I was reading in Tom Roberts’ book The Emerging Catholic Church and found an interesting anecdote about the retired archbishop of Los Angeles. Roberts was writing about research work done by sociologists Richard Schoenherr and Lawrence Young on the projected population of dicoesan clergy. They had troubling news for the US bishops, who, with the Lilly Endowment, commissioned a study on where clergy numbers were heading from 1966 to 2005. It was particularly troubling for the darling of the hate-Right, who was displeased about Dr Schoenherr’s history (as a person who had left active priesthood years before):
I reject that pessimistic assessment and feel that the Catholic Church in our country has been done a great disservice by the Schoenherr report.
(The report) presumes that the only factors at work are sociology and statistical research. That is nonsense. We are disciples of Jesus Christ. We live by God’s grace, and our future is shaped by God’s design for his church, not by sociologists.
The bishops halted their funding for this research in 1990. It’s a puzzler on a few fronts, but maybe not really surprising considering the overall quality of the American episcopate over the past generation.
First, disciples of the Lord are shaped by the truth, and by our commitment to it. Let’s say we have information that the entire world is made up of pagans. Maybe the apostles were dismayed in the first century at this news. Regardless, they did not find it daunting that they were rejected by members of their own faith, and they develed deep into the pagan empire of Rome to spread the Good News. It would have been easier for Peter to say, “Too darn many people. Let’s just stick with Judea, and Matthew’s Gospel up to 28:15.” And perhaps for some of our sister and brother Catholics: they dwell on the smaller, purer church–because the alternative is just to dang hard.
Second, no serious and thoughtful person would decline to receive important news, even if it were bad. I had a repair guy tell me I’m on the hook for a $193 component for my furnace. Maybe I can bundle up in sweaters during the day and tuck myself under a comforter at night, but the reality is that if I want an operating heating system, I’m going to have to face the truth: one important part of my home is broke, and I have to pay to fix it. The sociologists are not shaping the future. They are just telling the bishops that the temperature is going to drop in their mansion if they don’t attend to what’s broken.
This is part of the cult of leadership around many leaders in our society. People have allowed their intellects to dull to the point where they attack messengers of bad news. I’ve felt the sting of people who are infuriated at bad news I bring. Sorry, but I didn’t have forty million abortions. Like them, I just live in a country that has them.
Count me as not surprised, but disappointed in Cardinal Mahony. There’s nothing really wrong with being a conservative. Some of my best friends are. But what is more troubling is a passive and unresponsive mode of engaging the good world God has given us. If a meteorologist predicts cold and snow, maybe I’ll wear shoes instead of sandals. But I won’t blame the weather forecasters if my feet get cold and red if I take option #2.
A wise conservative, when confronted with sociological trends, would take them under serious advisement. A spiritual person, when confronted with sociological realities, might look to her or his interior life, and assess what part of vocation unawareness is due to her or his own fault. Then take steps to change the things that can be changed.
Cardinal Mahony’s response to clergy sociological trends strikes me as neither wise nor spiritual. And what has it got him? Dr Schoenherr’s piece of “pessimism” has largely been right on. If Cardinal Mahony has been praying and beating the bushes for native-born seminarians for twenty years, it got him nothing. Maybe he rubbed his toes before heading out into a snowstorm in sandaled feet. They still got red. They still got cold. The loss seems less that the number of clergy have declined largely as sociologists anticipated. The loss is that the archbishop and his friends seem largely clueless.
Back to Jesus, and his criticism of religious leadership:
Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not also blind, are we” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.” (John 9:40-41)
No, I think liberal Catholics have a lot to criticize in Cardinal Mahony. I wouldn’t count him as a fellow tribesman. Not by a long shot.