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.


jubileeofmercyPope Francis has declared the 2015-2016 liturgical year the Jubilee Year of Mercy in hopes of renewing the Church’s efforts of highlighting God’s infinite mercy. Here at FutureChurch we welcome a Year of Mercy and pray that the Church will be infused with God’s mercy at every level.

Materials are being released in advance of the December start and we’ve noticed one major problem with the prayer for the year: the reputation of Mary of Magdala, which we’ve worked so hard to restore, is being smeared yet again. The prayer, which you can view in its entirety here, reads in part: “Your loving gaze freed Zacchaeus and Matthew from being enslaved by money; the adulteress and Magdalene from seeking happiness only in created things (our emphasis); made Peter weep after his betrayal, and assured Paradise to the repentant thief.”

Now, FutureChurch has absolutely no problem recognizing the human faults and failings of our saints — in fact we can all draw personal strength and inspiration from recognizing that the saints who came before us weren’t perfect. But we do have a problem when those “faults” are works of pure fiction.

By lumping Mary of Magdala in with “the adulteress,” the prayer asks us to recall the reputation of the composite Mary of Magdala, rather than the Magdalene of scripture and history. We’re asked to recall the tale we were told years ago — that Mary of Magdala was a prostitute — and forget what we’ve learned since then — that Mary of Magdala infact was one of Jesus’ most influential apostles and she was not a prostitute.

Unfortnately, this prayer will be seen, read, and said by millions over the course of the Jubilee of Mercy and taken at face value. Catholic publishers have already begun sending out prayer cards, it’s being posted on websites, and religious education directors are ordering materials. FutureChurch is dedicated to restoring the memory of the true, scriptural and historical Mary of Magdala and will do whatever we can to continue to correct the record. And we invite you to join us in this effort.

We will start using the hashtag #ReclaimMagdalene when we post to Facebook or Twitter, whenever we correct the record, publicize our materials on Mary of Magdala, or when we promote your Mary of Magdala Celebrations this July. And we ask you to do the same. By using the hashtag #ReclaimMagdalene, Facebook and Twitter users will be able to easily search posts that put forward an accurate picture of Mary of Magdala and connect them with other users who care as deeply about this early church leader as we do.

Check out our resources on Mary of Magdala and keep an eye on our blog, Facebook, and Twitter to find out more about how you can #ReclaimMagdalene and help undo the miseducation of millions this year.