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November 10, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 148




Tom Roberts Visible symptoms of deeper troubles

Tom Roberts NCR editor

I recently spoke at a Voice of the Faithful conference held at Fordham University in New York where about 1,500 Catholics, mostly from the tri-state region of Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, spent a Saturday discussing the state of the church. It began with clergy sex abuse scandal and the ongoing crisis in the church, but it got much deeper than that in many presentations. People see the crisis as the visible symptom of deeper troubles in the church, a church that is losing its moral credibility and its voice in the wider culture.

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Those organizing the conference got a good look early on at what an enormous task they were taking on. Five diocesan newspapers -- Catholic New York serving the New York archdiocese, The Tablet in the Brooklyn diocese and in New Jersey The Holy Spirit in the diocese of Metuchen, The Beacon in the Paterson diocese and The Monitor in Trenton -- refused to take ads announcing the conference.

After the gathering, conference coordinator Marie Ford Reilly was quoted on the Voice of the Faithful Web site:

"Why diocesan newspapers, created to communicate with Catholics about news of interest to Catholics, would refuse to run paid advertisements for a conference held at a Catholic university for the benefit of Catholic laity remains a mystery, even to conference organizers. We offered to alter our ad in any way in order to meet whatever objections they had. We were never told what their specific objections were. They just kept turning us down."

I don't know the specific reasons those papers refused the ads, but there have been indications enough over the past two years to suggest that church leaders are not really inviting conversation on the crisis.

Several weeks ago, we ran an article reporting on comments made by Fr. Brian Hehir, former head of Catholic Charities USA and formerly an official of the United States Catholic Conference. He spoke a line that I said in my talk should become the mantra of those seeking accountability from church hierarchy. "The laity needs to say, at every level, 'We simply won't accept anything less than adult conversation.'"

He said other things that didn't make it into our story that bear reporting. Bishops, he said, are reluctant to enter into inquiries regarding such church topics as the future of the priesthood "where they don't control the data and the social sciences. They are divided among themselves, where they stand."

At another point, he spoke of the current crisis and what effect it has had on Catholics. He said it is his understanding from what he has read and what he has experienced that "people may have lost their contact with the church, but in the overwhelming cases they have not lost their faith."

"Catholic faith is theistic in God, in Christ, and ecclesial, in the church. I think in the situation that you have, among the three levels, two levels remain secure. It's at the third level where we've had the explosion."

The effect of that explosion, I think, has yet to be fully appreciated by too many bishops. Too many, I believe, think it will simply fade in time. Too many think it is simply a matter of restoring discipline and fidelity to church law.

There is a severe priest shortage that will only get worse, growing morale problems among the remaining priests, a deep and growing divide between Catholics and their bishops and a crisis of credibility, and the bishops want to keep squaring the corners and issuing new rules as if the crisis were simply a minor irritant.

So they issue pamphlets in the back of church that detail new liturgy rules, rules about how adults and their priests should conduct themselves around the altar, rules that draw new lines of demarcation between lay and ordained.

Meanwhile, 1,500 Catholics gathered at a Catholic university to discuss the church can't get an ad in a Catholic newspaper, let alone a visit from a bishop.

That adult conversation seems rather distant at the moment.

Editor's Note: The text of Tom Robert's address to the Voice of the Faithful conference can be found in the Special Documents section on the NCR Web site:

Tom Roberts e-mail address is

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