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October 10, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 128




Tom Fox Why Catholics are jittery

By Tom Fox, NCR publisher

Wherever I go I find faithful -- and hurting -- Catholics. These spiritual men and women often share a belief that their church leaders have lost something important, even though that "something" is sometimes difficult to define. They do not find in their bishops a willingness to converse openly about difficult questions regarding life, faith and church. Instead of give and take, the laity gets seemingly rehearsed answers. Lacking is willingness by their bishops to accept diversity. Similarly lacking is a healthy sense of openness and humility.

These adult Catholics, often in their 50s, 60s and older, are increasingly finding themselves like their children and grandchildren; they are slipping further and further away from the structures of church to which they once gave their lives.

The process reminds me of a statement that the spiritual guru, Edwina Gately, once made, referring to today's Catholic hierarchy. "The God they give us is too small to worship."

It is easy to get discouraged. However, now and then comes alone a sign that intellectual honesty and episcopal humility is not dead, not buried under fear of reprisal.

Such is the case in an essay that appeared in the Aug. 15 Commonweal. (Catholics need to support their Catholic publications, including Commonweal, which has faithfully engaged in fostering the church for 80 years, In that issue, retired Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, one of the episcopacy's giants of the 20th and early 21st century, asks and attempts to answer the question: "How can the (the church) more effectively and honestly project its redeeming message to the contemporary world?"

He begins by stating that the church's present structures were designed for a different period, "before the church became an institution composed of many diverse cultures," before it became a truly global church. (How global is our church? Consider that in 1900, 80 percent of all Catholics lived in Europe and North America; by 2020 the figure will be only 20 percent.)

We have become a richly diverse church. Weakland writes "no single solution for the church's renewal and mission can be equally effective in North America, Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe." Today's Catholics, meanwhile, are jittery. They love their parishes but see threats to their vitality because of a growing priest shortage. Further, having experienced growing divisions in liturgy, theology and social issues, Catholics today seek freer, more open forums for working out divisions. Rome's top-heavy one-solution fits all approach does not make this possible.

The church has become far too centralized for its own health. And consider that the result of Rome's centralization of authority has created a church made up of "insiders" and "outsiders" with the inner circle getting smaller all the time.

Weakland notes that bishops and priests alike feel caught now between Rome's demands and the aspirations of their people who seek both greater freedom and more participation in governance matters. There has been a gradual lay awakening, Weakland writes, but this, in turn, has caused a backlash in some episcopal circles, fostering a "reluctance to grant laypeople any significant role in decision making."

States Weakland flatly: "I have reached the following conviction: Because the church around the world is highly diversified, some form of legitimate decentralization must take place, and soon."

How to go about it? Without going into detail, the archbishop offers two broad guidelines. The first, that any change must respect church tradition. The second, that structure follows vision and mission. This means that the role of the pope and the college of bishops needs to be honored and maintained. It also means "that none of the critical elements in the church's life and mission are diminished."

Weakland states that the church's "mystical or spiritual" dimension needs special emphasis right now -- "a spirituality that corresponds to the needs of Catholics in the 21st century "

Meanwhile, what we are getting instead of honest intellectual renewal and a greater sense of aesthetic longings, with an eye to local culture and varied richness, is a return to "rubricism." Compromise and gradualism in not encouraged in a church that sees itself as being the "perfect society."

Needed is a healthy dose of humility, a willingness to explore new solutions, engage more readily in easy conversation with society and a return to a church with a more humble sense of itself, a "pilgrim church" on journey.

Weakland writes about the possibility of borrowing models of decentralization from the first millennium, a time when patriarchates shepherded their diverse churches. His sense is that such decentralization -- with its concomitant commitment to diversity -- would open the church's doors to a far healthier sense of the Spirit. He concludes that the church is ready for serious structural change based on its new global awareness and sense of mission.

Weakland, of course, joins a conversation that has been going on for many years if, at times, somewhat underground with the striking exception of the Asian bishops. Weakland's additions are important both for their substance and because of the respect in which he is held as a shepherd and thinker throughout the church.

It should be clear now that our church has already entered the early stages of its next phase. These are important conversations. Only the Spirit knows were we are headed.

Note: Yesterday in Today's Take (The Pope's Peace Prize), I predicted -- wrongly -- that Pope John Paul II would win the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize. Part of me is sorry I was wrong. Another part of me is pleased that a Muslim woman who has stood up for human rights in Iran is this year's choice. Next time I will attempt to contain myself and keep my predictions to myself.

Tom Fox is NCR publisher and and author of Pentecost in Asia: A New Way of Being Church. He can be reached at

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