We Won’t Accept Anything Less Than Adult Conversation

According to the head of Catholic Charities USA, the fallout from the clergy sex abuse crisis will be with the U.S. church for decades to come, and how the church reaches out to its people will determine its health and even survival into the next century.

Fr. J. Bryan Hehir, outgoing president of Catholic Charities, was one of the presenters at the forum held September 18 at Boston College. Hehir, a priest of the Boston archdiocese, was recently recalled to his home diocese from his national post by Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley. "Regarding the sex abuse crisis in the church, to use a military metaphor: We've had the nuclear explosion, the blast is over; but the radiation is still in the air," Hehir said.

"Rebuilding faith requires recognition by the church of how much harm it has done and acknowledgement by the church of what that harm is : and a continual awareness, for the rest of my life, that people are right on the edge," he told the forum.

"If we don't reach out and draw them back in, they'll fall off. And if we lose the people who have been disillusioned, the effect of that is felt in the next two or three generations," he said. "If we can't bring them back in, the church will suffer a loss that is irremediable; and this will be devastating not just to the church but to people who have had a chance to be enriched by the sacramental life and the intellectual life that is Catholicism."

Hehir also offered a basic suggestion for renewal: "As a simple principle, we've got to treat adults as adults in the church. You can't have a situation wherein men and women in corporations, universities, politics, in charge of their own lives...are not treated as adults in the church. We have in the U.S. today the most educated laity the Catholic church has confronted in 2000 years."

"The laity needs to know what a strategic role they are in," Hehir said. "One hundred years ago, this kind of discussion would have been inconceivable in American Catholicism : literally inconceivable in this room, at this university on this topic." What does that mean? "That we're at a different place in history than this church has been. The laity are in a strategic leverage position."

"Yet," Hehir cautioned, "I'm not calling for a revolution. That doesn't work in the Catholic church." But he added, "There is a range of definable, discussable issues for adults. The laity needs to say, at every level, 'We simply wont accept anything less than adult conversation' : which is not rebellion or an attempt to defy the church."

Commentary

Rev. Francis F. Baiocchi

Fr. Hehir is on the right track, but he does not deal with the true issue here: the intransigence and unwillingness of the majority of embattled and defensive U.S. bishops who continually refuse to engage in any meaningful discussion with lay people (or even with the priests of their diocese) on an entire range of topics that dramatically affects the spiritual lives of American Catholics. Hehir, though enlightened on the need for this discussion, has no way of forcing the issue among the body of bishops. The pressure to do so will not come from the Vatican, since the pope and the Curial officials there are even further up the proverbial management pyramid than is the U.S. episcopate. These Vatican officials are convinced that the U.S. bishops have already given away too much to the media and the courts on the sex abuse issue. Besides, it is a time honored custom within this so called hierarchical church never to engage in meaningful discussion with people standing lower than you on the pyramid of power.

Fr. Hehir's words in the above news report do challenge the laity to do something. The Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) is an honest attempt by educated and responsible laypeople to engage their clerical leaders in such discussions. Despite their efforts, many VOTF chapters have been unable to meet with their local bishops. They have even been refused permission to meet in schools or church halls that their money built! Such affronts do not engender a spirit of cooperation.

To Fr. Hehir's credit, he at least acknowledges the need for the Catholic church (his identification of "church" with its magisterial leadership can be forgiven) to "reach out and draw people back in." Some occupants and defenders of the "magisterial teaching authority" prefer to let those people leave, and good riddance! I'm not sure at all what these self-declared defenders of the magisterium would say about the inclusive mind and heart of Jesus Christ.

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