Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Total Reform

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 03, 2007

At the June 8th meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America, Christopher Ruddy addressed the “ecclesiological issues behind the sexual abuse crisis.” I haven’t been a fan of the CTSA, but Ruddy is right on target. He says that things won’t get better if all we do is address abuses. We need a more deeply-rooted reform.

Reform that Matters

Ruddy, an Assistant Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, is inspired in his analysis by a book by the Dominican Yves Congar entitled True and False Reform in the Church. Congar was one of the most brilliant theologians of the twentieth century, a man to whom John Paul II was sufficiently indebted to make a cardinal shortly before his death in 1995. His prescient book on reform was written ten years before Vatican II.

Congar distinguished three types of reform: reform of abuses, which is necessary but never sufficient; doctrinal reform, which is contrary to the Faith and must be rejected; and reform of “the state of things”, a “deep resourcing into the truth of things, a renewing of the spirit from the foundations.” As Ruddy sees it, what we need now is a thorough reform of the state of affairs in which we find ourselves as Catholics.

In this he is undoubtedly correct, and he identifies in particular three key words which need to be integrated into the life of the Church in order to stimulate this “big picture” reform: “accountability for bishops, identity for priests and adulthood for the laity.”

The Bishops

With respect to the bishops, Ruddy argues that the bureaucracy of the Church tends to favor the creation and promotion of bland bishops well-prepared to function as CEOs rather than as creative and inspired pastors. Everything from the way bishops are selected to how they schedule their time in today’s mega-dioceses tends to reinforce the CEO model, which in turn distances the bishop not only from his people but from his priests. As Ruddy puts it, “If a bishop is not regularly preaching, celebrating the sacraments (especially confession, preferably in his cathedral or another parish) and performing corporal works of mercy, his life and ministry are going to suffer.”

The resulting bureaucratic anonymity, says Ruddy, is disastrous. The bishop loses all normal accountability to his brother bishops, his priests, and his people, and accountability to the Vatican is often only a distant and manageable threat. It is nearly impossible to have incompetent or morally bad bishops removed, even in the new era of zero tolerance for sexual abuse, which can see priests removed on the basis of a single unsubstantiated charge. In the age of transparency, bishops have remained masters of stonewalling, and of hiding.

Interestingly, both conservatives and liberals agree that the current system too often elevates and perpetuates plain vanilla, look-alike bishops who don’t make waves. Most people will agree that the number of dioceses with any sort of striking leadership can be counted on one hand. This does not mean that all other bishops are inadequate, but it may be indicative of a larger problem.

The Priests

Ruddy correctly points out that the post-conciliar situation for priests has been extraordinarily difficult. In contrast to the period before the Council, when the vocation of priesthood was elevated and cherished, following the Council “marriage was valued as an equal state of life, and optional celibacy seemed imminent, repression was jettisoned under the influence of humanistic psychologies but inadequately replaced and the supportive environment quickly eroded even in the church.”

After decades of drift, formation for celibacy has become critical. But to be formed for celibacy, the candidate for ordination must be given a strong sense of priestly identity. Vatican II itself devoted far more attention to bishops and laity, so that even where the Council has been properly implemented, the theology of the priesthood has developed very little. Instead we have had various secularized frameworks and models for priesthood superimposed from outside the Church. Is the priest merely the one who presides? Is he merely the servant of his flock?

Ruddy is hopeful that this situation is on the verge of change. He looks toward a “deeper theology and spirituality of priesthood, one that can fruitfully hold together both the priest’s distinctive identity and his thorough relatedness to other believers in the church.” This is clearly necessary to foster a healthier sense of identity for priests today.

The Laity

On the theme of “adulthood” for the laity, Ruddy does not have in mind only the deficiencies of the laity but even more the besetting sin of clericalism, by which the laity are often reduced to a passive audience with no role to play in the building up of the Church. In a clericalist atmosphere, problems raised by lay people are stonewalled or simply dismissed. When the problems involve clergy, the wagons are automatically circled, and it too often becomes “us” vs. “them”. I have long referred to this as the “clerical club”. Ruddy rightly calls clericalism “a sin against baptism and confirmation”.

Contributing to this problem is the incredible ignorance of the Faith on the part of lay people, in part because the clergy have not taught them, and in part because the laity tend to regard such knowledge as unimportant. On both sides, a profound ignorance appears to be acceptable with regard to the Christian life which would not be tolerated for a moment in any other pursuit. Lay people need to be formed and educated in a manner which enables them to live out their baptism and confirmation, joining with the clergy to play their own part in a true renewal of the Church.

Referring unfavorably to a recent book entitled The Lay-Centered Church, Ruddy comments that this simply replaces one dominant group with another. “We need instead The Baptism-Centered Church,” he says, “one that situates distinctiveness within the identity and mission that all believers have in common.” He also notes that participation in the life of the Church, properly understood, is not the same as democratization.

Conditions for Reform

Yves Congar stipulated four conditions for true reform: the primacy of charity, the need to maintain communion with the entire body of believers, patience, and a return to the sources of tradition. Louis Bouyer suggested a fifth condition which Congar accepted, namely, common sense. Ruddy makes all five points his own and also suggests three other ingredients for a successful reform. The first is that the ordained need to be defined primarily “by their relationships to other members of the church rather than simply through their possession of special powers.” This can help overcome clericalism.

The second is that the Church needs to “foster habits of truthfulness and boldness.” We must not shy away from unpleasant or unfashionable realities. Since the sexual abuse problem was the occasion for Ruddy’s reflections, he notes as his prime example the 600 percent rise in priestly abuse against boys between ages 11 and 17 at the same time as sexual abuse against girls was declining steadily. He concludes that this should tell us something, and that we must not be afraid to engage in a frank discussion of homosexuality.

The third is that trust is essential to the effective exercise of authority, “and trust is precisely what was broken in the sexual abuse crisis.” Ruddy argues that trust cannot be restored merely by structures and procedures, though these are important. In addition and more importantly, there must be a “a renewal of evangelical poverty.” As Congar pointed out, “it is impossible to think wholly evangelically if one’s condition or manner of life is not evangelical.”

I’ve summarized Christopher Ruddy’s presentation at length because I believe he has things just about right. There is a tremendous need in the Church to concentrate on something more than merely fixing abuses. In the wrong atmosphere, fixing abuses becomes the equivalent of ecclesiastical whack-a-mole. We need instead exactly what Yves Congar, Vatican II, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI have called for all along: A deep examination of the truth, a renewal from the foundations.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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