National Catholic Reporter, Editor-at-Large, Tom Roberts, has just had a new book published looking at the future of the Catholic Church. Catholica's co-publisher, Amanda (Milly) McKenna, has read the book and wonders whether Tom is too optimistic, or if time has caught up with him and morale has suddenly dramatically declined since he wrote the book in 2009, or perhaps Americans generally are more optimistic than Catholics elsewhere in the world?
Let no one feel like a motherless child...
I have to say at the outset that I have been engrossed in this book. It's a collection of interviews and stories journalist Tom Roberts has gathered together originally for a series in National Catholic Reporter trying to fathom out what is happening to the Catholic Church at its grass roots level across the United States.
Tom Roberts is a long time observer of the Catholic Church in America and the world. As a journalist and editor-at-large of the National Catholic Reporter for some seventeen years and at the Religious News Service for ten years prior to that, Roberts has been in a unique position to observe the changes that have taken place in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council up to the present day.
In "The Emerging Catholic Church: A Community's Search For Itself", Roberts takes a look at everything from the wider issues of the clerical sexual abuse scandals and how they developed, to the changing demographics of the American church and the stories of those parishes and communities on the margins who continue to cater to, and inspire, their people.
It is clear that the way parishes have operated in the past can no longer continue and in this book Tom Roberts explores both the reasons why things have changed so dramatically and the creative and imaginative ways parishes are now addressing the problems.
"The big picture, simply put, and as we all now understand it," says Roberts in his introduction, "is that the church during the past half century has changed forever and irrevocably."
"What this book aspires to show is that U.S. Catholics of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries are living through a time of tension set up by myriad forces, not least among them the dramatic reforms of Vatican II; deep shifts in demographics in the church and wider culture; the new cosmology and its effect on belief and church structure as articulated by a range of Catholic thinkers; the rise of women as a voice in the church; and the growing inadequacy of a hierarchical culture owing more to royal constructs of the period of kings and princes than it does to the teachings of the Suffering Servant."
From the story of an inspiring talk given by a dying Sr. Thea Bowman to an assembly of the US Bishops in his chapter "True Truths", and his chapters on the ever deepening sexual abuse crises and the clerical culture that enabled them, through to chapters examining the new cosmology and the search of authentic authority, Roberts has given us a snapshot of the church at a time of great challenge and great change.
Tom Roberts has a more optimistic view of the future of the Church than the one my husband and I, as publishers of Catholica, increasingly discern coming across in the media and the feedback we get around the world. In fact he ends his book by again quoting from Sr Thea who made her appearance back in the very first chapter. These end two paragraphs convey some of Tom's optimism:
Perhaps our future vision of heroic priests ought to take its cue from someone like Sr. Thea Bowman, a humble hero who holds a mirror up to our complexity. Sometimes we'll do things her way, sometimes ours. Thea, great granddaughter of a slave, who understands better than most the messy reality of sin and redemption, of being both out and in, who knows how porous religious borders can be, who can, even when dressing us down with a smile, convince us to cross arms and find a common song.
It might be though that morale seems seeping out of the Church at the moment in a catastrophic way — in the news in just the last 48 hours, a survey in Ireland shows that only 8% of those polled view the Church "very favourably" and "almost half say "they now have an unfavorable view of the church" [LINK: NCR article "Poll: Irish Catholics have unfavorable view of church"]. Today the Irish Government has announced it's withdrawing its Ambassador from the Vatican. And this from the Church which the late John Paul II described as the "most Catholic country in the world". It's only the latest of a continuing flow of negative stories for the Church from all over the world now. Are we a "happy family" anymore? Sadly many do feel like "motherless children" the way Holy Mother Church treats her children today. The impression we pick up is that "you're welcome in our church just so long as your share the perspectives of groups like Opus Dei or the Society of St Pius X". If you want to complain about the church's attitudes towards women, the institution's treatment of the majority who have left, or the abused it seems there is no place for us anymore — and definitely not place for those who were excited by all the ideas that emerged at the Second Vatican Council about what sort of an agency Catholicism is meant to be in the world..
The series from which this book was compiled was written for NCR beginning in 2009 and perhaps the outlook was still a lot more optimistic then than it is just a few years further down the track? An alternative reading is that perhaps Americans generally tend to be a bit more optimistic than the rest of us lay Catholics in other parts of the world?
An overview of the Chapter headings might provide a useful guide to you about the sort of territory Tom Roberts covers:
This is a highly readable book written in a way that the average person can understand, I would recommend reading Tom Roberts' "The Emerging Catholic Church: A Community's Search For Itself" to anyone interested in recent church history and the exploration of what lies ahead for twenty-first century Catholicism. The book has been published by Orbis Books. Unfortunately a Kindle edition doesn't seem to be available but the softcover edition is readily available from Amazon and Fishpond.
Amanda (Milly) McKenna 02 Nov 2011
What are your thoughts on this commentary?