How Pope Francis can revitalise a Church in crisis

By Chris Lowney, 5 October 2019
Image: Diocese of Parramatta.


Pope Francis’ foremost priority should be top-to-bottom culture change in the Catholic Church, specifically: fostering a spirit of urgency, bringing new talent to all decision-making tables, and creating openness to radically new ideas.

Without this thoroughgoing cultural transformation, a Church now enduring its worst crisis in five centuries will continue to deteriorate.

Worst crisis in five centuries? That’s not hyperbole. The grotesque horrors of the sex abuse scandals, in Australia as throughout the Catholic world, are surely the most hurtful wounds that the Church has inflicted (and suffered) in recent decades. But other signs of existential crisis have abounded, in dozens of countries: thousands of ministries have shuttered, young people show little interest in the Church, sacramental participation has waned, and the clergy ranks are shrinking, to name just a few challenges.

None of these challenges and crises will be resolved by ‘more of the same.’ Rather, the 21st century Church must forge an accountable, action-oriented culture, in at least three ways:

Fostering A Spirit of Urgency: Americans were shocked and dismayed by The Boston Globe’s 2002 expose on sex abuse within the Catholic Church. Equally shocking and more dismaying, however, has been the Church’s sluggish response. Nearly two decades passed, for example, before the Vatican finally convened a global summit on the matter and demanded appropriate protocols in all countries.

The broader point: sluggish response to grave problems has characterised Church culture. In 1983, for example, Pope John Paul II proclaimed the ‘urgency’ of ‘commit[ting] all the Church’s energies’ to reaching out in fresh ways to the millions of Catholics who were drifting from the Church. Decades have passed with plenty of rhetoric but nothing remotely resembling that ‘total commitment.’ Action plans have been scarce, and accountability for results has been nil. Without a willingness to confront bad news, share facts widely, and respond with determination and urgency, the Church will never solve its present and future challenges.

Bring new talent to decision-making tables: The Church has historically crafted its strategies and policies in small, closed, and mostly-clerical circles.

That model no longer works, given today’s complex, volatile environments. No small group of hierarchical leaders, no matter how good-willed or smart, will possess the expertise or bandwidth to exert ‘command and control’ over every issue that arises. A contemporary bishop, for example, now faces challenges including sex abuse scandals, constrained finances, forging strategies for social media and new technologies, outreach to disinterested young adults in a secularising society, and staffing under-resourced ministries, among many others.

Our Church needs the talent of more lay men and women not merely as advisors on such challenges, but as empowered partners at all strategic and decision-making tables, from the Vatican on down. Pope Benedict XVI once proclaimed that lay people must become ‘co-responsible’ for the Church’s ‘being and activity.’ He was right, but we’ve made only token progress at turning that vision into reality.

The Australian Plenary Council 2020 looks from a distance to be a welcome movement towards a broad-based commitment. All success to it, and may many such initiatives flourish, for they are surely needed to help ignite the broad culture change needed.

Creating openness to new ideas: How will the Church adapt to its plummeting clergy ranks? Or successfully engage young adults? Or maintain primary schools in the world’s poorest communities?

A Church saddled with such unresolved dilemmas must welcome new ideas and experiment with promising but unproven approaches. A risk-averse Church culture that stifles initiative must rediscover the ‘holy boldness’ that characterised the Church’s imaginative, enterprising first generations.

Pope Francis has envisioned a Church where the lay faithful flock will sometimes ‘strike out on new paths,’ and lead the Church forward. He has encouraged Catholics to, ‘Assume always the Spirit of the great explorers…not frightened by borders and of storms….May it be a free church and open to the challenges of the present…’

Only with fundamental culture change will that appealing (and much-needed) vision become reality. The ongoing sex abuse scandal must become Pope Francis’ ‘burning platform,’ not only to establish all necessary sex abuse protocols but also to catalyse a broader and more profound culture change.

He should speak frankly to the Catholic faithful about the decades-old, wide-ranging challenges highlighted above. He should call upon Catholics to step up and help lead the Church forward at this crucial moment.

Chris Lowney is a noted author and speaker on Ignatian spirituality. He is vice chair of CommonSpirit Health, the largest non-profit health system in the US. Everyone Leads: How to Revitalize the Catholic Church, his recent book on revitalisation of the Church, builds on the lgnatian principle that everyone exercises a leadership role.

This article was originally published on Melbourne Catholic news website on 30 August 2019.

With thanks to Melbourne Catholic and the Archdiocese of Melbourne.


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