A Church at Risk

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...

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 2003
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