Next Stop for America's Catholic Church

The scandal exposed how isolated bishops, priests, and laity are from each other. But it also points the way to positive change.

BY: Interview with David Gibson


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


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.

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