Faith in the Public Arena

Aftermath of 2018: does the Church have a ‘bigger agenda?’

By Sarah Spangenberg/Minnesota Catholic Conference

In the aftermath of this summer’s revelations of sex abuse and cover-up in the Church, there is a tendency for Catholics to slip into an either-or way of thinking about how to respond: either we cannot “get back to work” until we have adequately addressed the crisis, or, we cannot spare the time to respond to the scandals because the Church’s mission is too urgent.

But this is a false dichotomy; what we need is an integrated response, marked by conversion, deeper faithfulness, and increased love of God and neighbor.

A BIGGER AGENDA?

“The Pope has a bigger agenda,” Cardinal Blase Cupich recently responded to a reporter’s question about the abuse crisis. “He’s got to get on with other things – of talking about the environment and protecting migrants and carrying on the work of the Church. We’re not going to go down a rabbit hole on this.”

Some have responded to Cupich’s comment (and others like it) by arguing exactly the opposite: that the Church should not invest its resources in anything else until the abuse is cleaned up. Catholic teaching and missionary credibility has been so undermined, so the argument goes, that it all must be put on hold until we solve this particular problem.

In both cases, something essential is abandoned: on the one hand, the urgent need for reform within the Church; on the other, the equally urgent call of Christ to proclaim the Good News and to serve our neighbor.

Although it seems we must choose one side or the other, this is actually not the case. It is not an either-or scenario. Rather, we need deep renewal in the Church – renewal that can root out sin and corruption, reform broken structures, and restore our relationships with God and our neighbor.

WE ARE STILL CALLED TO SERVE

To be clear, there is no task more urgent right now – no bigger agenda – than for the Church to purify itself and restore its credibility; there are practical steps to be taken. Implementing new structures of accountability is necessary. Removing persons from ministry who harm others (or protected those who did) is necessary. Atoning for sin and combating a culture of corruption is essential.

But we are not dispensed from worshipping God and loving our neighbor while doing so. Our standing orders to serve the poor, teach the faith, evangelize, and administer the sacraments are still in effect. What good would it do, for example, if the Church canceled its Sunday liturgies until further notice while we respond to the crisis?

“The work of the Church” must indeed go on. We are still responsible to contribute to the common good by witnessing to the faith, proposing a way of life informed by the Gospel, and serving the most vulnerable in our midst. And that includes engaging our public officials to enact policies that serve human dignity.

Politics is, after all, an important mode of service and one of the highest forms of charity, as Pope Francis outlines in his 2019 World Day of Peace message.

OVERCOMING THE CRISIS WITH GREATER LOVE

Although “one-stop” solutions to the challenges we face as a Church are often appealing, they rarely bring about lasting change. It would be unwise to go into lockdown mode, sacrificing apostolic work, teaching and preaching, social ministries, and public engagement in the meantime.

In other words, we have to continue to preach the Gospel in word and in deed. With humility, for sure – but still we must bring the Gospel to every periphery and place in the ways that the Church has always done, most notably through the works of mercy.

Civic engagement, in particular, is an important expression of our love and faithfulness to God, his people, and the world in these difficult times. We do, in fact, as Cardinal Cupich noted, need to keep working in the public arena on environmental initiatives, on comprehensive immigration reform, and on passing good laws that protect life and support human flourishing.

This is not ignoring the ecclesial crisis and embracing some “bigger agenda.” Instead, by coupling much needed internal reform with our sustained presence in the public square, we can restore the evangelical credibility of the Church and thereby fulfill the call to be light and salt to the world.