Catholics 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.