Can this church in crisis save itself? There’s much that needs to be fixed

By James W. Dolan
Special to the Reporter

There is no question: My church is a mess and perhaps on the verge of a schism. Changes in oversight are not enough. There must be structural and doctrinal changes to reform an institution that is too rich, too narrow, too protective, and too self-absorbed. Stricter enforcement of fundamental church discipline is not enough.

A church that cannot even agree on whether divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Communion is in serious trouble. A church that sees birth control as a sin is irrelevant. A church that mandates celibacy and views women as ineligible for the priesthood is obsolete. The abuse of children on the epic scale revealed over the past two decades would never had occurred if women were actively engaged at all levels as priests and bishops. They would never have tolerated it.

Christ taught that compassion, tolerance, understanding, and mercy naturally flowed from love, the all-encompassing virtue. Only with a firm commitment to its role could the church avoid the fundamental flaws so evident in other less lofty institutions where power, greed, and self-interest rule. Instead, the church fell victim to all the worst impulses of those who crave temporal power. Protecting the institution at all costs was the price paid to retain status and privilege. To that end, the message was often ignored, distorted, or just forgotten.

There are many within the church who recognize its flaws and struggle to bring it back to the path so beautifully laid out in the Beatitudes. What is required is more “enlightenment” rather than “reform,” which is not enough. Too often it becomes a relatively benign modification when something more radical is necessary. We must heed the warning so evident when the church hierarchy starts to look like our dysfunctional Congress.

Institutions, even those established on lofty principles, often lose sight of their purpose. Goals are lost in the complexity of trying to balance the interests of the institution and its members with its purpose, which is frequently distorted to serve the interests of insiders as service becomes self-service. The good is what benefits me. We see this in government, corporations, and in the church.

Pope Francis is meeting major resistance as he tries to bring the church back to basics. An institution modeled on the Roman curia that is familiar with the exercise of enormous temporal, even military, power in centuries past resists change. Conservative elements are reluctant to modify or change structural and doctrinal positions for fear the church as they know it will cease to exist. They do not see it as an evolving institution that can learn and adapt without surrendering its Christianity.

Its members are increasingly inclined to follow their consciences as they see a church bogged down in disputes that seem to have little relevance when measured against the challenges to its paramount role as spiritual guide to a loving God and their neighbors. A church viewed as remote, unresponsive, exclusive, legalistic, and worldly sacrifices the spiritual credibility necessary to lead us beyond ourselves. Those of us who depend on it can only hope and pray it will at some point manifest at the highest levels the goodness it so often displays at the grass roots.

Institutional corruption grows at the intersection of power and self-interest. It is there where human beings lose sight of their transcendent objectives.

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.