B.C. series on Church crisis marks first anniversary

About 2,000 attended a panel discussion at Boston College Sept. 18, focusing on the Church in the aftermath of the clergy sexual abuse scandal. Tim Russet, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” led the discussion, which marked the anniversary of the B.C. initiative examining “The Church in the 21st Century.”

In the past year, B.C. has hosted a variety of panels and programs with the intention of exploring the causes of the scandal and providing resources to transform it into a time of renewal for the Church. In the past year, the college has drawn approximately 13,000 people to 75 events.

B.C. president Father William Leahy, SJ, began the discussion entitled “Toward Renewal — What have we learned? Where are we going?” He touched upon the outcome of the of the series thus far, saying, “After more than a year of listening, programs and activities, we have learned a great deal about the state of the Catholic Church in America.”

"It is evident the problem of sexual abuse by priests and bishops, and its toleration at the highest levels, have brought into public view issues that have been simmering below the surface for many years," he continued.

Some of the “issues” that have surfaced, he said, are: discontent among Catholics, especially women concerned with their roles in the Church; lack of confidence in Church leadership; insufficient communication between Church officials and the laity; and generations of young Catholics who lack basic knowledge of Church teachings.

Father Leahy then handed the podium over to Russert, who questioned panelists Patrick Downes, a B.C. junior majoring human development; Sister Mary Johnson, SND, associate professor at Emmanuel College; Father J. Bryan Hehir, president of Catholic Charities USA; Elizabeth Paulhus, a theology major in the B.C. class of 2004; Peter Steinfels, religion correspondent for The New York Times; and Catalina Montes, principal of the Thomas Gardner Elementary School in Allston.

The discussion focused on issues such as building a connection between top Church officials and the laity, restoring credibility and trust in the Church, the issue of ordination of women, Catholic teaching on sexuality and the sexuality practiced by Catholics, and the decreasing number of active priests.

On working toward restoring credibility, “Young people are looking for people who have a much more pastoral role… people who are there to serve the people” and not there for a “power-trip” said Paulhus. “We need to feel that all of us have a say. It’s not just the archbishop’s Church, but it’s my Church and it’s your Church, too.”

Raising the issue of the changing demographics of the Church, Russert asked Montes what the Church must do to reach out to Hispanics, many of whom, he said, are turning to evangelical churches for spiritual sustenance.

"Hispanics have to feel accepted. The leadership and the Catholic people have to be warm -- get [Hispanics] to feel that they have support," said Montes, who is originally from Cuba. She noted that Hispanics, being immigrants to this country, have no relatives here and need a network of support. Evangelical Protestants "are giving that moral support, that caring, that love that everybody needs... The Catholics have to be more welcoming, more warm--reach out to them saying we are with you, we support you."

Steinfels addressed labeling of all those who disagree with certain Church teachings as “Cafeteria Catholics.”

"It's a phrase that distresses me a great deal," he said, picturing people in a cafeteria selecting what they wanted "based on preference."

"On the other hand, I do think that we sometimes have to make choices." He said these choices should be made "seriously, conscientiously and prayerfully," which, he said, is "very different from Cafeteria Catholics," and should be encouraged by bishops.

Responding to the question of what the laity can do to encourage Church leadership to become more engaged, Father Hehir stated, “We [the Church] have got to treat adults as adults in the Church.”

"This is the most educated laity the Catholic Church has ever confronted in 2,000 years. We can't have a place where men and women are working in corporations, in universities and politics, are in charge of their lives, are treated as adults, and not be treated as adults inside the Church" he continued. "How to treat people as adults? We need a laity that understands what a significant strategic role they have... I'm not calling for revolution, but I do think that there is a range of definable, discussible issues where adults and laity need to say 'we simply won't accept anything except adult conversation.'"

Sister Mary Johnson spoke of the decreasing numbers of active priests, stating that, nationally, 2,500 parishes currently do not have priests in residence. This problem, she said, could be addressed by seeking alternatives to the traditional priesthood, such as allowing married men to become priests and ordaining women.

She mentioned a recent statement by Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, that allowing married men to enter the priesthood would not solve the shortage. “Many social scientists would disagree with that,” she said, noting those who study the Church “have credible data” that needs to be incorporated into the conversation.

Sister Mary also said that while she and many women religious she knows do not feel called to the priesthood, many orders of religious women support and see the need for the ordination of women. Speaking of the capability of women to pastor parishes, she cited the findings in “They Call Her Pastor: A New Role for Catholic Women,” a book on women who lead parishes in Midwest and Southwest U.S. The study, she said, found that attendance and collections increased when women took over the administration of parishes.

Paulhus would also like to see women ordained because “not a lot can be said against it.” Steinfels feels that a first step in this direction could be the ordination of women to the diaconate.

"If someone feels the presence of God within themselves, whether that be a woman or a homosexual or a male, who is the Church to limit their potential in growing in the Church, said Downes. "If the power of God is within them, just as much as in a male priest, how can we deny them to progress as people of God."

The Holy Father, has clearly and definitely closed the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood. In a 1994 Apostolic Letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, he affirmed “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

In closing, the panelists were asked to think about how the Church can reach out to those who have left because of the scandal.

Father Hehir feels that many have “lost contact with the Church, but not their faith.” To bring them back and rebuild their faith “requires recognition by the Church of how much harm has been done and acknowledging what that harm is.”

"The whole evening was so informative and inspiring -- to do what you can in your place where you are," said Frances Florencourt of Arlington. "Each panelist had his or her own unique contribution, which shows the diversity of the Church."

"It was so interesting to see the different facets of the Catholic Church interacting in such a positive way," said Ann Tierney of Belmont.