Pope Francis walks in front of a candle in memory of victims of sexual abuse as he visits St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral in Dublin Aug. 25. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Glen Argan: Reform begins with an open conversation

  • January 15, 2019

Last week, I put on my detective’s hat to help a friend from out of town. Her father had lost contact with a close friend of his who lived in St. Albert, a suburb of Edmonton. Could I help my friend’s dad find his friend?

I drove to the last address he had for his friend to ask what the current residents might know. At that point, the story took a different turn. 

The woman who answered the door recognized my name as the former editor of the now-defunct Western Catholic Reporter. She proceeded to tell me about the divisions in her parish caused by the dismissal of a pastoral associate who lives in a homosexual relationship.

The parish, in her view, was torn apart in the aftermath of the man’s firing with many, such as herself, angered by the dismissal. 

She and her husband were asking themselves how they could continue attending church; most of their adult children had already left over the incident with one stating point blank, “The Church is mean.”

In the last year or so, I have encountered noticeably higher numbers of long-time, committed Catholics upset and angered about what they see as merciless decisions aimed at protecting the status quo within the Church. A lot of this has to do with the never-ending revelations of clergy sexual abuse and episcopal coverups, but it is not limited to that.

The credibility of the Church’s leadership has been left tattered and it will not be easy to restore. Pope Francis, in my view, is one who well understands the problem and is the Church leader best equipped to begin the renewal. Yet, even the Pope has come under fire from bishops and cardinals.

The upper levels of the Church are not a pretty scene. Many appointed to be leaders have acted irresponsibly, protecting the institution’s image while giving low priority to the needs of victims of abuse. Yet, it is too easy to oversimplify a situation in which the majority of bishops are striving to work through the current morass.

Take, for example, Pope Francis’ Jan. 1 letter to the U.S. bishops who were on a weeklong retreat to reflect on the ongoing abuse crisis. The National Catholic Reporter, the newspaper of the American Catholic left, described the letter in these terms: “In a strongly worded, eight-page letter to U.S. bishops, Pope Francis has rebuked the prelates not only for covering up sexual abuse but for unhealthy conflicts and divisions among themselves, which have ‘gravely’ and ‘seriously’ undercut the Church’s credibility.”

In my reading, the letter did not seem to be a rebuke, although several of the Pope’s comments were indeed critical of previous attitudes and inaction. Rather, I found the tone to be pastoral and encouraging. After all, the Pope specifically stated that the Church’s credibility cannot be regained by issuing “stern decrees.”

Instead, he called upon the bishops to repair the “living fabric” of the Church, including the tattered communion of bishops. Rather than acting as administrators, the bishops should develop “a new presence in the world, conformed to the cross of Christ.” The logic of the Gospel must replace the logic of secular management, Pope Francis wrote.

I cannot argue with those who perceive the Church as being “mean.” Recent years have provided ample evidence of meanness, sometimes under the guise of doctrinal orthodoxy. Meanness arises when the protection of existing structures and established ways of acting take priority over responding to the suffering of the abused and excluded.

The Church needs reform which replaces clericalism with a communion that actually looks like a communion. It needs to demonstrate that God’s greatest attribute in His relations with humans is mercy, and that His exercise of mercy is not confined to the confessional.

Pope Francis has taught us to name Jesus’ most famous parable, not after the prodigal son, but after the merciful father. In reflecting on the story of the woman caught in adultery, the Pope once said, “Jesus’ attitude is striking: we do not hear the words of scorn, we do not hear words of condemnation, but only words of love, of mercy, which are an invitation to conversation.”

A conversation within the Church which includes all God’s people will be the clearest sign that a new age of mercy is upon us. 

An open conversation will erode the walls of clericalism and coverups, and begin the pilgrimage to restore the Church’s lost credibility. 

(Glen Argan lives in Edmonton.)

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