In his monthly column in the Diocese of Albany newspaper, The Evangelist, Bishop Howard Hubbard recently wrote a piece titled, “Failings of the Church.” It is an honest and direct response to the feedback he has received in light of the “amazing God” program his diocese has launched in an effort to stoke a spirit of evangelization and spiritual renewal in the Diocese of Albany. For several months he has been writing about various challenges his sees in society and our culture that threaten faith and relationship to God. These themes include, the “loss of a sense of sin, individualism, rampant consumerism, narcissism, secularism, scientism and atheism.” Yet, he received some correspondence from the faithful in his diocese challenging his outlook. Bishop Hubbard explains:
I have sought to highlight the cultural and social landscape in which we find ourselves.I believe that, if our efforts at evangelization are to be successful, we must constructively address the religious and spiritual dimensions of people’s lives. In order to do this, we must be knowledgeable about those societal influences which help shape and form attitudes, perspectives and values.In response to these articles, I received some feedback, noting that I neglected to acknowledge ways in which the Church itself has contributed to the alienation of many of its members and to its lack of appeal, especially to younger people.
He then goes on to name and discuss seven areas in which the Church has failed the people of God and the world. These seven areas include:
- Clergy Sexual Abuse
- Parish Closures
- Anemic Parish Life
- Pastoral Insensitivity
- Poor Preaching/Liturgies
- Deficiency in Technology
- Feeling Unaccepted/Exploited
Although the length and scope of his monthly column prohibits an exhaustive treatment of any one, let alone seven, of these themes, that an American Bishop in today’s ecclesiastical and political climate would be so bold as to speak with the prophetic voice of the Spirit to name such controversial subjects in an honest and direct way is surely a sign of hope in the Church.
While so many bishops across the country (and world) speak publicly only to defend one’s actions — misguided or otherwise, or condemn a person, group or idea, Bishop Hubbard has spoken publicly to recognize the ways in which the Church has been complicit and the alienation of so many people.
It’s easy to blame external sources, to discuss “secularism” — that vague specter of problematic culture — and other things as the reason for decreased participation in the life of the Church, it is not easy to admit that the Church itself has at times, and continues in ways, to perpetuate this very same alienation, discrimination and even instances of injustice.
I highly recommend that you read Bishop Hubbard’s entire column, but I would like to briefly talk about my take on a few of the themes he raises. The matters of clergy sexual abuse and parish closures are, rather unfortunately, obvious examples of the Church’s failings, so I wish to discuss a few of the other less-obvious, but still important subjects.
Anemic Parish Life
Bishop Hubbard highlights some of the ways in which he sees authentic parish life unfolding in our world. Perhaps these are not always realized everywhere, but they are legitimate parochial goals.
Parishes are meant to be places where people feel a sense of belonging and spiritual kinship; where theology comes alive; where the mysteries of birth, death and resurrection are regularly celebrated; where sacramental moments multiply as mysteriously as the bread and the fishes; where people are being nourished into an earthly image of the Body of Christ.
He goes on to share the stories of two Catholics who were treated unfairly or simply ignored by the community. The Church is not just the priest, bishop or other “officials,” but is the whole Body of Christ. Everybody must work together to support one another in living out our collective Baptismal vocations.
“A number of readers mentioned that they or family members have left the Church because of the manner in which they were treated by a priest, deacon or lay representative of the parish,” Bishop Hubbard writes. How sad and true is this unfortunate reality of our ecclesial experience. As one of my classmates recently shared in a seminar discussion about the identity of Catholic priests: “who do these people think they are?”
If people leave because they were treated poorly, ignored or discriminated against, then something is terribly wrong. Way, way, way too often people get the impression (from certain behaviors and statements by a very vocal minority) that the Church is all about keeping people out, welcoming only the “morally pure” and insisting that everybody is “following the rules.” What’s humorous, among other things, about this outlook is that Jesus technically broke all the rules! He welcomed the sinners, the marginalized, the despised, as well as so many others.
Toward the end of his column, Bishop Hubbard cites the Jesuit scholar William Byron, SJ, and lists several examples of reasons disenfranchised Catholics have said they left the Church. They include:
- failure to implement the reforms of the 1960s’ Second Vatican Council, particularly in the areas of collegiality and lay participation;
- dissatisfaction with the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council and its subsequent moral, social, ecumenical and interfaith teachings;
- too little connection between the Scriptures and the Eucharist and their relevance to the issues of poverty and to environmental, immigration and criminal justice reform;
- not enough emphasis on adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the Rosary and other traditional devotions;
- bishops interfering in elections by politicizing the Euchar-ist: for example, refusing communion to elected officials who vote for abortion funding or same-sex marriage;
- public relations disasters like the Vatican document linking women’s aspirations to the priesthood with sexual abuse, citing both as guilty of a “grave delict;”
- faith formation programs which are either too superficial or too academic, but not transformative of the heart;
- forthcoming liturgical translations which seem too esoteric, non-inclusive, and do not sing; and
- institutions, systems and rules which have little or no relation to what people read in the Gospel or experience in their own lives.
Deficiency in Technology
I believe that this problem is fundamentally tied to another theme Bishop Hubbard discusses, namely “Poor Preaching/Liturgies.” At the core, both of these subjects center on the need to communicate the faith and reach the hearts and minds of today’s Christians (and the unbelievers who are seeking truth). The poor preaching and liturgies does not reach the population of the faithful that currently seeks participation in the regular life of the Church. Meanwhile, deficiency in technology broadens the horizon of those who are excluded, disregarded, ignored or otherwise unreached by the Church. The effects are staggering as the fora within which today’s young people search for meaning and understanding becomes increasingly unfamiliar territory for Church officials. The Digital Age is not indicative of a passing fad, but is the context for evangelization today (and the future!).
In conclusion, Bishop Hubbard offers some very insightful remarks:
These insights point out the diversity of people’s needs and expectations related to Church membership. Some people find the Church too traditional; others too progressive. Some want strong leadership; others feel they are being overly controlled and denied a voice.
Our Church is indeed a jumble of inconsistencies, shortcomings, flaws and complexities. Yet we share a commitment as followers of the Gospel and disciples of Jesus, and that is our strength.
In light of these responses, I am conscious of an address that Rev. Timothy Radcliffe, OP, the former master general of the Dominicans, delivered to a group of priests.
He noted that “we must rejoice in the very existence of people with all their fumbling attempts to live and love, whether they are married, divorced or single; whether they are straight or gay; whether their lives are in accord with the Church or not. The Church should be a community in which people discover God delights in them.”
Let us pray that a better understanding of the cultural climate in which we live and a better addressing of the above-mentioned and other pastoral issues will enable our Amazing God initiative to respond to the deep, spiritual hunger in our midst.
The hope that I see Bishop Hubbard offering the Church today isn’t one based in naïve or wishful thinking, but a genuine willingness to speak intelligently, honestly and openly about matters that should be first on our collective agenda. Too often what we hear is a bunch of nonsense and vapidity proclaimed about an amorphous “new evangelization” without much concrete articulation about what that means, to whom it is directed and the reasons for such a need in the first place. My hope is that other bishops will likewise respond to “Signs of our Time” in light of the Gospel (Gaudium et Spes), challenging the world and the Church to better live peaceably, justly and in communion with God and neighbor.