Institutions, as a rule, are not good at self-critique and renewal.
Some, like Bell Labs in its day — or like Apple today — have a keen ability to change human society through an insightful application of technology. Think of the power of the iPhone, which has transformed not just telecommunications, but also how we get around (Uber and Lyft), how we manage money (Venmo, mobile banking) and how we shop (Amazon Prime).
Yet when bureaucracies begin to congeal around these groundbreaking developments, real transformation becomes very difficult. And, in fact, the institutional structures often militate against it.
The church — the mystical body of Christ, the sacrament of salvation in the world — is an entirely unique institution, but, as Cardinal Avery Dulles once described so well, it is an institution nonetheless. On the one hand, many negative qualities of purely human institutions have a home in the church: mediocrity, lack of vision, petty gossip, misuse of resources, even outright scandal. On the other hand, we know that the ugliness that often plagues the church does not define her. We know that the Holy Spirit in every age leads the church to greater holiness and conversion.
Many look at the church’s sins in bold print on the front page and rightly demand change and accountability. Some do this out of an animus toward the church, but many — even many who are not Christians — are speaking simply out of a sense of justice.
Yet a brief glance at history will show that these institutional failures (or, let’s call them what they are: sins) are nothing new. Stubbornness, lack of fortitude, even outright apostasy have been present since the time of the Apostles. Even the public nature of these failures has precedent: condemnation of priests who abuse the young go back at least to Basil the Great in the fourth century. Critiques of priests who did not know Scripture or dogma gave the Protestant reformers great credibility and precipitated many of the reforms of the Council of Trent.
And just as scandal and (nearly as destructive) institutional mediocrity are nothing new, neither is the response. Some simply walk away, out of anger or simply because they are bored to tears. They find something else to do on Sunday: they golf or do Pilates or walk the dog. They didn’t realize that when Jesus talked about the weeds that choke the word, he was talking about those outside the church as well as fellow believers.
Some place the blame squarely on Catholic teaching. A recent Philadelphia Inquirer editorial blamed an all-male priesthood and the discipline of priestly celibacy for the sexual abuse of minors, and called on Pope Francis to change these things. I don’t claim to have all the answers to our current crisis, but I feel confident in saying that abandoning the express will of Christ (all-male priesthood) and a way of life he explicitly commended (celibacy) would not do much good for anyone.
But there is good news (I promise)! It’s that the church is not merely a human institution. It is a divine one with human members. As such, in the midst of every period of crisis — including, without question, this one — the Holy Spirit stirs up new outpourings of faith, hope, and charity to refresh the church.
We see it in L’Arche communities, founded by the recently departed Jean Vanier. It is present in the faith of Millennials entering priesthood and religious life, and starting families whose commitment to the faith is strong, even though relatively few of their peers share the faith.
The Spirit is working on college campuses in groups like FOCUS and St. Paul’s Ministries. The Spirit is raising up a new interest in monastic life, and reinvigorating the “old” reform movements like the Franciscans and the Dominicans. And of course, we should not ignore for a second the many good and decent priests, religious, and laity who have endured much turmoil in the past fifty years. As one priest ordained in 1962 recently told me, they’ve been “riding the rapids” for a long time now.
What should be noted about many of these hopeful developments is that they have their origin outside the formal structures of the church. It has always been that way: Benedict, Francis, Dominic and Ignatius were figures whose mission did not fit into neat categories. It took bishops and popes time to fully discern the charisms of these individuals.
Perhaps this is what Pope Francis means by bidding us “go out to the peripheries.” The peripheries are not just the place where the poor and suffering live. They aren’t simply an image for those in irregular situations. They are certainly that, and we need to go there.
But the peripheries are also the place where the Spirit has free reign. From the peripheries come movements and charisms which, while not anti-institutional, are capable of renewing the church’s traditional structures, precisely because they are born outside of them. Already, and even more in the coming years, people marked by contact with some of these sources of renewal will take up positions of leadership in parishes, dioceses and religious communities.
What it will look like is still unclear. But this much seems clear: amid the confusion and even embarrassment we are experiencing now, there is a new outpouring of the Spirit taking place which will restore the beauty of the church’s face.
Of course, the Spirit is symbolized by fire, and fire can be painful even as it purifies. So many institutions locally and beyond which served us well in the past will have to be abandoned or radically changed. Old ways of thinking and acting must be transformed.
But if we cooperate with where the Spirit is leading us, we will see a new springtime for the church, more fully equipped to make Christ, the light of the nations, present in our world today.
Father Eric J. Banecker is parochial vicar at St. Pius X Parish in Broomall.
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