This Lent, perhaps more than ever, the critically wounded Catholic Church is being called to more deeply examine its dark side.
The process of repentance and reform is both individual and communal, but time has taught us that the road to conversion also needs to be collaborative. All of us — including clergy, seminarians, sisters and brothers, and the laity — need to examine the church’s past and envision its future together and use our gifts to breathe life into a gasping institution.
We all bear the scars of scandal inflicted by a culture of clericalism — an expectation or belief that the ordained are superior to everyone else. This kind of thinking, prevalent among clergy and laity alike, laid the foundation of a sex-abuse crisis that has cost Catholics around the world more than $4 billion. Mismanaged money and poor personnel decisions have desecrated the church and discernibly compromised its mission: feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the sick and love the image of God in humanity.
Droves of disheartened believers have disaffiliated from parishes where lawsuits and sacraments live side by side. The loss of contributions coupled with ongoing abuse settlements have created a cataclysmic need for change — not a timid tweaking, but a bold transformation rooted in a gospel of justice and inclusion.
The Pew Research Center reports that Catholicism, more than any other religious faith in the United States, has experienced the greatest net losses of members, despite the large numbers of Catholic immigrants entering the United States from Central and Latin America.
Some who have left the church now refer to themselves as former Catholics, while others say they are spiritual, not religious. The more energetic members of those who have left Catholicism seek a different kind of church where power, preaching, money and decision-making are shared with an increasingly well-educated laity.
We can pray that things get better, because prayer is powerful. But so is the call of our baptism, which is pulling many of the disillusioned into the process of reimagining and restructuring the church.
I recently joined hundreds of committed Catholics at the Leadership Roundtable Summit in Washington, D.C. Many there, including cardinals, bishops and priests, welcomed the talent of lay men and women who offered expertise in finance, management, communication and human resources. Their skills came with one question, “How can we help?”
The ordained spoke and the laity listened; the laity spoke and the clergy listened. We shared a vision of church leadership that includes transparency, competency, co-responsibility and accountability. We discussed the establishment of performance standards and the creation of evaluation tools that can ensure best practices in parishes across the United States. We shared concerns about the formation of future leaders, lay and ordained, who can be mentored to honestly identify their strengths and areas of growth. Our hopes were laid beside concrete recommendations for embracing a servant leadership modeled by Jesus.
Long Island is home to 1.4 million Catholics, the largest suburban diocese in the United States. We have 133 parishes and too few priests — many of whom become pastors at an increasingly younger age while lacking the life experience and understanding of pastoral management to successfully meet the needs of a rapidly changing church impacted by lost revenue and a shrinking staff.
The challenges are many. Quick fixes? None. But I am not alone in thinking that the sons and daughters of the Diocese of Rockville Centre have been given the Holy Spirit and the resources needed to rebuild our church. And we will.
Pat McDonough has been a Catholic educator on Long Island for 35 years.