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The Coming Catholic Church
How the Faithful are Shaping a new American Catholicism

By David Gibson, Harper San Francisco, 2003 • Reviewed By Fr. Lou Trivison

As David Gibson puts it, he was a Protestant who worked for the Pope (at Vatican Radio) and a Catholic convert, since 1989, who covers the Church for the secular press.
Gibson maintains, and rightfully so, that the American Church had been in crisis for over a quarter of a century before the Boston Globe exploded the front page story about sexual abuse by the clergy in January of 2002. This was only the climax of decades of falling attendance at Sunday Mass, a continual and steady decline in the number of active priests, sisters and other religious in this country and a scarcity of candidates for the celibate priesthood and religious life.

A widening chasm between progressive Catholics and conservatives or traditionalists has resulted in both sides arguing, for opposite reasons, that the church must change. Meanwhile, the majority of Catholics are caught in the middle.

If nothing else, the sexual abuse scandal made it clear that “business as usual” in the Catholic chanceries of the country will no longer be tolerated, as much as most bishops seem bent on restoring it. Gibson writes, “It is important to realize that things have not been the same in the Catholic Church for a long time. The difference today is that the changes and questions they provoke are out in the open and the questions go well beyond the matter of sex.” He maintains that the ongoing scandal that started in 2002 has spawned a continuing storm in the three major “estates” of the church, the laity, the clergy and the hierarchy. The book’s three main sections consider the present state of these three pillars of the American church - where they were in the past, the current situation and what the future holds for each.

The clergy scandal energized the laity to understand that they are just as responsible for the church as the clergy and the hierarchy. Thus, older reform groups such as Call to Action and FutureChurch, he writes, are suddenly being listened to and supported.
Chapters of the Voice of the Faithful, which rose from the ashes of Boston’s horrific revelations, are now taking root in dioceses all over the country, in spite of the knee-jerk, predictable reactions of some bishops and cardinals who think their problems will go away if they ban such reform groups from holding meetings on diocesan property. The pre Vatican II role of the laity to “Pray, pay and obey” has suddenly become “Stay, pray and inveigh.”

The men caught in the middle of the clergy sex scandal are the 98% of all priests who have faithfully served the Church and lived and preached the Good News of Jesus for the Catholics of the country. Now they are overwhelmed by the increasing shortage of priests, the graying of those who are left and the minimal number of men opting for a celibate priesthood. Gibson reviews the history of mandatory celibacy and sees a
married clergy in the Latin Rite of the Church as inevitable, urgent and a last solution to the shortage of priests if the Eucharist is to be preserved as the center of Roman Catholic life.

His chapters on the hierarchy are a sad commentary on the failure of the bishops of the world to put into practice many of the reforms approved by Vatican II. The passive acquiescence by bishops’ conferences throughout the world to domination by Curial officials has, in effect, led to a complete undermining of Vatican II’s teachings on the liturgy, collegiality, the role of Episcopal conferences, and the principle of subsidiarity at every level of church life.

Gibson ends with a hopeful chapter on the reforms that must inevitably take place in the next papacy if the vitality and enthusiasm that Vatican II produced is to again revitalize the Church. He envisions a new decision making role for the Synod of Bishops, a different form of papal primacy that could be embraced by other Christian churches, a pope who would make the Curia the servants of the episcopacy instead of vice versa, and structural changes that will enable lay people to be involved in Church decision making at every level. All of this can only develop in an attitude of openness, trust and respect for the gifts which the Holy Spirit has given to all the Baptized.

Gibson has done a service for anyone interested in understanding what has happened to the Church since the opening of Vatican II. Those who wonder how the sexual abuse scandal could happen and what long-term effects it will have can find its roots in the secrecy, clericalism and incredible courses of action taken by members of the hierarchy in the past half century. But the reader will find new evidence that the Holy Sprit still dwells in the church and will breathe new life into the battered, bruised and bewildered Body of Christ.

Fall 2003



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