Cardinal Stafford on the Church's Crisis

Wide-ranging Interview on Parish Life and the Laity

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BOSTON, Massachusetts, AUG. 23, 2003 (Zenit.org).- American Cardinal James Francis Stafford believes the current Church crisis is a crisis of parish life.



The president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity explained his views in this interview with Antonio Enrique, director of the Archdiocese of Boston's weekly newspaper, The Pilot. The interview was first published on Aug. 8 and is reprinted here with permission.

Q: You work very closely with the Holy Father at the Vatican. Can you tell us how aware the Holy Father is of the crisis of the Church in Boston and in the United States in general?

Cardinal Stafford: The Holy Father himself initiated the meeting in April of 2002 between the American cardinals, himself and members of the Roman Curia. He was present for each of those meetings and heard it firsthand. Cardinal [Bernard] Law frequently brought the Holy Father up to date, together with other members of the Roman Curia. Bishop Lennon did the same, especially through Cardinal [Giovanni Battista] Re, and through the apostolic nuncio here in the United States.

My sense is that the Holy Father and the membership of the Curia, the leaders of the various Roman dicasteries, are very aware of what has been happening in the United States and, more specifically, in Boston.

Q: You are the president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, the dicastery that assists the Pope in all matters concerning the contributions the lay faithful make to the life and mission of the Church. How do you see the role of the laity in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis?

Cardinal Stafford: The most significant positive development since the Second Vatican Council has been the flourishing of lay movements within the Church. That doesn't mean that there were not lay movements before. We obviously have analogous groups such as the Knights of Columbus and the confraternities, which go back to the Middle Ages, but the unique expression of that, through the various associations of the lay faithful, has only developed since World War II and after the Second Vatican Council.

They have arisen to meet very specific needs of the laity -- the need for a deeper spirituality which, in many ways, they do not feel the parish has been able to meet. And secondly, the need of the laity to give greater evidence of their own desire for evangelizing the world -- the world of economics, the world of politics, the world of the university, the world of unions. These new lay movements illustrate the desire of the laity for a greater commitment to the discipleship of Jesus, in the world and in the Church.

More specifically, these lay movements assist the lay people especially in living out their sacramental commitment to Christ in baptism, confirmation and marriage. Of course, that means through the ongoing living of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus through the Eucharist. They do that within a commitment to community, to community life.

Those communities really live the vision that Jesus expressed in Matthew 18, where he speaks of the challenge of forgiveness within the Christian community. Peter asked, "How often are disciples to forgive one another? Seven times? And Jesus responded, "Seventy times seven times." I sense that living forgiveness, that love, which is a tough love, to be very present in the ecclesial movements in a way that I don't sense them as strongly in the parishes. Also, the vision of the early communities after the ascension of Jesus, as expressed in Acts 2 and 4, are better expressed, better realized, in the new lay movements than I sense in most parishes.

So, the new lay movements are, as a matter of fact, a commitment to a deeper "koinonia" [communion], a living out of community with one another and with the presbyterate in a way that assists them in living and experiencing the meaning of the beatitudes in their lives, especially as married men and women.

Secondly, they experience great tension in living out the commitment of the Gospel in their daily life, as in work. These new lay movements assist them again to live out the poverty of spirit that is the beginning of all discipleship, which is, of course, the first of the great beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew as expressed by Jesus.

So the new lay movements have many things to offer the Church: a deeper sense of community in the Holy Spirit, of fellowship in the Holy Spirit, of communion in the Holy Spirit, and a deeper sense of commitment to Christ in the workplace. They also experience a great reinforcement of their life as married men and women.

Q: Your dicastery has been studying the sacraments of initiation -- baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist -- and highlighting their importance in everyday Christian life. In an interview last November, you said it was important for modern parishes to become centers of post-baptismal religious instruction, so that Catholics can better experience the connection between the sacraments and their daily lives. Moving forward, could you describe how parishes should address the challenge of adult faith formation and the new evangelization?

Cardinal Stafford: One of the greatest gifts the Spirit has given to us from the Second Vatican Council is the renewal of the catechumenate.

The catechumenate has various stages. I would say that the most important aspect for parish renewal is to look at a post-baptismal catechesis, that is, a catechesis or an instruction in the mysteries of Christ and of the Church for all of the baptized, the part of the steps in the RCIA which is called the "mystagogia" -- that is, post-baptismal catechesis.

These steps [of the RCIA] attempt to deepen the understanding of the baptized in the mysteries of the faith, especially the sacraments, and to call them into a deeper sense of community within the Catholic Church, especially in the parish, and to call them to a faithful witness to Christ in the marketplace.

In order to meet that challenge of a renewed mystagogia -- post-baptismal catechesis in the parish -- requires that vision of the community which I have already briefly cited, that Jesus had in Matthew 18, that is that the community life in the parish is lived as a community of love, as a community that is willing to forgive others, even when those others are perceived as sinners.

The parish is to be a community that calls others to a deeper conversion of life from sin to the light of Jesus. That, in my judgment, should lead us to a further exploration of a restoration of the "Ordo Poenitentium" -- the Order of Penitents -- that was present in the patristic Church.

Many of the problems that we are experiencing in the priesthood, I think, especially the sexual abuse, are due to a crisis, not just an acute crisis, but a long-term crisis in the parish and in the community of the parishes that is lived out. Part of it is rooted in the fact that people do not really experience love within the parish; it is a place in which they really do not trust one another enough to be able to experience the forgiving love of Jesus as that is mediated by the community.

A restructuring, a renewal, a rediscovery of the "Ordo Poenitentium," for example as in the early Church, would be an opportunity in which priests and people would recognize their sinfulness, would be willing to surrender in their vulnerability to the tough love of the community in making known their weakness, their sinfulness, and asking for a public penance.

But this would not be true just of the priests; this would be true of lay men and lay women in their own experience of fidelity or infidelity within marriage, or as parents, or their lack of witness, or their sinfulness in their work, in their business, in their unions, in their university setting, so that their parish really is a community in which people experience the forgiveness of Jesus.

That, I think, is key to the renewal of the parish: that the parish becomes again a sacrament, a sign of God's forgiving love for the sinner, of God's mercy for those who perceive themselves as sinners. That includes us all -- priests, deacons, laity, bishops.

So, how do I see the parish renewal taking place? I see it as taking place through the renewal of the "mystagogia," the post-baptismal catechesis within community, calling the people to a rediscovery of the love of Jesus, that is, that forgiving love that speaks of reconciliation with the Father in Christ. That's not going to be an easy task.

Q: The Pontifical Council for the Laity is working to give formal recognition to some of those new movements and ecclesial communities. Among them, your dicastery has recently given formal recognition, for the first time, to a post-baptismal catechumenate. How useful can the Neocatechumenate be as a tool to bring that renewal into the parishes?

Cardinal Stafford: There are many lay movements within the Church that have been called by the Spirit to bring about a renewal of communities, of parishes. They may not call it "mystagogia" but, nevertheless, it is a "mystagogia," it is a catechesis in the forgiving love of Jesus, a catechesis in which the parish learns to be a community of loving forgiveness.

In my judgment, and I've been a bishop now since 1976, the Neocatechumenate is one of the strongest expressions of that capacity within the Church that the Spirit has given to us that has the ability to create a forgiving community, the capacity to create a community of tough love that is rooted in the cross of Jesus.

I have known the Neocatechumenate since 1980. I invited them into the Archdiocese of Denver and we established a Redemptoris Mater seminary there. I have become much more familiar with the Neocatechumenate since I have gone to Rome. In my judgment, it is one of the best expressions, one of the best proclamations of the paschal mystery that the Spirit has given to the modern Church.

The bishops and the priests of the United States must first face the fact that this crisis that surfaced in 2002 is a crisis in parish community life, not just in the priesthood but in the way in which priests relate to people in the parish communities.

They must recognize that the parishes are facing a crisis in the United States, and that crisis has been [shown] not simply by the abuse issue but also by the generational decline -- since 1967-68 -- of the vital sacramental signs of the Church. The vital signs also have declined in terms of the number of ordinations to priestly ministry within the Church in the United States.

Having recognized that crisis, the priests, bishops and the lay people of the Church must then begin to ask themselves, "What is the Spirit calling us to do in reforming the Church?"

I think one of the instruments that the Spirit has given to us would be these new lay communities, including the Neocatechumenate. Despite the fact that so many find objections to the Neocatechumenate in the United States, I am convinced that the means for renewal within the Church rests with the new communities and it also rests with the Neocatechumenate.

Q: Growing conflicts between contemporary culture and faith seem to be keeping many Catholics from accepting the teachings of the Church on moral issues. How can that gap between the magisterium and contemporary culture be healed?

Cardinal Stafford: I think the lay people have much to teach us in this. I am thinking of such lay persons as Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, David Schindler, Tracey Rowland in Australia -- a great woman theologian -- some lay theologians in Great Britain.

They are indicating to us that we have to better our understanding of the theology of culture. I understand them to say that the Vatican Council was too optimistic in its assessment -- "Gaudium et Spes" especially -- of the compatibility between postmodern culture and the Catholic faith. I am in full agreement with that judgment.

So, the first issue that the Church must face is to assess, critically, the compatibility between facets of liberal-Nietzchean culture as it's being lived in the West, that is in United States, in Canada, in Western Europe and, increasingly, in many other parts of the world, and to make judgments in light of the Gospel whether this liberal Nietzchean culture is, as a matter of fact, compatible or hostile to the Gospel. I am thinking specifically in the area of human sexuality, of economics, of academic freedom, especially in the university and colleges.

It is important for the Church, not simply the hierarchical Church, priests and bishops, but the laity, together, to analyze the concept of individualism in Western culture, not simply from a sociological point of view, but above all from an evangelical-Gospel point of view, and from the tradition of the Church rooted in that evangelical-Gospel tradition, especially from the writings and teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas. To look closely at the meaning of contemporary American freedom and look closely at his philosophical origins, especially in Hegel. Most of the academic freedom that we are practicing in the United States came through Johns Hopkins, and Johns Hopkins was greatly influenced by Hegelian philosophy.

We have to look very closely at the meaning, from an evangelical point of view, of economic globalization and what it is doing to Third World countries, especially in Latin America and Africa, and how much responsibility does the economic system in the United States have to do with creating those situations that many perceive as being increasingly unjust.

My point is that the crisis in the Church will continue until the Catholic Church comes to a deeper awareness and consciousness -- and above all judgment -- about the compatibility of elements within modern culture and the Catholic faith. My conviction is that until we come to that clarity of judgment, that critical judgment about the relationship of the culture to faith, the chronic crisis will continue within the Church and within the priesthood and within the parish.

So, to put it in a nutshell, is modern culture a "praeparatio evangelica" [preparation for the Gospel] or not? And what elements within modern culture are not "praeparatio evangelica"? In my judgment, I think there are going to be many elements within that culture that will be determined to be hostile to Christian marriage, to Christian understanding of justice, to charity and to the Christian understanding of virtue.

Q: Is that where the new evangelization needs to come forward?

Cardinal Stafford: The new evangelization, first, is dependent upon this willingness to reach a judgment about the compatibility or incompatibility between postmodern culture and the Catholic faith. Everything, in my judgment, depends upon that judgment.

Q: Strong words, your Eminence.

Cardinal Stafford: Well, strong words requiring a courageous willingness to address the issue. If the United States' bishops move ahead with some type of gathering, whether at a plenary council or a national synod of bishops under the presidency of the Holy Father, in my judgment the bishops must have the courage, above all, to face that issue.

Q: One aspect of that relation between faith and postmodern culture is the relationship between politics and the Christian conscience. The Holy See has issued a document, "Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons." It affirms that Catholic politicians are obliged to oppose the legal recognition of homosexual unions, calling failure to do so "gravely immoral." Local politicians have reacted to the document, saying that it is inappropriate for the Church to instruct politicians. Would you like to comment?

Cardinal Stafford: The general principle is this: If we judge that religion is irrelevant to politics, then we are recognizing that the political realm is no longer part of the realm of God. If we divide the religious, the sacred, from the secular, then we are limiting severely, into very narrow confines, the action of God in the life of the world. But that's not what we confess in our faith as Catholics. God is not simply the God who is limited to a very specific area of life. He is the Creator of all that we see and all that is not seen.

For the Catholic politician who lives fully his or her baptism, it is impossible that God should simply be a "tag-on" to the system, whether it is political or economic. That is not the Catholic understanding of God. He is the Lord of Life. We confess in the Creed [that] he is the Spirit, he is the Lord, the Giver of Life.

Governor [Mario] Cuomo and President John Kennedy, both Catholics, did a severe disservice to the Catholic laity by setting a path that limits God in his role as Creator and Redeemer of all of mankind. And for Catholic politicians today to believe that they [Cuomo and Kennedy] are guides for their consciences, puts them at total odds with the Catholic magisterium and with the Catholic tradition.

Q: What message would you deliver to Boston Catholics, as we move forward beyond the crisis?

Cardinal Stafford: We pray at every Eucharist the Our Father, and Jesus seemed to say that the central petition of the Our Father is the fourth one, where we pray, at Jesus' instruction, for forgiveness to the Father as we forgive those who have sinned against us. That "as" is very central to the Christian understanding of evangelical life. That is, that we are forgiven by God as we forgive one another within marriage, within families, within our workplace, within the parish; relationships of priests and people, relationships of priests and bishops.

So, my hope for the people of the Archdiocese of Boston is that they will see written large over the diocesan Church and over the parish church, "Here -- here -- one can find forgiveness." Only in such a community will we be able to rediscover hope again.