Tuesday, August 21, 2018

What Are We To Do? Thoughts on Reforming the Church

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo. 

‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

—JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Some of the anticlerical posts I’ve seen on social media claim that other states will follow the lead of Pennsylvania and start their own investigations. These posts are saying that the Church should “get out in front” of the scandals and disclose the names.

I’m pretty sure I know how it will play out. We’ll probably see incidents from the late 1940s to 2002 and then a sharp decline. We’ll probably see some bishops who, whatever the motivation, moved these priests around. Then we’ll all fight again about who knew what and what should have been done instead.

What we won’t see is many people seeking to understand how we got to this point, what motivated some bishops to think this was a good idea, and who advised them. Instead of learning the full truth of the matter, we’ll stop seeking the truth with a list of names and some graphic descriptions of what was done. People will be shocked by these descriptions, get angrier with the Church until finally some of them decide to leave the Church, declaring that this is the worst scandal to ever strike the Church, and we need to throw out the old and rebuild.

I will not be among those who leave. That’s not because I’m “in denial” about the evil done. Nobody who studies Church history can be blind to the often shameful and always cringeworthy scandals throughout. I will remain because I understand that each era of the Church has its own scandals that must be faced and overcome.

But I don’t expect a quick fix to the problem. When a long-running problem is exposed, exposing it to the roots and removing them takes time. For example, in dealing with the corruption that led to the Protestant revolt, the Council of Trent took almost 30 years after the rise of Luther to begin, 18 years to complete, and over a century to implement. Fifty years after Vatican II, we are still implementing it—and fighting over whether it should have happened at all.

While I pray it doesn’t take that long to deal with this, the task at hand is more involved than people seem to think. People think it is just a matter of identifying and throwing out the priests and bishops involved. And while that is a part of it, it is not the only part of it. To prevent sliding back, we need to understand what led to it becoming so entrenched and how it could have been tolerated. Pope Francis mentioned the problem of clericalism. I think he’s right. Not just the arrogance of some clergy that lets them view their parish or diocese as a personal fief, but also a belief among laity that they must accept and keep silence over wrongdoing.

Also, we need to separate those bishops who decided to coverup wrongdoing from bishops who trusted psychologists to “cure” predator priests and believed them when they said the priest was safe to return to duty. We need to separate both groups from later bishops who thought the past problems were legitimately solved until news of a former priest from the diocese made the news. Finally, we need to separate these three groups from the later bishops who sincerely followed the Dallas Accords and tried to root out the filth. A true reform needs to deal with all four scenarios and not slap on a single “throw the bastards out” slogan.

Unfortunately, I’m seeing a growing number of Catholics who think it’s better to throw out some of the innocent if it means getting rid of all the guilty. They think “kill them all, God knows His own” is reasonable. This view shows up in the assumption that all bishops must be guilty of willful wrongdoing and none can be trusted.

And that brings up another problem. In every case of corruption in the Church, there is always a faction that goes too far, rejecting the legitimate authority of the magisterium and insisting that the reform be given to them instead. That’s happening here too. That faction must be rejected. Unfortunately, rejecting them is represented as rejecting real reform. So, if the Pope follows canonical procedures in investigating, these factions will accuse him of stonewalling “real reform.”

One of the responsibilities of the laity in this time is to educate themselves about what the Church can and can’t do. When we know, we can have reasonable expectations on how the Church works, or respectfully call for a reform of what doesn’t work. But if we’re ignorant about it, we’re liable to get furious over unreasonable demands and think it’s “business as usual.” That’s how heretical and schismatic movements get started.

None of what I say here should be interpreted as advocating passivity or clericalism. We do have to act, and we do have to participate. But I am saying that if we want to truly reform, we need to work together with and for the Church, not against the Church. Otherwise our efforts will damage the Church we hope to save.

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