success stories

Posted February 16, 2003

Five Suggestions for Church Policy Makers

by David O'Brien in Commonweal, February 14, 2003

If people are responsible for their church, they must take responsibility for suggesting policy, even if doing so sounds like "an agenda." I suggest five things that seem obvious, at least to me:


Needed in many dioceses are independent commissions, empowered to examine all the records, to issues public reports on cases, dispositions, and costs, and to explore the causes of the scandal and suggest reforms. They should work closely with the National Review Board, which is hoping to gather reliable data and study the causes of the scandal. Opposition to the national commission is gathering strength, and none of this truth-telling will happen without organized pressure from outside the church bureaucracy. That means somebody has to gather and distribute reliable information, organize petitions, demonstrations, and open letters, lobby the chancery an constituencies who might be able to wield some power. Somebody must stand up and make proposals for truth-telling in those ordinary mechanisms of church governance that already exist.

Shared Responsibility

Immediate steps should be taken to more effectively organize "the people of God" and "the Body of Christ" in the local church by evaluating and strengthening (or reviving) diocesan and parish pastoral councils, finance committees, presbyteral councils, and senates of religious, along with their related committees. All Catholics, and especially those who work for the church, should immediately demand, in public, that this review and renewal take place, and they should offer to help. For priests and deacons, ministry is corporate and constitutive: they are a presbyterate united with one another and the bishop. If the organization does not work well, they must fix it and stop whining that "the bishop won't let us." While in many places people have become cynical about pastoral councils, there are places where they work better. There is also a body of knowledge about how to make them work (most of what is needed is common sense in other voluntary organizations.)

Retrieval of embryonic reforms inviting wide consultation in the selection of bishops, introduced during the 1970's tenure of Apostolic Delegate Jean Jadot, would also help. Boston would be a good place to start, and VOTF has invited local Catholics to speak up. Until such instruments of shared responsibility are up and running, anxiety about lay power or creeping Unitarianism is simply silly. Yet, once again, even the modest project of evaluating and reforming existing structures of shared responsibility is unlikely to be initiated from the top; interested parties who care about the church must do something or it won't happen.


Strong organizations for priests, deacons, pastoral ministers, and other groups, including lay groups, are indispensable. Independent organizations always make sense if people are to have a voice, but they are especially crucial as long as shared responsibility structures like pastoral councils are entirely subject to the bishop, who can, if he wishes, set the agenda, call or not call meetings, and decide whether to seek or accept advice. It is important for priests and bishops to trust their people, but it is also vital that people have the capacity to speak up, strongly and independently, to their bishops and priests. So, to steal a phrase from the labor movement: Don't mourn, organize!

For priests and religious, that means getting involved with their existing national organizations an organizing their own local associations to set forth the pastoral needs of the local church, put pressure on institutional structures, and encourage hesitant lay people to join in. For lay people, it means joining national VOTF, sending it a check, organizing local chapters, supporting the National Review Board, finding out what needs to be done in each diocese, and making sure it gets done. If VOTF is too scary, lay people must find a comparable vehicle, an not complain unless they have joined or formed an organization designed to take on the responsibility that rests on all of us.

Common Ground

Cardinal Bernardin's proposal for a common-ground strategy of disciplined dialogue among differing Catholic groups was intended to bridge dangerous ideological divisions by drawing attention to shared faith and mission. It enjoyed only limited success because important cardinals decided it was not needed; the Catechism and the guidance of Rome provided all the "common ground" the church required. The project evoked limited support, even from those with a stake in Catholic intellectual life. Of course, dialogue among contending groups is not an ideological weapon but a practice indispensable to the vitality and unity of the church in a free and pluralistic society. Theologians, educators, and pastors all know this, but most sat on the sidelines while a few cardinals and self-defined orthodox factions made the Common Ground project so controversial (read "liberal) that even independent but skittish colleges and universities would not touch it. Some sort of common-ground effort to establish structures for civil conversation about the church, its mission, ministries, and organizational policy and practice is not a "hobby horse." Rather, it is a vehicle for action for anyone who claims to speak from the center and for "the good of the church." Such a dialogue should be undertaken by every Catholic college and university, even by independent Catholic high schools. Let's face it: In the United States the existence of a Catholic Church with integrity and intelligence, where differences can be discussed in the open, cannot be taken for granted. People who think that a church like that is a good idea will have to do something to make it happen. Simple as that.

Pastoral Ministry

The perpetrators of sexual abuse in almost all cases were pastoral ministers. They worked in parishes, or in pastoral offices in schools and hospitals. The scandal has damaged, badly damaged, the fabric of trust that helps define a parish or pastoral community. As its effect is felt, the damage spreads, to church-sponsored educational charitable, and medical institutions, to the credibility of Catholic word and witness on problems like abortion, war, and economic justice. It poisons the very integrity of the Catholic identity shared by all members of the community of faith. What sustains the church, as one looks around the smoldering ruins of Catholic life, say in Boston or Worchester, where I live? Good pastoral care: dedicated priests and pastoral staffs in parishes that people regard as their own; dedicated Christians serving the needs of people in neighborhoods, classrooms, hospitals; small groups of believers experiencing in prayer and service the solidarity of the Body of Christ now less visible in the larger church. From now on, let it be clear that the heart and soul of American Catholicism lies in its always-forming, always-renewing face-to-face communities. Ministry is and will remain mainly a matter of what used to be called "the cure of souls," people helping one another find their way to God and in that process finding their way to God's people, all of them. From now on, for Catholics of the center, parish renewal, energetic movements, and reforms to support them should constitute, yes, an agenda. So a last action item: Let every organization that claims the word Catholic take the time to do a pastoral self-assessment and develop a new pastoral plan. In shorthand, that was what Vatican II invited all Catholic communities to do.