institution of marriage. But even though infants seek attachment to whatever set of parents given them, we have ample studies demonstrating the harm that comes to children, especially boys, who have no father in their lives.

Any one of these issues is enough to occupy more than the two years of this project. But it would be useful to keep a broad theological view in mind. As with all major religions, Christian praxis aims at two things: the transformation of the individual and the transformation of society. For Christians, the two are intimately connected. In this sense, renewal of the Church means its re-formation in the service of that transforming grace that is the promise of the Christian proclamation.

Kenneth L. Woodward is a contributing editor at Newsweek and from 1964 to 2002 was that magazine's religion editor.

Photos: Kenneth L. Woodward (top) and audience members. By Lee Pellegrini

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