December 3, 2007
— Martin E. Marty
Paul Stanosz, a sociologist and priest in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee,
speaks of difficult times: "It's been a rough year…where I have been
a priest since 1984. Recently the Archdiocese announced the closing of
the academic program at its 151-year-old seminary. Its central offices…are
for sale to pay clergy sexual-abuse claims, and bankruptcy looms."
Milwaukee is not alone in travail.
Stanosz is not a ranting leftist critic, but, as a consultant on matters of priestly morale, an empathic servant of the Archdiocese. More close-up visions from him: "Among priests, meanwhile, there is much talk of high stress, poor health, and low morale. More and more are battling burnout and depression as well as suffering heart attacks and dying prematurely. Two have committed suicide." Not all is well in the parishes: "The steep decline in religiosity among Catholic youth is also evidence of an acute crisis." The editors of Commonweal, the Catholic magazine in which Stanosz's comments appeared on November 23rd, lifted out one sentence and made a bold subhead of it: "Roman Catholicism in the next two decades will almost certainly face the sort of enormous decline that mainline Protestant denominations suffered in the 1960s." On many levels, according to a variety of sociological accounts in the same Commonweal, it already has.
Why care, in a column chartered by a Center which focuses on "public religion?" One can care personally: I've had familiarity with and emotional ties to the Milwaukee scene for sixty-five (sixty-five!) years, since we Lutheran kids debated Jesuit high-schoolers. I've benefited from the later ministries of two former archbishops, remain an admiring friend of another and have had a few pleasant exchanges with the current leader. I can see the glow of Milwaukee and other lakeshore cities from my high-rise window in Chicago. Yes, I care.
Others would care, since the Catholic one-fourth of America remains enormous, weighty, and in some ways—especially on the lay front—vital. The church cannot deliver or block votes from post-bloc Catholics in politics, but politicians find reasons to court post-modern Catholic movements and causes. One could go on and on. Fellow Christians in the various Protestant ranks and flanks have not lunged in a spirit of Schadenfreude, joy in someone else's misfortunes, or triumphally, as if they were above the crises. Protestant commentators have been almost silent about the "clerical abuse crisis," also because of other kinds of clerical shortcomings among them.
No, their mood is elegiac. So are most of the Catholic authors in this issue of Commonweal: They review sociological analyses pointing to dimensions of the crisis and they notice and complain about the growing schism across the generations, posing the "JPII" younger harder-liners versus the more moderate "Vatican II" seniors. The editors are concerned about the encouragement given to clerical forces that distance themselves from and put down the laity. Just enough of the contributors find glimmers of hope. Even Father Stanosz does not let himself be done in, but notes that "the problems are embodied in the worn, torn, aging, and overweight colleagues I observed" at a recent assembly. The greatest threat to their "well-being is denial." Post-denial, are there reasons for new hope?
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
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