2016-06-30
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.

By the subtitle "how the faithful are shaping a new American Catholicism," I very much mean all the faithful: laity, priests, bishops, pope. This isn't about just laypeople having a revolution, or about some pope waving his magic wand and changing the church. It's got to be something more communa--and dare I say, mystical.

Going back to the idea of family, you talk about bishops acting as fathers to their priests. Now that many priests have been disciplined, will priests no longer see bishops as spiritual fathers who will protect them no matter what? Or do they see this as necessary "tough love"?

Going back to the idea of family, you talk about bishops acting as fathers to their priests. Now that many priests have been disciplined, will priests no longer see bishops as spiritual fathers who will protect them no matter what? Or do they see this as necessary "tough love"?

There's been a real falling-out between the bishops and priests. The priests saw the bishops as selling them out, especially with the zero tolerance policy. Priests were forced to resign, but no bishop had the equivalent of being defrocked, and no bishop stood up and said a brother bishop should resign. Priests really took it on the chin, and I think there's a real estrangement there.

But priests are still the priority for bishops. A bishops' world is a very clerical world. A priest is in the parish seven days a week, he knows families. A bishop's world is about trips to Rome, the chancery, his diocese. The mediators between him and his flock are his priests.

It's a tough job being a bishop. You're caught between Rome and the pews. On the other hand, there are too many bishops who don't get into the parishes. It's easy to become a prisoner of the chancery and that clerical world.

Your book talks of priests, in earlier times, experiencing the same sort of camaraderie as men in combat. Is that also breaking down?

I don't think the fraternal bond should break down-it should be transformed into something more constructive. As there are fewer priests, they are more isolated from each other and don't know each other. They need to be more honest with each other and with the church. There has to be a bond between the ordained class and laypeople.

This scandal has shown how isolated we all are from each other: laypeople from priests, priests from bishops, bishops from laypeople. There has to be a strong bond among the groups. You don't want a tribal defensiveness.

Priests are remarkable people. They're sentinels of asceticism in this materialistic, hedonistic society of ours. It's a wonderful example that we can't lose. But we are moving toward a new situation where I think we'll have a mixed priesthood. It's not a question of either a married or celibate priesthood-it's a question of both/and. It's inevitable. And I think it will be a good thing for celibate priests. In the future we'll have married priests, probably many working in parishes, and celibate priests will be living in community in orders. And that's healthier.

Why do you think married priests will soon be a reality?

Why do you think married priests will soon be a reality?

The shortage of priests is getting critical. Either you maintain celibacy or you lose the Eucharist--and the Eucharist is the "summit of Catholic life." If it's a choice between the discipline of celibacy, which is merely church law, and the Eucharist, they'll choose the Eucharist.

But is the Vatican saying this?

But is the Vatican saying this?

The Vatican is coming to that realization. They are already allowing married priests--converts from the Episcopal church, married men who have families and are ordained Catholic priests in good standing. Eastern-rite Catholics have a tradition of a married priesthood. The bishops in those rites are increasingly demanding--and getting permission--that they be allowed to train married men in their seminaries in the States, which they hadn't been able to do before.

During this year of scandals, you have cardinals like Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C. saying they don't really see a problem [with optional celibacy], and that they'd like to discuss it. It can seem like the Vatican is an ossified structure but it's going to change. Nothing can change the church like a new pope. It doesn't have to be dramatic and revolutionary like John XXIII, but a new pope can make an enormous difference with just a few small changes. And I think that's in the offing.

So your advice is for the priests to collaborate with the laity even if it gets them in trouble with their bishop?

So your advice is for the priests to collaborate with the laity even if it gets them in trouble with their bishop?

Yes. And there's only so much trouble they can get in. There's a priest shortage and they're not going to go firing you just for releasing detailed financial statements or letting the parish council vote on issues.

Your book mentions a parish in Minneapolis where the parishioners were looking for another priest. They looked through candidates and went through a process of discernment. Then they made recommendation to Archbishop Flynn. Do you see that as a good model?

I think it's a great model and should extend to choosing a pastor and choosing a bishop.

Couldn't that devolve into a political campaign?

It's not so much a campaign as a matter of consultation. A little campaigning isn't such a bad thing. Politicking goes on all the time in the bishops' conference: bishops running for archbishop and archbishops running for cardinal. If it's out in public, that's not so bad. The final word will always be with Rome, and that's fine. The way bishops are chosen now is such a secretive, quirky, idiosyncratic process-no one knows what's going on.

So it's just about trolling around for information on candidates, seeing who's good and what the needs of the diocese are.

But the democracy thing can get overplayed. Democracy usually works well in educated, well-to-do parishes. The hierarchy is often useful for dioceses where you need a hand from on high to discern what's really needed. They might say: "All you well to do Anglo folks may have the highest profile, but we need to put our resources here in the inner city." It's not going to turn into "American Idol." It can just be more open, where 3-5 candidates are out there.

You mention today's young people as "gimlet-eyed Holden Caulfields" who can smell a phony a mile off and whose "roots may not be deep enough" to continue as Catholics, given the scandal. What will happen with vocations? It seems like teenage boys now would never consider the priesthood.

All Catholics are at risk, but especially the young people. In many ways the fallout to this scandal are yet to be felt. Often delayed vocations make the best priests. This is a tough blow, but maybe not a mortal blow.

All Catholics are at risk, but especially the young people. In many ways the fallout to this scandal are yet to be felt. Often delayed vocations make the best priests. This is a tough blow, but maybe not a mortal blow.

What will the American Catholic Church look like in 20 years if these changes happen?

The Catholic Church can be such a vibrant, living, breathing thing. It can be the most dynamic faith community in America. If you look at mainline Protestantism, there's so much internal dissension.

The Catholic Church can be such a vibrant, living, breathing thing. It can be the most dynamic faith community in America. If you look at mainline Protestantism, there's so much internal dissension.

Some would say there's dissension among mainline Protestant churches because it's more participatory and collaborative.

That's true. In looking to the church of the future, it's important to have a counter-cultural witness. American culture is so bottom-line, individualistic, oriented toward self-fulfillment rather than community. Catholicism runs counter to that: it's about worship and salvation and eternal things and sanctuary. Where your children are baptized, where you get married, where you bury your dead. For that to be a vibrant option, for people to be able to say they're proud to be Catholic--nothing could be better, nothing could be more constructive.

That's true. In looking to the church of the future, it's important to have a counter-cultural witness. American culture is so bottom-line, individualistic, oriented toward self-fulfillment rather than community. Catholicism runs counter to that: it's about worship and salvation and eternal things and sanctuary. Where your children are baptized, where you get married, where you bury your dead. For that to be a vibrant option, for people to be able to say they're proud to be Catholic--nothing could be better, nothing could be more constructive.

When you do look at it in perspective, even in the perspective of this scandal, there are great reasons for hope. But I don't want to sound like a Pollyanna. If the bishops stonewall, if the laity becomes alienated, Catholics will leave, and the danger is that they'll have no place to go. A disaffected, disinterested church would be a disaster, and it could happen.

A healthy Catholic Church can be a great symbol that links a 2000-yr-old tradition from your grandmother to your kids. One of the great things about choosing or being in a family is having to work these things out within it, rather than just cutting and running.

more from beliefnet and our partners