Church reform is hard work, but not impossible.
David J. O’Brien, Catholic Church historian, writing in AMERICA last week and in recent lectures, offers a check-list for implementing genuine and lasting church reform. It is not enough to just want reform, he stresses. Reform requires skill and organization.
In what follows, my summary and adaptation of some main points…….
1. We need to help our people to ask in the Church the political questions they would ask in any other pubic forum. Who is in charge and how did they get there? What is the relationship between power and authority? Are we depending on the good will of an individual bishop or pastor or are we building systems that express shared values and common objectives?
2. We need to encourage people to say yes to all invitations to genuine shared responsibility and reach out to those who do so. Get to know the people serving on parish councils and diocesan boards and committees, for example. Catholics do need to work together.
3. We need to say yes as well to independent associations like the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church, Call to Action, Future Church, Voice of the Faithful, etc. Structures of shared responsibility will work better if there are independent associations asking hard questions. And we need to dream up new forms of organization among ourselves, ways of drawing people into public action on behalf of our Church.
4. We need to talk to organizers. We need to learn from people who know how to organize to get things done.
5. To steal a phrase from Catholic social teaching, we need to make a preferential, but not exclusive, option for the laity. Think lay. Ask what each decision, proposal, interpretation means from the point of view of ordinary lay men and women. Pastoral care in our kind of society requires dialogue, communication, relationships of mutual trust and understanding. It will come when we learn to read our daily experience in light of our faith, and our faith in light of our daily experience. It won’t come by simply yelling in the bishop’s ear. So think lay.
6. Finally, we must not forget: it’s all about people. This Church is a voluntary organization. It works best through persuasion, not coercion. Persuasion has its own discipline, not least of which is a liking people. No one persuades people one does not respect or like. Many of our problems in the past have come about because we did not trust each other. Restoring or preserving trust begins with simple encounters.
As Detroit’s Cardinal John Dearden said some years ago: The church is a community of faith and friendship. Changing the church begins here: getting to know each other well enough to work together to make us, as church, the presence of Christ.
Next time…..some more thoughts about getting organized.