Beliefnet
Award-winning journalist David Gibson worked at the Vatican Radio in Rome for several years before returning to the States to cover religion news. Widely acknowledged as an expert on the U.S. Catholic Church, Gibson spoke with Beliefnet recently about his first book, "The Coming Catholic Church: How the Faithful Are Shaping a New American Catholicism."

In one section, your book compares the U.S. Catholic Church to a "dysfunctional family." Does this refer to the sex abuse scandal or did you mean something broader?

The Church is not so much dysfunctional, though it is that in many ways, as it is a family. I think people are surprised Catholics didn't leave the church en masse. The most frequent question I was asked is "Why don't you just go?" Novelist Anne McDermott has a line: "We're condemned to be Catholic." Catholics like being Catholic, so we're not just going to cut and run.

So it is like a family. You might have a wacky uncle or a terrible cousin, but you do stay. There are people who are leaving, and that's unfortunate, but the crisis did show how like a family the Catholic Church is. That's why there's so much pain. People's children were abused by men who were addressed as "father."

To my mind, the scandal is not the end of the Catholic Church. It's about the next step in the ongoing transformation of the Catholic Church. It's a terrible and very painful step, part of the larger crisis that's been going on since the end of Vatican II: growing pains.

The scandal is a lens into the Catholic Church. It's magnified all of the dysfunctions and problems: from a too-passive laity, to a shrinking priesthood, to a politicized bishops' conference focused on an audience of one, the pope.

That same lens magnifies a lot of good changes, too. The growth of lay ministry is tremendous. There are more lay ministers--80% of whom are women--than active parish priests today. There are good things happening in the church, and these trend lines will continue toward a more lay-led, collaborative church. But will be a difficult process.

The book's subhead is "how the faithful are shaping a new American Catholicism." You say the laity have been too passive, but are involved in certain ministries. What do you hope will happen with the laity?

It's an odd reality that lay people are so involved in ministry, because they have access to influence but not to authority. Lay people have to be more aggressive the day-to-day running of the church.

This is a crisis of the institution, not of faith. An institution can yield to reforms in its government. It's not about hashing out a theology of women's ordination or birth control. This is about accountability and transparency, too many dirty secrets kept hidden for too long, from finances to personnel. It has nothing to do with doctrine.

So you're saying lay people should become more involved in finance committees and parish councils. But what happens if a diocese or bishop doesn't want to let go of information about dicey issues?

Then there's going to be a real confrontation.

How can laypeople change things if they're stonewalled?

They can do everything from protest to withhold money from collection plates. Catholics are not revolutionaries. They know that just withholding [money] ends up hurting the church and its social programs. [To counteract that,] Voice of the Faithful has implemented targeted giving. So it's about using a lot of tools that are available and being creative. The Vatican likes to pretend it doesn't listen to the vox populi, but it does.

Your book notes that Boston's Catholic Charities accepted VOTF money even though Boston's acting bishop didn't want it to. It was surprising--like the laity was cutting out the bishop-middleman and giving directly to a charity.

It was a stunning move, almost on par with Cardinal Law's resignation. VOTF are good Catholics-they've been called "rebels in Rockports." They avoid doctrinal debates, especially over sexuality.They want to focus on a safer church for children and a more collaborative church. That's the direction the church is moving.

It was also interesting that Bishop Lennon acquiesced--he didn't get some papal edict to stop it.

He knew what he was up against. There's only so much you can do. Also illustrative is Bishop Daily in Brooklyn. He barred VOTF from church property. A couple months later, he met with them and lifted the ban. That's remarkable.

Yet some say Cardinal Law's resignation happened more because of a letter from 58 of his priests than the anger of thousands of laypeople.

Yet some say Cardinal Law's resignation happened more because of a letter from 58 of his priests than the anger of thousands of laypeople.

In some ways that's true, but the 58 were really the last straw. Priests have been under siege-they're the easy villains. It's so important that they don't become a besieged, insular clique within the church. They need a voice, too.

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