Last week, I mentioned that I was reading the final book written by Gabriel Moran (1935 – 2021): What Happened to the Roman Catholic Church? What Now? I have now finished it and would like to share some observations. It is an excellent book and I strongly recommend it. The book is both Moran’s memoir about the Catholic Church, from the 1950s to today, and his personal reflections about his own growth and development as theologian, educator, Christian Brother, and later a happily married man.
Brother Cyprian Gabriel, as he was then known, became a Christian Brother in 1954. A year later his religious superior sent him to the Catholic University of American, where he completed his BA in Philosophy (1958), his MA in religious education (1962), and his PhD in religious education (1965). His main focus was adult education. In 1970 he was elected the Provincial Superior of the Christian Brothers for the Province of Long Island and New England. He held that position for three years. In 1981 Moran joined the Department of Humanities and the Social Sciences at New York University, where he taught religion, philosophy, and the history of education.
Moran decided to leave the Christian Brothers in 1985. In April 1986 he wed his colleague, Maria Harris, who had left the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1973. Maria was a prolific writer, speaker, and educator. She and Gabriel were close collaborators until her death in 2005. Unfortunately, in 2001 Maria was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and the beginning of dementia. Her dementia gradually grew worse and, in the winter of 2004, Maria was placed in a nursing home on the grounds of the Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph. She died less than a year later on February 1, 2005.
Ironically, Gabriel Moran’s book, explored here today, was published on October 4, 2021 and he passed away on October 15, 2021.
What Happened to the Roman Catholic Church? What Now? Provides a clear and balanced criticism of the Roman Catholic Church and offers what some consider radical suggestions for dealing with its problems. I would say they are realistic and very necessary.
Moran reflects on the tradition of the church in a positive and creative way. The first three chapters trace the history of the Roman Catholic Church from 1945 to the crucial period of the 1960s. The remaining nine chapters examine various issues that surfaced after the partial reforms of the Second Vatican Council in 1962-65.
Early in his book, Gabriel Moran writes: “The Roman Catholic Church has been slowly breaking up for the past seventy years. It is now less Roman and its claim to catholicity is questionable … It is in its worst crisis since the sixteenth century, but a changed institution will surely emerge from the crisis.” He pinpoints the beginning of the crisis to November 1, 1950, when Pope Pius XII (1876 – 1958) proclaimed as infallible and “a dogma revealed by God” that Mary, the mother of Jesus, “when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven.”
Millions of Catholics rejoiced in the proclamation. Nevertheless, the world of scholarship was stunned by the papal proclamation. Protestant scholars complained that Catholic scholars had not been honest in assuring them that Catholic teaching was rooted in the Bible. “Here” Moran writes “was a blatant disregard of scholarship. The story of the Assumption has no basis in the New Testament or in church tradition before the fourth century.”
Fortunately, most Catholic scholars today have a much better understanding of the Bible and of church history than did Pope Pius XII. (Some bishops I fear still resonate more with Pius XII.) Jesus of Nazareth did not leave a blueprint for an institution that aims to continue his mission. The earliest form of church was a community of believers, praying, ministering, and gathering for the breaking of bread in memory of Jesus. Obviously, as time moved on, it needed to develop an institutional structure. Some features of that structure may have been inevitable, but others were not.
The development of the clerical hierarchy, for instance, with leadership steps from subdeacon to deacon to priest to bishop set a direction that has never been altered. It had nothing to do with the historical Jesus.The four-step hierarchy was a development from a much later split in the church between a clergy and a laity.
When asking what is indispensable for change in the church today, Moran insists on a change from a structure that obstructs thinking. Change must be in the direction of simplicity; and Moran says the first step in such a needed reform would be to eliminate the clergy.
A permanent class called the “clergy” is an historical development that, he says, can and should be changed. A first stage in the change process, Moran clarifies, would be to ordain some men and women only as “temporary priests.” After serving for a specified time, perhaps ten years, they would then be replaced by others and no longer exercise their earlier ministry. What starts as a temporary move to shore up the present structure could then prove itself in practice and become a permanent arrangement. A different structure for the church without “clergy” or “laity” would be on its way. The old two-class structure is really a hindrance to genuine community.
There are times in this book, when I wanted to shout out “Yes! Yes!” Gabriel Moran’s observation about preaching at Sunday mass is one. He writes: “The Second Vatican Council in ordering priests to preach every Sunday made a terrible mistake. Priests should have been forbidden to preach until they became sufficiently learned in the New Testament and took lessons on how to speak effectively in a public setting. Furthermore, other people in the community could often do a better job at preaching than the priest does. There is no necessary connection between priesthood and preaching.”
Moran had a genuine sense of pastoral ministry. Perhaps the sacrament of matrimony, he suggested, should be expanded in imaginative ways, including a ceremony for courtship and a blessing for divorced people when a marriage fails. And of course the church should accept the reality of same-sex marriage. Already same-sex marriage, he reminds his readers, reflects what the church recognized as a marriage long before the Council of Trent (held between 1545 and 1563) imposed a set of ecclesiastical rules. Marriage for gays or lesbians is constituted by the consent of the two persons. The same is true for male/female marriages.
The sacrament of Holy Orders, Moran argues, needs a complete overhaul. Perhaps, he suggests, it is not even needed for pastoral ministers; but some kind of ritual for designating pastoral ministers would be appropriate, whether or not it is part of a sacrament. For those ministers who are elected bishops a ritual could continue the practices of the early church. But the titles of monsignor, archbishop, and cardinal should be retired. And I would add: drop antiquated wardrobes and medieval clerical paraphernalia as well.
The sacrament of the sick and dying, Moran notes occasionally throughout his book, can still have an important place in the church, because all of us could use a friend and counselor when we are nearing the end. That person need not be a priest. The preparation and appointment of a community member for such a task would be a very fine way in which the church could be of great service. Moran is not certain whether anointing someone makes any sense today, but the use of oils does go back to ancient times.
Reforms in the Roman Catholic Church that are passionately advocated, such as ordaining women or endorsing gay marriage, would certainly improve the current Catholic institution. But, Moran strongly insists, they would not get to the radical restructuring of the church that is required.
Over centuries, Moran strongly insists, Catholic as well as Protestant Christians have failed to construct an organization that can retain a sense of community and an exercise of power-as-mutuality. Experts in group dynamics, he notes, say that the ideal size of a community is eight to eleven people. Radical restructuring? Certainly we need smaller communities of faith where people really know one another as supportive companions. The word “companion” Moran reminds us comes from the Latin words cum (“with”) and panis (“bread, food”).
Well, an institutional system of course cannot be changed easily or immediately. But there can and should be an immediate start to dealing with the problem. Again Moran stresses that no reform can succeed without education. And learning needs to continue throughout the whole of one’s life. Otherwise one’s religion is very likely to become a burden: a cold stone fir hungry people not a loaf of bread. We should be “companions” on a shared faith journey.
“The choice,” Moran says at the end of his book, “is whether to oppose all change or attempt to develop a well-educated church membership for whatever the church may look like in the future.” He was not certain what it would look like but had no doubts that it would still be around.
Yes. Gabriel Moran’s book is a delight and a powerful challenge, not just for Catholics but for all Christian believers.
Warmest regards to all.