State of the union Ö state of the church?

I listened, as I do every year, to the President’s State of the Union message. I agreed with most of it … and I always love to hear Obama’s oratory because it is stirring, and it always exhibits some of the cadences of “black preaching.” This year, it was — at least in part — a call to be the best that we can be as a nation, especially in our education and in our innovative spirit.

But the speech set me to wondering: What if someone delivered a “State of the Church” address?

What would he (or she) say? What should he/she say? Could such an address be stirring, or be delivered with a lilt or a cadence? I doubt it, not today. An honest assessment would find the Catholic church in real trouble institutionally. There are great parishes and wonderful organizations here and there, but overall, there is trouble in River City (that river being the Tiber).

The laity — the People of God — feel very disempowered overall. They have no say in the choice of pastors or bishops, and have little — if any — voice in how their contributions are spent. Because the hierarchy refuses to permit optional celibacy for clergy, or to ordain women, they import priests from overseas who — despite good intentions — often feel ill at ease in our culture, and frequently preach sermons people do not understand. In other places, parishes are merging or closing in ways that make many of the laity very unhappy. Women feel especially left out, and many young people are just not coming to church.

Although it’s not news, it remains true: teachings on sexuality and reproduction, like birth control and same-sex relationships, make less and less sense to the vast majority of the laity, especially the young. They smell hierarchical hypocrisy in statements that call homosexuality “intrinsically disordered,” but refuse to recognize that a good percentage of Catholic priests are gay. And when the pope seems to make a breakthrough on an issue like using condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, the Vatican equivocates on the message.

All this is compounded by the continuing legacy of the sex abuse scandal.

And in the face of all this, what do many of the hierarchy spend time doing? They investigate nuns, and revise the prayers for Mass to make them less intelligible!

Not long ago, I was talking to a well-known journalist who is Catholic, and he was lamenting the current state of the church overall. “What a mess, and it’s getting worse,” he said.

“But there are bright spots,” he said. “You nuns should run the church, and then we’d get somewhere in the 21st century!” Not a bad idea!


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