In the on-going disclosures of sexual abuse and cover-ups that are rocking the Catholic Church, high churchmen and great thinkers have scurried to provide explanations, observations, and programs for reform. It seems everyone has an opinion.
And yet, for all such conversations and printed words, there has oddly been one essential group that has been neglected, namely, the local Catholic community.
The local Catholic community is the distinct community of faith whose children were abused and whose own trust was violated. Yet, in the dash to name the problem and propose its solutions, such a community is being taken for granted. Falling into some universalized “Catholic community” or “Catholic faithful,” the particular and specific local community is being absorbed into some enlarged entity.
The result is that the authentically human component is being forgotten. Victims are not being noticed and the goodwill that was offered by a community (and also abused) is not being adequately addressed by current speeches and writings.
Dostoevsky warned us about loving “humanity” while being intolerant of the human being right in front of us, bad breath and all. The same temptation seems lurking in the current dilemma of the Catholic Church. Universalized answers, from clericalism to homosexuality to updated protocols and procedures, are flooding the discussion, but those who were harmed and the communities that were hurt seem to be ignored.
Too much is being addressed to an exaggerated version of the Church, while very little seems to be said to the local community. It looks as if no one is interested in listening to this essential cell of the Church.
Economics defines opportunity costs as the loss of otherwise assumed gains. The failure to adequately assess opportunity costs could cause ruin or implode a project or mission. Applying such practical wisdom to the Church’s current state of affairs, it might happen that scholars and prelates might find some shocking opportunity costs as broad solutions are proposed for the masses, only to realize that “the masses,” the assumed local communities, have stopped listening and have found their own solutions.
The structure of the Catholic Church is an amazing hierarchical communion. Subsidiarity is the rule of the day with one local community joining into a group of other such communities to form a greater community. Families come together to form parishes. Parishes come together to form dioceses. Dioceses come together to form ecclesial provinces. Such provinces come together to form the universal Church.
While the Church is more than the mere sum total of its parts, these parts, and their communion together, form the Church’s infrastructure.
And so, when one community is weak, another can be strong. When one portion of the Church is dark, another can be a source of light. This tangible realization should be an unequivocal pressings summons for Church leadership to heal and strengthen the local community.
But is such an approach being heeded and nurtured? What would such a solution look like?
While many solutions are possible, biblical wisdom looks to leadership. Pope Saint John Paul II called the Catholic priest “the man of the Beatitudes,” and Catholics expect the Beatitudes in their pastors. As false shepherds have hurt the local community with anti-Beatitudes of lies, abuse, manipulation, and deceit, so good shepherds should be empowered and called to live as poor in spirit, sorrowful over evil, meek, desirous of righteousness, merciful, pure of heart, makers of peace, and leaders willing to lay down their lives for what is true and good.
The immense need of the local community to see this witness from their priests is immense and cannot be overstated. As spiritual wisdom teaches, “As the priest, so the people.”
And so, in spite of disgraceful priests, true shepherds after the heart of God need to be supported and affirmed. As the Beatitudes have always been the clearest indication of a life of holiness for the Christian community, they can once again be turned to as the most concrete and local – and therefore the most real – solution to the current crises in the Church.
As the priest lives the Beatitudes, so will the community. And as both follow this path, the local community will be healed, strengthened, and become a source of renewal for the entire Church.
While such a solution doesn’t contain the empirical satisfaction of control and calculation, it does go to the heart of the Church’s spiritual life and points us all back to our original foundation in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.