The Laity Are Called to Action
(A statement by Blessed Sacrament Christian Family Movement*)
We are in the midst of what may be our Catholic Church’s most profound crisis in centuries. We are confronted with revelations of sickening widespread predatory abuse compounded by a history of insidious institutional cover-up of these crimes.
While Vatican II recognized that we, the laity, are the church, our ability “to be the church” has been impeded by real roadblocks we have encountered from an institution that has been unresponsive and unaccountable.
- If we are the church, how do we explain to our children this sordid history of abuse?
- If we are the church, how can we justify the cover-up of crimes and the monies paid out to maintain this cover-up?
- If we are the church, how can we be asked to just sit back and believe that the very institution that allowed this crisis to fester is now capable of fixing itself?
- If we are the church, how can we continue to tell Catholic women that they are less than equal in the eyes of our God and less capable than men of fully serving the church? Or how do we continue to tell gay Catholics that they are not created in the image and likeness of God?
For too long the hierarchy of our church has been deaf to the concerns of the faithful. The twin evils of clericalism and patriarchy have insulated the male hierarchy of the church from hearing, considering, and acting upon the concerns of the faithful, and including us in critical decisions that affect the life of our community of believers. Entrenched clericalism and patriarchy have led the hierarchy to place more emphasis on protecting the institution, turning a blind eye to the pain of the victims and to the cries of men and women, young and old, whose faith in their church has been so badly shaken.
We acknowledge that those who are ordained have a special role to play in ministering to the sacramental needs of the faithful. We also acknowledge that there are many remarkable priests and bishops who continue to teach and lead and inspire us with the message of Jesus. But this does not confer upon them the exclusive authority to administer the institutional church in an opaque manner, reducing the laity to second-class members in what is, after all, our church.
Because of these and other challenges, our church has been facing a silent crisis for decades, with young people abandoning their faith or becoming Catholics-in-name-only. While some want to blame the culture or us, as parents, or look to new immigrants as the hope for the future of the church in America, or be satisfied with a compliant and faithful remnant—we profoundly disagree. We have done everything we were supposed to do. Our children went to Catholic schools and mass and the sacraments. They were altar servers and participated in church-sponsored social action. And yet many of them have been so “turned off” by the church’s inflexibility, its obsession with issues of sex, the marginalization of women and rejection of gay Catholics, and repeated scandals—they have simply walked away.
Through all of this, the institution continues to protect itself and its leadership.
We love our church and we continue to see it, despite its weaknesses and failures, as the vessel that has carried Christ’s message through the ages. Because we love it, and because we are the church, we demand to be heard.
We love Pope Francis and have been moved by his humility, his pastoral care, and his commitment to reform. And we pray that God give Francis the strength to withstand the challenges he faces from intolerant and inflexible opponents who are seeking to stymie change and roll back reform.
At the same time, because we too are the church, we are unwilling to be passive—leaving the problems that exist within our church to the very hierarchy that has created them and allowed them to fester. We want to assume the responsibility that should be ours to help purify and reform our church.
With regard to the sex abuse crisis, there are two aspects we wish to address—dealing with the damage done in the past and making changes to address the root causes.
In the first place, more attention must be given to the victims. As the editor of America Magazine recently advised “We need to listen to the truths of the victims and survivors above all. We need to help them tell their stories. And we need to pursue the truth about the cover-ups and failures, no matter where it leads.”
In addressing the harm already done, the church must realign its priorities and attend to the grave damage done to victims and their families.
We therefore insist that monies must be set aside to support counseling and healing of victims. There must be a clear and unambiguous public acceptance of responsibility and signs of penance by the church.
We recognize that the hierarchy has put in place practices that have contributed to reducing the problems of abusive clergy. But too many of the laity (as well as the general public) no longer have confidence in their leadership. They have lost trust. It is time for the laity to take a greater role.
With more Attorneys General calling for dioceses in their states to make full disclosures, we know that we will before long be once again traumatized by reports of the depth of the crisis and the culture of cover up that has plagued the institutional church.
We must get out in front of this crisis and make a full accounting of all the clergy who have been credibly accused and provide a full accounting of the monies dioceses have paid to victims. This effort should be led by a body that is truly independent of the hierarchy and include strong representation of the laity, including the equal participation of women. We are not asking that the victims be named nor do we begrudge the amounts paid to them for what they endured, rather we demand to know how much each diocese paid. It is our right to know. If we are the church then this should not be hidden from us.
Similarly an independent commission of the laity should be created that will review the screening and training of new clergy and the procedures being put in place to deal with future cases of abuse. In particular, we insist that in every instance of abuse victims be told to report to civil authorities. These are crimes and the institutional church must get out of the business of covering up and becoming complicit in criminal behavior.
Finally, we call for a more expansive clergy that includes women deacons, people free to marry, and gay Catholics. We also totally reject efforts to illegitimately scapegoat homosexuality as the source of the problem with the clergy pedophilia—as if to absolve the abuse of young girls by priests or the physical abuse of young boys and girls by nuns and priests. We also strongly call for open dialogue on the ordination of women as priests.
If our faith has taught us anything, it is that we can attain new life in the spirit if we are ready to acknowledge the wrongs we have done and beg forgiveness from those we have injured. We, the church, laity and clergy, are hurting. For the process of purification and renewal to begin, the bishops must take the first step if they are to maintain their position of spiritual leadership. We, therefore, call on the bishops to prostrate themselves before the victims of abuse, those living and those dead, and publicly and dramatically ask them and us for forgiveness for the institutional church’s sins of commission and omission. And, we insist that they make a place for the laity at the table so that together we can heal this church that is ours.
[*We are parishioners at The Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Washington, DC. In the 1960’s we began a chapter of the Christian Family Movement—which continues until now. Blessed Sacrament is our parish community, and we have loved and served it to the best of our abilities. We have helped to build and strengthen its institutions, participated in every aspect of its spiritual and social life, seen our children educated in our parish school, and received the sacraments in our church. Our views and actions on issues of social and economic justice, war and peace, and the dignity of all peoples have been in great measure determined by our life in this faith community. Our Group: Marge Ahmann, Marie Barry; Tony Carroll; Joy and Jerry Choppin; James and Jean Connell; Christa and Richard Cross; Larry Carter and Odelia Funke; Kathleen and Richard Hage; Timothy and Marilyn Hanlon; Ann and Ray Hannapel; James and Alida Kane; Anne Kilcullen; Marion and John McCartney; Betty O’Connor; Ivo and Patricia Spalatin; Eileen and James Zogby]