The Catholic Church is in a state of chaos, some say a state of crisis. Twenty-first century Catholics are not like those of the last century or last millennia; they are motivated by spirituality far more than by religious structures, rituals, or questionable regulations. They value church as a means of following Jesus’ message and mission far more than they value church as an institution. They do not feel obligated to be in church on Sundays; they aren’t threatened by that which scared their parents: “Go to church or go to hell!” They are also not scarred like their parents were by intimidating or misguided nuns and priests. And they don’t feel obliged to contribute in financial ways as their parents did. All this adds up to a church that is contracting.
Pope Francis seems to be comfortable with chaos. He has experienced a lot of it in his life. He, also, is not intimidated by the ecclesial corporate monster that exists inside Vatican dicasteries and hierarchical systems. Likewise, he does not shrink from those on the far right or left that leave the church or threaten to force him to react and/or resign. He realizes that a chief challenge for the church is to realign with Jesus rather than with our religious constructs that periodically get off track. Since becoming pope, he has worked hard to turn things around. Knowing it is too much for any one person to address, he has asked for universal collegiality to defeat a global evil that has infested the church: misconduct by priests and mismanagement by bishops. To combat the immoral acts, criminal behaviors, and sinful patterns, he has called Catholic leaders from around the world to gather.
In February, a universal synod will assemble with him at the Vatican. Unlike councils in which magisterial leaders meet to deal with general issues, a synod addresses a specific issue and elevates the contributions and views of laity—in this case, experts and victims. The issue at hand is sinful clericalism or perversion of ministry by church officials. He will expand his sense of accountability and, as he has done since the day of his election, share the challenges of his office. He has not been shy about removing bishops who are not good stewards of their office and all that has been entrusted to them.
In the United States, Catholics leaders, since 2002 when clergy pedophilia was spotlighted, have strongly held to zero-tolerance responses of misconduct by all church employees and volunteers; the problem, as revealed this summer, was that the bishops exempted themselves from accountability. We can be proud of the Bishops of Missouri who addressed the national conference of their peers last month with clear expectations: no more apologies, no more saying to laity, “we’re listening and hear what you’re saying,” no more empty promises or corporate responses. Instead, they asked for systemic changes. Their request aligns with that of Pope Francis for new accountability, new approaches, amendments to canon law, and structural changes that will clearly signify that the church will not operate in the future the way it has in the past. I have no doubt that in our own diocese Bishop Johnston will work to end the sinful clericalism by which priests and other church leaders use the gift of their office as a tool to elevate themselves or a weapon to put others down.
The goal of the church-universal mirrors our own personal goal: to unite with Jesus’ way of living and loving, and not worry about the corporate institution so much. Jesus didn’t. He simply called out those who were acting immorally or misusing their ecclesial role. Even if the church shrinks in attendance and donations, spirituality and life in Christ can increase. Our schools and centers of faith formation and spiritual growth can expand to show us how to follow His example and advance His mission. As He calmed the storms so will He guide us through the chaos.