It is often said that the darkest night comes in the hour before dawn. Recently the Church has passed, and is still passing through, a night time experience. We await the dawn hour.
Writers on both sides of the Atlantic have contributed many considered words on the crisis that currently faces the Church. They have done so, not from a wish to be antagonistic but from a deep faith commitment in the Risen Christ. Their honesty and integrity has resulted in their giving voice to some unpleasant and hurtful realities.
One such writer is Donald Cozzens from Ohio in the US. He has written extensively on the nature and experience of priesthood. His latest contribution to the debate is a paper published in mid-June on the NCR website entitled- ‘How much corruption can we tolerate in the church before we leave?’. Some might say a provocative title, others a title reflecting the pain of present circumstances. Cozzens is responding in a compassionate manner to an article in The Atlantic journal by James Carroll on priesthood and its many failings so evident in the current structure of the Church. Both articles give cause for concern for both men have served as priests and Cozzens is still doing so.
Let me quote a short passage from Don Cozzens’ article.
“I met Carroll over 50 years ago when we were both young priests. We are friends who view the dark side of the church and priesthood through the same lens. I’ve been nourished by his poetry and novels, informed by his historical works, challenged by his commentaries as a columnist and essayist, and moved by his memoir, An American Requiem. Carroll has named for me what continues to unsettle my soul — the superior status and lofty identity the church claims for its priests, cultivated and sustained by clerical celibacy and the withholding of meaningful leadership roles from the laity, especially women. But beyond touching into my personal struggle to find some semblance of integrity in a morally and structurally flawed church, Carroll’s analysis of its present dark night of scandal is painfully incisive and compelling”.
And again there is the reference to pain. Many who speak with such personal honesty do so from a sense of pain that they feel from their experience of Church as we presently see it. And they suffer in consequence. But then it always was the role of the prophet to be ignored and ridiculed. Current critics have rocked the complacency of many priests and laity who simply prefer not to think of failure within the church. They still occupy a Church of peace and tranquillity that is the stuff of false memory. That is why the urgency to change is not recognized. The first stimulus to begin reform is a recognition that current circumstances cry out with the urgency of a wounded child.
Once again in recent weeks, a public Inquiry in Birmingham, IICSA, investigating the handling of children abuse has reported in the strongest terms its criticism of case historical management by the Catholic Archdiocese of sexual abuse. It is no small wonder that the fragility of faith is being tested and that many despairing questions are being asked as the faithful are often caught between a rock and a hard place. We cannot, we must not allow this to continue unchecked nor should we be content with projected long term solutions, laudable though they might be, when in fact there is an immediate concern that must be addressed.
When the tide turns and the sea begins its return to the dry beach, there is no stopping it. The relentless swell of the ocean cannot be resisted and sweeps all in its path. Childhood hours spent building sandcastles are lost in minutes by the onslaught of the white surf.
True leadership recognizes, often before others, that a crisis is looming and needs addressing. A failure in leadership occurs when turning away is the easier path to follow. The inevitable consequences follow. We should not be surprised if when we turn our back to the incoming tide if we get soaked by next big wave.
To conclude let me quote again from Don Cozzens- “…it is right to remind Catholics that the church is not essentially the hierarchy or its organizational apparatus. ’It is a community of memory, keeping alive the story of Jesus Christ.’ The church’s ordained ministers and its structures and social systems are meant to sustain that memory which remains the church’s foundation.”
It is that ‘community of memory’ to which we all belong that is the vibrant core of the Church. It is we, the people, who form the bedrock of faith. In writing those three simple words in the preamble to the Constitution of the United States, there was a clear recognition that structures exist only to serve people, not the other way round.
Chris McDonnell is a British Catholic educator and writer. His article is on-published from the website of the Association of Catholic Priests, Ireland, July 5th 2019.