Catholics Are Facing a Very Real Emergency

What's needed is a massive overhaul so that Catholic communities can be run by trained lay people rather than be ruled by incompetent and sometimes criminal bishops.

Catholics have a term for our current situation: in extremis. It means far out, near the end. For example, if an unbaptized baby is in danger of death and there is no priest to baptize, anyone can perform a valid and licit baptism. For all of the well-catalogued reasons of priest pedophilia, abuse of vulnerable adults, bishops covering up crimes, and now the ex-nuncio’s screed depicting dueling factions of higher-ups, the institutional church is in extremis. Extraordinary means are necessary not to save the institution but to give people their pastoral due. This is a Catholic Pastoral Emergency.

None of the however-well-meaning statements from church authorities has provided concrete, useful, outside-the-box solutions for Catholics who are grappling with the depth and breadth of clergy criminal behavior, its cover-up, and the morally tawdry crowd that’s airing their dirty vestments in public. While it will take years to absorb the depravity and deception, people have concrete pastoral needs today.    

The primary concern ought to be for the victim/survivors and their families. It’s disconcerting to hear bishops continue to tell people to report crimes to church officials. If a child is abused, it’s a crime: report it to the police just as you would report any rape or robbery. Eventually, the institutional church may be involved, but it has proved itself incapable of handling such cases; the chances of being re-victimized are high and there’s no reason to put people at further risk.

Similar concern is for people in parishes whose priests and bishops were offenders. These folks have had their sense of church community shattered, their faith shaken. They’re questioning their deepest commitments and trying to figure their way forward. Again, Catholic priests are the last ones to consult. Catholic clergy have lost credibility. Insider arguments and jockeying for position have left even the most pious of Catholics disgusted. The priests’ training for and habits of handling sexual abuse are simply not up to the needs of their people. The pastoral problems are here and now. It will take resources from outside the Catholic Church to deal with them.

As ugly as it is, the Pennsylvania report points to the other 49 states where similar investigations will doubtless reveal similar staggering stories. As Kathleen Holscher noted recently here on RD, many priests reassigned from Pennsylvania were sent to a treatment center for sexual abusers in New Mexico and later assigned to parishes, hospitals, and other institutions in that locale. The mind boggles at the extent of the abuse pandemic and bishops’ chess moves. To expect priests who have lived under the current way of doing things to have anything helpful to preach or teach about it is naïve. Without serious remedial courses on administration, public safety, duty to warn, and other fundamentals none of today’s Catholic clergy could get licensed in basic social work, counseling, or management.

While Catholics are 20% of the U.S. population, the 51 million adults amounts to roughly 3 million fewer than in 2007. The percentage of Catholics who attend weekly mass dropped by 6% from 2014 to 2017 with current figures well under 40%. Is it any wonder? And that was the state of things before the recent spate of cases.

Still, people’s babies get sick and their mothers die. They want to get married or receive the Sacrament of the Sick. They might just want to share in the Eucharist and try to build community with their neighbors who are similarly shell-shocked by the reports of clergy crimes. These are their rights as Catholics and those rights are now abridged by the institution itself.

What’s needed is a massive theological and structural overhaul so that Catholic communities can be run by competent committees of well-trained lay people rather than be ruled by incompetent, and in some cases, criminal bishops. That will take time. In the meantime, I suggest four concrete next steps with many more to follow:

  • Let religious leaders and secular professionals, especially counselors, social workers, ministers, rabbis, imams, therapists, step forward. Just as schools bring them in after the death of a student or a mass shooting, Catholic communities need help on a massive scale. Some will need help reporting abuse. All, even priests, need models for how to reconfigure safe, credible, and holy communities.
  • We need to offer age-appropriate education on the prevention of sexual violence like the FaithTrust Institute’s K-6 curriculum. It’s hard to talk about abuse and rape with children. But the obligation to protect them requires letting them know what happened and how upset their adult caregivers are about behaviors that have no place in society, much less in church. They need to know the signs of such behavior for the future and how important it is to tell an adult if they feel uncomfortable with anyone’s advances.
  • Catholic Church officials need to check their piety at the door and remain silent rather than utter unhelpful platitudes in unctuous tones. Calls for prayer and fasting ring hollow when they come from clerics who are at the heart of the institution. Let them confess and make amends. Though not involved in criminal activity, the overwhelming majority of Catholic priests are complicit bystanders who knew how the institutional church game was played. They, after all, are some of its most vulnerable victims. But they played anyway. For now, listening is their best contribution.
  • Follow the money right out the door. It’s time to stop contributing to this debacle by giving money to parishes. Of course the social justice ministries of the churches need support, but money put in the regular Sunday collection is typically subject to a skim off the top that goes to the diocese. Among other uses, the money goes to pay for sex abuse cases, including lawyers for priests. If turning off the money tap means more dioceses will go bankrupt, it will never be the equivalent of the moral bankruptcy that has already taken place.

I repeat: what’s needed is a massive theological and structural overhaul so that Catholic communities can be run by competent committees of well-trained lay people. We’re ready and willing as long as part of the deal is to do away with the clergy/lay divide for good. We will not clean up a mess that’s not of our making. Nor will we enable the people who created it to tinker while children pay the price. This pastoral emergency signals the end of an era and the beginning of a new way of being Catholic. Ordination, clerical privilege, and episcopal rule are out. Competence, accountability, and broad participation are in.