In the Midst of Clerical Misdeeds, a Crucial Moment for the Laity

It is hard to overestimate the storm that is brewing. Only penance and a complete housecleaning can restore credibility and trust.

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The last four weeks in the Church have borne witness to a growing cauldron of sorrow and anger. God’s faithful are rightly disturbed at the latest explosion of sexual abuse allegations and the seeming lack of accountability that allowed years of rumors and allegations to go unaddressed by the hierarchy.

I am not sure how many of the bishops realize just how angry, disheartened and disturbed God’s people really are. Every day I receive calls and emails from faithful Catholics who struggle to adequately express their dismay in words. Each day there are new articles published that cannot be simply dismissed as rantings in an overheated “blogosphere.” These are the thoughtful essays of good Catholics, faithful writers, journalists and lay leaders who love the Church and have spent most of their energy building and defending the Church and the faith. However, they cannot defend the indefensible nor simply repeat Church-issued statements insisting that no one knew anything. Doing so strains credibility, and they, to whom many Catholics look for guidance and information, have had to say so. Thus, they have written with saddened hearts, justifiable anger and sober concern.

I hope our bishops, especially the highest ranking and those closest to the epicenter of the Archbishop McCarrick case, hear just how angry the faithful are. I think it is hard to overestimate the storm that is brewing. If any of our prelates think this latest storm will soon pass, they should ponder the more likely case that these are merely the outer bands of a Category 5 hurricane that is closing in and will likely make landfall in Baltimore at the November meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

I have never seen people so serious and determined to take actions of their own. Frankly, as the faithful often remind us, their real power is the power of the purse—that and voting with their feet. I have usually dismissed plans to refuse to give to the Annual Bishop’s Appeal or other such collections as the threats of a few on the fringes, but I am now hearing such things from far more mainstream sources who say that it is the only way to get the bishops’ attention.

This is where we are today. As a Church hierarchy, we have worn on folks’ last nerve. We have come to a point where only penance and a complete housecleaning can restore credibility and trust. As a lower-ranking priest I cannot issue demands or send binding norms to those in wider and upper ranks of the hierarchy, but I do want to say to God’s faithful how powerfully aware I am of their justified anger and agree with their insistence that something more than symbolic action or promises of future reform is necessary.

I also would like to say to God’s faithful that this is a critical hour for you. I have learned from Church history that reform almost never comes from the top; it comes from religious life and from the grass roots, from among God’s people. Please stay faithful to the Lord and His Body the Church. Pray as never before. Realize that the devil would like nothing more than for you to walk away from the sacraments. However, please also feel freer than ever to confront Church leadership and insist upon reform. There is at times an unhealthy deference to authority that leaves those in authority unaware of the impact of their action or lack thereof.

I encourage each of you to write personally to your bishop. It is not enough to sound off on social media or in comments sections on the internet. Be old-fashioned: write a physical letter to your bishop and request a written reply, at least acknowledging receipt. Be brief and charitable, but also be clear about the crisis of trust in episcopal and clerical authority and your deepening concerns over what this means if trust cannot be restored.

Remember, too, not every bishop or priest is equally to blame. Some are suffering as much as you are. However, no one, clergy or lay, should exempt himself from the task of summoning the Church to reform and greater holiness.

To those who are inclined to use financial withholding as an expression of concern, I ask that you remember that much of these collections go to help the poor. Please consider such a method as a kind of last recourse. Use it only if you must, and as a medicine not an expression of vengeance. I ask that you consider giving an equal amount directly to those who help the poor. Also, if you choose to do this, write to your bishop explaining what you are doing and why.

Yes, I have heard loud and clear the sincere and understandable anger of God’s faithful. Trust has been broken once again on a wide, institutional level. Many of our very structures and clerical culture are the cause of this. Significant reforms that result in accountability at all levels, including the highest ones, are needed and are worth insisting upon.

I am grateful that many lay faithful love the Church enough to be angry. Sometimes one must be angry enough to be willing to act for change and to persevere in that work. I hope you will honor your anger and use it to creative ends: to tirelessly demand real reform in all the ways God gives you to see. Be careful to target your anger and speak it in love and for the good of all.

So, this is a crucial moment for God’s people. As a member of His clergy, I want to say that we need you now more than ever and to remind you that you will be essential to reform by insisting on it and refusing to accept a return to business as usual. Let us pray for one another and work for the reform we all know is necessary and long overdue.