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. Prologue

From this Church forward


Beyond the present state of Catholicism

Tim Russert

On September 18, in the company of an audience of more than 2,000 in Conte Forum, Boston College launched the second year of its Church in the 21st Century initiative, with a focus on the theme, "Toward renewal: What have we learned? Where are we going?" Following a welcome by Jack Connors, Jr. '63, chairman of the BC Board of Trustees, and an introduction by University President William P. Leahy, SJ, Meet the Press moderator and NBC News Washington Bureau chief Tim Russert led a conversation from the stage with six Catholics: Patrick B. Downes '05 is a human development major in the Lynch School of Education and a native of Cambridge, Massachusetts. He directs BC's Kairos retreat program for students. Fr. J. Bryan Hehir, former head of the Harvard Divinity School and Catholic Charities USA, was named president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston by Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley in late September. Mary Johnson, SND, is an associate professor of sociology and religious studies at Emmanuel College in Boston. She is coauthor of Young Adult Catholics (2001). Catalina Montes H'98 is principal of the Thomas Gardner Elementary School in the Allston section of Boston. Elizabeth M. Paulhus '04 is a member of the Honors Program majoring in theology with a history minor. A native of Wheeling, West Virginia, she participates in the Liturgical Arts Group at BC. Peter Steinfels writes the "Beliefs" column in the New York Times. He is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America (2003).

Tim Russert: Peter Steinfels, what must our Church do to restore credibility and trust in its leadership?

Peter SteinfelsPeter Steinfels: I'm going to steal a word from a book by David Gibson called The Coming Catholic Church: "doctrinizing." It's a good word to characterize the tendency we have fallen into to raise every practical and pastoral issue to an issue of high doctrine.

Without minimizing the importance of theology, my first suggestion would be that at every level of the Church we emphasize the pastoral questions, the practical questions, and wherever possible, the empirical questions, whether we're talking about parish life, Sunday worship, religious education, or issues of sexuality and family.

Sr. Mary JohnsonSr. Mary Johnson: About a month ago, a young man came up to me after a talk I gave, and he said, "I want to figure out what you are." And I said, "What do you mean?" And he said, "You began the talk by mentioning Catholic social teaching, so right away I thought, ‘She's a liberal.' And then you talked about personal morality, and I changed and thought, ‘She's a conservative.' Then you mentioned Dorothy Day, and I thought, ‘She must be a radical.' So, what are you?" And I said, "I'm a Catholic." And he replied, "But what kind? I've never just used the word Catholic without a word in front of it."

There is a new generation that's only heard about liberal Catholics and conservative Catholics. We've got to talk about who and what are Catholics. Bring the two together and seek common ground.

Russert: Catalina, Hispanics in the United States are finding themselves increasingly drawn to evangelical Churches, more than to the Catholic Church. What must the Catholic leadership do to reach out to the Hispanic community?

Catalina MontesCatalina Montes: Catholic Hispanics have to feel accepted. We are immigrants, and what the evangelicals are doing is giving the kind of welcome and moral support that everybody needs to receive. The leadership and the Catholic people have to be more welcoming. I also have to say that the Hispanic Church is a little different from the American Church. The Hispanics have a great belief in our Blessed Mary and different saints, for instance. And it's a bit of a shock for us that there is no such big devotion here. So there are cultural issues.

Russert: Patrick, you've told people that you perhaps feel a vocation but also feel drawn to parenthood and being a spouse. Talk about the Church and its teachings on sexuality as you see them.

Patrick DownesPatrick Downes: Well, that's a huge question. In terms of sexuality, I think we need to address everyone in the Church. Many people who are homosexual feel as though they too are immigrants and don't have a home.

Russert: Last year, I interviewed Fr. C. John McCloskey [of Opus Dei and the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C.], who made it clear that to his mind the Catholic Church in the United States should reduce its ranks from 60 million to 30 million. These would be real Catholics, people who would practice the faith, adhere to the teachings of the Church, and--my words, not his--enough of this dealing with cafeteria Catholics who pick and choose what they want to follow. Peter, talk about that.

Steinfels: It would be a terrible mistake. It's a policy that would have the American Church, which remains tremendously vibrant, pursue the course of the Church in many European countries where there's been extensive secularization.

The image of cafeteria Catholicism distresses me a great deal. If that's what Fr. McCloskey would oppose, I'd be with him. On the other hand, I do think that in the array of Catholic teachings, and in our efforts to live out those teachings, we sometimes have to make choices--conscientiously and prayerfully and in the context of the sacramental life. That sort of grappling with the whole heritage of Catholic teaching the bishops, I think, should encourage.

Russert: Sister, you've written that there are 19,000 parishes in our country, and that if current trends continue, there could be as many as 6,000 without a priest to administer sacraments. As you look at the demographics of our Church, what do you say to the leadership?

Johnson: The first thing I would say is that there are social scientists who've studied the Church for 20 or 30 years, who have credible data and who care deeply about the Church's mission. The bishops must sit down with scholars and get the data, hear their analyses, and then make more informed judgments. I'll give you one example. Bishop Wilton Gregory, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the other day that he felt that a married priesthood would not produce more priests. There are social scientists who have studied that question for 20 years, and they would disagree with him.

Russert: Fr. Hehir, is the Church capable of stepping back and asking, who is going to administer the sacraments? What alternatives should we be talking about thoughtfully and respectfully, and perhaps even presenting to the Vatican?

Fr. J. Bryan HehirFr. J. Bryan Hehir: I think many bishops are hesitant to enter those kinds of discussions. They're hesitant partly because they don't control the data; partly because they are divided among themselves on what to do--and the question of where they will stand vis-à-vis their peers influences them; and partly because they are directly accountable to Rome, and they have different views of how to deal with that.

At the same time, if you get around the country the way my job requires that I do, you see that there are in fact women who administer parishes under various titles, and different team approaches in the ministry of the Church. Now, I do think that an ad hoc approach will only take you so far. What's necessary is a theoretical framework pushing the questions out further. If you're asking me, do I think the bishops can put together a coherent posture and take it to Rome, I would be hesitant to think that will happen right away.

Russert: What can the laity do to motivate, encourage, cajole their leadership to become more engaged on this issue?

Hehir: When you asked Peter the question at the beginning--what do we do to regain credibility--my view is, as a kind of simple principle, that we've got to treat adults as adults in the Church. We now have in the United States the most educated laity the Catholic Church has confronted in 2,000 years of history. You can't have a situation where men and women are in charge of their lives, treated as adults in corporations, universities, and politics, and are not treated as adults inside the Church.

The question of how to mobilize discussion among the leadership comes partly from laity who understand what a significant strategic role they are now in. A hundred years ago, this discussion would have been inconceivable in American Catholicism--that you would have this kind of room, at this kind of university, on this kind of topic. I'm not calling for revolution. I don't think that works in the Catholic Church. I do think that there's a range of definable, discussible issues on which the laity need to say at the parish level and every other level, we simply won't accept anything except adult conversation.

Johnson: And while the bishops should be learning their social science, the laity should be as well. There was a book written a few years ago entitled They Call Her Pastor consisting of 80 interviews with women--single and married laywomen and sisters--who pastored parishes in the Midwest and the Southwest. The sociologists who conducted the study found that in all the parishes without exception, attendance and collections increased when the women took over. The priests who worked with the women pastors were delighted; they were happy to concentrate on the sacramental ministry. Many of those women had wonderful bishops who called them to their ministry.

Russert: Liz Paulhus, talk about the role you would like to see for women.

Elizabeth PaulhusElizabeth Paulhus: It's important to point out that although oftentimes it feels like women don't have a role in the Catholic Church, about 85 percent of non-ordained positions in the Church are held by women. These women may not be making the final decisions, but they are actively involved. As a young woman, as a theology major, I certainly would like to see women ordained. There's not a lot that can be said against women's ordination. The problem is that this is an area where conversation is basically closed with the Vatican. Cardinal Ratzinger's letter on the ordination of women was unequivocal: We're not discussing it. So, although women need to keep pushing in that direction, I also think that women need to start pursuing more creative roles.

Steinfels: There should be an effort to open the question of ordaining women to the diaconate. The roles that women in the diaconate played in the early centuries were not exactly parallel to the roles played by men deacons, but historical studies show that the ordination rituals were quite similar. This is something that a Church as tradition-minded as ours could begin with. It would make women part of the orders of the Church with a special relationship to the bishop and a role in decision making.

Russert: Fr. Hehir, there are many Catholic priests who converted from the Anglican faith who are married. How do you understand and accept that when applied to the Roman faith?

Hehir: Among the problems we're talking about tonight, the question of the celibacy of the clergy is a simpler issue than some of the others. The ordination of women embraces doctrinal questions that have to be worked through in a Church that takes doctrine seriously. The celibacy of clergy is a legal problem within the Church, a canonical problem. It could be changed tomorrow morning. And precisely because of that, accommodations are made in the Eastern Rite, and for the priests who come in from the Episcopal Church.

The Catholic tradition holds that there's a certain kind of witness to the kingdom that comes from marriage, a kind that comes from faithful single life, and another kind that comes from a celibate commitment as part of institutional service in the Church. I think that tradition is valuable, but it doesn't have to be universalized, and changing it would be fairly simple compared to some other questions. Now you will say to me, if it's simple why don't we do it?

Russert: If it's simple, why don't we do it? I'm a quick study, Father.

Hehir: I have always told undergraduates that to be Catholic is to be complicated. My sense is that the feeling that exists on the issue in the United States is particularly strong. I'm not positive it's the same throughout the universal Church. This may be a question of tactics, of working out a pluralism with married and unmarried clergy in the same Church.

Steinfels: The other day, a Church official mentioned to a friend of mine that we couldn't have a married clergy because they would have to pay college tuition, and we could never afford that. It seems to me that there is an opportunity for lay scholars to look at the positive and negative experiences of our fellow Christian groups--and at groups within our own Church who have married clergy--and think about a transition. The question still would await some higher decision, but the more thinkable we could make it by dealing with the practical questions, the more we would move in a positive direction.

Russert: Sister, a personal question, and if you don't want to answer it I understand. Would you like to be a priest if you could?

Johnson: People ask sisters that on a weekly basis. I've also done a study on the question. I do not feel called to priesthood. And the vast majority of sisters who have entered religious orders since the Second Vatican Council do not feel called to priesthood, either. However, in many of the orders there's tremendous support for the ordination of women. Some orders have sisters who've served in Latin America, in places where, if you die rich, you get a funeral Mass, if you die poor, you get a prayer service.

The sacramental life of the Church is a concern for many sisters. Some days, I think we're more concerned about it than some priests are, and that is very perplexing because the distribution of the sacraments is at the core of the faith.

Russert: We sit here tonight in a diocese that has been terribly scarred by sexual abuse. Church attendance is down considerably. What do you say to Catholics, Father, about becoming re-energized, re-engaged with their Church?

Hehir: I think in an overwhelming number of cases Catholics may have lost contact with the Church, but they haven't lost their faith. Catholic faith is theistic, in God; christic, in Christ; and ecclesial, in the Church. Of these three levels of faith, two remain secure. It is in the third level where we've had the explosion. The re-knitting of that faith requires recognition by the Church of how much harm it has done, and an acknowledgment of what that harm is. This will be a continual process, lasting for the rest of my life, I'm sure. People are right on the edge. If we lose them, the next two or three generations in their families are gone too. The loss will be irremediable and devastating, not just to the Church, but to those who might have been enriched by the sacramental and intellectual life that is Catholicism.

Russert: Peter, A People Adrift--what steps must be taken to stop that drift?

Steinfels: We need leadership at all levels. I've seen figures that half of young Catholic adults don't know anything about the Second Vatican Council. Can we blame all that on priests and members of religious orders, or Catholic schools? Isn't some of that breakdown of communication our responsibility as laypeople?

There are a lot of initiatives that the laity could embark upon right now. The Church is facing issues of financial accountability. I don't see why a group of well-qualified laypeople couldn't organize themselves to take the standards of the bishops' conference for accounting and reporting on the use of money, and make a national survey of dioceses to see how many actually live up to that.

Montes: To move the people back who have drifted from the Church, I would say we have to present to them a different Church. They are not going to go back to the same thing. At the parish level, we have to have good preaching. We have to have good music. We have to present on Sunday morning that our Church is vibrant, that we're praying together, that we're there to support one another.

I have a daughter who stopped going to church. She moved to Florida with her family, and she called me up and said, "Oh, I love the church here, I'm having such a good time going to church! I'm volunteering, I'm going to enroll my kids." I asked, why the sudden change? And she said, "Everybody was so welcoming, the church was so open, so bright, the priest gave a homily that I thought about for days."

Russert: Patrick, and then Liz, how critical is the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist, in your minds?

Downes: I think it's huge. When I go to church on Sunday night, at nine o'clock, I am surrounded by some of the best friends and most intelligent people that I will ever meet. I listen to a Jesuit priest who's in touch with people as human beings. It's a time of rest, of reflection.

Paulhus: We've all been addressing this tonight: One of the key elements of renewing this Church is to feel like we are a community. For me one of the most beautiful parts of the Mass is the profession of faith because I know that the words I am saying are the same words that someone in Poland or Italy or Nicaragua is saying. And the Eucharist is the pinnacle of what it means to be Catholic--this idea of a sacrifice, not blind submission or following somebody's orders, but a true giving of oneself.

I have some friends who feel that God is going to strike them down if they don't go to Mass every Sunday. They don't understand that it should be a voluntary thing, that you go because you want to be in that community and share your faith. There are a lot here at BC who recognize this community every Sunday night at nine o'clock, in St. Ignatius.

Hehir: What Liz and Patrick have said poses an enormous pastoral challenge to the Catholic Church. The better experience you have at college or university, the tougher it is to match that in a parish.

There are two pastoral challenges here. One turns on quantity, and the other on quality. We've got 65 million Catholics in the United States. In recruitment to the priesthood, we've got to be like the Marines: Because we're in tough times on numbers, we've got to raise the standards. We have to watch out that in pursuit of numbers we don't bring people into the ministry who can't confront the kind of challenge that comes from the most educated Catholic laity in the history of the Church.

To anybody taking the challenge today, I would say it is much tougher than when I got ordained. I have enormous sympathy for people who are willing to step up and try.

Steinfels: We've seen the percentages of people regularly attending Sunday liturgy decline gradually, to 40 percent, 30 percent, in some areas to 20 percent. Now, at least two-thirds of our parishes have lay pastoral ministers involved in the preparation of worship, catechesis, youth ministry, and other things, and that's a very encouraging development. But does the staff in these parishes get together on a regular basis and debrief about the quality of Sunday liturgy? Do we have a way of talking to our priests about the quality of homilies? If we're saying Mass is essential, this needs to be worked through in a systematic, institutionalized fashion, and not just through the individual genius and inspiration of a particular person. In some parishes I see signs of this, but not in many.

Russert: As we look out at this vast audience of Catholic laity, let's focus on that. Patrick, as a young Catholic, what do you see as the role of the laity in the future of the Church? What do you say to the laity?

Downes: I say to the clergy and the hierarchy, the Church is community and without us as parishioners it is nothing. We can have a priest up there, but if there's no one to hear God's message and to then live it out in their lives, the faith is lost. It's tough but exciting at the same time to know that we might have a chance to better our faith for ourselves and for our children. I say, take on that responsibility. Speak your mind. Keep pushing.

Russert: Fr. Hehir, in your business running the Catholic Charities, you have to stay focused, establish priorities. Catholic laypeople come to you and say, Father, we think there should be married priests, we think the Church should be more open to homosexuals, the hierarchy failed us miserably on the issue of sexual abuse. What do you tell them their priority should be in 2003?

Hehir: You can't have one priority. I'd say, we've got to keep our eye on the internal life of the Church and on the external role of the Church in this society. We haven't really talked much about that tonight. The Catholic teaching has always been that the charism of the laity is to shape the world.

We live in a country whose decisions have direct, immediate impact around the world. People get killed when they shouldn't have gotten killed when we make bad decisions; people die when they shouldn't die if we're not sufficiently open and generous as a society. And therefore it isn't enough only to think about the internal life of American Catholicism. We have to think about the fact that in the U.S. Congress, Catholics outnumber others three to one, that in the business world there are more CEOs who are Catholic than anything else. We still lead the labor unions. What kind of contribution should we make to society?

Now, people will say, if I'm not nourished internally, how am I going to make the external contribution? And I agree with that. And that takes us back to the liturgy, to the intellectual formation and the moral fabric of Catholicism. But it is crucial for us in this time, when the internal issues are so overwhelming, that we not be totally exhausted by them. We've now got the capacity, thanks to the BCs and Notre Dames and Georgetowns, to make a difference in this society. So my priority is: How do you make that difference, and what kind of internal life of the Church is necessary to feed people so they can make that difference?

Russert: Liz, what do you want the Church to look like at the end of the 21st century?

Paulhus: There needs to be much more of the equality that you hear about in the Gospel. And we need more emphasis on social justice and helping the poor. We throw around the word "solidarity" but we don't live it enough. I'd like to see a Church in which we could all say we're truly in communion with one another, this is our Church--my decision and your decision.

Russert: Peter, can you put all this together--where do you see the Church at the end of the 21st century?

Steinfels: I think of the phrase from the end of the novel The Woman Who Was Poor by Léon Bloy: "The only tragedy in life is not to be a saint." My hope is more modest: only that we build and strengthen the kind of infrastructure that will be the platform and the vehicle for the works of grace and individual heroism that Bryan and Liz have just mentioned. If we can set that in place, maybe a lot of the 21st century will take care of itself.

Photos (from top):

Tim Russert. By Gary Wayne Gilbert

Peter Steinfels, By Gary Wayne Gilbert

Mary Johnson, SND By Gary Wayne Gilbert

Catalina Montes. By Gary Wayne Gilbert

Patrick B. Downes ‘05. By Lee Pellegrini

Fr. J. Bryan Hehir. By Lee Pellegrini

Elizabeth M. Paulhus ’04. By Lee Pellgrini


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