I recently attended a dialogue session held by a former archdiocesan official here in Chicago about the current devastating situation in the Catholic Church. While it is necessary that I respect the anonymity of the participants due to the nature and intensity of the exchange, I do want to extol here the remarkable quality and courage of this event in the hope that other communities might model it.
The session was held after the liturgy in the church itself. The host pulled up a chair in the center aisle and laid some ground rules to the roughly 50 people who stayed on for the extra hour, which included the recommendation that each person only speak once, that there would be no crosstalk or “fraternal corrections,” and that one need not ask a question, but could simply offer commentary on what they were feeling or experiencing. Beyond that, nothing was off limits.
The vulnerability and commitment to transparency that such a session mandated served in some small way as an antidote to the tribalism and accusatory posture of so much of the recent discourse about events in the life of the followers of Christ, even or especially from within the community.
In conversations afterward with other attendees, it was clear that the patience to listen, refusal to defend the reputation of the institution, lack of justifying comparisons to other cultural patterns of abuse, and candid responses about the situation of the local church (with accompanying, if general, statistical evidence) were chief among the beneficial outcomes of the encounter.
The confusion, tears, anger, bewilderment and disillusionment caused by recent realities were on full display. We are as a People suffering tremendously, and that includes victims, church employees, educators, parish priests and people in the pews on a daily, weekly or biannual basis. The lack of accountability in the past, while astonishing, is obviously not going to be acceptable as a future means of dealing with controversy, and this is a positive thing. We will, I am personally convinced, be a better and more effective church for it. The convulsions we are experiencing do have analogues in the long history of Christian witness to the Resurrection, and the church that is ever coming to be is forged in the crucible of seismic and often debated issues of great import.
Doctrine itself is almost always articulated in the face or wake of threats to the communion of believers. One need only to return to the writings of John Henry Newman to understand both this painful reality over the centuries, and the role that the laity can and must play in the process.
But elements of the church as we have come to know them, along with the privileged if removed moral authority of the episcopal guarantors of the deposit of faith, have been not only squandered but mortally wounded. That is not to say that bishops will play no future part in the church, for I continue to acknowledge and acclaim their unique role in the Catholic expression of lived fides and praxis. But the ability of many — but by no means all — of them to lead their flocks without “looking back” at the sheep (from which the English word “respect” comes: re-specere) is now lost forever.
None of us can anticipate, or even may live to see, what this new expression of being church will look like. But our trust in the God who is ever faithful to His promises allows us to confess with confidence that His Mystical Body the church, like His earthly one, cannot come to glory without the darkness of the tomb. Even in ecclesial settings we continue to sing with hope: “Now the green blade riseth, from the buried grain.”
Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.