A Program for Reform, Part One

A Program for Reform, Part One November 15, 2019

Wanna mess around and massively reform the Catholic Church? haha jk … unless?

The sex abuse scandals, and the financial corruption that has come to light a little more recently, have wounded the Church’s image considerably. And while we can argue endlessly over whether the Church, insofar as she is the Body of Christ, deserves the bad repute her priests and bishops have earned for her, we can perhaps agree that her priests and bishops deserve it.

But vindictiveness, however deserved, isn’t going to help past victims or the Church’s future. And the brute fact is, there isn’t a lot that the laity can do without the clergy’s coöperation. What we can do is: (i) pray; (ii) advocate for reform to the clergy; (iii) take indirect measures to put pressure on the clergy which might move them to act.

(i) rarely feels like we’re actually doing something effective, not least because so many people lazily invoke prayer as a substitute for action. And (i) is nevertheless the most important thing. But, to be blunt, I’m not great at believing, still less at explaining why, (i) genuinely is the most important thing, and I don’t propose to try either the believing or the explaining here. Nor do I mean to explore (iii), at least not for the moment—I don’t understand it well enough. Things like donating to groups that lobby for an end to statutes of limitations would be an example of indirect measures; but it’s a complicated and, to me, confusing subject, not least because the intersection of the Church’s legitimate claims to independence from the state and the state’s legitimate claims to prosecute criminals who happen to be employed by the Church is inevitably going to be a tangled affair in any society that observes a separation between Church and state.

But (ii) is something we can articulate as laymen whether the hierarchy listens or not, and may also be a standard we can use to measure the sincerity of the hierarchy’s repentance. Not because we are their judges before God—we’re not—but because we are going to have to decide whether, when, and how far to trust any individual priest or bishop, and after these scandals we’re going to need a hell of a lot more than a Roman collar to serve as a metric.

As I see it, the hierarchy’s general betrayal of the laity is threefold: sexual (primarily the abuse crisis; to a far lesser extent, infidelity to clerical or religious vows of chastity), financial (corruption, theft, and other misuses of Church income—all of which is derived either from donations or from things like tuition fees at Catholic schools), and authoritative (most obviously, the bishops covering up all these things; most destructively, the corruption of spiritual authority by abusers and their enablers). All three areas urgently need to be reformed.

Coïncidentally, the three realms of sex, money, and power correspond neatly to the three vows taken by religious of chastity, poverty, and obedience. Then again, perhaps it isn’t much of a coïncidence. Religious life began with the hermits of the Egyptian desert, half-isolated from a Church that they believed had become worldly and corrupt. Some people have suggested that the fervor of the religious life is the best index of the true vitality of the Church in any place and time; maybe they’re right. Regardless, I’d like to explore some possibilities for advocating reform in the Church: sexual reform, financial reform, and authoritative reform.

Images via Pixabay


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