'Called to Be Catholic': Church in a Time of Peril
About this statement:
"Called to be Catholic" was prepared by the National Pastoral Life Center in consultation with Catholic men and women serving the church and society. ...
The statement provides the basis for the Catholic Common Ground Project. The project will sponsor conferences and papers devoted to critical issues in the church and will exemplify and promote the kind of dialogue called for in the statement.
All organizations and groups in the church are invited to consider the "Called to be Catholic" statement and its applications to their meetings, conferences and deliberations. Responses to the statement are welcome and may be sent to the National Pastoral Life Center.
(The document below has been edited for space considerations. The full text can be found under "Catholic Documents" on NCR's America Online site.)
Will the Catholic church in the United States enter the new millennium as a church of promise, augmented by the faith of rising generations and able to be a leavening force in our culture? Or will it become a church on the defensive, torn by dissension and weakened in its core structures? The outcome, we believe, depends on whether American Catholicism can confront an array of challenges with honesty and imagination and whether the church can reverse the polarization that inhibits discussion and cripples leadership. American Catholics must reconstitute the conditions for addressing our differences constructively -- a common ground centered on faith in Jesus, marked by accountability to the living Catholic tradition and ruled by a renewed spirit of civility, dialogue, generosity and broad and serious consultation.
It is widely admitted that the Catholic church in the United States has entered a time of peril. Many of its leaders, both clerical and lay, feel under siege and increasingly polarized. Many of its faithful, particularly its young people, feel disenfranchised, confused about their beliefs and increasingly adrift. Many of its institutions feel uncertain of their identity and increasingly fearful about their future.
Those are hard words to pronounce to a church that, despite many obstacles, continues to grow in numbers, continues to welcome and assist the poor and the stranger, and continues to foster extraordinary examples of Christian faith and witness to the gospel. ...
We hesitate to say anything that might ... add to the finger-pointing and demoralization that, in too many cases, already burden these exemplary efforts. But this discordant and disheartened atmosphere is itself one of the realities that cannot be ignored. For three decades the church has been divided by different responses to the Second Vatican Council and to the tumultuous years that followed it. By no means were these tensions always unfruitful; in many cases they were virtually unavoidable.
But even as conditions have changed, party lines have hardened. A mood of suspicion and acrimony hangs over many of those most active in the church's life; at moments it even seems to have infiltrated the ranks of the bishops. ... Candid discussion is inhibited. Across the whole spectrum of views within the church, proposals are subject to ideological litmus tests. Ideas, journals and leaders are pressed to align themselves with preexisting camps and are viewed warily when they depart from those expectations. ... Bishops risk being perceived as members of different camps rather than as pastors of the whole church.
Unless we examine our situation with fresh eyes, open minds and changed hearts, within a few decades a vital Catholic legacy may be squandered, to the loss of both the church and the nation.
There are urgent questions that the church in the United States knows it must air openly and honestly but which it increasingly feels pressed to evade or, at best, address only obliquely. These issues include:
* The changing roles of women;
* The organization and effectiveness of religious education;
* The eucharistic liturgy as most Catholics experience it;
* The meaning of human sexuality, and the gap between church teaching and the convictions of many faithful in this and several other areas of morality;
* The image and morale of priests and the declining ratios of priests and vowed religious to people in the pews;
* The succession of laypeople to positions of leadership formerly held by priests and sisters, and the provision of adequate formation for ministers, both ordained and lay;
* The ways in which the church is present in political life, its responsibility to the poor and defenseless, and its support for laypeople in their family life and daily callings;
* The capacity of the church to embrace African-American, Latino and Asian populations, their cultural heritages and their social concerns;
* The survival of Catholic school systems, colleges and universities, health care facilities and social services, and the articulation of a distinct and appropriate religious identity and mission for these institutions;
* The dwindling financial support from parishioners;
* The manner of decision-making and consultation in church governance;
* The responsibility of theology to authoritative church teachings;
* The place of collegiality and subsidiarity in the relations between Rome and the American episcopacy.
As long as such topics remain inadequately addressed, the near future of American Catholic life is at risk. Yet in almost every case, the necessary conversation runs up against polarized positions that have so magnified fears and so strained sensitivities that even the simplest lines of inquiry are often fiercely resisted. Consider, for example, just two of these topics.
On every side, there are reports that many Catholics are reaching adulthood with barely a rudimentary knowledge of their faith, with an attenuated sense of sacrament and with a highly individualistic view of the church. ...
The practical realities of our young people's needs are quickly lost amid accusations of infidelity to church teachings, reflexive defenses against criticism or promotion of pet educational approaches. It is an atmosphere unlikely to generate the massive and creative effort required to meet today's crisis of religious illiteracy or link it with young people's search for a sense of participation and belonging.
Or consider the church's public prayer. The faith thrives where the Eucharist is celebrated worthily, drawing the Christian community into its mystery and power. Yet in many parishes, Mass attendance has plummeted; congregational participation is indifferent; and liturgies are marred by lack of preparation, casual or rushed gestures, unsuitable music and banal sentiments in hymns and, above all, homilies. There is widespread awareness that, 30 years after the council, the goals of liturgical renewal have been met more in letter than in spirit.
But again polarization blocks a candid and constructive response to the situation. ...
The same dynamic of fear and polarization afflicts the church's discussions of other topics, from efforts to accommodate language or practice to the changing consciousness of women to efforts to define theology's relationship to the hierarchy. ...
What will it take for the Catholic church in the United States to escape from this partisanship and the paralysis it threatens to engender?
Jesus Christ, present in scripture and sacrament, is central to all that we do; he must always be the measure and not what is measured.
Around this central conviction, the church's leadership, both clerical and lay, must affirm and promote the full range and demands of authentic unity, acceptable diversity and respectful dialogue, not just as a way to dampen conflict but as a way to make our conflicts constructive and ultimately as a way to understand for ourselves and articulate for our world the meaning of discipleship of Jesus Christ.
This invitation to a revitalized Catholic common ground should ... encompass all -- whether centrists, moderates, liberals, radicals, conservatives or neoconservatives -- who are willing to reaffirm basic truths and to pursue their disagreements in a renewed spirit of dialogue.
Chief among those truths is that our discussion must be accountable to the Catholic tradition and to the Spirit-filled, living church that brings to us the revelation of God in Jesus. To say this does not resolve a host of familiar questions about the way that the church has preserved, interpreted and communicated that revelation. Accountability to the Catholic tradition does not mean reversion to a chain-of-command, highly institutional understanding of the church, a model resembling a modern corporation, with headquarters and branch offices, rather than Vatican II's vision of a communion and a people.
Nor does accountability mean conceiving of faith as an ideology, an all-encompassing doctrinal system that produces ready explanations and practical prescriptions for every human question. Now, as historically, there has always been wide room for legitimate debate, discussion and diversity. But accountability does demand serious engagement with the tradition and its authoritative representatives. It rules out the pop scholarship, sound-bite theology, unhistorical assertions and flippant dismissals that have become all too common on both the right and the left of the church. ... Authentic accountability embraces the demands that the gospel poses for our public life and social structures as well as for our private lives and personal relations. This accountability implies that the church, for all its humanness, cannot be treated as a merely human organization. The church is a chosen people, a mysterious communion, a foreshadowing of the kingdom, a spiritual family. ...
Finally this accountability recognizes that our discussions about the Catholic church take place within boundaries. Exactly how the boundaries of Catholic Christianity should be formulated will inevitably be open at times to reexamination and debate. ... But the very idea of boundaries is a necessary premise without which no identity can exist. Inclusivity, a concept that can operate at many levels, becomes a catchword and even a self-contradiction when it impugns any efforts to make distinctions or set defining limits.
The revitalized Catholic common ground, we suggested, will be marked by a willingness to approach the church's current situation with fresh eyes, open minds and changed hearts. ... Specifically, we urge that Catholics be guided by working principles as these:
* We should recognize that no single group or viewpoint in the church has complete monopoly on the truth. While the bishops united with the pope have been specially endowed by God with the power to preserve the true faith, they, too, exercise their office by taking counsel with one another and with the experience of the whole church, past and present. Solutions to the church's problems will almost inevitably emerge from a variety of sources.
* ... No group within the church should judge itself alone to be possessed of enlightenment or spurn the mass of Catholics, their leaders or their institutions as unfaithful.
* We should test all proposals for their pastoral realism and potential impact on living individuals as well as for their theological truth. Pastoral effectiveness is a responsibility of leadership.
* We should presume that those with whom we differ are acting in good faith. ... We should not substitute labels, abstractions or blanketing terms ... for living, complicated realities.
* We should put the best possible construction on differing positions ... We should detect the valid insights and legitimate worries that may underlie even questionable arguments.
* We should be cautious in ascribing motives. We should not impugn another's love of the church and loyalty to it. ...
* We should bring the church to engage the realities of contemporary culture, not by simple defiance or by naive acquiescence, but acknowledging, in the fashion of Gaudium et Spes, both our culture's valid achievements and real dangers.
Ultimately, the fresh eyes and changed hearts we need cannot be distilled from guidelines. They emerge in the space created by praise and worship. The revitalized Catholic common ground will be marked by a determined pastoral effort to keep the liturgy, above all, from becoming a battleground for confrontation and polarization, and to treasure it as the common worship of God through Jesus Christ in the communion of the Holy Spirit.
It is imperative that the Catholic church in the United States confronts the issues and forces that are shaping the future. ... Each of us will be ... refined in the fires of genuine engagement; and the whole church will be strengthened for its mission in the new millennium.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: 'Called to Be Catholic': Church in a Time of Peril. Contributors: Not available. Magazine title: National Catholic Reporter. Volume: 32. Issue: 37 Publication date: August 23, 1996. Page number: 4+. © 2009 National Catholic Reporter. COPYRIGHT 1996 Gale Group.