The Common Good
July-August 2003

A Church at Risk

by Peter Steinfels | July-August 2003

Is the Catholic Church heading toward irreversible decline or is it on
the verge of transformation?

Is the Catholic Church heading toward irreversible decline or is it on the verge of transformation? Peter Steinfels, in A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America, looks at the enormous challenges facing the Church and points toward the ways it must transform itself. Steinfels is a former New York Times religion correspondent who currently writes the paper's "Beliefs" column.

Liberal and conservative Catholics vied in attacking the bishops. Each found the sex abuse scandal proof of their pre-existing diagnoses of what ails the church. For the liberals, that meant celibacy, a flawed attitude toward sexuality, the refusal to ordain women, and the lack of a real voice for laypeople in church governance. For the conservatives, that meant theological dissent, a breakdown in clerical obedience and sexual discipline, and the toleration of homosexuals in the ranks of the clergy, if not even among the hierarchy. The polarization of leading Catholics was blatant.

The vehemence of these polarized Catholic activists and intellectuals resonated in the less polarized ranks of ordinary Catholics. Something more diffuse was at work, it seemed, than rival agendas. Throughout the year, bishops lamented that the sex abuse scandal had undermined Catholics' trust in church leadership. But the truth was almost certainly the opposite. A pre-existing erosion of trust had shaped the way Catholics perceived—and in some respects misperceived—the scandal...

Catholics' distrust, anger, and alienation were also the product of years of irritations with what looked like the indifference, incompetence, or arrogance of church leaders. Embarrassing statements from on high, inept, ill stated, or ill explained; embarrassed acquiescence at lower levels. The center of gravity of the American Catholic populace is middle class and moderately liberal, which means they believe that tolerance, pluralism, open discussion and inquiry, the equality of men and women, the ideal of intimacy in marriage, and many other typically modern values are authentic ways of living one's Christianity. For years these Catholics have felt that many high church leaders, some in Rome, some in the United States, entertain an incomprehension for this outlook bordering on contempt. Other leaders, these Catholics sense, comprehend but comply, publicly endorsing positions that are privately questioned.

If the sex abuse scandal had never occurred, the Catholic Church in the United States would still face a crisis. The problems illumined by the scandal were present in other forms and in other parts of American Catholic life. The clergy's fading authority, the disappearance of the ethnically reinforced Catholic subculture, the impact of the [Second Vatican] Council (both disruptive and renewing), the divisions about sexual teachings, the priesthood, and above all the bishops' leadership—these would have remained areas of contestation and pressing decisions even if no priest had ever molested a young person. The sex abuse scandal revealed some egregious examples of negligent, incompetent, duplicitous, and even corrupt Catholic leaders. It was a vacuum of leadership, and it would manifest itself in area after area, from the church's public role to its internal reform.

From A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America, by Peter Steinfels. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster.

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