Crisis and Challenge in the Roman Catholic Church: Perspectives on Decline and Reformation
This 257-page book provides an impressive analysis of the Roman Catholic Church today. It is substantial, wide-ranging, rich in compelling insights. Twelve authors, each competent in her/his own right, offer facts and conclusions.
I have decided that, rather than presenting a chapter-by-chapter scrutiny, I will attempt an overall assessment of what the book really tells us. In this way, I believe, I will do most justice to its contents.
The Roman Catholic Church of our time is clearly a patient suffering from serious ailments. Twelve ‘surgeons’ analyse her condition. We find in their ranks theologians, journalists, a church historian, a sociologist and canon lawyer, spiritual writers, executives and – last not least – women working in the pastoral ministry.
These church ‘medics’ base their analysis on a notable array of established facts, with statistics and data confirmed in academic sources. At the same time, they offer a selection of harrowing case studies, painted in great detail. Throughout the book I counted ten, including testimonies in which two authors (Jo Scott-Coe and Debra Meyers) narrate their own appalling and moving experiences.
The ‘symptoms’ of the disease are: a systemic underrating of women culminating in the refusal to admit them to holy orders; child abuse by the clergy and its cover-up by church authorities; the rape of nuns by priests and bishops; the high-rate of domestic violence in Catholic households; dominance by the clergy over a laity deprived of rights; inaccountability of the bishops; a fear of sexuality leading to anxious scrupulosity; suppression of free speech and a silencing of critics; ranking ‘institution’ above Gospel values.
Of greatest importance: what are the underlying ailments that give rise to these symptoms? What institutional diseases do our ‘medics’ discover? I identified the following:
- ‘Kyriarchy’ – a top-down absolute clerical supremacy pervading the thinking and structural organization of the church.
- ‘Misogyny and Patriarchy’ – treating women as unequal and dependent based on a deeply-seated philosophical and cultural bias against women.
- ‘Somatophobia’ – a suppression of normal sexuality; fear of one’s own bodiness.
- ‘Inverted pyramid of values’ – organizational features prized above Gospel values such as love, equality in Christ, listening to the Spirit.
- ‘Traditionalism’ – a radical unwillingness to change.
Hope for the Church
Can the ‘patient’ survive? One redeeming aspect of this book is that the authors are keen to point out that the Catholic Church can be ‘healed’ if it is prepared to rid itself of the accumulated garbage of non-Gospel accretions. The church is ‘stuffed like an attic with antiquated furniture’ (Paul Tenkotte). The authors care about a healthier future for the church.
“The worst outcome of the demise of the Catholic institutional church would be to throw the baby out, with the baptismal water, as it were, for people to leave aside that tradition’s powerful message of love and justice, sacrament and solidarity” (Mary Hunt). “Despite the damage done, the Catholic Church is here to stay and will remain a global powerhouse… Many women do stay and see the church as their spiritual home and as a force for good that is stronger than its legacy of cruelty and corruption” (Miriam Duignan).
The authors also mention positive developments that point to a better future. Most Catholics in the West now take their own responsible decisions, often contrary to official church guidance, like in the matter of family planning. Many lay people take an active part in a wide range of reform movements, many spearheaded by women. More Catholics in prominent positions, including a few bishops, are speaking out in defiance of Vatican disapproval, Catholic media personnel are waking up to their duty of highlighting institutional failings.
Pope Francis, though failing to initiate radical reforms, has started promising innovations. In his encyclical Amoris Laetitia he stressed the priority of the ‘inner forum’, of conscience as the ultimate norm of morality. He demoted the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith so that bishops’ conferences are no longer under its immediate supervision. He is appointing more women to executive positions in the Roman Curia. He favours decentralization and synodality.
It will not be easy to heal the Roman Catholic Church. Given the fact that its disorders are deeply ingrained in doctrines, practices, church laws and customs, some massive transformations are called for. However, they are not impossible. And awareness about the systemic diseases and the suffering they inflict is one of the most important tools to bring about change. This is what ‘Crisis and Challenge in the Roman Catholic Church’ can help achieve.
Paradoxically, authority in the church can bring about profound and rapid changes, a factor perhaps not sufficiently recognised by some of the authors because of its present abuse. The Second Vatican Council effected worldwide wholesome reforms in liturgy, religious life, and openness to other denominations and religions. But, of course, church authority needs to be transformed. It needs to become transparent and accountable, with decisions based on collegial consultation on all levels.
I recommend this book to every person who values Jesus’ dream of establishing a ‘kingdom of love’ and a community of faith in which all are brothers and sisters inspired by his vision.
– John Wijngaards