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Spotlight Report

  Mary Jo Bane  

A challenge to lay Catholics


The crisis in the Archdiocese of Boston tragically illustrates the consequences of a culture of secrecy and deference in the church. It is time for lay Catholics who love the church to challenge that culture. We can do so by withholding our contributions to the archdiocese until the church becomes more open and participatory.

I have come to these conclusions, after prayer and reflection, as a Catholic and as a teacher of management and policy. I belong to a parish which I love and which I am privileged to serve as a lector, parish council member, and regular contributor.

The church, of course, is not just another organization. The great Vatican II document, "Lumen Gentium," described the church as a sacrament, as the People of God, and only then as an institution. Catholics believe that the church is God's gathered people, guided by the Holy Spirit -- a community in which God's saving work is accomplished and God's kingdom built. But the church is also a human institution, managed by humans with all their failings and all their susceptibility to corruptions of power and mistakes of judgment.

The recent disclosures about sexual assault and pedophilia by priests in the archdiocese show just how tragic those failings can be. Children have been damaged for life, the majority of good priests has been tainted by implication, and the confidence of all Catholics in their bishops has been shaken. It seems clear that a culture of secrecy and of excessive deference to clerical and episcopal privilege led some priests and bishops to protect the brotherhood at the expense of the people of God, and to make mistakes of judgment with terrible consequences. These specific mistakes are being addressed. But other mistakes are likely if the organization remains closed.

Tendencies toward centralization of power and control of information exist in all institutions managed by humans. But over time organizational structures have been created by which governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations curb some human failings before they can result in serious harm. Well-governed institutions ensure full disclosure of information, institutionalize checks and balances on the exercise of power, and establish independent boards to actively advise and participate in choosing the chief executive officer. These structures do not work perfectly, of course, as Enron illustrates, nor is any one of them an exact model for the church, but they surely represent an advance over our closed autocracy with its inherent flaws.

The Catholic Church needs open and genuinely participatory structures to deal with a full range of issues. And the church as the People of God ought to trust that the Holy Spirit can and will work in the community collectively, guiding the church through the discernment and deliberation of lay men and women as well as clergy.

Lay Catholics in the Archdiocese of Boston should shed their long ingrained deference to the hierarchy, call for openness and collaboration, and help the cardinal understand the responsibilities of a leader on whose watch tragedies have afflicted his organization.

Lay Catholics have no effective formal bodies through which to exercise this responsibility. But we do have one powerful means of influence -- our ability to withhold or postpone our financial contributions to the archdiocese.

The archdiocese conducts an annual appeal and is in the midst of a large capital campaign. The cardinal has said that no funds from these appeals will be used for compensation to the victims of abuse. This strains credulity for those of us who realize that money is fungible and that no insurance is free. A full public accounting of all archdiocesan funds is the least we can ask as contributors, and would be an important first step in challenging the culture that bred the current tragedy.

I am not advocating reductions in contributions to the parishes that nurture us and whose priests with very few exceptions serve us generously and well. I will continue to give to my parish, and indeed to increase my contributions in recognition of decreased support from the diocese.

But I will give no money to the archdiocese until steps are taken to remedy structural and cultural flaws that created the current crisis. I urge my fellow Catholics to do the same. Perhaps then the cardinal will pay attention to those of us who love the church, who grieve for what has happened to it, but who hope for what it can become.

Mary Jo Bane is the Thorton Bradshaw Professor of Public Policy and Management at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

This story ran on page C7 of the Boston Globe on 2/03/2002.
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