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Coping With a Church and Priesthood
That Seems To Be Coming Apart At The Seams

By Father Eugene Hemrick


In the thesaurus the word disintegrate is closely associated to words like: collapsing, eroding, deteriorating, and dying.

Recent accounts of the church's crises create the distinct impression all the above words apply to the Church.

The recent possibility of the Archdiocese of Boston declaring bankruptcy [something never done before in the history of the American church] has shaken the already shook faithful.

The impression one receives when such a possibility is mentioned is that an institutional mainstay church control over the possessions intrusted to it by the laity no longer has the power to control or rule itself properly it has forfeited, or misused the means to carry on its daily operations.

A new Los Angeles Times' poll reports that younger priests are more conservative than older priests. It found that priests under age 41 express more allegiance to the hierarchy, less dissent from the church''s magisterium and more certainty about the sinfulness of homosexuality, abortion, artificial birth control and other moral issues than did their elders.

Implied in this finding is a priesthood at odds with itself.

Another recent study reported that Catholics are calling for increased financial accountability on the church''s part so that donations aren't used to defray the costs of sex abuse cases.

Implied here is a mistrust of parish and diocesan stewardship.

Numerous articles in national newspapers and Catholic magazines have suggested that the moral voice of bishops has been muted, and no matter how valid their arguments they are less apt to be heard.

These articles insinuate that the teaching power of the church has lost its influence.

The church is also accused of being too old-fashioned in not allowing priests to marry and closed-minded toward gays, lay empowerment and women. Simply put, that it is out of touch.

Add to this an aging priesthood that is now expected to pastor more than one parish in many dioceses; irate priests taking their dioceses to court on grounds that due process was lacking for them in the face of charges against them, and irate abuse victims disenchanted with the latest bishops' rules, and it is no wonder so many feel the church is disintegrating.

How might the church best deal with this lack of trust and the disunity it represents?

First and foremost, there must be a concentrated effort to bolster faith on all levels of the Church. The faith we proclaim from our pulpits must be the focus of everyone a focus which aims to make it more alive than ever before.

Those in authority need to show much more trust in our laity by responding concretely to their cries for inclusion and empowerment. The old image of uninformed laity wanting to usurp power needs to be replaced with an updated vision of them as talented, responsible and caring people who have the gifts needed in a church facing mounting post-modern challenges. The commitment we claim to have of the Church working together with the laity needs to be raised up a number of notches more. The bar is still set too low, not allowing the laity to show how high they can hurdle in taking the Church to new levels of life and growth.

Here I suggest the works of Yves Congar be revisited. His in depth understanding of the role of the laity in the Church is classic, and his theological vision of them is inspiring and so true to the principles of sound religion.

On the other hand, the laity must never let mistrust in the hierarchy permanently darken their minds and hearts or allow the frenzy of the media to create disunity. Not "all" bishops or "all" priests are bad, nor are dioceses running out of control. The faithful still believe in their Church and its ecclesial hierarchy, despite media impressions. This is not a guess, but a statistical fact.

Nor must the laity ever be deluded into thinking that outside, negative forces are nonexistent. They do exist, and these forces would love to see Catholics abandon their baptismal commitment to the Church. The Church by its nature is a strong driving force in the world because of the moral stands it takes and also because of the large number of faithful who adhere to it. When you are a world power, there is always someone in the wings wanting you to fall.

The priesthood, too, would do well to establish more trust within its ranks than presently exists. Older and younger priests need to have more confidence in each other and to devise fresh, innovative ways of bonding. Priest bashing priests only cheapens the one doing the bashing, and is so unprofessional. If something is not to one's liking, the "something" needs to be identified and addressed so that the important matters at hand are addressed. Too many hurting, suffering people depend on a healthy priesthood. If there is any one cry the priesthood needs to make it own in 2003, it is the cry for solidarity, and letting life begin anew. It is no time to keep dragging up old grudges, repeating old innuendoes, and remaining suspicious of each other.

And no matter how priests feel about bishops, distrust must not be allowed to break the sacred bond between them. If it is broken, a diocese should immediately do whatever is needed to repair it. Without this sacred bond, loyalty, enthusiasm and hope disintegrate. And who wants to minister in an atmosphere like this?

The best means the church has for restoring its vigor is its faith -- a living faith aimed at restoring unity within its ranks --- a faith that enable healthy life to live again.