Submitted by frlarry on Tue, 12/06/2005 - 20:29

Much of my frustration in the past couple of years as a newly ordained priest stems from the fact that I seem to be coming very late into a sea change in the church in the U.S. It's as if there were a great political convention, and I didn't arrive until after the principal candidate and the running mate were already nominated, and I knew from that that the party was headed for disaster in the real world. In the meantime I have had two pressing items on my agenda, catching up with the issues and the dialog thus far, and grounding myself in Church tradition, Scripture and the work that has been done (and still needs to be done) in developing theological, philosophical and scientific underpinnings of Church teaching.

After reflecting on Domenico Bettinelli's revisit of a Catholic World Report article by Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz, entitled, "Who Owns the Church?", (a problem I had already become very familiar with) I decided to check out other things covered by Szyszkiewicz. A Google search revealed a report in Catholic World News, entitled, "The Business Model." The report identifies a major initiative on the part of Catholic business leaders to bring what they consider a measure of responsibility and sanity into the management of the Catholic Church in the U.S.

Of course, Lord knows, it could use it. The problem for those of us who are concerned that the message of the Gospel not get lost in the scramble for reverse inculturation that has gripped the U.S. Church for the past few decades, we now have the problem that Rome's one handle on reform, the appointment of bishops to oversee dioceses, could be rendered impotent and irrelevant as liberal Catholic business leaders establish new norms of lay-administered governance.

To make a historical comparison, the Church barely managed to assert its authority in the context of a growing movement called "trusteeism" that nearly crippled Roman authority in 19th century America. The new business model, ca. 2005, could assert the same level of lay control at the national level.

They certainly have plenty of cojones to make it happen. There are already a number of signs of this approach being applied in my own diocese.

There is a strong recommendation to appoint pastoral administrators as a buffer between parish staff and the pastor. This is being done ostensibly to alleviate the pastor of the drudge of administration. It will, for a compliant pastor, have this effect. For a non-compliant pastor, it is much more likely to be a source of great difficulty. According to the certification plans of the Lay Pastoral Ministry Office (assigned to be in charge of curriculum and certification), the new position will require the secular equivalent of a master of divinity degree, plus enough of a scriptural, theological and homiletic background for the successful candidate to be (at least academically) ready to preach at Communion services.

There is an effort to apply a business model to "recruiting" new priests. Already we have seen ads depicting a "Neo" type character, complete with dark glasses and a cassock, depicting the new breed of priests the diocese is looking for. ("The few, the proud, the Shao-lin.")

While no particular model has been articulated, as yet, in establishing diocesan wide "best of breed" practices in personnel evaluations, pastors and other priests will be evaluated, ostensibly by the Archbishop, based on input from parishioners, staff people and other lay leaders of their parishes. We can truthfully assume that the Archbishop intends to follow up his own policy with an opportunity for diocesan leadership to evaluate him. Should there evolve a conflict between that evaluation and the one regularly issuing from Rome, who wins? It would be interesting to sit in on a discussion in Rome about the importance of maintaining good relations with lay diocesan leaders.

Finally, there has been a very significant push to centralize Catholic education, at least within our deanery. Naturally, the board governing the deanery school system will be composed primarily of lay people. This approach will probably progress with the blessing of most pastors, who already feel overwhelmed with the challenges of oversight of their own schools. Meanwhile, when secular methodologies and curricula come to dominate Catholic education, those few parents who are most deeply concerned about their children's spiritual and moral welfare will be left with only one viable option, home schooling.

I'm sure the Archbishop has given all of this his very careful consideration, and I have already gotten hints that he wants to take this revolution as slowly as possible. For example, when a pastor wants to introduce the position of a pastoral administrator into his parish management structure, he must first obtain the permission of the Archbishop. Although the Archbishop is unlikely to offer risistance to a plan that has every appearance of being managerially, pastorally and fiscally sound, this puts the onus on the pastor (and those of his parish who are pushing for the change) to develop the new "business model." Since most parishes have people with extensive business experience, we can assume that this difficulty will be easily overcome if the will is there.

The Archbishop will probably urge a go slow attitude toward reforming the structure of diocesan Catholic schools. His own office of education would like to retain as much control of the curriculum as possible, but with a new cadre of professionals running the show, it's anybody's guess how all of that will play out.

All of this, of course, must be seen in the context of the legal assault on the Church from coalitions of folks who are up in arms over the priest scandal. For a summary of the financial and legal hurdles still faced by the diocese of Portland, see "Diocesan bankrupcies raise church ownership issues."

The urge to reform the Church in the U.S. is practically irresistible. It would be a huge mistake to assume that the presbyterate, or for that matter, the episcopate, are in firm control of the sea change. Probably the great majority of them are already too overwhelmed by their individual responsibilities to devote a great deal of time to foreseeing what's coming and getting the big picture. Without the time needed to develop sound plans of their own, they have appointed and will continue to appoint consultants to draw up alternative scenarios and structures.

A reform that headed in the direction of today's liberal secularism would undoubtedly receive a great deal of support from many quarters. The fight that is already developing already includes clerical and lay people of all stripes. I feel like the new kid on the block walking into an important boxing match in the 12th round, with the score already weighing heavily in favor of the challenger and the champ peaking out through blood-soaked eyes.

In the process of reform, there could be a time when the American Church finds that it has dug itself away from its foundation in Jesus, and, like a house in California lost to mud slides, the only thing left to be called Holy, Roman and Catholic will be the faithful undergound that took to the storm shelter as the rains fell.

Legend has it that a little boy, upon hearing about the Black Sox scandal, walked up to Shoeless Joe Jackson and demanded in bewailed tones, "Say it ain't so, Joe!" In every era of history since Jesus established the Church, there have been generations of people who watched major segments of Church governance and practice fall deep into corruption. God allowed the great Eastern Schism, the great Western Schism, the Protestant Reformation and the movement toward secularism in the Enlightenment and beyond. In all of these great Church crises, the Church survived and ultimately found its way back to vitality, but in reacting too slowly to prevent great loss, it delayed world unity in Christ by millenia. Jesus assured us that the Church as a whole would survive the onslaughts of Satan, but he never made any promises about how soon he would triumph, and he certainly never made any promises about the survival of the Church in the U.S. That survival is in the hands of the people with vision, influence and spunk. May they all be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.