Lectures in different parts of the United States and Canada and occasionally overseas have served for many years as a kind of floating laboratory. One gains a reasonably reliable sense of the variety of questions and concerns that are on people’s minds.
A recent visit to Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., a sister institution to the University of Notre Dame (both were founded, and are sponsored and partially staffed, by the Congregation of Holy Cross), is a case in point.
The event was planned and organized by the Voice of the Faithful organization in the Diocese of Fall River. Stonehill provided the venue.
Many in the audience were VOTF members, but many others were not. The great majority could probably be described as moderate-to-liberal Catholics, shaped by, or sympathetic with, the renewal and reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
Because there were so many in attendance and too little time to address more than a handful of their written questions, I asked the organizers to send me a complete list of the questions that I never even saw, much less answered. I promised to find some public outlet — perhaps this weekly column — to acknowledge these questions and, if possible, to reply to one or two of them.
I had done the same thing several years ago when speaking at a regional adult education and formation program in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Many of the questions found their way into my Responses to 101 Questions on the Church, published in 1996 by Paulist Press.
Of the more than 50 questions submitted following my presentation on "Jesus and the Church" at Stonehill College, most fell into one of four categories.
The largest number were concerned with the current leadership’s perceived failure to implement the teachings and reforms of Vatican II. This audience, like many others I have addressed in recent years, had the feeling that we are experiencing a period of retrenchment, especially in the areas of liturgy and lay involvement in the mission and ministries of the church.
A similar number of questions were, in effect, complaints about the resistance of bishops and pastors to dialogue with the laity. That particular concern was not surprising, given the fact that VOTF has been prohibited from meeting on church property in the Diocese of Fall River, one of a handful — mostly in the East — which have adopted that policy.
A third cluster of questions related to the role of women in the church. There was a question regarding women’s ordination among them, but the concerns were much broader than that.
A fourth grouping of questions had to do with one of VOTF’s three purposes, namely, to support "priests of integrity" (the other two involve support for victims and survivors of sexual abuse by priests, and cooperation with pastoral leaders in the governance of the church).
Questioners wondered how they could provide meaningful support for such priests, and also worried that those priests who returned the support for VOTF might be silenced or otherwise penalized by their bishops.
A smaller number of questions had to do with the closing of parishes (a problem especially acute in the nearby Archdiocese of Boston, where the archbishop recently announced the closing of some 65 parishes), and the perceived conservatism (perhaps "traditionalism" would be more accurate) of younger priests and seminarians.
There were one or two questions on the sacrament of Holy Orders, the fact of married priests and even nonordained lay persons celebrating the Eucharist for small faith communities in private homes or on nonecclesiastical sites, the threatened denial of Communion to certain Catholic politicians, the role of the papacy and the Roman curia, reasons for staying in the Catholic Church rather than joining a compatible Protestant community, the pastoral effects of the so-called new movements in the church (Opus Dei, the Legionaries of Christ, Comunione e Liberazione, the Neo-Catechumenate) and the church’s stand on gay issues.
Add to these questions and concerns the persistent reports one hears, even from Rome, of widespread demoralization affecting so many in the church today — not only lay persons, such as those in the audience at Stonehill College, but clergy, religious and some high-ranking prelates with important positions in the Vatican itself.
The pious view is that Pope John Paul II’s remaining in office, in spite of the obvious deterioration of his health, is a spiritually compelling example of devotion to duty, of submission to God’s will and of close identification with Christ on the cross.
Another widely held, but discreetly expressed, view is that there is a dangerous vacuum of leadership at a time when the church is most in need of it.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.