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09/06/2002
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Church needs public opinion forum for all its members
By Albert de Zutter
Catholic Key Editor

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What should church members, the People of God, do now, in the wake of the twin scandals of priestly sexual abuse and administrative cover-up? What is our responsibility to our church in this matter? Did we play a part as enablers of the abuse and coverups? If so, what has to change?

The problem is not limited to, nor can it be adequately addressed by, personal morality. And while new "zero tolerance" rules for something that should never have been tolerated in the first place should help, underlying systemic problems remain to be addressed.

Public opinion and the bishops themselves have laid the blame for the scandal on inaction and mismanagement by bishops. But that is not a complete picture. The rest of us - priests, religious and lay people - have a share in the blame. Our responsibility for the current state of affairs consists mainly of passivity or indifference to the functioning of the church.

We have a responsibility to our founder, Jesus Christ, and to one another to help fix things.

Responsibility for the church belongs equally to everyone. All of us - hierarchy, clergy and laity alike - must share in the work of structuring a church that works in a Christ-like manner.

The necessity of working together precludes adversarial approaches that would pit laity against the hierarchy, or any other confrontational pairings.

In his opening talk at the Dallas meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Wilton Gregory, conference president, looked forward to cooperation with the laity as a necessary part of recovery from the crisis.

We must seize on that concept and give it form and substance.

We should reject divisive actions. In that regard, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating's suggestion that people act against a recalcitrant bishop by voting with their purses and their feet, would be unacceptable in all but the most extreme circumstances. We should not and cannot make the church more Christ-like by coercion and blackmail. What is needed is community action and action in community.

The crisis has demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt the need for accountability and transparency in the governance of the church. Accountability flows in multiple directions. The pope and the Vatican should be accountable to the world, to the bishops, the clergy and the laity. Bishops and chanceries should be accountable to priests, people, the wider church and the community and, of course, to the pope. Pastors and their staffs should be accountable to their parishioners, to their neighborhood, their bishop and the pope. People should be accountable to their pastors, their bishop and the pope, expressing their needs, their opinions in the areas of their experience and expertise, and their concern for the overall enterprise that is the church.

The biggest missing piece for bringing about that kind of mutual accountability is a structure for the formal and regular expression of public opinion in the church. We need deliberative bodies that will provide a forum for all voices within the church to be heard.

The necessity and desirability of public opinion in the church was proclaimed by Pope Pius XII and reinforced in the documents of the Second Vatican Council and post-council documents. But no orderly, structured way for public opinion to be regularly expressed and heard has been provided.

Public opinion has perhaps never had as swift and as powerful an impact on the church as in the current sex abuse/coverup scandal. It will be extremely difficult for any U.S. bishop to ignore the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People whether or not it is given the force of law.

But we shouldn't have to wait to be morally outraged before public opinion is heeded.

Closely related to the church's expressed need for healthy public opinion is the notion of the sensus fidelium (the sense of faith that the People of God hold in common) on faith and morals. While the concept is rarely discussed, its importance is clear from the following statement from the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church:

"The body of the faithful as a whole, anointed as they are by the Holy One (see 1 John 2:20) cannot err in matters of belief. Thanks to a supernatural sense of the faith which characterizes the People as a whole, it manifests this unerring quality when ... it shows universal agreement in matters of faith and morals" (n. 12).

The sensus fidelium should be a consideration in theology and in the formation of doctrine, according to Jesuit Father Roger Haight, writing in the Encyclopedia of Catholicism.

A corollary to the sensus fidelium is the notion of the "reception of doctrine." Reception is the process whereby the faithful accept a teaching or decision of the Church. Reception is also a confirmation that the teaching is authentic - that it agrees with the apostolic tradition.

Among the conclusions to be drawn are that we need accountability from our bishops and chanceries, our pastors and parish staffs (and, indeed, the pope and the Vatican), but we also need a way for more of the People of God to express our caring and concern. Somehow, as a church, we need to get to a point where we can express ourselves truthfully to one another on the issues that confront us, regardless of their sensitivity. We must be able to do so without fear of recrimination and reprisal. That should be true for priests, bishops, theologians and involved lay people.

A crucial point in creating a forum where all the voices in the church community are heard and respected is to do so without breaking away. Voice of the Faithful is attempting to provide such a vehicle on a national basis. But it is extremely difficult to mount a reform movement without incurring the wrath of those in charge of the status quo, the establishment. That group made a tactical error in Boston in trying to divert people's financial donations.

Perhaps we can begin to explore how to have more people take constructive part in the life of the church through discussion groups on a parish or regional basis open to all interested parties - laity, religious and clergy - and when consensus is reached, petition our bishops for diocesan-level discussion. The aim should be to explore ways to support our leadership through dialogue in a community setting and discuss ways to structure a process where the People of God can regularly express themselves to one another and share responsibility for the life and mission of the church.

- A. de Z.

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