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The Continuing Crisis 

A freelance writer and former reporter for the New Jersey Star-Ledger, David Gibson displays uncommon intelligence in The Coming Catholic Church: How the Faithful Are Shaping a New American Catholicism (HarperSanFrancisco). The abuse crisis of 2002 is his backdrop, but with cul-de-sacs into church history and a line of set pieces exploring church governance with priests, theologians, lay activists, abuse survivors, Vatican officials and U.S. hierarchs, this book has impressive range.

The American bishops met in Dallas in June 2002 to adopt a youth protection charter after the worst media coverage the Catholic Church in America had ever experienced. In the months that followed, bishops removed dozens of priests because of sexual liabilities in their past, yet Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, whose long concealment of sex offenders had precipitated the scandal, remained in office. When the bishops met last November, they were under fire from victims' groups because of Law, from priests who felt the zero-tolerance policy had sold out their brethren for misconduct long forgotten, and from the Vatican, which wanted canon law changes in the charter.

Writes Gibson: "In one surreal moment, the bishops awoke to the realization that they should say something about Iraq. That meant they had to turn to Cardinal Law who as head of the international policy committee would draft a statement. Thus the principal villain of the sexual abuse scandal stood up on the meeting's final day to warn against a rush to war, asking that he be heeded as the moral voice of the nation's largest church."

There, in cameo, is the crisis continuing. Although Law has since left Boston, he remains a cardinal who will vote at the conclave to elect the next pope after the death of John Paul II. Meanwhile, as the American bishops slog through the worst crisis in their history, the Vatican has largely stood aloof, betraying an obsession with canon law over the fate of accused priests rather than with the underlying causes of the crisis. Gibson rightly points out that there is no mechanism to remove bishops who grossly betray their trust. This is one aspect of the greater tension he explores between the Vatican, the bishops' conferences of various countries, and loyal lay people.

Gibson is best when he casts a wide net, showing how the authority-vs.-reform tension in America also manifests in other countries. A double standard toward clerical celibacy in many parts of African and Latin America may not trigger the same explosive legal and media reaction as in America, but the impact on the church's credibility registers as Protestant churches grow.

Gibson assesses the prospects for a married clergy, existing alongside the celibate tradition, by wisely noting that couples and families in an age of increasing divorces are sure to bring baggage into rectories. Parish life is the heart's blood of the church. One wishes Gibson had devoted more space to a consideration of how well-functioning families in rectories might rejuvenate a theology of priestly life and the extended family of the parish.

Gibson advances a reasoned analysis on the gay priest culture. "The problem is not homosexuality, per se -- although some orthodox Catholics and church leaders would dispute that -- but the kind of homosexuals that are becoming priests and the effect that the burgeoning numbers of gay priests is having on the priesthood." This is an issue on which media coverage has been superficial at best, perhaps because of a politically correct climate in many newsrooms. If the priesthood does become a gay institution -- as priests like Donald Cozzens, Andrew Greeley and Richard McBrien have warned -- the impact on parish life is likely to register not in ugly conflicts, but in people leaving.

The most telling sign of failed governance is not the emergence of reform groups like Voice of the Faithful, but the continuing trend of Catholics not going to confession, nor attending Mass every Sunday. Orthodox believers scoff at "cafeteria Catholics," yet when people in the pews realize that they cannot remove a bishop who shelters child molesters -- or must accept a priest leading a closeted life -- they respond by boycotting confession and avoiding Mass.

That is why for all of Gibson's solid writing, his title is deceptive. Try as he might to chart a blueprint for the fractious, scandal-battered oldest church in Christendom, the idea of rank-and-file believers "shaping" a new church is highly speculative. Most people go to church for the solace of the sacraments.

A generation ago, Flannery O'Connor wrote, "Sin is sin whether it is committed by Pope, bishops, priests or lay people. The Pope goes to confession like the rest of us." The problem today is finding a pope who recognizes the sin inside the church and resolves to change the system.

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