Two articles came across my desk yesterday which make me think that all conversation in the Catholic Church has ended. I hope I am wrong.
The first is a column by Fr. Richard McBrien from the National Catholic Reporter (NCR). The title tells the story: “The disconnect between bishops and other Catholics.”
McBrien summarizes some data from a recent survey commissioned by the NCR. The results of the survey were published in the newspaper’s October 28 and November 10, 2011, issues and can be reviewed here. What McBrien sees is that Catholics are no longer listening to their bishops for guidance on moral issues, particularly those related to sexuality:
“On the matter of Catholic attitudes toward the credibility of the bishops’ teachings, the survey found that relatively few Catholics look to church leaders as the sole moral arbiters.
“This is particularly true with regard to official teachings on such issues as divorce and remarriage, abortion, nonmarital sex, homosexuality and contraception.
“More than of half of those surveyed say that individuals, not the hierarchy, are best equipped to make moral decisions on these matters. When it comes to contraception, however, the percentage rises to two-thirds.
“On issues other than divorce and remarriage and contraception (where the percentage of dissidents is roughly the same today as it was 25 years ago), the share of Catholics who look solely to church leaders for guidance on matters of right and wrong has declined.
“Those who attend Mass every week are more inclined to look to the hierarchy for guidance, but not by much.
Indeed, half of the oldest generation of Catholics believes individuals themselves are the proper locus of moral authority, even on such issues as abortion.
“In summary, on most of the issues the survey asked about, majorities of Catholics said the locus of moral authority rests with individuals, not the bishops, but after taking church teachings into account.”
The second article was by Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, and appeared on The Huffington Post website. Referring to the recent incident where Cardinal George compared the LGBT rights movement to the Ku Klux Klan, Duddy-Burke examines the question which is the tile of her essay: “Why Cardinal George Can Say Such Outrageous Things.” Her main answer to this is:
“. . . Catholic bishops and cardinals are accountable only to the Vatican. They have absolutely no accountability to anyone in their Diocese. They are appointed by Papal decree, and terminated from their positions only by the Pope. The people whom Church hierarchs supposedly shepherd have no say in whether they are suitable for their jobs, or the length of their tenure.
“In addition, the lives and work of these officials provide little if any opportunity for ongoing interaction with “regular people” on a day-to-day basis, so they often have a much distorted sense of our hopes, dreams, struggles, concerns, relationships and spirituality. In my own conversations with an admittedly small number of bishops and cardinals, I’ve found that they begin from an assumption of authority, rather than from an acknowledgment of our shared Baptism. They believe they have the unquestioned right to set the terms of our discussion. They make pronouncements that belie fact and expect to go unchallenged. When they do this in the public square, as did Cardinal George, the degree to which they are out of touch with their flock becomes glaringly apparent.”
So, lay Catholics are not listening to bishops, and bishops are not listening to lay Catholics. This is a very serious pastoral problem. Continuing in such a fashion means that all conversation will soon end, if it hasn’t happened already.
At a conference on LGBT ministry, Bishop Matthew Clark of Rochester, NY, observed that it is the job of the bishops to discern the call of the Spirit in the church. He added an important qualification to this description: if the laity do not communicate with their leaders, then the bishops will not be able to do accurate and truthful discernment.
Although it means that we have to continue to do work, it is up to lay Catholics to keep speaking out on LGBT equality. It’s a difficult thing to do when our conversation partners, the bishops, are so unresponsive. Let’s take heart from Cardinal George’s recent apology, which clearly was the result of so many groups and individuals speaking out against the ignorance of his original comments.
To keep up speaking when it seems no one is listening requires that we rely on God to make our words effective. Similarly, we have to truly believe that God can–and does–speak through the laity. If we have faith in these two things, the burden of speaking out becomes much lighter.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry