Highlights from Bishop Robert McElroy’s 2019 MacTaggart lecture:
It is my reluctant conclusion that the church in the United States is now adrift on many levels, and that a fundamental moment of renewal is needed. A synodal pathway would an opportunity to set that type of renewal in motion.
If the church in the United States were to embark on such a synodal renewal, it would need to make hard choices. The Catholic community could not hold back from difficult and piercing questions or searing dialogues. It would have to include a process of consultation that reaches into the heart and the soul of the Catholic community at all levels, asking men and women how they have found salvation in Jesus Christ, what graces the church has brought into their lives, how the church has hurt them….
Two major elements of the culture of the church in the United States are particularly burdensome today, and cause us to turn inward, rather than outward toward the evangelization of the world.
The first is the bunker mentality that suffuses the life of the church, especially for those of us who are bishops or Catholic lay, priestly, and religious leaders in the United States. We are frequently paralyzed by the constancy and substance of attacks launched upon the community of faith which we love so deeply and to which we have given our lives. In great part, this bunker mentality has arisen because of the pervasive failure of the church and its leaders to recognize the enormity of the crime of clergy sexual abuse, particularly against minors. But this bunker mentality within the church is also the result of secularizing trends in society that have led to drift and alienation from the church, especially among the young, as well as the disaffection of mainstream Catholics from elements of Catholic teaching on sexuality and the moral life. There is a palpable sense of siege among the leadership of the church in the United States. It saps our ability to engage constructively with the world, to find the energy and the hope-filled zeal to undertake new initiatives and our ability to clearly discern where the call of Christ is truly leading us.
The second element of the culture in the church in the United States which is crippling is the “culture of maintenance” that pervades our decision making. We are the inheritors of vast institutions, structures, buildings and financial commitments that were established in a prior age. We are also the inheritors of patterns of decision making that place enormous value on how decisions were made in the past as a guide as to how they should be made today. These two realities create in the church a powerful force of inertia that often makes maintaining the status quo a higher imperative than constantly renewing the priorities of the church in the light of the Gospel as applied to today’s ecclesial and societal situation….
Missionary discipleship by its very nature faces outward and refuses to become entrapped by long-standing patterns of ecclesial action and decision making. It demands a willingness to leave behind treasured practices that have served the church well in past ages, but now imprison the Gospel. It proclaims that believers and church leaders must find joy in their understanding of and commitment to the spread of the salvation that we find in Jesus Christ. The ethic of missionary discipleship refuses to adopt a bunker mentality not because it is blind to the failures of the church or the antagonism that so many have toward Catholicism in today’s world, but because it proclaims that precisely in times of hardship and sin in the life of the church, God stands steadfast in our midst.
Missionary discipleship also categorically rejects that strain of defeatism in the life of the church which proclaims that the Catholic community today must decline in numbers in order to maintain fidelity to the gospel. This vision of a smaller and purer church is diametrically opposed to the missionary impulse which has been at the center of the Christian life since the first apostles….
The issue of clericalism stands as a rupture within the life of the church in the United States today. It is a poison that protects abusers of children from detection and justice. It is a cultural pattern in parish life that permits the mistreatment of lay men and women and excuses words and actions that have no place within a Christian community. It distorts effective patterns of decision making in ecclesial communities at all levels. It warps the souls of priests and bishops, and alienates them from Christ.
The only effective corrective to clericalism is a theological vision and ecclesial reality that powerfully frame the ordained priesthood within a participatory and co-responsible church where lay women and men are empowered, respected, well-formed and cherished. For this reason, any process of synodal discernment in the church in the United States must confront forcefully the avenues through which lay ministry and empowerment are enhanced in the concrete life of the church, and how they are frustrated….
The call of God to a priest or bishop is not a possession, a source of a collection of rights, or a bestowal of status. It is a call to service, prayer and compassion…..
If the church in the United States were to undertake a robust and piercing synodal process regarding our efforts to become a participative and co-responsible church, two major issues would have to be dealt with creatively, substantively and prayerfully.
The first of these issues is the role of women in the church. It is time that the Catholic community had a substantive discussion on how the church in the United States can maximize the co-responsibility and participation of women The process of discernment which led to the Amazon synod created a profound consensus about the essential role of women’s existing and potential ministries, both in the church and in the world. It led to a conviction among the Amazonian bishops who gathered in Rome that women should be included at every level in every ministry which is not precluded by Catholic doctrine.
The second question within the Catholic community that must be a focus of any synodal process touching upon the themes of participation and co-responsibility is the role of young adults in the church and in the world. The recent universal synod in Rome has provided new pathways for us to embrace at every level in the church in the United States. If we do not take up this challenge inspirationally and systematically in the life of the American church, we will see the drift away from Catholicism cascade into the type of exodus that has emptied the churches of Europe and produced a generation of non-believers….
Instead of showing the patient dialogue of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well, instead of showing the joy which Christ did in his encounter with Zacchaeus, instead of rejecting the judgmentalism of the crowd like Jesus in defending the woman accused of adultery, the church so frequently is indifferent to those who are seeking, inhospitable to those who want to find a place in God’s church, judgmental to those who carry failure in their lives as all of us do.
If we are to build a more welcoming church in the United States, the searing issue of judgmentalism must be faced. There is no sin that Jesus condemns in the gospels more often than that of judgmentalism. Probably, this results from Jesus’ recognition that this is a sin that virtually all of us fall into easily and frequently. It is a mystery of the human soul why men so often find satisfaction in pointing to the sins, rather than the goodness in others. It is a mystery of the human soul why we feel better about ourselves because someone else has failed.
But this mystery of the human soul has imprinted itself deeply within the life of our church….
The great danger is that our ecclesial life is becoming like our political life — polarized, distorted and tribal. That is why a deep and broad process of synodal dialogue within the Catholic community in the United States could empower an alternative pathway forward.