Healing a Broken Catholic Church

Because of its sins, the Roman Catholic Church is broken. The capital C in church is important; it signifies the institution, not the faithful. A wise Jesuit, the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, once wrote that the church can be viewed in different ways: as a herald, as a mystical communion, as an institution. It is the institution I am talking about.

The Catholic Church is my church, and what it has done saddens me. The institution has protected pedophile priests. It has lifted the excommunication of bishops in an ultra-conservative society that seeks to undo the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. One of the bishops is a Holocaust denier. Members of the Roman Curia, the governing body of the institution, have engaged in corruption, intrigue, and struggles for personal power that would shame Machiavelli. At the same time, the Vatican Bank has failed to meet Council of Europe standards on fighting financial crimes, including money laundering and tax evasion. If that weren’t enough, the institution has disparaged, removed, or tried to silence its progressive theologians and members of its clergy who have not toed the Vatican line. It has cast opprobrium upon gays and women (including its own nuns) and offended Muslims and Jews.

Sins, all—committed sometimes against good sense, other times against criminal justice and too often against God himself.

It is up to the cardinals now meeting at the Vatican to take the initial step toward repentance and repair by choosing a new pope who is more interested in expiating these sins than in driving the institution deeper into the 11th Century. But here is a suggestion for our lesser clergy—the archbishops, bishops, and pastors who shepherd nearly 70 million Catholics in the United States. Take Jesus at his word: Whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters you do for me.

First, care unstintingly for the victims of clerical sex abuse.

Second, in reparation for all the sins of the institution, do something bold. Follow the example of Our Lady of the Lake Parish, a Catholic community in northeast Seattle: Open parishes to the homeless.

The National Catholic Reporter tells how Our Lady of the Lake joined other churches for three weeks in an ecumenical shelter program: Under restrictions eased for religious facilities, the parish obtained city permits and converted the lower level of a former convent into a nighttime refuge for 12 to 15 men and women. The church sent personal letters assuring neighbors that they had nothing to fear. With help from the Union Gospel Mission, which set ground rules and helped screen guests, parishioners served as co-hosts in six-hour shifts. They stayed awake until midnight to enforce the rules, then were relieved by other parishioners who kept watch and prepared early breakfast—eggs, pastries, and fruit. Still other parishioners cleaned up and oversaw provisions. Coffee was continually replenished, writes Julie Gunter, a freelance journalist and member of the parish. It gave the shelter a  “persistent scent of ground espresso beans.”

Prelates across America should encourage parishes to try to ease restrictions and obtain permits in their jurisdictions to do what Our Lady of the Lake did: Welcome the least of God’s children. They could go a step further. Most Catholic churches are empty at night. Many of the churches themselves would make excellent shelters. Inviting the poor inside might not win any archbishops a cardinal’s red biretta, but Their Excellencies would be wearing white hats.

In Los Angeles, where I live, sheltering the homeless inside a church has been done before. In his book, Tattoos on the Heart—which recounts the story of creating Homeboy Industries, one of the most effective gang-intervention programs in the nation—another wise Jesuit, Father Gregory Boyle, tells about his early days as the pastor of Dolores Mission. In 1987, the mission, in the heart of L.A.’s Pico-Aliso barrio, declared itself a sanctuary for the undocumented. “Men from Mexico and Central America would sleep each night in the church,” Father Boyle writes, “and women and children in the convent. ... Once the homeless began to sleep in the church, there was always the faintest evidence that they had. Come Sunday morning, we’d foo foo the place as best we could. We would sprinkle I Love My Carpet on the rugs and vacuum like crazy. We’d strategically place potpourri and Air Wick around the church to combat this lingering, pervasive reminder that nearly 50 (and later up to 100) men had spent the night. ... Still, try as we might, the smell remained.”

Some parishioners protested. They talked of “churching” elsewhere. But to Father Boyle, ministry is not about maintaining the institution. It is about what he calls “the power of boundless compassion.” One Sunday, during a sermon in his malodorous sanctuary, he confronted the congregation. Father Boyle tells it best:

“Homilies were often dialogic in those days, so I begin with, ‘What’s the church smell like?’

“People are mortified, eye contact ceases ...

“‘Come on, now,’ I throw back at them, ‘what’s the church smell like?’

“‘Huele a patas (smells like feet),’ Don Rafael booms out. He was old and never cared what people thought.

“‘Excellent. But why does it smell like feet?’

“‘Cuz many homeless men slept here last night?’ says a woman.

“‘Well, why do we let that happen here?’

“‘Es nuestro compromiso (it’s what we’ve committed to do),’ says another.

“‘Well, why would anyone commit to do that?’

“‘Porque es lo qu haría Jesus (it’s what Jesus would do).’

“‘Well, then ... what’s the church smell like now?’

“A man stands and bellows, ‘Huele a nuestro compromiso (it smells like commitment).’

“The place cheers.”

So spoke the church of the lower-case c.  The response was not about the institution. It was about pure empathy. While welcoming the homeless would not by itself atone for all the Church’s past sins, it would signal a newfound openness and be a significant step in fixing what is broken. 

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