The Catholic Church's crisis: Change will come, but how?

After a year and a half of scandal, the American Catholic Church has emerged, battered and bruised, the credibility of its leadership diminished, but at its core basically intact.

The toll has been great. Revelations of sexual abuse against minors and the failure of the nation's bishops to take effective measures against the abuser priests has led to the resignation of one cardinal, four bishops and more than 300 priests. The devastating case against the leadership of the church is laid out by the investigative staff of The Boston Globe, which broke the story, in Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church, now out in paperback (Back Bay Books, 296 pages, $14.95).


The church has also taken -- or was forced to take, depending on one's point of view -- extraordinary steps to put the scandal behind it. The U.S. bishops adopted a policy on sexual abuse of minors that vowed to permanently remove from ministry any priest who molested a child. It formed a national committee to review its progress. And many bishops had emotional meetings with the victims of sexual abuse.

The temptation, now, is to move on and leave all this unpleasantness in the past.


That would be a tragic mistake.

There is a sense among many of the faithful, from the breadth of the ideological spectrum, that the American Catholic Church is at a watershed moment. The sexual abuse crisis brought to the fore issues, dynamics and divisions that had been growing since the church's grand attempt to modernize some of its practices at the Second Vatican Council. And what the scandal has made clear -- to liberal, conservative and the broad middle -- is that something is wrong. The church must change.

The key question now being tackled by Catholic writers is, what change is best for the church and how can it be achieved?

Conservatives argue that much innovation since Vatican II is to blame. What the church needs is a restoration of morality and tradition that has been cast aside in favor of a spirituality and religious practice that mirrors and embraces mass culture instead of challenging it.

The most eloquent voice from this perspective is George Weigel, a Baltimore native and author of a magisterial biography of Pope John Paul II. He argues in The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform and the Future of the Church (Basic Books, 256 pages, $22) that the church has failed to embrace the true spirit of Vatican II, falling victim instead to the agenda of liberal culture he says has resulted in a kind of "Catholic Lite."

The American church has embraced a "culture of dissent" that started when Catholic leaders were allowed to publicly dissent from the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which affirmed the Vatican's prohibition of artificial birth control. Moreover, priests have forgotten their duty to reflect the holiness of Christ, and bishops, instead of being shepherds of their flocks, have evolved into soulless corporate managers.

The problems facing the church won't be solved by ordaining women or abolishing celibacy. The answer, Weigel says, is a return to fidelity, to classic Catholic doctrine and spirituality.

While the Vatican, which is embarking on a comprehensive evaluation of American seminaries, seems to embrace Weigel's solution, other commentators argue that the system itself needs fixing.


These commentators point to a growing consensus that the sexual abuse scandal unveiled not a crisis of faith or church teaching. Rather, it was the result of a failure of governance by church leadership, namely the U.S. bishops and the Vatican, who showed either gross neglect or active complicity in the sins of their priests. And it is here that reform must start.

New York Times religion columnist Peter Steinfels, in his new book, A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America (Simon & Schuster, 416 pages, $26), argues that even if the sex abuse scandal had never happened, the church in the United States would still be faced with a dire situation. The scandal merely sharpened the focus on a host of seismic shifts and divisive issues in church life: the fading authority of clergy, the vanishing ethnic Catholic subculture, the impact of Vatican II, divisions over sexual teachings, the nature of the priesthood and the leadership of the bishops.

Steinfels calls for a middle ground, inspired by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, a figure he greatly admires. In the last months of his life, before he died of cancer in November 1996, Bernardin launched the Common Ground Initiative, an attempt to engage both ends of a polarized church.

The initiative has not gained much ground over the years, but Steinfels believes it offers a model for a healthy and vital church in the future. Church leaders, whether bishops, clergy or lay people, must be faithful to the tradition of the church while focusing attention on animating an often moribund worship, more effectively passing on the faith to a new generation and fostering a Catholic identity in schools, hospitals and social services where it is ever less apparent.

David Gibson, former religion reporter for The (Newark) Star-Ledger, argues persuasively in The Coming Catholic Church: How the Faithful are Shaping a New American Catholicism (HarperSanFrancisco, 368 pages, $23.95) that reforms in church governance are achievable in the near term by demanding greater accountability in matters financial and operational.

Gibson (who, for the record, is a journalistic colleague and friend with whom I've covered many major stories and afterward, shared a number of beers), asserts that for lay Catholics, the battle lines have been drawn: the Vatican II model of Church as the People of God vs. the institutional, hierarchical model that has reigned for centuries and that restorationists are trying to reassert.


But for those lay people demanding a greater voice, the innovations of Vatican II have already provided much of the framework, like parish and diocesan councils, which could receive even greater emphasis. And the reforms spurred by the scandal will create more opportunities for input, like the lay-clergy review boards being established in many places to consult on sexual abuse cases and evaluate seminarians.

Gibson, an adult Catholic convert, pinpoints several key insights about what makes American Catholics tick and how that will affect their response. Although typical Catholics may be disgusted with the conduct of the hierarchy, their basic experience of the church is local: They like their parish, they like their pastor and the local church hasn't disappointed them.

When it comes to reform, many Catholics love ritual and tradition and don't want the substance of their worship to change.

And finally, for many Catholics, their religious identity is almost genetic. Studies have shown that no matter how disillusioned they are, Catholics don't tend to seek out other denominations. But the danger here is that many become inactive, darkening the door of a church only for occasions like weddings or funerals.

This is what the church risks by refusing the call to accountability of groups like Voice of the Faithful, the lay, parish-based movement that was born out of the scandal.

But Gibson has an admonition for lay people, as well: True reform of the church will require a commitment from more than the one-quarter of people active in the typical parish.


"Concrete reform in the governance of the church, a true revolution from below, will be predicated on lay people becoming more involved in the daily life of the church," he writes. "If the Catholic hierarchy has spent the last thousand years walling off the sanctuary from the laity, it is also true that lay Catholics have been, in the contemporary term, enablers of that clerical culture through their own disinterest."

John Rivera is the Howard Country bureau chief for The Sun. From 1997 to 2003, he was The Sun's religion reporter. He covered Pope John Paul II during his visit to Baltimore in 1995 and on his trip to Cuba. He earned a master's degree in theology at Washington Theological Union.