By George Wilson, SJ, | United States, in La Croix Catholic Daily
Read almost any article over recent years concerning statistics on Church membership and participation, and you’re sure to be told that the largest number of people fall into the category of “nones”.
They are people who have given up their prior affiliation with any Church denomination. And among them the largest number are “former Catholics”.
This bracing fact elicits great gobs of hand-wringing, as well it should. They are then often followed by lofty theories aimed at explaining the phenomenon. The sexual abuse of children by priests is the most obvious and is surely a powerful factor. That is followed by supposedly misguided understanding of what the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was really all about; long-winded attacks on never-defined Modernism or Americanism; mushy guitar Masses; etc., etc.
Such efforts may contain elements of truth. No era of the Church’s sinful story should go without attempts at understanding.
“Since culture is a human creation and is therefore marked by sin, it too needs to be ‘healed, ennobled and perfected’,” John Paul II reminded us.
He surely included different eras of Church culture as well. We are all pilgrims still on the way.
The role of pastoral experience
I am not qualified to offer a scientific assessment of the causes that might explain the emergence of the nones. My intent is, rather, to lift up evidence that might be overlooked because it is anecdotal.
My years of experience as a Church consultant indicate that, in spite of all the theorizing, we could be overlooking a far more likely explanation for the rise of many of the nones: the actual pastoral experience of the faithful in the pews.
The departure of the nones might be better explained by the way they are ministered to by all too many contemporary clerics.
Self-important clerics are quite effective none-makers. To name them as such in no way detracts from the caring service of most of our priests; it only highlights it.
Random conversations with friends and fellow priests over the years illustrate the issue and put flesh on these deliberately provocative words. In each case the names of both the parishes and the offending clerics have been deleted, more in order to protect parishioners from retaliation than to shield the perpetrator.
Example A: The new pastor at “St. Esmeralda”
People at the St. Esmeralda were recently shocked to hear of the sudden death of a cherished fellow parishioner at age 49. At her funeral the church was as full as Covid restrictions allowed. The recently appointed young pastor began the distribution of Communion with these words: “If you are not a Catholic you are asked to remain in your seat.”
With any pastoral sense of the situation he might have simply said nothing. He was addressing guests, after all; people practicing one of the most sacred spiritual works of mercy.
Then, as if that were not enough, he went on to say, “And if you are a Catholic who has not received the sacrament of Reconciliation in the past year, you are requested to do the same. . . .”
The woman who told me of this experience has raised five children in the faith and worked on parish projects for over 25 years. She was, quite appropriately, furious. She was tempted to walk out but, like everyone else in the Church, long years of faithful practice were too powerful.
Example B: The anti-birth control zealot
At another parish in another unnamed diocese the young pastor begins the Sunday liturgy by shouting at the congregation, “Anyone in this church this morning who is practicing birth control, GET OUT! You are going directly to Hell!
“The only thing that could account for the congregation not walking out and becoming nones is their deep faith in a Jesus the poor cleric has apparently never met.
These examples are admittedly extreme. But that should not be an excuse for ignoring their existence.
On a less heart-thumping level, it is quite common for many of the faithful to watch helplessly as their spiritually healthy parish, built by the hard work of caring pastors, was destroyed within months by a self-important autocrat. And YouTube surfers can easily find Savonarolas whose bitter harangues hardly reflect the joy of the risen Jesus.
A final story will surely resonate with all too many parents doing their best to help their growing sons and daughter to appreciate the joy of sharing in the life of their Church.
The “Sullivans” were delighted that their son Tom, home on spring break from college, chose to join them for Sunday liturgy. It was Easter Sunday and the school hall was packed. The new young curate proceeds to preach, not on the most joyous event in the Church’s story, but—on the dangers of reading The DaVinci Code…Tom leans over to his dad and says, “That does it, Dad.”
A systemic failure
Such stories, besides evoking anger, give rise to the question in my title: “Who is minding the store?”
Is anybody? How can such pastoral malfeasance—for it is nothing less than that—be allowed to continue?
One answer comes from a fine pastor and personal friend. We were having breakfast in his rectory after a mid-week liturgy, sharing priest tales. He told me his own vocation story.
“Harry” had completed law school and was in practice. He even reached the point of running for public office in his state (he was defeated). All along he had been wrestling with a call to the priesthood.
He finally entered the seminary and was ordained. At the time of our conversation he was pastor of a burgeoning city parish as well as one of his bishop’s top advisors.
“In light of my professional experience I was shocked to discover that as a priest I had no accountability to anyone. As pastor I could do just about anything I wanted to. I was answerable to no one! “he told me.”
As a lawyer or doctor—or truck-driver, plumber, or cashier in a convenience store, for that matter—such a thing was unimaginable,” Harry continued.
Who’s minding the store, indeed?
There is much pious vocational literature highlighting the lofty position of the priesthood as one of the Church’s greatest treasures. Laudable enough. But if what the laity experience is not priestly sensitivity that supports their faith but autocratic clericalism, the increase in the numbers of nones becomes ever more understandable.
Not a haphazard phenomenon
We have always had instances of autocratic pastors, of course. In pre-Vatican II times it was not uncommon for the laity to be subjected to the whims of a pastor entrenched there for decades and decades. What is different today is that such behavior is not happenstance. It is being systematically cultivated, to the point of having its own name: the “reform of the reform.”
We hear disturbing reports of bishops, even cardinals, openly calling for Pope Francis to be removed. Less evident are local bishops who quietly but actively support seminary professors who teach their students that Vatican II was not a movement inspired by the Holy Spirit but a mistake that must be corrected—or, worse, a diabolical plot to destroy the Church.
Beyond diagnosis: help from history
This is a painful story. It would be easy to walk away, as many have done. Or to stay, crouched in fear for the future. The Good News of the risen Jesus calls for bold challenge to these distortions of his message of hope and joy.
But by whom? Conferences of bishops tend to be silent about such matters.
That leaves a small number of brave pastoral bishops and pastors quietly swimming against the tide—and parishioners ready to be called out of their slumber to claim the authority of their baptism and speak truth to power.
It is not enough to expect Pope Francis to carry the whole burden through successive appointments of leaders who will support his vision.
The synodality he fervently promotes will not take flesh until the faithful call for the establishment of effective pastoral councils at all levels of church life.
Accountability for autocratic pastoring won’t happen until the actual experience of the faithful finds a hearing before ministry boards made up of clergy and lay members who are empowered to celebrate the performance of sensitive pastors attuned to the journey of their people—and call to account the autocrats.
One would think that the quality of performance by their priests would be one of the highest priorities for bishops…
George Wilson is a Jesuit priest and retired ecclesiologist who lives in Baltimore. He is the author of Clericalism: The Death of Priesthood (Liturgical Press, 2008).