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 Writer's Desk 

May 23, 2006
Vol. 4, No. 08


Tom RobertsIt’s time to heal divisions in the church

By Tom Roberts, NCR editor

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Recently we published consecutive issues dealing with topics that, to some, seemed wildly discordant. The first was titled "The Church of Philadelphia,"; and detailed the hierarchical clerical culture in which the sex abuse scandal flourished in that archdiocese.

The next, titled "Healing Catholic Divisions," was a talk given by Dominican Fr. Timothy Radcliffe in which he said that polarization is so “wounding the life and the mission of the church” that it can no longer be tolerated. I thought it a talk that should be shared as widely as possible because I don’t think that constantly hurling barbs at one another over theological and ideological divides is a healthy way to move on as church.

And that was followed by an issue titled "A Radical Shift" about the wholesale dismantling of ministries and distinctive education programs and the firing of long-time professionals in the chancery office ordered by Bishop Robert Finn during his first year as bishop of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese.

How, some ask, can you talk about healing divisions and keep reporting on stories that raise such unpleasantness and criticism?

It’s a fair question, and I am certain only that I don’t have the entire answer. But it is similar to a question I asked Radcliffe as we were preparing the edition on his talk. And his response, I think, holds the essential insight. What is needed, he said, “is the balance between intellectual generosity, imaginative sympathy and the demand for accountability.”

If I were to put it another way, I would imagine it means not being convinced that one’s own view is the perfect and only view for the entire church; going the extra mile in another’s footsteps and attempting to see things from the other’s perspective; and, finally, being adult enough to insist that leaders, even those who would trace their lineage to the apostles, be accountable to the community for their actions.

It is that last category, I think, under which most of the reporting of unpleasant matters falls, and it is the category that gives the church much of its trouble.

It seems to me that in many instances we ought to be able to separate out our differences over our approaches to church from our insistence on accountability.

Reporting on the behind-the-scenes story of the Philadelphia grand jury report seemed an easy call. I must say I am astounded that no one in leadership has condemned the actions of former archbishops, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua and the late Cardinal John Krol. The records are detailed, and the two protected violent, serial predators of children. Bevilacqua, a civil as well as canon lawyer, especially knew the law and how to get around it.

The case in Kansas City, of course, is less dramatic and there is certainly nothing criminal about a new administrator making changes. The central question to that story, however, was how should a functioning, thriving Christian community expect to be treated? Further, why does an affinity, say, for Latin or for a certain manner of pedagogy necessitate ripping out everything that went before?

The problem is that, once again, there is no mechanism for holding leaders accountable. The work of a community can be undone without consultation and with no requirement for explaining why it is being disassembled or what will replace it.

Accountability was also the central issue in the case of Cardinal Bernard Law, whose mishandling of the sex abuse crisis lit the explosion of a scandal that continues to reverberate throughout the U.S. church. He maintains membership on important and powerful congregations in Rome and has never been held accountable for what he’s done.

Annoyance over his ongoing leadership positions has less to do with whether he’s conservative or liberal or orthodox -- or anything in between -- than it does with the fact that the community can expect no accountability from its leaders.

And in Detroit, what are Catholics to do when Cardinal Adam Maida unilaterally decides to send $40 million in loans to prop up an ailing and apparently ill-planned Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington D.C.? The answer is there is nothing they can do as the structure now exists because archbishops account to no one but the pope -- and certainly not to the people in the community.

I do believe -- in fact, I know -- that people from the different “camps” in the church can speak to one another. I know the discourse can be civil, and I know that in most cases, save the extremes, we have a lot more in common with each other than we do differences that separate us.

Intellectual generosity and imaginative sympathy are possible, I think, but first the members of the community have to feel safe enough to have the conversation that will allow those qualities to operate. The conversation can occur, of course, anywhere. But if it is to occur within the context of the community, lay people must be regarded highly enough that leaders will trust them, and that level of trust can only occur if leaders care enough for their people to be accountable. If they are, then the people of God can trust that intellect and imagination will be able to function without fear.

Tom Roberts is NCR's editor, his e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org
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