There is a growing crisis haunting the Catholic Church. And it is a crisis larger than the events that have so greatly afflicted the American Catholic Church. The pedophilia scandals are a horrifying element of this crisis. So, too, are the bishops who covered up and excused these outrages. And so, also, the more general loss of confidence Catholics have in a hierarchy that seems oddly concerned with rank and privilege and with fighting yesterday's culture wars. Yes, these are all elements of the crisis, but the crisis is larger than this.
And that something larger is both sad and profound: a loss of faith in the institutions of the Church. Pope Francis, in his remarkable interview with La nacion, published the weekend of December 6 and 7, made it clear that he recognized the gravity of the moment. He was asked why so many people were leaving the Church. As posed, the question addressed Latin America. By implication, it looked to the world.
Pope Francis could have directed his answer at factors external to the Church. Indeed, one can imagine his predecessors alternatively blaming culture, or relativism, or the forces of secularism. Pope Francis, however, is different. His was a more introspective answer. We must look within, he advised, to what Catholics are themselves doing wrong.
At the root of the crisis, he proposed, was the problem of clericalism. Clericalism is strangling true Christianity. Pope Francis has spoken often about clericalism during his brief pontificate. It was the reason, early in his tenure, that he ceased granting applications by priests to be raised to the rank of monsignor. Being called monsignor adds little to a priest's life. But the quest for this title led, in Francis's judgment, to careerism and a preoccupation with title and honor that had little to do with the Gospels.
Well, it seems that in taking this step, Pope Francis was merely warming up. In recent speeches, he began to explore how deep the crisis of clericalism extends. It has poisoned the relationship between priests and lay Catholics. It can serve, for the laity, as heedless abdication of responsibility, and on the part of the clergy a dangerous concentration of power.
Thus Pope Francis declared in March, 2014: "Clericalism is one of the evils of the Church. ... Priests take pleasure in the temptation to clericalize the laity, but many of the laity are on their knees asking to be clericalized, because it is more comfortable! ... This is a double sin!"
So how should lay and clergy interact? The Pope sees a wide latitude here. It is an intersection that must be governed principally by a respect for the power of prophecy. The prophet, Pope Francis has stated, is someone with a sense of the historical moment. The prophet must appreciate the confluence of "past, present, and future." The prophet knows the past promise of God's word, but knows how to interpret this word in her or his life and "to speak a word [to others] that will lift them up."
Again, what is noticeable is what is omitted. The prophet is not someone who listens patiently for instructions from others, or is someone who is fond of restating that perennial objection to growth and development -- "but we've done anything like that before!" No, the prophet is someone who sees things fresh, in context, and knows how to take creative action appropriate to the moment.
The clergy must come to terms with this dimension of the lay vocation and be supportive of it. "The priest's suggestion is immediately to clericalize," the Pope warns. This temptation must be resisted. The priest has a spiritual role, a pastoral role, and a sacramental role, but the priest must not subsume the role of the laity. Harmony between the two orders is what Catholics should strive for. It should never become a situation in which "the big fish swallows the little one."
Pope Francis, in other words, expects an active and engaged laity, a laity that can think for itself, and is not fearful of its own independence. But how shall this Church, of harmonious yet different orders, address the Catholic crisis?
It must not preach. It must not proselytize. It must not condemn, or throw tantrums, or engage in theatrics. Rather, the Church -- the People of God, lay and clergy alike -- must set a good example. They must know that the world is filled with human suffering and that they are called to go about relieving in some small quantum this great misery in ways adapted to need and circumstance.
Only a leader with a great sense of faith could propose such a radical agenda for the Church. And Pope Francis' interview with La nacion makes plain his great faith. Only a confident and faithful leader would have opened the Synod on the Family to the kind of free discussions that occurred last October. Other popes have hosted synods on the family. They were entirely forgettable affairs. The script was written well in advance, everyone recited their assigned lines, and nothing of significance occurred. Pope Francis, on the other hand, opened the Synod up to prophecy, and a consideration of the needs of the moment.
It is fair to describe Pope Francis's summons as a call to Christian adulthood, but not in some superficial or trite sense. Rather he expects all Catholics to show a spirit of leadership, independence, and good judgment. The Church, he has warned, must not be obsessed with the self-referential. It must instead do as Jesus did -- minister to the afflicted and the marginal. It is truly a bold vision of renewal.