The role of lay Catholics in a time of crisis

The role of lay Catholics in a time of crisis

Mary Ann Glendon

The following are extracts from an address by Mary Ann Glendon given late last year at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum on the role and renewal of the Catholic laity. Mrs Glendon, a Harvard law professor, was John Paul II's representative at the 1995 World Conference on Woman in Beijing.

While her comments focus on the United States, they have considerable relevance for Australian Catholicism.

The laity are the ones with primary responsibility to bring Christ to the various sectors of family, social, professional, cultural and political life - because we are the ones who are present in those sectors. The Holy Father says in Ecclesia in America, "America needs lay Christians able to assume positions of leadership in society. It is urgent to train men and women who, in keeping with their vocations, can influence public life and direct it to the common good."

We often hear that the United States was founded by people seeking religious freedom. But that's not quite true. The dissenting Protestant settlers were interested in religious freedom for themselves, but they viciously persecuted those who disagreed with them.

From the very beginning, the first Catholic settlers found themselves strangers in a strange land. At the time of the Founding, several states even had established Protestant churches (the First Amendment was originally thought only to ban the establishment of a national church).

But the immigrants kept pouring in - from Ireland, Italy, Germany, Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. By the turn of the 20th century, the Catholic Church was the country's largest and fastest growing religious group, with 12 million adherents.

Faced with exclusion and discrimination, those immigrant Catholics adopted a strategy of building a kind of parallel universe. They built their own separate set of primary and high schools, hospitals and colleges. They formed countless fraternal, social, charitable and professional organisations - Catholic lawyers, Catholic doctors, Catholic labour guilds. In historian Charles Morris' words, they constructed a virtual state-within-a- state so that many Catholics could live almost their entire lives within a thick cocoon of Catholic institutions.

It was Catholic trade unionists who were instrumental in curbing Communist influence in the labor movement, and it was Catholics who, between the 1930s and 1950s, made the Democratic Party in the urban North into the party of the neighborhood, the family and working people.

But as St Paul told the Corinthians, the world as we know it is always passing away. And as Catholics climbed up the economic and social ladder, they left the old neighbourhoods for the suburbs. Parents began sending their children to public schools and to non-Catholic colleges. Geographic and social mobility shrank Catholic communities of memory and mutual aid.

By the 1960s, the nation-within- a-nation had dissolved, and the people-called-together were embarked on what Morris describes in his history as "the dangerous project of severing the connection between their Catholic religion and the separatist culture that had always been the source of its dynamism, its appeal and its power."

That transition was symbolised by the election to the presidency of a highly assimilated Catholic, John F. Kennedy, who swore he would not let his faith affect his public service, and who outdid many Protestants in the vigour of his denunciation of public aid to parochial schools.

It was just two years after Kennedy became President that the Second Vatican Council was convened. The Council Fathers sent strongly- worded messages to lay men and women, reminding us of our baptismal vocation to evangelisation, and that wherever we find ourselves, we must strive to consecrate the world itself to God.

Social experiment

But events were already under way in the United States and other affluent countries that made it hard for those messages to get through. The 1960s marked the beginning of a breakdown in sexual mores and a rise in family disruption, accompanied by a culture of dissent as many tried to rationalise their departures from moral norms. The developed nations were engaged in a massive social experiment, for which neither the Church nor the societies in question were prepared.

But of course we didn't see it that way back then. So much of what was happening was linked to genuine progress - discrimination against African-Americans and women was coming to an end, and things were getting better for Catholics, materially speaking, in those days. We hardly noticed that many of us Catholics were developing a kind of schizophrenia - putting our spiritual lives in one compartment and our daily activities in the world of work in another. We hardly noticed how many Catholics were beginning to treat their religion as an entirely private matter, and to adopt a pick-and-choose approach to doctrine.

Sad to say, many of our theologians, religious educators and clergy succumbed to the same temptations. In that context, it was not only hard for the strong demands of Vatican II to be heard; the messages that did get through were often scrambled.

In recent months, we have heard many voices purporting to speak for the laity - voices calling for structural reform, for lay empowerment, and for more lay participation in the Church's internal decision-making. Dr Scott Appleby, for example, told the American bishops in Dallas in 2002 that the future of the Church in the USA depended on it sharing authority with the laity. We have also heard much talk about the need for a more independent, more American, Catholic Church. "Let Rome be Rome", said Dr Appleby.

In my own city, Boston, a group calling itself Voice of the Faithful states as its mission: to seek ways through which the faithful can actively participate in the governance and guidance of the Catholic Church. One leader of that group boasted to the press that his organisation, essentially composed of middle- aged Boston suburbanites, speaks for all 64 million Catholics in the United States.

Now I need to say that it is understandable that many well- intentioned lay persons have been drawn into these movements. Many Catholics are deeply concerned about recent revelations of clerical sexual abuse; they want to do something about it, and they are grasping the slogans that are in the air.

But slogans about structural reform and power sharing did not come from nowhere. They are the catchwords of what I call the generation of failed theories - theories about politics, economics and human sexuality that can now be seen to have taken a terrible human toll wherever they were put into practice. The die-hards who still cling to those ideas have seized on the recent sex abuse crisis as their last opportunity to transform American Catholicism into something more compatible with the spirit of the age of their youth.

Though these people often invoke Vatican II, there is nary a sign, so far as I can see, that they have a sense of the lay vocation as outlined in the documents of Vatican II.

Now, one would think that before one can prescribe remedies for a problem, one must have a clear idea of what the problem is. Here I must part company with many of my fellow Catholics who have profusely thanked the media for bringing a serious problem to public attention. I could not disagree more. The fact that confusion reigns among the laity about what is to be done is due to the fact that the only narrative available to them - as they struggled to understand what was going on - was supplied by media accounts that were false in several crucial respects, of which I will name three:

First: For months, the media played the story as though sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests was breaking news, something that was happening right now. Later, they began to dribble out the information that nearly all the reported cases took place long ago - in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. Was it really news that a tiny minority of Catholic priests succumbed to the general sexual bacchanalia of those years?

Second: falsehood. For months, the press created a climate of hysteria by describing the story as a pedophilia crisis, when in fact only a tiny minority of the reported cases involved pedophiles - abusers of pre- pubescent children - as distinct from homosexual relations with teen-aged boys.

Third: For months, and to this day, the media has singled out the Catholic Church as a special locus of sexual abuse of minors, whereas all the studies indicate that the incidence of these types of misconduct is actually lower among Catholic priests than among other groups who have access to young children.

But here is the question: If the crisis is not about rampant, ongoing sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests, what is it about? For nearly everyone admits that the Ecclesia in America is in some sort of crisis.

Father Richard Neuhaus says that the crisis is threefold: fidelity, fidelity and fidelity. But, perhaps because I'm a teacher, it seems to me that the problem is not so much fidelity as it is formation, formation and formation (formation of our theologians, formation of our religious educators, and thus formation of parents).

Far too many theologians in the United States have emerged from nondenominational divinity schools with prestigious degrees, but little grounding in their own tradition. Far too many of our religious education materials have been authored by, and infused with the disappointments of, former priests and sisters. And that has left far too many of us parents poorly equipped to contend with powerful competitors for the souls of our children - the aggressively secular government schools and an entertainment industry that delights in debasing everything Catholic.

It is ironic, given our long and distinguished intellectual tradition, that so many Catholics feel unable to respond even to the most simplistic forms of secular fundamentalism. Isn't it supposed to be one of the glories of our faith that we can give reasons for the moral positions we hold - reasons that are accessible to all men and women of good will, of other faiths or of no faith?

We urgently need to renew the intellectual apostolate. The importance of that task has been brought home to me very concretely in the course of serving over the past year on the National Bioethics Council. Over the past several months - in discussions of cloning, stem-cell research and genetic engineering - I have seen not only how necessary it is for theologians and philosophers to keep up with advances in natural science, but also how much the natural sciences need the human sciences - for natural science on its own simply cannot generate the wisdom it needs in order to progress without doing harm.

Reform and renewal

Now you might be wondering why, in spite of all these challenges and problems, I remain convinced that we may be moving into a season of authentic reform and renewal.

One is the upsurge around the world of lay associations, formation programs and ecclesial movements that think and feel with the Church. In this age of great geographical mobility the lay organisations supply many of the needs for formation and fellowship that were once met by parishes.

One of the joys I have experienced in serving on the Pontifical Council for the Laity has been to become more aware of these groups and of the variety of their charisms. What a contrast between these vibrant groups that work in harmony with the Church and the present-day lay organisations that define their aims in terms of power!

Another potential source of renewal for the Church in the United States is represented by the influx of Catholics from Central and South America and the Caribbean. They bring with them something precious from Catholic cultures, a more integrated way of looking at the human person and society.

And perhaps the most promising sign of all is the ever-expanding generation of unapologetically Catholic young people who have been inspired by the heroic vision of John Paul II. Some of these young people, please God, will be called to religious life. Others will embrace their lay vocations with enthusiasm. Together - priests, laity and consecrated - they may indeed "set the world ablaze."

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