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book review

The Emerging Catholic Church

By Tom Roberts (Orbis, 2011)
Reviewed by Bill Daly

Tom Roberts’s excellent book chronicles the historical background for many of today’s serious problems in the Church and pushes readers to reflect on possible solutions.  Along the way, Roberts traces the gutsy history of the National Catholic Reporter.  Begun in 1963, NCR has stayed true to its founders’ vision -- to report the life of the Church in the world; to press for as much information as can be had about events and their meaning while remaining committed to the Church.  Tests of these convictions came in 1967 when the paper leaked a copy of the Majority Report of Pope Paul VI’s Birth Control Commission and again in 1985 when it became the first national publication to cover clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church. 

Cover of the book 'The Emerging Catholic Church' by Tom Roberts

Roberts reports on the emerging Church’s organizational problems -- shortages of priests, the failure to advance women’s ministerial roles, polarization of church membership, substantial loss of members, inability to attract significant numbers of youth, and deeper doctrinal and moral problems. He points to clerical culture as one cause of the Church’s problems.  Catholic clericalism has long been a closed system composed exclusively of pope, bishops and priests —all male, all celibate, all ordained, and all committed to the system through ordination promises and the code of canon law.  Former seminary rector, Fr. Donald Cozzens, whom Roberts cites, characterizes the Catholic Church as “the last feudal system in the West.”  The pope, as its highest sovereign, grants benefices (dioceses) to bishops, who in return, “promise obedience, homage and loyalty” to the pope.  Bishops in turn grant benefices (parishes) to priests who make the same promises to their diocesan bishop.  In this kind of closed structure, bishops take extraordinary measures to support and protect priests.  Taking natural organizational impulses to an extreme, the hierarchy protects its culture and systems, its personnel and decisions -- by shielding its inner workings from public view and blocking outside access to internal documents.

Intertwined with promises of divine guidance and a membership that often caters to the culture through unquestioning support and deference, the clerical system operates without input beyond its internal mechanisms.  Thus while acknowledging the sensus fidelium as a doctrine of the church, the papal and episcopal leadership appears unable acknowledge its activity.  The major disclosures of clergy sex abuse over the last forty years are forcing the hierarchy to listen to and act on the wisdom and demands of the faithful and society at large.  Indeed, requests for information, external pressure for change, and disclosures of previously guarded secrets may precipitate the unraveling of clerical culture.   

The ugly and sensational events in Dallas in 2002 and Boston in 2008 soured many Catholics on the moral leadership of the hierarchy, and invigorated reform groups bent on pounding some sensus fidelium into prelate heads.  But Roberts conveys a sad truth. In recent Church history since the 1950’s, the hierarchy, all the way to Rome, heard about the problems of clergy sexual abuse from many expert sources but did not heed fair warnings and good suggestions.  Roberts details two instances.

Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald began a ministry in 1947 to help priests troubled with alcoholism.  Along the way, bishops requested help to address the problem of priest sexual abuse of minors.  Fitzgerald maintained a policy of refusing cases involving deviant sexual behavior.  But bishops smuggled such deviant and disturbed priests into the treatment facility under the subterfuge of alcoholism diagnoses.  Fitzgerald was on record that such persons should be removed from the priesthood.  He favored laicization because he found complete cures to be extremely rare.   Fitzgerald so advised members of the hierarchy, including Pope Paul VI.  Fitzgerald understood the intractability of the personality disorder that drives sexual abuse. He recognized also how children were being damaged and how the eventual scandal would profoundly affect the Church

In the aftermath of a major case in Louisiana in the 1970’s, three experts from related fields crafted a 92-page comprehensive plan to treat victims compassionately, to deal effectively with abusers, and to address the scandal openly and honestly.  The plan included warnings that clergy sex abuse cases were beginning to surface all over the country and involved criminality.  The plan recommended a national coherent strategy by the bishops including the proviso that accused priests not be allowed to function in any priestly capacity.  The plan document was sent to all US bishops in 1985 but was ignored at the national level and in most dioceses.

Roberts discusses another prime case of ignoring the sensus fidelium: the encyclical Humanae Vitae and the papal birth control commission.  Occurring in the 1960’s, this episode in church history remains unresolved fifty years later.  Caught between two compelling views and under the pressure of their public disclosure by NCR and others, Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae in July 1968.  Loud cries of disapproval came immediately.  Unfortunately, the polarized factions could only see black or white - grave sin or sinless integrity.  In his lengthy argument, Paul VI spoke to the middle ground.  Many of the bishops’ conferences did the same in their responses.  The huge cacophony of dissent and reprimand obscured Paul’s small achievement.  His encyclical explained how contraception is sinful, but never, not once, declared contraception by actual married couples to be gravely evil.  The post-encyclical sensus fidelium came most clearly from parish priests.  Attitude surveys before the encyclical found 67 percent of priests would not refuse absolution to couples practicing contraception.  Five years later the percentage had risen to 87 percent.  Many Catholic theologians continue to debate this issue.

Tom Roberts offers us a sober review of contemporary Catholic issues and should stimulate reflection on the role of the laity especially in the ongoing search for a healthy Body of Christ.

Bill Daly is a FutureChurch Board member.

Focus on FutureChurch

Winter 2012


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