- Catholic Common Ground Initiative - https://catholiccommonground.org -

Response to the 2005 Murnion Lecture

delivered by James Post
President, Voice of the Fathful
June 24, 2005

Also online: Full text of Archbishop James Weisgerber's 2005 Murnion Lecture [1]


I first met Archbishop James Weisgerber in 2004 at a conference in Philadelphia. We literally bumped into one another at the hotel elevator. It was a moment of pure innocence — I didn't recognize him as archbishop; and he didn't recognize me as a future respondent to his work. The importance of "Building a Church of Communion" is self-evident to those of us who believe that we are the Body of Christ and a pilgrim church, always in search of a better way to fulfill our destiny. This topic is especially thought-provoking to the many who have been shocked by the clergy sexual abuse crisis in our Church. For this reason, I will direct my comments to the slightly narrower theme, "Building a Church of Communion In a Time of Crisis."

In the broadest sense, Archbishop Weisgerber suggests the experience that Catholics in the United States have lived through in the past three years must be understood within the larger history of the Second Vatican Council's ideas and reforms. The lessons from this history are both intellectual and practical, and should be seen through the lenses of our personal experiences as scholars, priests, bishops, lay women, and laymen.

It is an honor to participate in this Catholic Common Ground Initiative event. I am still surprised to be standing here this evening. If one of you had told me a few years ago that I would be speaking at Catholic University, responding to the comments of a distinguished archbishop of the Catholic Church, I would have expressed grave doubt about your prognostication. Responding to bishops was not part of my experience. It was certainly not in my career plan. But, I discovered, it was in my "Catholic DNA."

Like many of you, I am a product of the Catholic baby boom that occurred in the 1940s. Millions of us were educated in Catholic grammar schools and high schools through the 1950s, and continued on, as I did, to study at Catholic colleges and universities in the 1960s and 1970s.

Today, this Vatican 2/Baby Boom generation is becoming grandparents, having raised our own children through three decades of cultural cross currents and turmoil. Tom Brokaw may not have considered us to be the "Greatest Generation," but we are the Catholic sons and daughters of that generation. And, we too have lived quite a lot of history, from the Cuban Missile crisis to the Vietnam war, Watergate, several wars in the Middle East, and 9/11.

I believe we mirror the unique intersection of religious values, education, and worldly accomplishments that occurred in the late 20th century. At the 40th anniversary reunion of my college class not long ago, the community of 60-somethings who gathered reflected a record of accomplishments that would have delighted and surprised the parents and family members who celebrated our graduation in 1965.

We ordinary pew-Catholics of the late 20th century have raised our children in the faith, educated them about moral values, and tried to lead by example. We hope the lessons have taken root, and that our grandchildren will, in time, also be raised in the Catholic faith.

All of this is context for what unfolded in 2002. The clergy sexual abuse disclosures seared the conscience of baby boomer Catholics. The revelations of cover-up, deception, and concealment of predator priests infuriated us. This was the "Catholic Watergate experience," the betrayal of something fundamental that we deeply treasured.

This crisis is about core values –the moral center– of our faith.

The voices that cried out for change came from people of many sizes, shapes, and colors. They have been the voices of men and women in a wide range of professions and occupations, with enormous skills and incredible energy. These voices are angry but reasoned, sometimes shrill but always clear. These people love their Church and they are, in all their diversity, the voices of the faithful.

The body of our Church has been badly hurt by the sexual abuse crisis. Today, it still begs for healing, reconciliation – not only with the thousands who are victims of abuse, but also with every man, woman, and child whose confidence has been shaken.

The greatest casualties for our Church have been loss of trust; diminished respect for one another and for the offices of bishop, priest, and honest critic; and disregard of the institutions for due process and the presumption of innocence.

The Issues – Leadership, Governance, Accountability

Archbishop Weisgerber advances the thesis that forty years after the Second Vatican Council, we are still struggling to receive its teaching and wrestle with the practical challenges it poses for the Church and for each of us. He identifies three great issues for our consideration.


Foremost among these is the role of leadership. As Archbishop Weisgerber writes,

"… (T)he role of the leader is not to extinguish the gifts or try to manipulate or control, but rather to be a leader who enables, empowers, so that all the gifts will flourish as they are used for the good of the Church and the world. … Leadership is to build up the Church." (p. 4)

Leadership is especially precious in times of crisis. How do we expect leaders to build communion in such circumstances?

The place to start is by acknowledging the truth of the situation. The bishops themselves recognize that the Church is in crisis. The opening sentence of the preamble to the Dallas Charter reads, "The Church in the United States is experiencing a crisis without precedent in our times."

"…We, who have been given the responsibility of shepherding God's people, will, with God's help and in full collaboration with our people, continue to work to restore the bonds of trust that unite us. Words alone cannot accomplish this goal. It will begin with the actions we take …."

In the revised Charter and Norms that the bishops approved last week (June 17, 2005), the comparable paragraph reads,

"Since 2002, the Church in the United States has experienced a crisis without precedent in our times." And, … "We, who have been given the responsibility of shepherding God's people, will, with his help and in full collaboration with all the faithful, continue to work to restore the bonds of trust that unite us. Words alone cannot accomplish this goal. It will begin with the actions we take …." [text changes underlined]

The conclusion is not the same, however. In 2002, the text read:

Conclusion, "… (W)e do wish to affirm our concern especially with regard to issues related to effective consultation of the laity and the participation of God's people in decision making that affects their well-being."

Conspicuously missing in the revised Charter is the pledge to "effective consultation of the laity" and the "participation of God's people in decision-making that affects their well-being."

Is this a retreat? Was the original promise to engage the laity too great a promise, too sweeping a commitment? I hope not. But only the bishops can answer the question, through word or deed. Building a Church of communion requires a belief in communion.

Building a Church of communion, especially in a time of crisis, also requires a willingness to take risks. One example of risk-taking was the creation of the National Review Board as a mechanism to help bring about accountability on the issues of sexual abuse. This was, and remains, an important experiment in lay participation.

While the performance of the Board has been encouraging in a number of ways, it seems to have engendered a fear of lost control among some Church leaders. In the Revised Charter, the role of the Board is clearly specified as "consultative" to the bishops, eliminating any hint (which was never stated) of "independence."

A commentator has the privilege to pose hard questions. They are not new questions however. As Archbishop Weisgerber states the question, "What happens when the leader is not inspired by the Council's vision of the Church as communion?" He says,

"Communion can hit a brick wall in an authoritarian, autocratic or frightened leader."

The traditional answer to this problem has been "fraternal correction." But evidence of fraternal correction is scant or nonexistent in these times of crisis. This erodes confidence in the system, and ultimately, in the office of bishop.


The second great issue is governance. Archbishop Weisgerber has written, "the Church is not a democracy." But, he continues, democratic institutions or some of their features may indeed be relevant.

"This poses a huge challenge to a culture whose primary value is choice, the freedom to choose. (But) … many important aspects of democracy are not only compatible with, but essential to the life of the Church: recognition of the dignity of each person; each person's gifts; essential equality of all; transparency and accountability; awareness that leadership is service to people for the common good; the irreplaceable importance of listening to one another as we discern the voice of the Spirit. (p.5)

The alternative to democracy seems to be communion, which includes internal (spiritual) and external structures. How do we institutionalize this vision? Consultative structures are seen as a way forward.

As Sr. Sharon Euart has recently written in Origins, there appear to be two essential questions: (1) What structures are available? and, (2) what can be done to revitalize them? The second question makes clear that the existing structures have not yet proved credible as the means to give effect to the promise.

Participation is essential to recovery for a Church in crisis. The reason is simple. The lack of participation is at the very root of the sexual abuse crisis. Lay women and men were not involved in performance reviews or related discussions of proposed personnel actions. Had they been present at any point in the process, the whistle would have been blown, the bishop informed, and the movement of predators halted.

As Robert Bennett, chairman of the National Review Board's research committee said,

"In order for the Church to achieve the goal set out by the bishops of 'restoring the bonds of trust that unite us,' more must be done, through a process that involves transparency and substantial participation by the laity."

These two ideas, transparency and substantial participation by the laity, are the cornerstone of a Church that is cleansed and renewed. These ideas are consistent with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

Mr. Bennett continued, "The bishops must listen to and be responsive to the concerns of the laity."

The laity is not the enemy.

Repeatedly, groups of well-intentioned and concerned laity have offered assistance, expertise, and talent to the bishops. They have sought to create new common ground on matters of importance.

The National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management has, in the past year, formed and offered a program of assistance in more than 40 areas of improved management, none of which involve doctrine, and all of which relate to more effectively accomplishing our Church's mission.

Our own VOTF affiliates have often written to their bishops. This is one typical message:

"We the membership of the Westford/Chelmsford Voice of the Faithful, with confidence in the Holy Spirit, devoted to our beloved Church, join together to speak as one voice, in order to address matters of vital importance affecting her. We do so under an obligation imposed upon us by our Baptism. This obligation was clearly stated in the decrees of the Second Vatican Council. Under it we are compelled as lay persons to contribute our special insight into the challenges that face our Church." Source: Westford/Chemsford VOTF, 2004.

The responses have sometimes been polite, sometimes non-existent. Rarely have they produced an invitation to sit down, and really engage the issues. Some groups have actually resorted to billboard messages to promote face-to-face conversation with their bishop. Sadly, the mere suggestion of conversation is sometimes seen as threatening.


The third major issue is accountability. Who is responsible to whom?

Only one bishop has been removed from office because of administrative concealment, a fact that provides weak testimony to the effectiveness of the Church's structure of accountability. Fraternal accountability is a fig leaf in the view of many Catholics. It has produced no sanctions, no removals, and provides no evidence or guarantee that leadership can, and will, be held accountable.

Trust – The Ultimate Issue

Building communion in a time of crisis requires that the loss of trust be examined forthrightly and honestly.

Fr. Bryan Hehir, a member of the Common Ground Initiative Committee, has taught that trust is the basis of all ministry in the Church. The work of the Church is premised on a trusting relationship.

The loss of trust is the greatest casualty of the crisis through which our Church is living. At every turn, one hears people saying they no longer trust the institution, its leaders, or their decisions. The claim that painful actions –parish closings, school closings, or bankruptcy filings– are being done for the common good falls on many deaf ears these days. People do not believe the message because they do not trust the messenger.


We cannot wait 100 years, or even 60 more, to fully incorporate the spirit of the Second Vatican Council into our Church. Building communion in a time of crisis requires faster action, bolder steps, and deeper faith that this institution will prosper, not fail, if it engages in the honest conversation that is so vital and necessary.

Global communication makes it possible to have a global conversation in real time … tonight's talks will be available within hours to a global audience. (Now, if only they will read them.) We cannot build communion without using these magnificent resources of modern communication.

Building communion in a time of crisis can be done –should be done—within the fullness of the vision of the Second Vatican Council. The times require a boldness, a willingness to venture where our Church has not gone in the past, and a determination to fully engage all those women and men –lay and ordained—who respond each day to the message, "Love one another."

Thank you.

Also online: Full text of Archbishop James Weisgerber's 2005 Murnion Lecture [1]