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Sound Suggestions for the Church at This Time

By Father Eugene Hemrick
Catholic News Service

In an op-ed column in the New York Times, the church hierarchy was berated for acting in secrecy regarding pedophiles. To jolt it out of its self-serving, inner-circle operation, it was suggested that financial support to the church be withheld.

No one denies that certain leaders in the hierarchy should have handled the problems of pedophilia and the sexual abuse of teens better. But if the hierarchy is to rectify this, it must not be because people withheld financial support. Rather, it must be because it has reformed itself, following the admonition: Physician heal thyself first.

To understand why, let's look at some principles behind the inner workings of the church.

A first principle of the priesthood is that a priest or bishop is called by God through the community. Because of his call, he takes on the awesome responsibility of being not just an ordinary leader, but an anointed leader who is responsible for the spiritual needs of the people.

By their nature, being anointed and being selected create an inner-circle by setting people apart. (It must be remembered that a priest does not choose to be set apart, but is called and singled out.)

From the Bible, we learn that anointed leaders tend to create inner circles; Moses and Aaron had their selected leaders, as did Christ with Peter, James and John.

The principle of the inner-circle is inherent in all institutions, as is seen in the presidential cabinet and in corporate boards of trustees.

When people fault the hierarchy for secrecy, it is often because its inner-circle is operating poorly; people feel that they could help run things better. As all leaders have learned, it is essential for good leadership to draw upon the wisdom of the community. But when it comes to final decisions, it is the hierarchy who must make them and take responsibility. Without a hierarchy, the door is left open for anarchy and chaos.

To suggest that the hierarchy abandon inner-circle operations in order to include everyone in decision making is unrealistic, for it goes against the principle of being chosen by God, anointed and selected from the community.

To suggest that the hierarchy draw more fully upon the wisdom of the community is not only realistic, but necessary in this day and age.

To suggest that cutting off funds will make this happen is unrealistic. It contains the false presumption that the hierarchy is the church. It isn't. Rather, the church is the people of God working together with the hierarchy.

Ironically, those most hurt by a financially crippled church would be the majority of Catholics, and also society in general. (A large majority of outreach programs to the poor and underprivileged, hospitals, and social services in this country are Catholic Church run. To cripple them financially would be to compound the abuses we are experiencing.)

To suggest that the hierarchy needs to reform its way of operating, to be less clerical and more attentive to collaborating with the people it serves is the order of the day.

To suggest that the hierarchy review its modes of operation with a desire for change, avoid the conservative-liberal divisions splitting its ranks and work together as one is to suggest a wise way of stopping future scandals.