While the sexual abuse crisis continues to unfold within the Catholic Church, a trend toward greater activism and independence among the laity — whether conservative and liberal — is already visible.
Polls taken during the crisis show that American Catholics’ faith in basic church teachings have not changed drastically since the scandals have come to light. The change, though still largely anecdotal, is more evident in laypeoples’ views on the importance of accountability and openness in the church hierarchy. The New York Times (April 28) reports that U.S. Catholics see the crisis as a turning point for change in the church. The prescriptions for change vary, but among those interviewed for the article there is the common demand for laity to confront the hierarchy to become more accountable.
The call to accountability is dovetailing with a new drive to open the church toward more democratization by liberal reform groups, such as Call to Action and Corpus, a group pushing for married priests. The Christian Science Monitor (April 4) points out that these demands are not only coming from the usual liberal activists, but also from those speaking out on the issue for the first time. Jim Mueller, leader of the new group Voice of the Faithful, says, “We are completely mainstream Catholics– we are almost all new at this.”
While conservative spokesmen, such as the pope’s biographer George Weigel, charge that liberals are attempting to take advantage of the crisis for their own ideological purposes, it is also clear that conservatives are taking a more critical stance toward the hierarchy. In the conservative Catholic magazine Crisis (April), writer Ralph McInerny blames the bishops for permitting a permissive culture to flourish in church institutions that bred clergy sexual abuse. McInerny hails the strict approach of several Midwestern bishops and ventures that “Perhaps in the future, missionaries will be sent out from Lincoln and Omaha and Denver and Lacrosse to evangelize the lost sheep in our coastal cities.”
The conservative newsletter Catholic Eye (March 28) goes even further, seeking to override the U.S. hierarchy altogether (much of the same conservative hierarchy the pope hand-picked and which the right has applauded). The newsletter editorializes that “We are ashamed, mortified by the hierarchy’s complicity in child sexual abuse. But we needn’t be afraid of scandal. The traditional American hierarchical structure is but one road to Rome . . . new movements like the Legionaries of Christ and Opus Dei are nourishing scores of disenfranchised, orthodox-minded souls.
Lesser known groups like Focolare, Communione e Liberazione, and the Neo-Catechmens are putting down U.S. roots. This is a globalism provincial Catholic elites have yet to discover.”
(Crisis, 1814 1/2 N Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20036; Catholic Eye, 215 Lexington Ave., New York, NY 10016)