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‘Seismic shift’ leads to the local parish

There’s talk of a “seismic shift” in the U.S. Catholic church provoked by the sex abuse crisis. In some discussions -- and hopes -- the post-Dallas direction is seen as leading to a greater “openness,” though without much clarity on what that might mean or how it is to be achieved.

The church in this country is more complex than these generalities allow.

On the sex abuse issue, as in other matters, there is no “one” American Catholic church.

For Catholics in those fortunate dioceses untouched by sexual scandal, the matter does not press as hard as on those in cities plagued by constant headlines.

Rather than suggest a detectable seismic shift, a shift that moves power around, there is at best in Catholic circles the realization that we are being freshly “sensitized.” There’s a new awareness to how weak and strong the church is.

Look at it this way: In those parishes where an openness already exists between priests and people, the parish discussion over the prevailing disgust alters the priest-people relationship -- toward an even greater mutual trust.

In those parishes where little is ever discussed, the people are left with their disgust. Their confidence has been eroded.

The news story on Page 7 tells of a California parish that sent its regional bishop to Dallas with the parishioners’ own summary of their feelings. The point here is less what they said than, having said it, they can move on as Catholics to grapple with life with a greater maturity and feeling for the burdens both priest and laity carry in a church where the leadership has failed them.

One pastor, not at this parish, said the sex abuse scandal has “huge implications in that the ethics, mores and structure of the church will be dictated by the local church [the parish]” in ways the leadership fails to realize.

He suggests, and we tend to agree, that in faith communities where there is open discussion there’s “a redefinition of ecclesiology underway.” The redefinition accelerates the tendency toward Catholic congregationalism, a congregationalism the leadership is unable to prevent and would be wise to let be. Let be, that is, until the matrix can be seen more clearly in its implications.

This pastor spelled out the congregationalism. “If you have a local church that wants to be visionary, wants to be cutting edge or do things ecumenically, you can have that. If you want one that is more traditional, that can work. If you have a local church that is open to gay people, then that is something that can happen.” Three models of church, three different styles of congregation, in three parishes in close proximity.

This is not the moment to examine how all this is, or is not, now linked to the center. Here the local picture, not the frame, is the focus.

And there’s more to reveal the picture in its entirety. There are differences in response according to region and ethnicity. In Southern California, for example, several Latino parishes and organizations have erupted in spontaneous public displays, parades and processions affirming their trust in their church and faith.

These were not events orchestrated from the top.

Jesuit Fr. Alan Figueroa Deck of the Loyola Institute for Spirituality in Orange, Calif., commented, “The Hispanic culture is perhaps more anchored in earthly reality. Mediterranean peoples separate the ideal from the reality -- there’s always a gap between the two, and they can live with that ambiguity. Northern Europeans have a harder time with gray.”

The downside, Deck cautions, is that while the Mediterranean culture is more likely to be forgiving, it is also slower to acknowledge some of the problems.

The Encino, Calif., pastor who encouraged his parishioners to air their views at five parish meetings sees the situation as “tough for everybody. Through a thorough mishandling, the leadership lobbed a nice soft pitch over the press’s plate. And the secular press is hitting a home run with it. That’s their job. But it’s hard to open up the paper every day. And the people are not hearing what to them sounds like an honest response,” he said, “or the responsible response they’re hoping for.”

The implication of what he says is that in those parishes where the people are hearing an honest and responsible response from their pastor, community is being built. And when community is evident, more people needing it flock in.

The days of parish boundaries have long since been eroded. The loyalties of the young have been lost. Direct ties of loyalty to the hierarchy and Rome have been severed.

The parish is what remains.

The lay people involved in the open parishes realize it and will, as Deck said, be delighted “to roll up their sleeves and work more intelligently to create a church where there is great transparency.”

There’s a shift, certainly. Seismic and local.

National Catholic Reporter, June 21, 2002