The Church We Deserve: In Accepting the U.S. Catholic Award for Furthering the Cause of Women in the Church Last October, Justice Anne M. Burke Looks to the Rich History of U.S. Catholicism for a Vision of the Church of the Future

Article excerpt

Our common heritage as U.S. Catholics has never been more important or more threatened. We live in precarious times, not just because of terrorism, global warming, and urban street crime, but because of a steady loss of confidence in the direction of our church, the truthfulness of its leadership, the role of the laity, and the persistent inability of the church to recognize our "Catholic place" in the modern world.

This inability has wrought growing frustration for many, suspicions for others, and wide embarrassment for us all. As a well-educated Catholic and a professional woman, I am perplexed and dismayed. I am old enough to remember the bright promise that filled the air in the glory days of the Second Vatican Council. Little did I suspect then, as a young woman with her whole life ahead of her, that 40 years later I would find myself so dismayed, disappointed, and agitated.

"The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men of our time, especially those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts."

Those words, crafted on the wings of the Holy Spirit in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World 40 years ago electrified the church and a generation of believers. Gaudium et Spes was an explosion of hope in the future and the vehicle through which the church sought to recalibrate its self-understanding.

It offered a natural excitement to U.S. Catholics because so much of that document's substance flowed from our American Catholic experience. It was the age of John Courtney Murray, Xavier Rynne, and other American thinkers who brightened the interior of St. Peter's with their ideas during that tumultuous time.

Back at home decades of enlightened social leadership, particularly in places like the Archdiocese of Chicago, with priest-leaders like Msgrs. Dan Cantwell and Jack Egan, and the legions of clergy trained under the great Msgr. Reynold Hillenbrand, connected the laity to experiences of faith like Catholic Action, the Cana Conference, the Catholic Worker Movement, and Young Christian Students. The wisdom of this enlightenment touched people across the archdiocese and around the nation.

Today, five years into the 21st century, I fear that the understanding of the church in the modern world presented by the Second Vatican Council in Gaudium et Spes is under fire. I say that after my experience on the National Review Board of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. I say that after looking under the tent. I say that after experiencing a loss of trust and a sad realization that only the worst crisis in the American church could bring the hierarchy to ask for direction and help from the laity.

I do not for a minute believe that the bishops would have adopted either the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and the norms for dealing with the abuse crisis or permitted the unprecedented freedom that our original board enjoyed in getting to the bottom of the crisis had they not had their backs to the walls. Nor do I believe that without continuous scrutiny by the laity will the bishops refrain from tinkering with the burdens of justice and accountability placed on them by the charter.

I have always seen the mission of our board and the difficult data that we uncovered as being a real work of the Holy Spirit. But I would be less than honest if I did not acknowledge how often many bishops fought us every inch of the way. Accountability continues to be a one-way street for many.

Throughout the process I feared that once bishops found some breathing room from public outrage, largely because of what our board members were putting into place, some would think the coast was clear to roll back the clock. I was right. But power plays to sabotage accountability never worked, I'm happy to say. …