Author: Paul Lakeland, Fairfield University
In Commonweal of November 1, 2018, James J. Heaney wrote an excellent piece, “Our Myth, Their Lie: Clericalism, Not Heresy, Caused the Crisis.” Writing from the perspective of the Diocese of Minneapolis, Heaney argued forcefully if not particularly originally that the true foundational problem revealed by the scandal of sexual abuse is that of church structures that enable the abuse. As he sees it, clergy in general and bishops in particular have been engaged for decades in a systematic effort to pull the wool over the eyes of the laity, pretending to address the problem while doing everything they could to minimize or even ignore it.
Whether Heaney is right or wrong in calling foul, he is certainly correct that some of the structures of clericalism have seemed to exacerbate the problem. And so he calls for structural change, really for the wholesale rethinking of many ecclesial structures. But here is where my question arises. In making this case Heaney comments that “portions of the church’s structure are divinely instituted, so their reform is neither possible nor desirable. But most of the details were dreamed up by humans. Those can change.” But is it really the case that there are any church structures that are divinely instituted? Sure we have ministry and ministerial leadership, but the form has changed over the centuries. Sure we have the Eucharist, but that isn’t exactly a structure. Nor are the sacraments in general, though they of course have structures, but the structures themselves aren’t divinely instituted.
If my assumption here is correct that there are in fact no divinely instituted structures, though there are obviously structures, most of which have changed over time, then the right question to be asking about church structures is not which can or should be changed, but: given that gospel, sacrament and church are the foundational realities of the Catholic tradition, what structures do we need at this moment in history to help proclaim the gospel, celebrate the sacraments and live a fulfilled life in the faith community? What kind of ecclesial community do we need to imagine into being that will do for our age what different structural instantiations of gospel, sacrament and church have done in previous ages? If we ask this kind of question, then defending the vitality of gospel, sacrament and church cannot be accomplished by asserting the unchangeable character of the structures that have surrounded them in the past. Structures are of their nature quite changeable.
If this is correct then the requirement for church reform in any age, and certainly in our own, is a spirit-filled imagination, full of excitement and devoid of fear. The wrong approach to reform is to ask what minimal changes we need to make to address what we take to be the principal problems of the present day. Unfortunately, when the ills are structural, it is imprudent to leave reform to those who live within the dysfunctional structures. Here, indeed, is a moment for the sensus fidelium.
So, are there any “divinely instituted” structures, and if not, what next?