Can We Talk?

Two articles came across my desk yesterday which make me think that all conversation in the Catholic Church has ended.  I hope I am wrong.

The first is a column by Fr. Richard McBrien from the National Catholic Reporter  (NCR).   The title tells the story:  “The disconnect between bishops and other Catholics.”

McBrien summarizes some data from a recent survey commissioned by the NCR.  The results of the survey were published in the newspaper’s October 28 and November 10, 2011, issues and can be reviewed here.  What McBrien sees is that Catholics are no longer listening to their bishops for guidance on moral issues, particularly those related to sexuality:

“On the matter of Catholic attitudes toward the credibility of the bishops’ teachings, the survey found that relatively few Catholics look to church leaders as the sole moral arbiters.

“This is particularly true with regard to official teachings on such issues as divorce and remarriage, abortion, nonmarital sex, homosexuality and contraception.

“More than of half of those surveyed say that individuals, not the hierarchy, are best equipped to make moral decisions on these matters. When it comes to contraception, however, the percentage rises to two-thirds.

“On issues other than divorce and remarriage and contraception (where the percentage of dissidents is roughly the same today as it was 25 years ago), the share of Catholics who look solely to church leaders for guidance on matters of right and wrong has declined.

“Those who attend Mass every week are more inclined to look to the hierarchy for guidance, but not by much.

Indeed, half of the oldest generation of Catholics believes individuals themselves are the proper locus of moral authority, even on such issues as abortion.

“In summary, on most of the issues the survey asked about, majorities of Catholics said the locus of moral authority rests with individuals, not the bishops, but after taking church teachings into account.”

The second article was by Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, and appeared on The Huffington Post website. Referring to the recent incident where Cardinal George compared the LGBT rights movement to the Ku Klux Klan, Duddy-Burke examines the question which is the tile of her essay: “Why Cardinal George Can Say Such Outrageous Things.”  Her main answer to this is:

“. . . Catholic bishops and cardinals are accountable only to the Vatican. They have absolutely no accountability to anyone in their Diocese. They are appointed by Papal decree, and terminated from their positions only by the Pope. The people whom Church hierarchs supposedly shepherd have no say in whether they are suitable for their jobs, or the length of their tenure.

“In addition, the lives and work of these officials provide little if any opportunity for ongoing interaction with “regular people” on a day-to-day basis, so they often have a much distorted sense of our hopes, dreams, struggles, concerns, relationships and spirituality. In my own conversations with an admittedly small number of bishops and cardinals, I’ve found that they begin from an assumption of authority, rather than from an acknowledgment of our shared Baptism. They believe they have the unquestioned right to set the terms of our discussion. They make pronouncements that belie fact and expect to go unchallenged. When they do this in the public square, as did Cardinal George, the degree to which they are out of touch with their flock becomes glaringly apparent.”

So, lay Catholics are not listening to bishops, and bishops are not listening to lay Catholics.  This is a very serious pastoral problem.  Continuing in such a fashion means that all conversation will soon end, if it hasn’t happened already.

At a conference on LGBT ministry, Bishop Matthew Clark of Rochester, NY, observed that it is the job of the bishops to discern the call of the Spirit in the church.  He added an important qualification to this description:  if the laity do not communicate with their leaders, then the bishops will not be able to do accurate and truthful discernment.

Although it means that we have to continue to do work, it is up to lay Catholics to keep speaking out on LGBT equality.  It’s a difficult thing to do when our conversation partners, the bishops, are so unresponsive.  Let’s take heart from Cardinal George’s recent apology, which clearly was the result of so many groups and individuals speaking out against the ignorance of his original comments.

To keep up speaking when it seems no one is listening requires that we rely on God to make our words effective.  Similarly, we have to truly believe that God can–and does–speak through the laity.  If we have faith in these two things, the burden of speaking out becomes much lighter.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

0 replies
  1. David J Martin
    David J Martin says:

    As recorded in acts, and I paraphrase, the Apostles – the first “bishops” stated that we must look to the faithful for our inspiration/guidance, for it is within them that the Holy Spirit lives and guides the Church and we must take our lead from them. This has been forgotten or simply ignored by the power hungry hierarchy through the ages in their attempts to CONTROL rather than shepherd the flock. Having raised sheep, I know that they attend to gentleness in guiding them. If they sense CONTROL without warmth, they flee. So, too, is the state of our beloved Church. However, this may be seen not as a revolt by the people but the actions of the Holy Spirit in returning the guidance of the people to them, as chastisement perhaps of the hierarchy for losing the spirit of the Law, power rather than loving shepherding. Not losing Faith in my true Church – Christ united with all people – I have hope that some day the hierarchy will hear the Holy Spirit in their travails and loss of confidence in them, returning to their vocation as shepherds rather than temporal pontentates. Namaste.

  2. Tim MacGeorge
    Tim MacGeorge says:

    Thanks for a thoughtful and insightful commentary. It truly would be sad if conversation were to disappear within the Church, as dialogue seems to be giving way more and more to monologue. While I agree that the divide between “bishops” and “laity” seems to be great, I have to wonder where the voices of two other groups within the Church are. Specifically, I am referring to religious and clergy. These women and men, after all, have such a huge role in the day to day ministry that occurs within parishes and faith communities, that their voices can and should be a large part of the conversation. Because they are part of the “structure” of the Church in ways that others are not, I wonder if they are the ones who can truly bridge the gap that McBrien and Duddy-Burke describe. I think that those of us who look to a brighter day for God’s LGBT children in the Catholic Christian community should do all all we can to support religious sisters, brothers, priests and deacons in the work that they do and give them the strength to speak up — even if it means taking a stand for a truth that so many bishops still fail to see.

  3. Steve
    Steve says:

    This is my opinion only, but I feel as though the new generation of Catholics are breaking away and forming their own community, ie- the emerging church movement. There isn’t a whole lot of room for rational discussion or freedom in the church as it stands now with the higher authorties and I’m not sure if that will change anytime soon. As a young Catholic, I rarely see anyone in their 20’s or 30’s in church. There are exceptions to this and there are some great churches doing some wonderful things. On the whole though, I feel like we will need to “make our own church”. Also, what we call “the church” is not four walls, a building, the vatican or a place you go on Sunday. Church is you and me and everyone else…no matter where we are. I think there is some confusion on that. I’ve seen a lot of damge done by people who cling to doctrines, laws, beliefs, the pope, and four walls with stain glass windows.

    • David J Martin
      David J Martin says:

      The institutional Church has NEVER changed easily – having to be dragged kicking and screaming into contemporary times – into connection with the Faithful – who she SERVES. Unfortunately, the hierarchy has betrayed Vatican II which has the same infallibility as supposedly the Pope. The spirit of Vatican II declared that it is from the faithful that the hierarchy receives its authority and lead in teaching. But alas, they continue to perch on top of the ancient pyramidal pattern abandoned by Vatican II. Yes, if the people will lead – the hierarchy shall follow…another way of looking at this is…if the faithful fail to follow the directives of the hierarchy, then the bishops and the Pope lose the authority to rule over the true Church…for the faithful are no longer in their flock.

  4. Todd
    Todd says:

    The Duddy-Burke article was apparently written before Cardinal George’s extensive apology, in which he said, “Many people have friends and family members who are gay or lesbian, as have I. We love them; they are part of our lives, part of who we are. I am deeply sorry for the hurt that my remarks have brought to the hearts of gays and lesbians and their families.”

    Later, in an interview in the Chicago Tribune, There was this exchange: “George said although church teaching does not judge same-sex relationships as morally acceptable, it does encourage the faithful to ‘respect everyone.’ “

    ” ‘The question is, “Does respect mean that we have to change our teaching?” That’s an ongoing discussion, of course. … I still go back to the fact that these are people we know and love and are part of our families. That’s the most important point right now.’ “

    Note he said, “That’s an ongoing discussion of course,” in regard to changing Church teaching on homosexuality. He may or may not change that answer, but as far as I know as of this date, it still stands.

    There is hope….tiny, tho it may be….

  5. Megan
    Megan says:

    “When it comes to contraception, however, the percentage rises to two-thirds” (NCR survey, according to Richard McBrien). Gee, personal experience becomes the mechanism for engaging and informing one’s conscience! Will all those Catholics who discovered their consciences and use contraception please become LGBTQ allies? You aren’t getting slammed and shamed all the time like we are. They don’t remind you quite as often that you shouldn’t go to communion. Heck, they even marry you in Catholic churches! We could use more allies! And that would mean speaking up, being pro-LGBTQ in all your spheres of influence. It would mean thinking about the LGBTQ children raised in Catholic parishes and schools, made to feel invisible, shameful, or unloveable. And now let’s add, “a threat to humanity.” It may even mean tithing to New Ways Ministry, Dignity USA, and Fortunate Families instead of to local bishops (through parish collections) who denigrate LGBTQ families and use church money to fight against family and marriage equality.

  6. IT
    IT says:

    THis is why my wife, a cradle Catholic, has joined the exodus, swum the Thames, and now resides with the Episcopalians where our marriage is literally blessed. Like the late John Cogley, she considers this not a conversion, as none of her beliefs have changed, but finding her way to the right spiritual home.

    A very large fraction of the new arrivals in her growing parish are, like her, ex-Romans — some gay, more not, but all put off by the exclusion and hate that was spat out here in California during the Prop8 battle. (If you aren’t in California, you may be blessedly unaware of that brutality …. but you might get a look in MD, WA, and MN).

    Last week a young mother spoke to my wife about how she had left her Catholic church because she wants to raise her children in a community that welcomes diversity, and expects the same standards of LGBT people as straight people, including faithful marriage.

    It’s been suggested that the ‘piskies are actually the real post-Vatican II Catholics. Certainly they respect the laity, they don’t limit lay roles to “Pray, Pay and Obey” and we’re even on first-name basis with the Bishop. Go figure.


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