Ruling in Massachusetts brings Church workers one step closer to justice, highlights ongoing questions about teacher contracts

 

gavel

Late last week Judge Douglas H. Wilkins of Norfolk Superior Court ruled Thursday that Fontbonne Academy — an all-girls Catholic high school in Milton, MA — unlawfully discriminated against Matthew Barrett when they rescinded their offer to employ him as the school’s food services director after he listed his husband as his emergency contact. The school will be on the hook to pay damages to Barrett for lost wages and compensatory damages for discrimination, though a hearing on that has not yet been scheduled. If past judgments are any measure, though, it could be a healthy sum of money.

The judge’s decision, a major step toward protecting Church workers, is based on two important facts:

  1. that he suffered discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as well as gender
  2. that religious exemption did not apply because the school does not limit “membership, enrollment, or participation” to Catholics and only required that members of the administration and theology faculty be Catholic

The decision went further, asserting that “As an educational institution, Fontbonne retains control over its mission and message. It is not forced to allow Barrett to dilute that message, where he will not be a teacher, minister, or spokesman for Fontbonne and has not engaged in public advocacy of same-sex marriage.”

Fontbonne has not indicated whether or not it plans to appeal the ruling.

As a ruling at the state level, the decision sets legal precedent in Massachusetts, but may not be immediately applicable to similar cases in other states. Nevertheless, the decision may have broad implications for the pursuit of justice for all Church workers.

It is interesting to note that Barrett’s attorney claimed (and the judge agreed) that Barrett had been discriminated against on the basis of BOTH sexual orientation and gender. The decision reads, in part, “It is clear that, because he is a male, he suffered gender discrimination when he was denied employment for marrying a person whom a female could have married without suffering the same consequences.” While same-sex marriage is now the “law of the land,” sexual orientation is not a protected status in every state. This decision may open the door for Church employees in those states, who have been fired for being in a same sex marriage, to fight back on the basis of gender discrimination.

But this decision goes beyond the issue of same sex marriage and touches on important issues like what exactly constitutes a minister in the Church.

In a 2012 decision, the US Supreme Court unanimously agreed that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prevented the government from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to decide who was or wasn’t a minister within their tradition. The decision emboldened bishops in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Oakland, San Francisco, and Hawaii to write the language of “minister” or “ministry” into teacher contracts. That move was widely understood to be an attempt by those bishops to exempt themselves from discrimination and labor laws and sparking a heated debate about what functions and responsibilities actually constitute a minister within Catholic Church. While the Supreme Court decision was unanimous, there his hardly unanimous agreement in the Church about who is and isn’t a minister.

The decision in Massachusetts could reignite that debate.

In this case, the judge clearly found nothing within the food services director job description or duties that would lead him – or any reasonable person for that matter – to believe that Fontbonne’s leadership understood Barrett to be a minister.

Most Catholics agree, not all Church employees fall into the category of minister. That includes food service, custodial, and administrative support personnel, and some teachers, including those who aren’t teaching religion and those who are not Catholic. Moreover, many are convinced that forcing these employees to sign teacher-minister contracts is an unfair attempt by Church and school officials to protect themselves against discrimination laws and wrongful termination lawsuits that have put them on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past few years.

Thursday’s decision is a ray of hope for all Church workers, giving them more tools to fight back against wrongful terminations and once again raising important, unresolved questions about the fairness of teacher-minister contracts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Women Need More than Absolution: They Need the Church to be on Their Side

Changing our rhetoric, ordaining married men, and welcoming women back to the diaconate would make the Church a place where more people would come for guidance before an irrevocable decision is made instead of a place to seek absolution after the fact.


In a perfect world there would be no abortion. The sorts of structures that perpetuate economic injustice, the oppression of women, the sexual entitlement of men, and poor education wouldn’t exist. But they do. And as long as they do, the Church needs a better response to the problem of abortion.

pope-francisjpg-78988a47f1d9b1c8In a step forward this week, Pope Francis paved the way for any priest anywhere in the world to use his “discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it” during the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Depending upon how you read Canon Law, ordinarily such absolution could be reserved to bishops or other priests who have been granted special faculties.

It’s a move that has been welcomed by many who see it as a hand stretched out to Catholic women who have undergone an abortion, especially in an environment that often seems void of the kind of mercy that Pope Francis is modeling for our Church. Pope Francis also shifted toward a more pastoral tone when he sympathized with “women who have resorted to abortion,” saying, “I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision.”

And yet, I get the feeling that women – and their male counterparts – won’t be busting down church doors to get into the confessional. But perhaps there’s something deeper to explore. Perhaps there’s something more the Church can do.

Pope Francis has used the image of a “field hospital after battle” to describe what the Church can be for the 21st Century world. But what if the Church could provide ‘preventative care’ too? What if the Church could be there at the beginning of the battle that is modern life? What if the church could help people make different decisions instead of arriving on the field after the battle is done to point out all the mistakes — no matter how gently or lovingly it is done.

In his comments, Pope Francis says that women “resort” to having an abortion and that there is “pressure” leading them to make the decision. That kind of language makes me think that Pope Francis knows what so many of us understand: that these women and couples need more from the Church than absolution. Women, couples and families need to know that the Church is on their side.

Reframing the conversation, as Francis has begun to, would be a good start. But the Church needs to do more than tone down its rhetoric. The church needs to show in word and deed that it understands that there are political, economic, and cultural systems and structures at play making an abortion something to “resort” to. And more than that, the Church needs to demonstrate its commitment to overcoming those very structures and systems that put women and couples in their situation in the first place. It’s a tall order. But Pope Francis had laid the foundation to do just that. Let’s hope the bishops of the world take notice.

In addition to heated rhetoric, the continued insistence upon clerical celibacy and ordination for males alone hinders the ability of the Church to stand with and companion women and families on the 21st century “battlefield.” As the Extraordinary Synod on the Family seems to recognize, life – particularly the lives of women and families – in the 21st Century is not easy. And so they called for a renewal in the way we train ministers in the Church.

No amount of theoretical training on family life or women’s issues could ever replace the actual experience of raising a family or being a woman in today’s world. The Church doesn’t need ordained ministers with more training in family life or women’s issues. The Church needs families and women in ordained ministry.

And so the Church should begin having a conversation at the highest levels about returning to its earliest traditions of ordaining married priests and women deacons. There are married men and well-trained women who can respond to the call immediately if we would just open ordination to them.

Changing our rhetoric, ordaining married men, and welcoming women back to the diaconate would make the Church a place where more people would come for guidance before an irrevocable decision is made instead of a place to seek  absolution after the fact.

In a perfect world, families, couples and individuals wouldn’t face many of the difficult decisions that they do – including whether or not to have an abortion. But our world isn’t perfect. And until it is our Church needs to do better job of putting itself in a place to stand with people on the “battlefield” of life.

By: Russ Petrus, Program Director for FutureChurch

 

 

 

 

 

At LCWR 2015 Two Approaches to the Doctrinal Assessment but One Direction — Avanti! FORWARD!

2015_lcwr_assembly_logo_smallAvanti! This Italian word for “forward!” seems to have been the unofficial theme of the 2015 Assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. To applause, LCWR President, Sharon Holland, IHM urged her fellow sisters “Avanti” several times in her presidential address.

The 2015 Assembly marks the first time the LCWR gathered since the doctrinal assessment came to an end back in April and many were anxious to see what the sisters would have to say about the process. By way of ending her presidential address, quoting Dr. Vanessa White, professor at Catholic Theological Union, Holland reminded the LCWR “What you focus on is what you give power to.” It was a clear signal that the LCWR’s leadership had decided focus its attention on moving forward instead of looking back.

Individual attendees I talked to shared the same interest in looking forward rather than dwelling on the assessment. One sister I sat with on the plane to Houston told me “it’s over. That’s what matters” when I asked her about the assessment. Another gently refocused me – as only a sister can – saying, “how we move forward is the more important question.”

Of course, for the sisters, moving forward doesn’t mean ignoring the past or pretending that the assessment never happened. As Holland said, “In considering what to say this morning about moving forward, I did look back briefly.” There were attempts to place it in context, to learn from it, and to identify the graces that brought the sisters through it.

sharon holland

Holland attempted to answer the question “why?” by framing the assessment in the context of a larger “cultural chasm,” saying, “we were somehow looking at the same realities, but were standing in different places. We didn’t realize that we were experiencing the incomprehension of two groups who did not know each other’s deeper assumptions. We risked slipping into talking about each other, without really talking more deeply with each other.” Looking hopefully at the results of the meetings, she wonders “perhaps all left the room thinking that this time they had been understood.”

MockBYDan2 (1)Keynote presenter, Janet Mock, CSJ, looked for the graces that guided the sisters through the assessment and opportunities to use that grace moving forward. She reflected, “If I have taken away anything from the past three years, it is a greater desire to enter wholeheartedly into both the activity of God when I am called to companion that movement and to wait poised for the action of God when it is beyond my capacity to act.” She recalled that “there were moments when we were rendered silent…it was those moments that God’s activity became most evident.” One such example of God’s activity through the process, according to Mock, was the election of Pope Francis. Mock insisted that “knowing when God is calling you to activity and when God is calling you to passivity is a critical discernment for our times,” urging her colleagues to “let go of the desire to do everything we want to do by ourselves.”

It’s worth noting that both of these treatments of the mandate and assessment were offered at the service of moving forward. For Holland, continuing to close the “cultural chasm” between the LCWR and the Vatican is one direction forward, saying, “a profound issue and goal was and is ecclesial communion.” She pointed out two symbols that ought to give us hope that closing the cultural divide is attainable. First is the joint report of the assessment itself, which she described as being “truly a joint report written and worked through by the same people who had engaged in the dialogue.” The second symbol was the photo of the leadership of LCWR with Pope Francis which she said was “immediately recognized as a long-awaited public symbol of the communion our sisters feel and desire with and within the Church.”

The progress towards greater communion between the LCWR and the Vatican is well underway under Pope Francis. The sisters generally, and Holland specifically, praised Evangelii gaudium, the Year of Consecrated Life, the extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, and Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si. Of course the themes of Evangelii gaudium and Laudato Si are not new to the sisters. They’ve been working on these issues since they undertook the work of renewal following Vatican II. But this sort of official recognition of the importance of these themes by this Pope must bring a sense of validation of the last fifty or so years of work the sisters have been doing.

For Mock, the ability to discern times of activity and times of passivity will be vital to religious life in the future. “It is not a time for super stars, even among congregations,” she said. Pointing out that there are approximately 1,200 women in the United states in initial formation in religious congregations, she called upon the leadership to address the educational, spiritual, psychological and personal needs of these women “across congregations together” rather than trying to go it alone. Addressing the needs of the world –immigration, ecological advocacy, human and trafficking to name a few – is another area where the congregations could work together according to Mock. Of course, this will mean congregations each need to embrace a time of activity and a time of passivity.

For Mock, working together, at times taking an active role and at times taking a passive role doesn’t mean squelching the of any individual congregation because each will always bring their charisms and their wisdom to the table: “Instead of threatening our individual charisms, we find working together enhances them – because these charisms illuminate a way of approaching ministry that together makes our service so much richer.”

There well may be as many ways of making sense of the assessment and mandate as there are members of the LCWR. But from what I can tell, there is only one direction: Avanti! Forward!

By way of conclusion, I’d like to offer prayer in solidarity with the LCWR — the same prayer that Janet Mock opened the assembly with:

“And so, God of deep waters, we come as we are. Wash over us with your grace. Refresh us with your Spirit. Lead us into new depths that we may emerge from these days as if baptized anew, strengthened and renewed for your mission. May we be what you want us to be in our time. And may what we are about here be healing for our world. To this we say AMEN.”

AMEN, indeed!

Catholic Women Speak Up in Time for the Synod

CWSEven before the Synod of Bishops could get up to speed after Vatican II, it suffered setbacks under Popes Paul VI, Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  Instead of forums for real discussion and decision-making, the “rubber stamp syndrome” came into play as bishops learned to firmly align themselves with the Pope in power.

Pope Francis has set the synod on a new path that is closer to the vision of Vatican II.  Still, as a way toward collegiality, it includes only those who are ordained.  There have been no provisions that allow for full and equal decision making powers by the laity.  Lay input and decision-making are important across the board, but are especially critical as we head toward a synod where family and marriage are front and center. Women’s voices have only been heard at the very margins of synods in the past, yet are critical components in any credible decision making process that involves discussion and debate about pastoral practices related to family life, relationships, marriage and birth control.

This year, a new effort has been launched to make bring women’s voices forward in the lead up to the 2015 Family Synod.

Catholic Women Speak: Bringing our Gifts to the Table, is an extraordinary effort to make women’s experience and reflections on a variety of topics related to the 2015 Family Synod available to synod delegates, auditors, experts and to Catholics everywhere.

Tina Beattie, Director of the Digby Stuart Research Centre for Religion, Society and Human Flourishing at the University of Roehampton, headed this effort and is a force of nature in the Catholic Church.

With almost miraculous speed, she and a small group of dedicated editors wove together this first-of-its-kind resource.  Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table is an anthology of essays by women who represent a broad international perspective and come from a variety of personal backgrounds, who believe that the Church cannot come to a wise and informed understanding of family life without listening to women (Paulist Press blurb).

The book is divided into four sub-parts with more than 40 authors from diverse geographies and backgrounds addressing a) our traditions, b) family, marriage and relationships, c) poverty and exclusion and d) our institutions.

The book begins with an essay by Cettina Militello, an Italian theologian who sent a few blessed shockwaves when, at the April 28th conference held at the Pontifical University Antonianum entitled “Women in the Church: Prospects for Dialogue”, she gave an overview of a history of misogyny in the Church, spoke about the devastating effects of Inter Insigniores and criticized the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for its  demonization of gender theory.  In her essay in Catholic Women Speak she follows a similar track sketching the history of women as well as the new realities of 21st century life that should inform Church teaching.  She calls for equality and greater roles for women in the Church noting, “Women have moved from silence to speech, from invisibility to presence, from submission to co-responsibility. The journey has been long and is far from complete, but the goal is now illuminated by the new awareness that God’s design is an inclusive one.”

Lucetta Scaraffia, editor of Donne, Chiesa, Mondo for l’Osservatore Romano likens a synod without women to “breathing with just one lung.”  She makes the observation, “The absence of women at the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family reveals two negative aspects of the life of the Church: ignorance of and lack of interest in the female point of view – even in situations where women are at the heart of the matter – and disconnection from daily life.”

Amelia Beck tells of her experience with Vatican sanctioned birth control and the many babies she conceived even though she was meticulously following the Natural Family Planning method. She calls her essay “Vatican Roulette.”

Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, writes about the marginalization of women in the family and points to the challenges their lives pose to the idealized notions of family and marriage set out by the Church. Where women have little to no access to power of any sort she points out that, “struggling to survive in a world that is marked with poverty, exploitation and lack of personhood, marriage for them is a burden and being born female a curse. Sold or off-loaded into marriage before the age of sixteen, for many of these women “the desire to marry and form a family” is not a choice (Lin. 1). It is a prison sentence, replete with marital rape, domestic violence, isolation, subservience to the point of slavery, and unplanned pregnancies that have fatal consequences for both mother and child.”

Agnes Brazal of the Philippines looks at family life through the prism of out-migration where greater and greater numbers of women are leaving home to bring in much-needed income.  Linked to “international capital’s search for cheap labor and domestic services, as well as to the increasing poverty in the sending countries,” families and especially children are suffering as their parents leave in search of work.  Brazal examines Church teaching with its assumptions about male/female and parenting roles and shows how it fails to take into account the economic strains on family life in the Philippines and beyond — adding to their burdens rather than relieving them.

In the last sub-section dedicated to the institutional church, Christine Schenk, CSJ, describes how the Lectionary leaves out the stories of women, and especially those who acted with authority in early Christianity.  Madeleine Fredell brings in the powerful story of the witness of Mary of Magdala and Rhonda Miska talks about young Catholic Women working in ministry in the Church.

These are just a few of the authors who have contributed to this well-produced resource.  Bishops attending the 2015 Family Synod would be better informed by reading it.

A synod on the family that does not engage women in meaningful ways leaves the Church limping, “breathing with just one lung.”  But more than that, it leaves women and children at risk by what is passed over or assumed because of the blind spots created by race, sex, geography, class, age, privilege, etc.

In my international travels to South Africa a few years ago, I met a women whose words unsettled me because they were so counter-intuitive.  She said, “the most dangerous thing a woman can be is married.”  As my jaw fell open, she explained that she lived in a region where the HIV Aids rate is one of the highest in the world and where men bring the disease home to their wives.  In one of many moments in my life, I, again, saw how limited my own understanding was and how my own privilege blinded me to the realities of women from other parts of the world.  May our bishops understand this is true for them as well, especially as they try to fashion guidance in worlds where women, children and men face life and death situations daily.

May this new book of essays help fill the gap.  Where male experience and wisdom has its limits, may it help the Church to provide meaningful and, yes, life saving guidance to all the baptized.

Deborah Rose-Milavec

FYI, this book is being published by Paulist Press and is available for pre-order from their website.  It is also being offered as part of FutureChurch’s Pentecost campaign.  Learn more.

 

Cardinal Burke is out; Cardinals Kasper and Danneels are in

Paul Haring CNS
Paul Haring CNS

Pope Francis is weaving hope into the Synod process.  Robert Mickens reports on his role in shaping the outcome.

Via a Vatican source, Mickens learned that Pope Francis will NOT be inviting Cardinal Raymond Burke back to the synod floor.  While Burke did not have voting rights, per se, he did moderate one of the English speaking small groups (Group A) last year which gave him tremendous power to sway others to follow his lead.  As a matter of fact, from the looks of the final recommendations from English Group A, it is hard to find any evidence that moderate Mons. John Atcherley Dew was relator for the same group.

And while Pope Francis is keeping more caustic voices like Raymond Burke at bay, he is also confirming his point men, Cardinals Walter Kasper (Germany) and Godfried Danneels (Belgium), to be there again.

Under Synod protocol, Pope Francis can make appointments, but it seems that Pope Francis is expanding his appointments from the typical fifteen percent to, according to Mickens, up to one-third of the Synod Fathers.   He recently appointed Archbishop Blaise Cupich of Chicago and Bishop George Murry SJ of Youngstown.

There will be around 345 participants, including bishops, priests, curial heads, those elected from the Union of Superior Generals, experts and observers.  Of those who can vote, there will be more than 260 bishops and priests with Pope Francis appointing more than 80.

To what extent will Pope Francis’s call for a more merciful, loving Church be upheld at the 2015 Family Synod?  He is humble.  He is savvy.  And, after decades of bishops who conformed to the will of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis is wisely choosing those who will help lead the Church in a more pastoral direction.

http://www.globalpulsemagazine.com/news/synod-politics-heating-up/1698

How a synod works

The most current list of attendees to the 2015 Family Synod

 

 

When the Church Closes Shop

FutureChurch thanks John A. Dick (Jack or J.A. for short) for his permission to repost this insightful commentary of Church closings. Jack’s blog, “Another Voice” can be viewed here.

Well equipped with both a PhD and an STD (doctorate of sacred theology) J.A. Dick is a Church historian and long time Vatican observer and reform activist.


“When the church closes shop, it loses more than just an old building” — J.A. Dick

imagesAcross the United States, the Roman Catholic Church is closing churches. In some cases appeals to the Vatican have resulted in the re-opening of the closed churches; but the trend is well-established and growing.

The big dioceses of course always get the headlines. I first started paying closer attention to the trend in the spring of 2004, when Boston’s Archbishop (he became Cardinal in 2006) Seán Patrick O’Malley announced, in what may be the largest loss of parishes by an American Catholic diocese at one time, that 65 of the archdiocese’s 357 parishes would close by the end of the year. Philadelphia made headlines in the spring of 2014 when the Archdiocese announced that 46 churches would be closed.

And now this summer, thousands of Catholics in the Archdiocese of New York are attending final liturgies in parishes Cardinal Timothy Dolan has set to close. The Archdiocese announced that 112 parishes will be merged into 55 larger new parishes. In 31 of those new parishes, one of the churches will no longer be used for regular services, meaning those churches will be effectively closed by August. East Harlem, home to successive waves of Catholic immigrants for generations, is among the most affected neighborhoods. Three of its seven Catholic churches will be closed.

The reasons usually given for church closings are “demographic changes” and “the growing shortage of priests.”

“Demographic changes,” of course, can mean a lot of things: parishes with older people, who cannot afford building maintenance; parishes with mostly low-income ethnic groups who cannot afford the costs of church upkeep; people moving from inner cities to the suburbs; and of course the growing number of people simply dropping out of the Roman Catholic Church. Finances are a big issue, often included under “demographic changes.” In New York City, Cardinal Dolan has to pay for the “restoration” or renovation of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. When announced in 2012, the restoration was projected to cost roughly $175 million and is to be finished in December 2015. Some conservative and wealthy Catholics, turned off by the anti-capitalist rhetoric of Pope Francis, have warned Cardinal Dolan that they are re-considering their contributions. Looking at the list of New York Archdiocese churches to be closed, one sees that there are nine in Manhattan. If the Archdiocese could sell those properties, I suspect there would be fewer headaches about paying for the refurbishing of St. Patrick’s. Just a thought.

“The growing shortage of priests,” is a big problem for sure. It could be solved tomorrow, actually, if some courageous bishops would begin to ordain already qualified men as priests. (I would suggest women as well, but our US bishops are not ready for that step. Some might be encouraged to ordain women deacons however.) Another solution of course would be to move in the direction of “intentional Eucharistic communities” in which non-ordained people preside at Eucharist. (My old professor at the University of Nijmegen, the Belgian “Dutch theologian” Edward Schillebeeckx, often said “there is no reason for a community to be without Eucharist.”)

Consolidating parishes is part of the trend. Some observers suggest that the Roman Catholic Church in the United States is moving toward a parochial model of super-sized parishes, along the lines of the mega-churches. As symbolic of the change they point to the Diocese of Orange California, which purchased Robert H. Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral, now said to be able to accommodate 5,000 people, to be the new cathedral for the Diocese of Orange.

So what is happening in this parochial reconfiguration of the US Roman Catholic Church? Is a bigger parish necessarily better? To me the clarifying issue is understanding the church as a community of faith.

The church as a community of faith is not like a chain of supermarkets, where people come in, put their money in the box, get their religious product from an increasingly anonymous person, and stand in line to get communion — and then head home.

A vibrant – graced-filled and life-giving – church is like a neighborhood store, where people know each other, share concerns, and get not just a product but service with a knowing smile. Christian ministry.

It struck me as pastorally poignant (and pastorally irresponsible) that at least two of the churches being closed in the Archdiocese of New York are prime examples of what the church should be as a community of faith: the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Agony.

The Church of the Nativity, in New York City’s East Village, is a simple cinder block and brick building. Its parishioners are immigrants, working families, young professionals, poor people, and homeless people, who are welcomed inside the church for refuge. All parishioners consider it their spiritual home.

A hundred blocks, or so, north of Nativity, in a poor and mostly Hispanic neighborhood, one finds the Church of the Holy Agony. It ministers to East Harlem’s Roman Catholic, mainly Puerto Rican, community. This church is packed every Sunday.

Both the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Agony have similar histories. They were established in the 1950’s and 1960’s to serve immigrant or non-English-speaking communities with money raised by their congregations not New York’s Archdiocese. Nativity has seen its numbers diminish a bit as the East Village gentrifies, while Holy Agony’s pews are filled for Eucharist every Sunday.

What I find most surprising – and most baffling – is that both of these Archdiocese of New York churches are active faith communities and financially solvent. They are still paying their own way and have little or no debt.

They may be very well-organized institutions; but supermarket churches leave me cold. We already live in an increasingly too impersonal world. I really prefer the smaller local neighborhood communities. They are personal and intimate. They have qualified leaders – whether ordained or lay – and they have a truly face-to-face pastoral presence. Aren’t they really more Christ-like?

When the church closes shop, it loses more than just an old building.

Sr. Diana Culbertson Reviews: The Catholic Labyrinth

the catholic labyrinthCatholics interested in Church reform should know this book.  Be warned: it is not an easy read.  But it is a point of view that should be considered by all those who love the Church and want it to be more inclusive, more tolerant, more competently administered, and holier.  The author is not a theologian, ecclesiologist, or historian, but his competence as a social scientist gives him credibility as an analyst of  the social structure  of the Catholic Church and its limitations. He focuses not on the hierarchy or doctrine, but on efforts to manage  efficiently the  vast  human and financial resources of the Church.  Thus first consideration is given to SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests).  As the author points out, SNAP’s stand is adversarial. (“The assumption is that the institutional Church is beyond fixing.”) Its focus on vindication and compensation for survivors  has been largely successful  even as it continues to keep up the pressure against administrative forces who –in retrospect—should have known better.  It cannot be considered a reform group interested in the Church as Church.  Its members and supporters are largely outside the Church, but the intensity of its efforts has instigated massive change in diocesan administration, personnel, and ethical oversight.

More benevolent in its efforts to reform financial administrative structure is the Leadership Roundtable.  It was the “managerial bungling” in the sexual abuse crisis that led influential civic leaders, entrepreneurs, and bishops to found an advisory group to address what they saw as managerial incompetence in the Church—or at least the American Church.  As the author points out, the word “reform” is nowhere to be found on their website, nor is theological “bickering” tolerated.  This advisory group simply wants to focus on the needs of diocesan and parish life, offering solutions for practical issues, but nothing that touches on doctrine (such as female deacons to relieve the priest shortage). The segmentation of institutional Catholicism makes their work difficult, and political will is weak.  The work of the Roundtable is hampered by the problem of who controls change and who benefits from it.

Chris Schenk and FutureChurch get good press in this book. The “selling point” is the causal connection between the shortage of priests and parish closings. FutureChurch has been “ahead of the curve,” the author argues, in challenging the hierarchy to get serious about the impending crisis in the Church.  “The clarity of FutureChurch’s program, the organization’s feel for political timing, and its mix of ambivalence and determination are rare qualities.”  The reforms agitated by FutureChurch would alleviate the current “logistical nightmares and the hemorrrhaging disappointment with leadership created by the shortage of priests.”  The question is whether being on the right side of history is enough.

Equally thorough is the author’s analysis of Voice of the Faithful.  When The Boston Globe broke the story of the sexual abuse crisis in the Boston archdiocese and the attempted cover up and misuse of money, 4000 Catholics   swarmed to the Hynes Convention Center to voice their protests.  Cardinal Law was forced to resign. VOTF was born. As McDonough argues, people wanted to express themselves, but that did not mean that they were heard. VOTF was banned in Boston. Part of the problem of VOTF, as the author argues, was the difficulty of bringing coherence to the mission. It eventually became an omnibus movement whose operative model is that of a “loyal opposition” group with no overtly  doctrinal disagreement with the Church.  According to the author, the weakness of VOTF is the lack of tangible objectives and the “local nature of parish life.”  Everyone agrees with the need for reform, but can a mass movement (such as VOTF) advance the kind of specific changes that are necessary ? Voice of the Faithful raises significant questions, but actionable agenda items are less clear—and thus success, however defined, is less measurable.

McDonough points out in this study of power and politics in the American Church that conservative  groups such as the Knights of Columbus, Opus Dei, and the Catholic League have deep financial pockets and thus extensive influence in the Church, influence that extends  beyond in-house politics.  How far that influence goes is difficult to determine, but a look at the chart provided by the author reveals how impoverished are the resources of Call to Action, VOTF and FutureChurch compared to the extensive financial resources of more powerful groups.  “The organizational arena of church politics does not encircle a level playing field,” says McDonough, “the tilt is toward the right.”  That observation alone should give us pause, but adversity—financial or otherwise—does not deprive us of hope.