Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The 5 most positive developments of 2009

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 30, 2009

In this space yesterday, I commented on the 5 most distressing news stories of 2009. Today, as promised, I turn to the five most encouraging news developments:

5. The Vatican investigation of American women’s religious communities.

“For many years,” Cardinal Franc Rodé disclosed in November, “this dicastery [the Congregation for Religious] had been listening to concerns expressed by American Catholics—religious, laity, clergy, and hierarchy—about the welfare of religious women and consecrated life in general.” Finally, this year the Vatican took action.

In February, the Holy See announced an apostolic visitation of American women’s religious orders. That inquiry is being conducted under the auspices of the Congregation for Religious, by Mother Clare Millea, ASCJ—who has gently made the point that she is making a serious, rigorous study.

While some unhappy leaders of women’s religious orders were protesting the Vatican’s involvement, a second shoe dropped: The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has begun a separate “doctrinal investigation” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the umbrella group representing “mainstream” religious orders.

During the years since Vatican II, American nuns have become a vanishing breed. The number of women religious in the US today is less than half what it was in 1965. The average age of the remaining nuns is soaring. Yet in some orders—the contemplative communities and the ones most rigorously committed to traditional models of religious life—vocations remain plentiful. It is the “mainstream” orders—the ones that once staffed parochials schools and hospitals across the nation—that are now disappearing. And it is growing ever more evident that their wounds are self-inflicted; they are unable to attract young women because they no longer have a clear sense of their own religious purpose. As Cardinal Rodé put it, in an unusually candid talk to an American audience in 2008, some nuns “have simply acquiesced to the disappearance of religious life or at least of their community.”

If the statistical portrait of American religious life was enough to demonstrate the need for a serious inquiry, the angry reactions of prominent American nuns confirmed the nature of the problem. One influential women religious called for “non-violent resistance” to the Vatican probe, and the National Catholic Reporter confirmed in November that the mainstream orders had mounted “almost complete resistance” to the apostolic visitation, with only 1% meeting a deadline for the return of questionnaires. The leaders of the largest religious orders seem to view the Holy See as their adversary. That fact underlines the need for Rome to rein in the dissident nuns.

4. The Irish bishops “get it.”

The damaging revelations about abuse in the Irish Catholic Church were, as I noted yesterday, the most depressing story of 2009. But the agony of the Irish Church has already produced one very positive result. Unlike their brethren in the US, the Irish bishops have acknowledged their own culpability.

Within a month after the release of the Murphy Commission report, four Irish bishops had resigned. They stepped down under heavy pressure from public opinion, at the clear prompting of Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who stated that any bishop involved in the Dublin cover-up should seriously re-assess his position. (Archbishop Martin did not openly call for resignations, but his intent was clear enough.)

One of the outgoing prelates, Bishop James Moriarty, denied that he himself had ignored complaints of sexual abuse, but conceded: “I should have challenged the prevailing culture.” Exactly. Any bishop who could tolerate sexual abuse—or even stand by while others in authorities tolerated it—thereby showed himself incapable of sound pastoral judgment. A bishop who responds to a scandal by covering up the evidence must have either a complete indifference to the welfare of the souls assigned to his care or a severely warped vision of what constitutes the good of the Church. In either case he has disgraced himself, and made it impossible to maintain confidence in his pastoral leadership. Resignation is his best option.

In the US, where literally dozens of dioceses have been dogged by sex-abuse scandals for the better part of a decade, only one bishop has resigned because of his mishandling of the crisis. In Ireland, four have taken that step in less than a month, after the problems of a single diocese were exposed. The Irish bishops are showing a pastoral sensitivity that their American counterparts lack.

There is one more positive aspect to this unhappy story. Pope Benedict has promised a pastoral letter in response to the Irish crisis. The Holy Father’s deft handling of the sex-abuse scandal in America, during his trip to this country in April 2008, encourages the hope that the Pontiff will draw important new lessons from the Irish problem.

3. The moves to reconcile the Society of St. Pius X

This story, too, can be paired with one of the year’s five ugliest developments. But whereas in one case there are a few positive aspects to a very sad story, in this case a happy story has nearly been overshadowed by one unfortunate facet. The positive signs from Ireland were only the silver lining that shone through a heavy cloud, but in this case the controversy surrounding Bishop Williamson (#3 on yesterday’s list) deflected attention from the palpable benefits of a bold papal initiative.

In January, Pope Benedict lifted the decrees of excommunication that had been imposed on four bishops of the traditionalist SSPX after they were illicitly ordained in July 1988 by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. By doing so the Pope—who had already welcomed the wide use of the traditional Latin liturgy—eliminated the last important remaining obstacle to reconciliation of the SSPX with the Holy See.

The Pope’s bold gesture was soon submerged beneath the negative publicity aroused by Bishop Williamson. The initial impact of the papal move was vitiated; both the Vatican and the SSPX were thrown into a defensive posture. Veteran Vatican-watcher Sandro Magister of L’Espresso remarked that the episode illustrated “the isolation of Pope Benedict, the ineptitude of the Curia, and the misfires of the Secretariat of State.” All too true.

Showing remarkable humility and patience, Pope Benedict followed up with a letter clarifying the purpose of his move, and virtually pleading with the world’s bishops to support his plans for reconciliation. This second papal statement also underlined Benedict’s determination. He explained that he had seen first-hand how the reconciliation of a wayward Catholic group can serve the universal Church: “how the return to the great, wide, and common Church overcame one-sidedness and lessioned tensions, so that now they have become positive forces for the whole.”

Pope Benedict obviously sees just such a role for the SSPX. And despite the hostility that greeted his first move, the progress toward reconciliation continues. In October, representatives of the traditionalist group met with Vatican officials for the first of a projected series of discussions about disputed doctrinal questions. These discussions can only help to clarify the proper interpretation of Vatican II. In the long run, by helping to establish the limits of what Catholics must accept, and what remains open to debate, the discussions could help many thousands of traditionalists return to full and active participation in the Church.

2. The outreach to Anglicans

In October, Pope Benedict loosed another bombshell, with the announcement that he would soon release an apostolic constitution establishing the conditions for Anglicans to enter into the Catholic Church while preserving their own communities and their own cherished liturgical traditions. Again the Pontiff explained the initiative as a means of enriching the universal Church by achieving reconciliation with those who had been separated.

But in this case the separation was a matter of centuries. And in light of the severe internal problems facing the Anglican communion, the Pope’s invitation was extremely well timed—and extremely well received.

The Pope’s plan was simple; his act was decisive. For years, tradition-minded Anglicans had been inquiring about the prospects for corporate entry into the Catholic fold. But their appeals were counterbalanced by the concerns of professional ecumenists (who feared an angry reaction from Canterbury) and English bishops (who were lukewarm at best toward the prospect of receiving thousands of theologically conservative new Catholics into their dioceses). With a single stroke the Pope sliced through these concerns; it was noteworthy that neither the Vatican’s top ecumenist nor the English bishops’ conference were intimately involved in the final preparation of the papal statement.

The apostolic constitution, when it was made public, showed a remarkable sensitivity toward the Anglican audience, a respect and deference for the Anglican tradition. Those attitudes will surely make an impression on other Christians—notably the Orthodox—who find themselves wondering about the possibility for achieving reunion with Rome.

As with the SSPX, so too the Pope’s bid for unity with Anglicans may proceed slowly; there are many details to work out. But after a wait of 400 years, the process of reconciliation has begun.

1. The American bishops find their public voice

The decision by America’s most famous Catholic university to honor President Barack Obama with an honorary degree was outrageous. Fortunately, dozens of American bishops labeled it as such.

The local ordinary, Bishop John D’Arcy, opened the criticism, complaining that the Notre Dame invitation was a “terrible breach” in what should be a united Catholic front against abortion. When the school’s president declined to reconsider the honorary degree, Bishop D’Arcy announced that he would boycott the ceremony. This in itself was remarkable; never before had an American Catholic bishop been so direct in his criticism of a major Catholic university.

But Bishop D’Arcy did not carry the battle alone; more than 70 other American bishops joined in the criticism of Notre Dame. And the US bishops’ conference passed a resolution of support for Bishop D’Arcy’s stand.

One other story from 2009 deserves special mention. When Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, called Congressman Patrick Kennedy to “conversion and repentance”-- when he questioned whether the young lawmaker from America’s most prominent political dynasty fulfills the basic requirements of being Catholic—his unprecedented bold statements were a tonic to those Catholics who have been waiting for decades to hear such a challenge.

Bishop Tobin did not pick this fight with Kennedy; the Rhode Island Congressman began the exchange with a pre-emptive attack on the hierarchy, and escalated it later with the revelation that the bishop had asked him to abstain from Communion. But Bishop Tobin did not shrink from the confrontation, either. His courageous public witness made it evident that the American bishops are prepared to take a tougher line in their conflicts with Catholic politicians who support the “culture of death.”

Previous in this series: The 5 worst stories in 2009
Next in this serious: The 5 stories to expect in 2010

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Jan. 03, 2010 4:43 AM ET USA

    If priests in their homilies would talk on the Catholic Church's position on abortion and the dignity of man, the laity would get the message that abortion is important and equivalent to murder. The laity already know what it is, but to repeat it conveys its importance in voting for president and lawmakers. This also trickles down to having the right judges. There are certainly enough Catholics to influence the voting process and temper their alumni donations to Land O' Lakes colleges.

  • Posted by: geardoid - Jan. 03, 2010 12:08 AM ET USA

    It may be positive for bishops to acknowledge culpability -- or at least a loss of confidence due to them; but it is a severe negative tragedy for the Church that any are so compromised as to believe they must resign the vicarious office. Losing shepherds however fallible, is loss to the flock --- and if Satan has succeeded in striking them, it is we sheep who are scattered. Let's not be bleating with what sounds like gloating gladness, because our dwindling pastures do not bode well for us.

  • Posted by: Chestertonian - Dec. 31, 2009 11:42 PM ET USA

    I added a 6th to the list of worst stories, so I'll add to the best: Catholic Culture is still in business! End of year thanks to all of you for providing the news of true import to the people who were in darkness, and are still trying to follow that Great Light! You are in my prayers!

  • Posted by: - Dec. 31, 2009 8:46 AM ET USA

    Hi Phil. I got the 5 best right now and I totally agree that these are indeed, Good News. After all good is God with an additional "o" and "Good news" is the correct translation of the "Gospel", the "News of Salvation in the Kingdom Come". Please continue to gather this kind of news so we may have the "Best 5" of each month, for we need to know that the Church is alive and well in this new millenium and still going strong to the future.