We casually refer to all sorts of things as “the church” — the church as the Holy See, the church as its bishops and priests, the church as an institution, the church as the place where we worship. Sometimes we capitalize it, as though it’s a proper name.
In the midst of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, “the church” is taking the brunt of the blame. It’s easier to blame the church than it is to parse culpability among the various players — priests who violated children and bishops who enabled them.
When we blame the church we are often broadly blaming a culture or system in which these behaviors have been allowed to fester.
What the Second Vatican Council emphasized and what we’re taught as children is that the church is the people of God, the Body of Christ — those of us filling the pews, our faithful priests who lead genuinely holy lives and bishops who act as good shepherds.
It seems we are confronted in this crisis with two visions of the church. One constitutes a hierarchy concerned with preserving the appearance of holiness. The other is a body of the faithful seeking holiness.
It may be helpful to distinguish these two visions of the church when we confront the question many have asked themselves recently: Why should I remain Catholic?
If the church is indeed Christ’s people, then the question might be reversed. We don’t need so much to ask, “ought I abandon the church?” We are the church.
Instead, we might acknowledge that culpable priests and bishops abandoned the church — the Body of Christ and Christ himself — when they chose to subjugate the lives of children to their own agendas and sentence them to extraordinary suffering.
Pope Francis pins this abuse of power on “clericalism,” which sees priests and bishops as the church and emphasizes their authority over their obligation to serve. Clericalism also undervalues or minimizes the God-given grace and talents of lay people, who are called by baptism to be active participants in the life of the church.
The head of the Vatican clergy office, Cardinal Beniamino Stella, echoed Pope Francis’ words earlier this week. The only way to root out the evil of sexual abuse and abuse of power, he said, is to work together as the people of God.
“Together, priests and laity, as the one people of God — each one according to the specificity of their vocation — we are invited to walk and work in the service of the Kingdom of God, supporting one another and sharing with tender love the joys, difficulties and sufferings,” the cardinal said.
He also said that clericalism has “devalued baptismal grace.”
At baptism, Christians are called to be holy, sharers in Christ’s prophetic and royal mission, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us. We are called to share in the church’s life, not simply as listeners in the pew, but as holy people of prayer, worship and action.
What the church needs now is for its people — especially the laity — to accept that baptismal call and bring their influence to bear on the life of a church in crisis.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ executive committee will meet next week to prepare for their November assembly. They are considering a three-point plan outlined by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, conference president, to address the failings of bishops identified in the Pennsylvania grand jury report.
The bishops’ plan calls for an investigation of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, accused of sexually abusing minors.
It also aims to establish a better way to report abuse and misconduct of bishops. And finally, it suggests better procedures to resolve complaints against bishops.
It will be key, Cardinal DiNardo said, to include “substantial leadership by laity.”
The faithful people of the church have a responsibility to watch closely, follow these developments and take up leadership positions where needed.