Part 3.

The Role of the Church. Not surprisingly, with all this fiddling as Rome burns (in a manner of speaking), the influence of the Catholic Church among the faithful is diminishing. So the efforts of conservatives to remain the arbiters of moral guidance may be chasing a lost cause.

The ARDA Sixth National Survey of American Catholics (2017) asked respondents:

“When you have an important moral decision to make, which, if any, of the following activities or sources do you use usually look to for guidance?”

Forty percent of Catholics said they prayed or meditated, 37% talked to close family members and 28% talked to trusted friends. Only 6% percent said they always talk to their local priest or read the catechism, and even fewer consult papal statements (3%) or their diocesan or the U.S. bishops’ website (3%). And over 80% rarely or never turn to papal encyclicals for guidance, or to diocesan or U.S. bishops’ websites.

But, on the other hand, the concept of “informed conscience” has been around for centuries, though not widely discussed until recently by Pope Francis.

More than once, Pope Francis has advised Catholics to look more at what their consciences tell them in terms of their behavior and beliefs. In fact, he has said this is more important than what the Vatican or their priests may tell them.

He issued a video message to a conference organized by Italian bishops on his controversial 2016 document on family life, ”Amoris Laetitia” or “The Joy of Love.” Francis told the conference that priests shall inform Catholic consciences “but not replace them.”

This certainly suggests that Pope Francis is saying that Catholics should follow their consciences even if against Church teaching, providing their conscience has been fully formed. Unsurprisingly, some conservatives have registered objections to this kind of thinking.

Of course, to some extent, we have for some time seen that vast numbers of individual Catholics have felt free to ignore Church positions on such matters as artificial contraception, mandatory Sunday Mass and divorce and remarriage.

Change Will Not Come Quickly. Luckily, those of us in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe are privileged to have many wonderful priests and parishes under the leadership of our terrific Archbishop John C. Wester.

Much of the rest of the country, however, is overseen by conservative bishops. After 35 years in which bishops were appointed on the basis of a commitment to orthodoxy, American bishops will continue to be largely conservative for many years. Pope Francis has been in office only six years and it would take at least that many more years for his appointments to shift the numbers to reflect a more moderate makeup.

Fr. Tom Reese, who has been covering the bishops as a commentator for more than four decades, believes the U.S. bishops can be roughly divided into thirds: one-third who are ideologically conservative, one-third who are what he terms “pastorally conservative,” and one-third who are more moderate.There are virtually no “ideological liberals,” he says.
Given that change at the Vatican won’t come quickly does not mean it is not important for Catholics in New Mexico and elsewhere to seek and expect change in the Catholic Church worldwide.

Nor does it make sense to me to drop out as author James Carroll has, as he reports in his Atlantic magazine article. We love our Archdiocese priests and hierarchy. Maybe all religion is local, in the same way all politics is.
Besides, we’re proud that many selfless Catholics support the poor, immigrants and the sick. They support the common good.

The Pope Francis protagonists will fade into obscurity soon enough. I firmly believe that there will be significant Church corrections, even if they result only because there are not enough priests to serve the faithful.

Reforms. In the meantime, here is my evolving list of important and necessary Catholic Church reforms:

  • Clericalism eliminated
  • Bishops appointed based on merit, not orthodoxy or politics
  • Celibacy for priests recognized as unnatural, destructive and outdated
  • Women should be allowed to become priests and deacons
  • Church rule-making and oversight should be significantly more decentralized and the Vatican’s role in Church governance much reduced
  • Credible claims of sexual abuse by clergy must be reported promptly to local law enforcement
  • Communion should not be denied to divorced Catholics
  • The marriage annulment process serves no useful purpose
  • LGBTQ Catholic parishioners should be embraced
  • Catholics should be welcoming, accepting and joyous, not judgmental 
  • Catholics need to be concerned and thoughtful concerning such issues as war, poverty, bigotry and environmental destruction
  • There should be a renewed consideration of the Vatican II liturgical and theological reforms that have been ignored or abandoned, especially those relating to definition of the Church as the People of God

This post is the last of three. All are available at

Chuck Wellborn

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