What I am about to tell you is something you’ve never seen in the Catholic Church. If you have seen anything like this, contact me. I’d like to learn more.
In September, I twice saw members of the lay faithful accompany two victims of priestly sexual misconduct into a bishop’s office and help these victims present their story of abuse. I saw the bishop remove two guilty priests from active service. When they learned of it, some Catholics responded with gratitude and relief. Others were upset that their favorite priest had been outed. For many Catholics, a priest’s popularity and the convenience of a Mass schedule trumps concern for a holy priesthood.
What I didn’t see were lawsuits or exposés in the secular press. I didn’t see sheriffs raiding the chancery or ugly protests at Mass. I caught a glimpse of Christ’s Church acting like the Body of Christ with brothers confronting brothers in love and hope. I saw mature laity identifying corrupt clergy and exhorting a mature bishop.
Co-responsibility of the lay faithful
I must stress, however that bishops did not initiate this investigation, discovery, or confrontation. The lay faithful took co-responsibility for Christ’s Church according to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. The Church is too important to leave to priests and bishops alone. In over20 different passages, St. Paul commands us to love, pray, honor, forgive, encourage, exhort, and admonish one another. Bear one another’s burdens. Laity don’t need canonical authority to hold bishops accountable. Their authority is rooted in something more foundational than canon law. They call upon the moral law, basic human decency. We cannot cooperate with evil. We must expose the hidden things of darkness. By virtue of their baptism, they are obligated to admonish, exhort, and encourage one another and that includes bishops and priests.
The clergy scandal has a silver lining: forcing the lay faithful to exercise co-responsibility for the Church. Laity, of course, won’t vote on revealed dogma. They won’t confect the sacraments. They will insist that our Church be governed by the best HR practices from our flourishing businesses. Sexual harassment is intolerable at any level. Healthy churches, like healthy families, don’t hide, minimize, or deny abuse. Because St. Paul’s vision of the Church drives this new laity, they have stopped murmuring and commiserating with Catholic buddies about the darkness. They have turned on the moral spotlight to properly confront, challenge, and exhort our clergy. Learn more at nomorevictimsmi.org.
Why is it novel for the Church to act like the Church?
Archbishop Fulton Sheen, while reviewing crises among the clergy, allegedly wrote in 1972: “Who is going to save our Church? Not our bishops, not our priests and religious. It is up to you, the people. You have the minds, the eyes, the ears to save the Church. Your mission is to see that your priests act like priests, your bishops, like bishops, and your religious act like religious.”
Right now the world sees bishops whose moral authority is on par with Bill Cosby. I know some outstanding converts who would not have come into full communion under these present circumstances. The world deserves to witness a morally and spiritually fierce laity unwilling to compromise the Gospel. We don’t need a club for religious cronies and pious pretenders. We need and are seeing a new movement of Spirit-led communicants striving to give the world a glimpse of Christ’s Kingdom. In September, I briefly witnessed Jesus governing his Church through all its members. The Church was acting like the Church. It shouldn’t be such a novel idea.
AL KRESTA is president and chief executive officer, Ave Maria Communications, and host of Ave Maria Radio’s longtime popular show, “Kresta in the Afternoon,” heard on the EWTN Global Catholic Radio Network.