Amid an unprecedented crisis in the Catholic Church in Chile, lay people tired of waiting for deeper change are organizing themselves.
After the extent of sexual abuse cover-up was made known, every bishop submitted his resignation to Pope Francis. He’s accepted seven, with several more expected.
“We agree with Pope Francis that we must not get bogged down in the quicksand of desolation, protest and simple complaining, but rather it is time to make constructive suggestions as to what needs to be done,” says a letter written by some of Chile’s most influential Catholic lay people.
The missive is, in many ways, a response to Francis’s address to the bishops of Chile when he was in the country last January.
“A failure to realize that the mission belongs to the entire Church, and not to the individual priest or bishop, limits the horizon, and even worse, stifles all the initiatives that the Spirit may be awakening in our midst,” the pope said at the time. “Let us be clear about this: The laypersons are not our peons, or our employees. They don’t have to parrot back whatever we say.”
The letter began as a project of three friends, and was eventually signed by 52 lay people and then hundreds more. It is being released now as an open letter to Francis.
It was hand-delivered in June to Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, who together with Spaniard Father Jordi Bertomeu traveled to Chile twice this year as papal representatives to gather evidence in the case of Bishop Juan Barros, formerly of Osorno.
Barros had long been accused by the victims of now former priest Fernando Karadima of having covered up for his mentor, and Francis’s decision in 2015 to transfer him to the southern diocese of Osorno caused an uproar.
Yet what Scicluna and Bertomeu found on their first trip in February was enough to fill over 2,000 pages with Barros merely one of several bishops involved.
Today, there are at least 211 priests being investigated by Chilean civil authorities over credible accusations of abuse, and eight bishops have been summoned to testify over either cover-up or for having sexually abused minors and young adults themselves.
As things stand, Francis has only appointed apostolic administrators to replace the seven prelates whose resignations he’s accepted, but he has created no new bishops.
It’s this situation that led laymen Joseph Ramos, Alvaro Covarrubias and Jorge Mardones to compose the letter, that they recently made available online as an open missive to the pontiff in Spanish, English and French.
The letter, they wrote, is a response to Francis’s invitation to have the courage to tell him “this is the path to be taken, this is not.”
“Much as we take pride in Francis of Assisi, Thomas More and Mother Teresa - though we ourselves are far from their mark, we feel ashamed by the likes of [Mexican Marcial] Maciel and the many pedophiles, not to mention the cover-ups of the hierarchy,” they wrote. “We are overwrought by the thought that as a result of such reprehensible behavior, millions will close themselves to the message of Christ.”
“Together with the holy and the sacred, there coexists in it the abuse of power, arrogance, hypocrisy, dogmatism - all the worse when it is clothed in virtue.”
Despite the Church’s sins and crimes, those who signed the letter also recognized that it was through the institution that they’ve encountered what they cherish most in life as the Church “introduced us to Christ and His message; inflamed us with the noblest ideals, centered on love; awakened our sensitivity for the sacred and transcendent; taught us that we are part of a community, one for another; encouraged us to build the kingdom, what gives meaning to our lives.”
They acknowledge the letter is incomplete, that much of what they propose must be nuanced and that their affirmations might be “altogether mistaken,” but their hope is to at least kick-start a dialogue where the decisions are not left solely to the hierarchy, because they believe it is this clericalism that’s led to the current crisis.
They make six clear points or suggestions, each then subdivided, to include a wide range of changes they believe the Catholic Church should implement to address the crisis that affects not only Chile, but the institution worldwide.
“We hunger and long for a Church: centered on Jesus and His project; that practices and symbolizes what it preaches; which is evangelical and missionary; whose doctrinal magisterium is focused on the essential; whose moral teaching distinguishes the ideal from minimum moral norms; whose institutional structure is coherent with His message,” they write.
In the explanation for each change, they make further, more concrete proposals and challenges. For instance, they write that even though women are the ones who do most of the work around the parishes, they have minimum participation in Church decisions.
“It may be too early for some to consider women for the priesthood,” they write. “Yet all should agree that women should have as prominent a participation in Church affairs and leadership as men, ridding the Church of centuries of male dominance and chauvinism.”
They also call for the Church to consider returning to the “ancient practice in the west and the continuing historic practice up to the current day of the oriental rite in our own Catholic and apostolic Church,” where diocesan priests can marry.
“Our hearts go out to the vast majority of priests and nuns who dedicate themselves anonymously to their apostolate, and who today must bear the cross of being suspected of abuse and corruption because of the behavior of the few,” they write. “Our hearts also go out to the single priest in a small town or the lone parish priest in the city, who live a life of sacrifice and in absolute loneliness. Yet this second cross is not necessary.”
They also write that regardless of their respect for the pope and his teachings, not all of what Francis or his predecessors have said and done is good or correct. They cite poor episcopal appointments, but also the case of Francis being publicly “reprimanded” by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, after the pope treated as “calumny” the accusations of sexual abuse and cover-up in Chile.
“’Fraternal correction’ works in both directions, not just top down (typical up until recently) but bottom up, from the base to higher authority (where much still remains to be done),” they argued.
They also call for greater collegiality among bishops and with Rome, saying that their authority can be “traced directly to the 12 apostles,” and that major decisions in matters of faith and morals should be the result of “collegial reflection of the bishops in a universal Council, called by the Pope, successor of Peter and bishop of Rome.”