'Called to Be Catholic': Church in a Time of Peril

Article excerpt

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. …