The New Normal

September 22, 2018

All of us, in our different ways, have struggled, and continue to struggle with the alarming and terrible news, currently coming at us on a daily basis regarding the larger Church community.

My own statement, posted below, sums up much of my initial reaction, but more needs to be said.

The blockbuster denunciation of the Pope and many prominent churchmen by a former high ranking Vatican official is an astounding portrait of disfunction and corruption among some Church elites. Earlier this summer the unfolding scandal involving the former Archbishop of Washington, jaw dropping as it was, only served as an entr’acte to the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Reports revelations of decades of criminal abuse and cover ups by hundreds of priests and dozens of diocesan officials, including some bishops. These matched with similar scandals unfolding in Ireland, Chile, Australia, this week Germany.

What we are witnessing has already been called

  • “a change of era” in the history of the Church.
  • “the biggest development since the Reformation.”
  • “a catastrophe”

The first response, is probably a visceral or emotional one.

Beyond that response can come another one, a prayerful one.

We can pray for their healing and wholeness and match our prayer with a rededication to the highest standards when it comes to the safety and protection of children and youth.

Our parish already maintains standards in excess of what civil and church procedures require. We employ three staff members who work daily on the maintenance and upkeep of our procedure, an enormous undertaking given the thousands of volunteers we have here. In addition I am now appointing an independent board of professionals, chaired by parishioner Attorney Kathleen Birrane, to review compliance moving forward. The board will report directly to the Parish Council President, Jeff Rottinghaus.  We are committed to 100% compliance, 100% of the time.

Hopefully this is all helpful. What is not helpful is to look for enemies in the unfolding situation, beyond the perpetrators and those who orchestrated the cover-ups. Using this tragedy to advance a conservative or progressive agenda especially one aimed against any groups is wrong.

Meanwhile, one is left to wonder what else is out there.

We’ve heard from six dioceses and for sure we’ve heard enough. But have we heard it all? It is not credible to suppose that the same patterns of abuse and cover-up that were so widespread in Pennsylvania  and Massachusetts would not be found elsewhere. After all, there are 160 other dioceses in our country.

Attorneys General across the country are currently forming Grand Jury Investigations of their own. All crimes must be investigated and prosecuted. However long and painful a process it becomes.

Meanwhile, we’re left to wonder if this is the new normal?

Frankly I assume it is.

And, if it is, many parishes, already in decline, will not possibly be able to withstand the onslaught of indefinite revelations.

Obviously the impact on Mass attendance and offertory income will surely be debilitating, and on the morale of clergy and lay staff even more costly. But, the faithful of the faithful will be the most unfortunate and lasting consequence of all.

I am left wondering about the path forward.

For the larger Church it’s not so simple. There are many bishops sincerely offering various proposals, the Pope has called for an extraordinary synod. But there are also many reasonable voices respectfully wondering how the class of people who brought us to this point can be expected to chart a path forward? A fair question, to be sure.

While we are currently blessed in this archdiocese with an Archbishop and Vicar Bishops who are wise and holy men, trust in the national leadership of the Church is increasingly lacking.

And what really is the problem that they’re trying to address anyway ? No one seems to be able to agree on that. The abuse of children? The abuse of teenagers, mostly teenage boys?

Organized Ecclesial crime? Institutional fraud?  Systemic cover-up that shielded abusers and, again and again placed other youth at risk?

These are all crimes, to be sure, but they’re different kinds of crimes. What do they have in common? How is one to piece this all together and make any kind of sense out of it?

There are plenty of commentators out there who see this differently, but here’s how I see it. What these crimes have in common is that they were all committed in the same culture.

The culture of “clericalism.” What’s that? “Clericalism” is the excessive devotion to the institutional aspects of religion over and above the faith and the faithful. It usually includes cronyism and inbreeding, cloistered, byzantine political environments, self-indulgence and self-serving policies, and even anachronistic costumes.  In this culture excess is accepted, rewarded, and promoted, corruption and criminal behavior easily breed, and, at its worst, perversity can be permitted.

Everything that has been revealed in this crisis happened in, and to at least some measure because, of the culture of clericalism.

If the Church is to avert disaster, clericalism must be identified in all its forms and rooted out. This is an imperative the laity themselves can advance by demonstrating their sheer intolerance for it, whenever and wherever they encounter it.

We priests should instead commit to a renewal of every aspect of our priestly lives, especially through increased faithfulness to the promises we made at ordination. A lifestyle characterized by simplicity and humility would be especially helpful at this time too.

Pastors and bishops alike must commit to the restoration of the laity, men and women, to their proper role, as baptized Christians, within the Church. Every level of administration and leadership, short of sacramental service, should be open to qualified candidates. More and more, they, not clergy, should be leading our parish communities too.

This can happen immediately, no revision of canon law or development of doctrine needed.

Bishops must work to reduce unnecessary bureaucratic structures, including those originating with the dioceses themselves. Perhaps it is time they take up their primary role as pastors, living at their Cathedral parishes, attending to their parishioners there, and from that platform, not their corporate offices serving as attentive fathers to all the other pastors in their dioceses. The day of bishop as prince, or CEO must now be over. Excess and luxury are to be avoided.

The Church as a whole, needs to accept the reality that clergy abuse is a global plague that can only be eliminated by establishing universal safeguards resembling those that were adapted by the US bishops in 2002. Safeguards, by the way, that work: in the last 16 years there has not a credible allegation of child abuse by a priest.

It is time to reform the way bishops are selected, with a transparent and consultative process that seeks to promote loving and wise pastors not canon lawyers.

And I have to agree with my friend Cardinal Tim Dolan that it is  time to open an honest Church wide discussion about mandatory celibacy, and the possibility of married clergy.

Respectfully Pope Francis, who has remained sadly silent to date, needs to initiate still more when it comes to renewal in the Church, especially when it comes to the Roman Curia.

For the wider Church the path forward is neither simple nor will it be easy.  Neither for our parish will it be easy.

On the other hand, it will be entirely simple.

It goes back to the basic question Jesus asks Peter: “Who do you say that I am?” How we approach this crisis will actually be our answer to that question.

For Peter Jesus was his Lord and Savior, as long as things were going great. When it came time to face the cross, he ran away.

This crisis is a cross for us. Not one of our fashioning but one we are being asked to carry


By doing what we are already doing with increased dedication for sure, maybe more energy and enthusiasm, perhaps little more humility.

A  number of years ago we already recognized that the Church was in need of renewal and rebuilding we didn’t need this crisis to recognize that, And with that recognition we set out on a deliberately different path. That decision brought us jeers and sneers, critics and complaint and bullets in the back.

But we kept going anyway. And despite all our mistakes and missteps, despite my own faults and flaws and failures as a pastor God has abundantly blessed our work.

This blessing can become a blessing for others. Now a lot of parishes are waking up to the new reality that if they’re going to survive this crisis, and thrive beyond it, they’re going to have to rebuild too, and, in increasing numbers, they’re turning to us for help.

The future of the Church will not be shaped by Councils in Rome or Commissions of Cardinals, nor even prosecutors in the US. Rebuilding the Church starts at 20 East Ridgely Road.

We’re going to go right on doing what we do: love God, love others, make disciples, and help other churches to do the same.

With Christ, and Christ alone as our cornerstone. That’s our new normal.


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