Dolan: Honesty about Church’s flaws might win back fallen-away members

| Peter Finney Jr. | September 25, 2017 | 7 Comments

New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan suggested to more than 400 priests of the state of Louisiana that humbly and openly sharing the “wounds” and shortcomings of the Church might bring those who are alienated back to the practice of the faith.

Using the image of the church as “our supernatural family, which we, as priests, are called to image,” Cardinal Dolan told the opening session of the three-day Louisiana Priests’ Convention that human weakness has been a part of the church from the beginning.

“The church is not just our family — it’s also a dysfunctional family,” he said Sept. 19 during what is one of the largest statewide gatherings of priests in the U.S. “Everybody today talks about dysfunctional families. Have you ever met a functional one?”

Cardinal Dolan, who spoke on the theme of “Shepherding Today as Priest, Prophet and King,” said in the jubilee year of 2000, St. John Paul II “apologized publicly” 54 times for “the specific sins of the church.”

“That’s more than once a week,” Cardinal Dolan said. “And Pope Francis surely has done so.”

The cardinal said while the world is “ever ready to headline the flaws of the church,” the dynamic changes when “her loyal members are more than willing to own up to them.”

If that happens, people estranged from the church “might just take a second look,” he said.

“Their favorite caricature of the church is as a corrupt, arrogant, self-righteous, judgmental hypocrite,” Cardinal Dolan said. “I sure don’t have any problem admitting that, at times, it can be tough to love the church because of her imperfections. The mystical body of Christ has lots of warts.”

However, Cardinal Dolan noted, it is clear from the Acts of the Apostles, in particular the conversion of St. Paul, that “Jesus Christ and his Church are inseparable.”

When Saul was blinded and knocked off his horse on his way to Damascus, Cardinal Dolan said, the voice he heard was, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“He didn’t say, ‘Why do you persecute my people?’ Nope. ‘My followers?’ Nope. ‘My disciples?’ Nope. To be rather blunt, Jesus and his Church are the same. Christ and his Church are one. Jesus Christ and his Church are synonymous,” the cardinal continued.

“My brother priests, as we consider the priesthood, preserving the unity of Christ and his Church is perhaps the most significant pastoral challenge we shepherds face today,” Cardinal Dolan said. “I’m not telling you anything (new) — you’re all on the front lines. The dominant opinion and sentiment that we face today is, ‘We want Christ; we want nothing to do with that stupid church.'”

A YouTube video by evangelical Jefferson Bethke — “Why I hate religion but love Jesus” — “went viral with 27 million views” because of that sentiment, he said.

“Such is the popular and the successful crusade now to annul the spousal bond between Christ and his bride, the Church,” Cardinal Dolan said. “We hear this all the time, right? ‘I prefer spirituality to religion; I want the Lord as my shepherd, as long as I’m the only one there; I want Christ as my king in a kingdom of one; I’ll believe, I won’t belong; God is my father, and I’m the only child; Jesus is my general, but there’s no army.’ They want Christ without his Church.”

Cardinal Dolan said Pope Francis has made it clear that a Christian cannot be “a nomad” but is someone who “belongs to a people, the Church. A Christian without a church is something purely idealistic.”

“We live in a world that often considers belief in God a private hobby, at best, a dangerous ideology, at worst,” Cardinal Dolan said. “The Church is considered superstitious, irrational, backwards, useless, counterproductive, out of it. So, what do we do, my fellow museum pieces?”

Cardinal Dolan suggested to the 435 priests that they evangelize by developing “a theology and a practice of the Church as a family.” He said it’s not a new idea; it’s one that also resonate with the Jewish community, which is experiencing similar challenges of keeping young people within the practice of their faith.

Cardinal Dolan said the late New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin once wrote: “We Catholics might not be very good at being members of the Church, but we never leave. We’re all just one chest pain away from going back.”

“Not anymore, I’m afraid,” Cardinal Dolan said. “I don’t know about you, but every time the Pew Research Center puts out a new study, every time CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) announces more statistics, I, as a priest, a shepherd, a prophet and a king, hold my breath because the percentage of people who claim to be ex-Catholic or ‘none’ rises a couple of points.”

If people with a cynical or jaded view of the church experience priests who “prize honesty and humility” and are “contrite and eager” to reform the flaws of the Church, then they may begin to view the Church as “a warm, tender, inviting family.”

“If we’re not afraid as priests to show our wounds — the wounds of the Church, the wounds of our family — maybe the other wounded will come back,” Cardinal Dolan said.

Finney is executive editor/general manager of the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

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  • Roddy

    Well, honesty would be a new and different approach….

  • The flaw that is most commented on is how the leaders covered up child sex abuse best thing is to do more to protect children in ALL Dioceses! There should be reports on what EACH Diocese is doing to protect children so we can make sure EVERY parish is protecting children.

  • MDK66


  • Charles C.

    I thought an apology involved 1.) admitting I did something wrong, 2.) offering to make amends, and 3.) doing everything I could not to have it happen again.

    So, who is the Cardinal asking to apologize? Priests in Louisiana who probably had nothing to do with any problems and weren’t responsible for anything? Perhaps the Pope should apologize, but as the article points out Pope Saint John Paul II apologized 54 times. I would think that would cover it. Is there anything that hasn’t been apologized for?

    Now Cardinal Dolan is responsible for the Archdiocese of New York, and he has things to apologize for which have occurred in his Archdiocese. He can take care of that. The Pope can apologize for anything which previous Popes haven’t already apologized for, then we should be good.

    Is that really why people aren’t in the pews?

    Mass attendance was 55% in 1965. By 1980, before the sex scandals hit, attendance had fallen to 41%. Attendance stayed at 35-39% through 1995, even though the sex scandals started getting national attention in 1985. In 2000 attendance plummeted to 22%, and it’s been at 22-24% ever since.

    The number of Catholics who were born in the US has fluctuated between 44 and 52.6 million since 1965, even though the population as a whole has gone from 194 to 323 million since 1965.

    Repeating over and over how sorry the Church is for this or that doesn’t appear to be the solution Cardinal Dolan is looking for.

    • Rudy

      The Church doesn’t have flaws.

      • Charles C.

        Interesting point. I suppose it depends on how you define the Church.

        If the Church is defined as the believers, or even just as the Pope, we run into the people problem. People are not flawless, they make mistakes. If those mistakes determine an action of the Church, then one could say the Church made a mistake even though it was only an individual who erred.

  • Nancy

    Honesty is certainly vital, but I find the largest “shoot yourself inte foot” action by church communities is that we do not know how to “love one another” as Jesus commanded of us. We go about a busy-ness of seminars and activities, and we give a lot of money to ‘missions’ or the latest ‘social justice’ focus, yet we continue to fail to truly love one another. Priests and laity alike compartmentalize themselves, hold each other at arms length, and do not truly connect with one another. We approach people as opportunities to prove we serve rather than brothers to love in a way which is for their well being and not our own. People leave because they do not find “love one another” truly manifested.