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Loving the Church


Supreme Chaplain Archbishop William E. Lori

As we profess our faith in, and love for, the Church, we share a responsibility for deep and authentic reform

Archbishop William E. Lori

IN THE NICENE CREED, we profess: “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” A friend of mine recently said, “I used to say those words without giving them much thought. Now, I say to myself, ‘I believe in the Lord. But do I believe in the Church?’”

My friend speaks for quite a few people. Recent studies show that 37% of Catholics in the United States are seriously thinking about leaving the Church as the result of the sexual abuse crisis. This percentage is not confined to the 75% of Catholics who do not regularly attend Sunday Mass; it includes church-going Catholics. Many pastors confirm that Mass attendance has declined since the summer of 2018, along with financial support.

At a time when parishioners are rightfully angry, what does it mean to believe in the Church and to love it? Can we love the Church and at the same time insist on genuine reform? Thankfully, the answer is “yes” — but a “yes” that requires us to do some thinking and praying, because there are false ways of loving and reforming the Church.

One false way of loving the Church is to say, “I love the Church all right, but not that old corrupt institutional Church.” From its earliest days, there have been people who professed love only for some invisible, spiritual Church, not the actual flesh and blood Church that came from the side of the crucified Savior. This perspective is understandable enough, yet it remains a cop out.

The Church is made up of “a divine and a human element” that coalesce to “form one complex reality” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, no. 8). It is the “human element” of the Church, made up of sinful human beings, which continually needs to be reformed and purified — but not discarded or made into something other than what the Lord intended. Not surprisingly, some proposed reforms have nothing to do with the sexual abuse crisis but rather attempt to impose on the Church various ideological agendas, in none of which salvation can be found.

Please don’t think this is an attempt to sanitize the depth and enormity of the sexual abuse crisis, for we need deep purification and far-reaching reform.

Good policies and procedures are a start. For example, the so-called “Dallas Charter” enacted by the U.S. bishops in 2002 has been effective. Since then, very few new cases of clergy sexual abuse have been reported. In dioceses, parishes, Catholic schools and other ministries, many safeguards are now in place to prevent abuse and/or to ensure that it is reported to civil authorities the minute it is discovered. Thanks to the Holy Father’s new directive, the U.S. bishops are also putting in place new procedures by which we will be held accountable for abuse, harassment or failure to handle allegations of sexual misconduct in accord with the highest standards. Procedural reform is indeed one of the ways to love the Church and to reform and purify its visible structures.

But there is a much deeper reform that is more necessary than ever. A profound conversion on the part of the Church’s shepherds is essential, but for this reform to take hold it must include all of God’s people. Purifying the Church is something we do together. We have to reject moral relativism and the compromises with evil that follow in its wake. We have to turn to the Lord in prayer as never before, both as individuals and as parish communities. And with the help of the Holy Spirit by whom Jesus lives and acts in us, we should strive to change not only programs and certain structures but indeed the culture of our dioceses, parishes, homes and ministries such that they are places of encounter with the risen Lord and one another, places filled with hope and missionary zeal.

As Knights of Columbus, we speak of ourselves as “the strong right arm of the Church.” Let us resolve, then, to believe in the Church and to love the Church so much that we contribute to its ongoing purification and reform.

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