<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="65001"%> American Reform Catholicism by Dave O'Brien ARCC
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David O'Brien, Ph.D.

Call to Action Conference
November, 2005


President Herbert Hoover, late in his term, as America plunged ever deeper into the great depression, told the story of the small boy who asked his mother if she recalled the lovely vase that she said had been handed down in their family from generation to generation. Yes, she said, a worried look on her face. Well, her son said, this generation dropped it!

I fear that we are in a similar situation to President Hoover. Heirs as American Catholics to the remarkable array of institutions and the tremendous reservoir of wisdom and religious and moral authority constructed by our far from wealthy or powerful forebears, we are in very great danger of standing by while the vase drops. We gather to ask whether we can have a more democratic church, one in which basic rights are respected, decisions, doctrinal and moral as well as practical, arise from competent pastoral care and widespread consultation, and in which all of us can actually share responsibility for the life and work of our church? On that question depends the very future of Catholicism in the United States.

This is not the first time around. My friends and I cared deeply about renewal and reform in our Catholic church. We prayed and studied and joined organizations and wrote letters. We took heart from Vatican II, from the 1976 Call to Action Conference, from the pastoral letters on racism, war and economic justice in the 1980s, from the awakening of Latinos and the commitment of new immigrants and the amazing generosity of Catholic women. The Holy Spirit has been alive and renewal has happened, is happening, in our American church.

But reform was another matter. A Vatican II report card might mark renewal with B+, but reform, in our very best dioceses, would only get C+, in too many places a well deserved F. At the end of the 1976 Call to Action conference, the American Catholic church’s first and only national convention, John Cardinal 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 Dearden’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 lay people, if Catholic academic, medical, social service and ministerial professionals had acted responsibly, 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. The moderate, realistic, non-ideological reforms of Dearden’s new way, reforms giving shape to those near cliches, “the people of God”, “we are the church”, those reforms actually for awhile were in place in a great variety of parishes, dioceses and institutions. After all, while Catholic church reform has its deep and mysterious dimensions, the basics are not rocket science: we know how to insure transparency, accountability and shared responsibility in ways which support the mission of the church, strengthen, not weaken, the authority of pastors, and insure the integrity of the community of faith. We know how to do it, but it didn’t happen. What was lacking among us was not knowledge or imagination but will and skill, commitment, organization, strategy and tactics, and finally power. Our failure was not theological or spiritual but political.

So: what we must talk about if we are still serious about changing the church, is ecclesiastical politics. People have many different ideas about changing the church. Politics is the process of sorting out those ideas and making choices among them. We have been through a period when serious political conflicts took place within the Church. Some called them Catholic culture wars. In some ways those wars are over and the conservatives have won. Pope Benedict XVI will probably look for a new generation of leaders for the US church who will be as loyal to Rome as the last group but with some minimum level of competence. Even that degree of improvement will not be easy.

The Holy Spirit is at work in the church, but the Spirit works though people. Some people have worked very 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. The struggle for the future is not over. In the universal church of the future there will be winners and losers, as there were at Vatican I and Vatican II and Medellin. As we have learned in our own American Catholic politics in recent years, some people are organized and they often gain ground, others, not as well organized, are predictably disappointed.

A footnote here would be that we probably 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 and American Catholics interested in church reform find themselves standing, side by side with women religious, on the outside of the Vatican walls. Gazing down at them are the grinning faces of restorationists with little support back home but seemingly welcome in all those Vatican offices that don’t answer reformers phone calls.

Similarly, as the last election cycle showed, we are not doing well in domestic religious politics. What happens to our country will have as much to do with the future of our American church as what happens in Rome. Our American people’s radical freedom, their restless quest for community, their ever accelerating religious and spiritual diversity, their retreat from civic responsibility, their temptations to narcissism and the abuse of power, their heroic and paradoxical dedication to their country and its highest ideals, all these qualities touch us because we share them. We are American insiders, not outsiders, all of us. When we say American society and culture will help shape our Catholic future we do not mean that we are passive playthings of cultural forces beyond our control. No, rich or poor, immigrants or natives, sub-cultural ethnics or confused hybrids, we are active participants in shaping a common life that is no less real because we so often deny responsibility for it. What we Catholics do to our America, not just what our America does to us, will make a great difference in the future of our church.

If I had time today I would underscore the point: our decisions about our Americanness will help determine our church’s future. The shape and form, the piety and practice, of our community of faith will turn in part, in large part, on how we make up our minds about this land, our land, and this people, our people. If we continue to echo the counter cultural language of the Catholic right, of Cardinal Francis George for example, we will, I fear, continue to lose out in the politics of church and country.

But the big factor that will shape our future will be our own decisions about our church. Like our immigrant grandparents we have to ask how will we provide pastoral care for this ever changing church? New immigrant 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, more detached from the organizational life of the institutional church. Reform bishops are replaced by cautious, Roman oriented men. The bright, visionary young men appointed auxiliaries and bishops of small dioceses when Belgian Jean Jadot served as the Vatican’s American representative have grown old in those jobs. New tests were imposed for promotion to senior positions, ideological, not pastoral tests. Ask why all this happens and you will discover more politics.

After Dearden’s Call to Action Joseph Bernardin, by no means a dedicated reformer, struggled to maintain Vatican II momentum but priests organizations all but disappeared, religious orders lost their clout, and the burgeoning cadres of deacons, pastoral assistants and DREs never got organized. With their help pastoral, educational and social ministries continued, but the common life of the American church 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 period since January 2002, when scandal exploded in Boston, most Catholics, including those who work for the church, have wrung their hands and done nothing much. Few joined Voice of the Faithful or sent them a check, fewer organized in support of the work of the National Review Board. Instead everyone awaited Vatican direction, and even reform voice settled for the politics of monarchy, exemplified by a Commonweal cover of a large ear and the banner: “Are the Bishops Listening?”

In the political vacuums that resulted from continuing disappointments, opposition to Roman interventions weakened, and Catholics became divided and polarized. The Dearden-Bernardin Projects were scuttled or sabotaged: this November as it elects a new General Secretary Dearden’s national episcopal conference is on the brink of its final retreat to an informal gathering of bishops whose major task is to implement Roman directives. The Bishops’ periodic political responsibility statements, like 2004’s “Faithful Citizenship” are pushed aside by the new seamless garment of pro-life issues (now oddly including gay marriage) and Bernardin’s wider consistent ethic which had room for war and poverty is shunted aside. When Bernardin suggested a Common Ground Initiative so factions might talk to each other, Cardinals Law, O’Connor and Hickey responded that the only thing needed for unity was the catechism, with occasional guidance from the Holy See. In that climate divisions deepened, pressing pastoral problems were ignored, and, while none of us were looking, our church experienced some yet undetermined degree of corruption. If that word seems too strong just read the latest grand jury report from Philadelphia and wait for the one from LA.

Nothing better expressed the change that had taken place in American church politics than labeling the Common Ground Initiative as a liberal project. Allies of Bernardin, the quintessential moderate (called by friends “old down the middle Joe”) found themselves regarded as liberals in Rome and even in some sectors of the Bishops’ Conference. As one insider put it, the far right had become the right, the right was now the center, the center was now the left, and the left was off the charts. It sounded funny at the time but no longer. What is means is that at almost every level pastoral experience is ignored and the pastoral voice is simply not heard. That point, I expect, will be at the heart of our own assessment and recommitment. Of course its not all politics, but changing the church is a political challenge.

Learning from the recent past, I would urge you, as you think about CTA’s future strategies, to think about some of these ideas:

1. Help our people to ask in the church the political questions they would ask in any other pubic 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 shares values and common objectives? There are many more such questions. One occasion would be the visitation to the local seminary.

2. Encourage people to say yes to all invitation to genuine shared responsibility and reach out to those who do so. Get to know the people serving on the USCCB’s National Advisory Council, for example. Track down your local anti sex abuse board and ask what they are up to lately, especially what has happened to the reform suggestions issues by the National Review Board in February 2004. Catholics do need to work together and there is no special virtue in opposition. When our parish or diocese tries to find structures of decision-making that mirror the Body of Christ, when there is a chance to make parish and diocesan pastoral councils more effective, when boards of Catholic agencies doing good work need help, we of course should say yes.

3. But say yes as well to independent associations like the Voice of the Faithful. Structures of shared responsibility will work better if there are independent associations asking hard questions; priest forum as well as presbyteral councils. We know all too well that there are such things as premature, incomplete and phony collaborations. Parish and diocesan pastoral councils, especially in the northeast, too often were premature or incomplete experiments in shared responsibility. They will improve when priests, pastoral staffs (the non-clerical staffs of deacons, women religious and trained lay professionals have no voice at all), and lay people are better organized and understand their distinct vocations. And we need to dream up new forms of organization among ourselves, ways of drawing people into public action on behalf of our church.

4. Talk to organizers. If we seek lay participation and shared responsibility, we have available in the interfaith parishes, linked to a long experience of organizing and to organizations across the country, a body of expertise in building lay leadership and genuine partnerships among priests, religious and lay people. Let them help.

5. To steal a phrase from Catholic social teaching, make a preferential, but not exclusive, option for the laity. Think lay. Ask what each decision, proposal, interpretation means from the point of view of ordinary lay men and women. Pastoral care in our kind of society requires dialogue, communication, relationships of mutual trust and understanding. It will come when we learn to read our daily experience in light of our faith, and our faith in light of our daily experience. It won’t come by simply yelling in the bishop’s ear. So think lay.

Finally, it’s all about people. This church is a voluntary organization, as our children keep proving to us. It works through persuasion, not coercion, whatever our friends abroad might think. Persuasion has its own discipline, not least a liking for people. No one persuades people one does not respect or like. Many of our problems in the past have come about because we did not trust each other. Restoring or preserving trust begins with simple encounters, like the one on ones that begin the interfaith organizing process. Much of church politics is about networking and modest but strategic organizing. And in the future as in the past movements can help, so keep your eyes on Focolare and San Egidio and pray for new apostles to minister to the still vibrant idealism of the young. Cardinal Dearden said that in a free society like ours the church is “a community of faith and friendship.” Changing the church probably begins there, getting to know each other well enough to work together to make our church, to make us, the presence of Christ.

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