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Posted January 5, 2003

Tell the truth or live a lie?

Peggy Steinfels addresses the church in crisis
by Stephanie Sinnot
Catholic Theological Union

The fifth annual Bernardin Lecture brought Margaret O'Brien Steinfels to Catholic Theological Union on November 13, 2002. Highly regarded for her thoughtful scholarship and faithful leadership at the helm of Commonweal magazine, this past year Steinfels cemented her position as one of the most recognized and respected voices of the Catholic laity. Most notably, she was invited to address the U.S. bishops at their very public meeting in Dallas, when the fever pitch of public outcry reacting to the revelations of abuse and cover-ups rocked the church.

Steinfels' reputation attracted an overflow crowd eager to hear her address, The Church Today: Moving Forward in a Time of Crisis."

Recalling the late Cardinal Bernardin in her introductory remarks, Steinfels states, "I have had good reason this year, as most of us have — a year that has brought the greatest crisis in the history of the U.S. Catholic church — to remember a man who faced this crisis a decade ago, not only institutionally but personally. The great lesson from Cardinal Bernardin's ordeal, in his life and in his dying, seems clear: Tell the Truth. As we reflect on this crisis, as we think about moving forward, the biggest challenge we face is exactly that: telling the truth. Only if we take the time to understand what has happened, can we move forward honestly and with hope of resolving this crisis."

In reference to her experience in Dallas she reflected. "Dallas was an awesome experience – and I mean that in the archaic sense — Dread has continued to be my overriding sense of Dallas . . . The measures adopted will not in themselves restore trust. In fact, since Dallas mistrust seems to have grown apace. Many priests have been angered by the bishop's policy, though some accept that zero-tolerance may be necessary."

Steinfels described the current state of the church as "paralyzed." She said, "The Gospel passage I have most often thought of over the last several months is that of the paralytic in Mark's Gospel. The paralytic's friends brought him up to the roof of the house where Jesus was staying, because it was so crowded outside and they couldn't get through to the front door. And then, his friends carried him to the roof and stripped the covering from over the place where Jesus was; and when they had made an opening, they lowered the stretcher on which the paralytic lay. Jesus seeing their faith said, "‘Your sins are forgiven.' For the time being, each of us must carry our paralyzed church with such faith until we find some authentic and effective way through the scandal and the mess we are in."

Steinfels addressed many of the complex issues facing the church as the crisis continues, including clerical culture, Victims' concerns, the role of criminal trials and civil lawsuits, and the role and responsibilities of the laity.

She stated, "I could not help but think of [Vaclav] Havel's phrase, ‘living a lie,' a condition as he sees it, so subtle, and so unconscious those who live a lie may not fully grasp the ordinary subterfuge in which they carry on their daily life. Havel writes, ‘individuals need to believe all these mystifications [created by the Soviets an by Communism], but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system."

Evaluating the crisis in terms of its consequence for the church as a whole, she said, "At heart, I think we are facing an ecclesiological crisis, that is, a crisis about the church itself, how it orders itself, and how it understands office and authority — a crisis that has been growing for at least the last two decades . . . Who are we? What are we doing? How do we understand ourselves as the church?"

This ecclesiological crisis requires that we look at the church defined by Vatican II. Steinfels explained, "Vatican II has often been described as the work of the Holy Spirit. There is much truth in that. Who back in 1962 could have anticipated the effect of the councils teacing, especially Guadium et spes, on the church itself? The council launched warrants on the ‘world,' warrants for human solidarity, human dignity, human responsibility for the human condition, for human culture, and most important in the current crisis, human responsibility for political and organizational behavior. These warrants are not, it turns out, restricted to the world; they have come home to roost in the church."

She went on, "We have been told often in recent months that the real crisis in the Catholic church is a crisis in faith. And the answer to that crisis of faith is obedience and submission . . . This distracts attention from a deeper or, at least, another crisis. In fact, sometimes it contributes to the crisis of disordered relationships among and between bishops, priests, and laity, and the relationship of all of us, but especially the bishops, to the Vatican."

The core of Steinfels' message suggested the next steps for Catholics, attempting to answer the question: "Where do we go from here?"

First, she reminded the audience, "Each of us, and all of us, need to take some responsibility for being what Gaudium et spes said we were, a leaven. The church is at once a visible organization an a spiritual community that travels the same journey as all humankind and shares the same earthly lot with the world. It is to be a leaven and, as it were, the soul of human society in its renewal by Christ and transformation into the family of God. We are leaven in the church as in society."

Without attempting to map out a quick or easy resolution for what will surely be a long-term shake-up of the church. Steinfels then advised all Catholics, especially the laity, on the steps to take and pitfalls to avoid. She recommended, "We should not press our usual agendas: on one side: become obedient and submissive, overhaul seminaries, ban homosexuals from the priesthood; on the other side; allow married priests and the ordination of women. We should not scapegoat homosexual priests and bishops, though we must come to a fuller and deeper understanding about the role that homosexuality plays in a church that requires celibacy. We should not believe everything we read in the papers or hear on TV; I don't think the media caused this scandal; but we have reached the point where I don't assume the accuracy of headlines, sound bites, or the news."

Steinfels urged listeners to "Look again at the usual and ordinary mechanisms now on the books of the church governance, mechanisms like parish councils, diocesan pastoral councils, presbyteral councils, finance councils, many of have been coopted by bishops or pastors, or have fallen into disuse. Above all, the bishops' conference, the USCCB, has got to be recognized once again, as a critical and vital force in the life of the U.S. church."

In addition, it is important to remember that "some great good may come of this. Not only will sexual abuse of children be at the forefront of our attention in the church, it could be at the forefront of other institutions, sexual abuse as well as physical and psychological abuse . . . not only in this country, but elsewhere . . . Could raising the church's consciousness about sex abuse, extend the compassion of others to these children?"

"Furthermore, the wounded state of the church will demand "examination and repair; bishops, priests, lay people will have to scrutinize their own attitudes and behaviors in order to remedy the indifference we all display at times toward the well-being of the whole church."

Finally, Steinfels reminded the audience to pray for "the miracle of telling the truth."

Steinfels concluded her lecture by saying, "The Catholic church is caught up in a political, a sociological, and ecclesiological crisis; and the truth of that is being obscured by both reams of media coverage as well as the silence, the bad memories, and perhaps the bad consciences of some church officials. If we are to know the truth, we must all stop living a lie."