I suppose it is just another paradox of life that to get anything done in this world one must obtain and exercise power. And as soon as you do, your path to corruption begins.
I have been thinking about this a lot in connection with our church. Boston, Philadelphia, Ireland — all places where the church had real temporal influence, where priests, bishops and archbishops were respected, honored and trusted. Local churches struggling in out-of-the-way places don’t seem to have fallen into the den of iniquity like these big influential archdioceses have. It’s possible that it is just not reported on, but I doubt it.
I would imagine that a pastor in 1970s Alabama didn’t enjoy the presumption of trustworthiness that a pastor in Ardmore, Pennsylvania enjoyed. As a result, this probably made our hypothetical priest a little tougher, a little more focused on the job. Maybe even a little holier? Who knows.
A work colleague recently traveled to Ireland and Scotland. In Ireland, the magnificent church was almost empty, and the only young people present were dragged there by parents. The priest lamented the lack of attendance by the next generation and frankly had no answers, and according to my colleague, seemed despondent.
In Scotland, the church was packed and vibrant. Catholicism has been a minority faith in Scotland for generations and cannot presume to command the allegiance of a majority of the citizens. Small, focused, holy communities — I have sensed it while attending church in South Carolina. These anecdotes reinforce a creeping sense that our church may have to shrink to holiness.
I am 57 years old. Pope John Paul II was elected while I was in high school. There was a man who obtained power and wielded it, but he didn’t seem ever to be corrupted by it. Perhaps his power was deeper and richer, a power based on the Word and not on the world. Maybe in Philadelphia, in Boston, and in other big American cities we got too close to power, too comfortable with worldly success.
I also think a lot about the responsibility that the laity have for this situation. It’s easy, and sometimes even appropriate, to express anger at the priests who acted in depraved ways and for leaders who failed to stop it or who enabled it. But what part did we play in the creation of a culture that would permit this to occur?
The laity were too deferential in many ways to the clergy and to the institutional church. We sent our children to Catholic schools, we went to Mass and thought our duty ended there. We failed to demand accountability.
I am afraid our lack of paying attention has created other problems that are yet to be revealed. I can’t begin to imagine the scale of financial malfeasance. When a body is sick and corrupt in one part it generally affects other parts. Too much cash flowing through the system, like too much rich food flowing through the body, tends to make the body sluggish and susceptible to a continuing need to be fed in such a manner.
What this all means for bishops I do not know. I do know we need holy men more than ever. Archbishop Charles Chaput will no doubt be required to guide the Archdiocese of Philadelphia through some rough water; all options for shepherding this unwieldy structure are to be considered, I suppose.
It would have been easier to be archbishop during good times, when the church was growing and the bad news wasn’t ever-present. Easier, but not more ennobling.
I can’t really explain why I write this letter, but I feel a need to respond somehow. Anything that distracts Catholics and potential Catholics from the message is a problem. We have 2,000 years of the richest intellectual and spiritual wealth, and we have to preserve and propagate it. It may be presumptuous of me to write these thoughts, but I don’t know what else to do.
Thomas A. Kennedy is a member of St. Monica Parish, Berwyn.
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