Engaging Culture

Can Catholic Leadership Learn the Power of Perception?

Perhaps the American Catholic bishops need to read my book “Unique: Telling Your Story in the Age of Brands and Social Media.”  The Catholic church is at a real turning point.  Within 5 years, more than one third of U.S. bishops will have reached the mandatory retirement age of 75.  More than half the bishops are within 10 years of that mark.  From a positive standpoint, this shift will open the door to a wave of younger leaders, less encumbered by the sexual abuse crisis, which has cost the church $2 billion so far.  But the question is – Where are those young leaders?

A serious shortage of priests and seminary students is dramatically altering the demographic landscape of the American Catholic church.  Latinos now make up more than 1/3 of the Catholic population in this country and that won’t change anytime soon.  However, only 7% of the current potential bishops are Latino, so the leadership won’t be responding to that demographic shift.

The question for the Catholic church in America is one of responding to the people it serves.  The perception of the church as being a highly secretive organization concerned with power and influence more than transparency and authenticity is real.  Perception matters in a media-driven world.  While church leaders cloak their decisions in a rationale about doctrinal orthodoxy, the truth is, nothing could be more aligned with the teachings of the Bible than a leadership who is connected, concerned, and reflective of the people it serves.

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  1. Hi Phil,

    I think there is much here that inidcates you might want to do a little more digging.  There has been an influx of dedicated, Spirit-filled men to the priesthood since John Paul II started his outreach to the youth of the church. 

    Your second paragraph here is laden with the kind of divisive language that has separated Protestants from Catholics over the years and isn’t borne out when one takes the time to understand the Church and its workings.  The Catholic Church doesn’t operate the way Protestant churches do, which is quite frankly one of the things I love about it (I am a recently reverted Catholic after being in the evangelical world for several decades).  

    The Catholic Church is a big tent, in the truest sense of the term.  Because Catholics believe in transubstantiation (that the bread and the wine truly become the Body and Blood of Christ) Catholics of all stripes are able to leave their doctrinal emphases at the door and ‘turn their eyes upon Jesus" during their worship.  

    Those who are appointed bishops, and archbishops and cardinals are those who have demonstrated some degree of leadership. Yes, the church needs to move past the problems and scandals of the past few years.  And yes, that will take new leadership.  But that leadership is currently being groomed in places like Denver, and Washington DC and even in Nebraska.  Unfortunately there is more of a lack of it in LA which is why you perhaps don’t get a larger sense of it.



  2. It’s not about being divisive, I’m just discussing popular perceptions.  And whether true or not, perceptions matter and have an impact on the growth of the church.  Regarding an "influx," I’d love for that to be true Martha, but just looking at the numbers, I’m not encouraged. It doesn’t seem to be happening either inside or outside LA. 

    The BBC reports that: “The Vatican has reported a further dramatic fall in the number of Roman Catholic priests and nuns worldwide.  Newly published statistics showed that the number of men and women belonging to religious orders fell by 10% to just under a million between 2005 and 2006.”   

    USA Today reports:  
    • For decades, so few men have become priests that one in five dioceses now can’t put a priest in every parish.
    • Mass attendance has fallen as each generation has become less religiously observant.
    All these trends had begun years before the scandal piled on financial pressures to cover settlements, legal costs, care and counseling for victims and abusers.
    From 1990 to 2003, the number of active diocesan and religious-order priests fell 22%, and the number of parishes in 176 dioceses and archdioceses dropped to 18,441. That’s a loss of 547 parishes, a 3% drop nationwide, which seems small — unless it’s the church where you buried your mother or baptized your baby.

  3. The Catholic Church has been turning around in the last few years.  I read that John Paul II taught that purgatory is not a "place" as in Heaven or Hell.  That there is only two places to go after death: Heaven or Hell.  Also, they now teach that salvation is by faith alone on the merits of Christ.  I read that John Paul taught that no amount of good works can equate a human to match God’s holiness in order to enter Heaven.  Also, there was a recent report on CBN.com about Benedict XVi talking about Luther not in the condeming tone as previous Popes, but even emphasized the importance of reading one’s Bible.  Also, contrary to The Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Episcopalians and other main line Protestant churches, Rome still boldly adheres to traditional, conservative Biblical moral issues…

  4. In response to Martha, I think there’s good reason to be divisive. Catholics and Protestants are, at the core, different. It’s not simply a few different views. We differ on core views about Christ, Mary, God himself, the Bible…I could go on. I don’t want to sound like I’m belittling anyone, but I don’t believe that Catholics and Protestants are simply two sides of a whole. We’re fundamentally different, and that means division.

  5. The leaders of the Church don’t "cloak their decisions in a rationale of doctrinal orthodoxy". They actually MAKE their decisions using a rationale of doctinal orthodoxy. We Catholics think of this as a good thing. This is not "theology on the fly": this is an ancient Church that actually believes certain things, and has to cons and honor those beliefs in any decision, whatever people might think.

    Everything we believe, and teach, has been explained in any number of books. This orthodoxy is what gives us confidence in the teachings of the Church. We don’t have to believe the word of some charismatic individual: we can believe The Church. That’s how we’ve survived. And some of those explanations are pretty dull, granted, but the world is a complex place, and knowing how best to follow Christ can be confusing, and complicated, requiring thoughtful contemplation, and I don’t think God’s people should be afraid of that. (Phil, your books are interesting, challenging AND entertaining: we could do more of that. If only you’d convert… we could use you on our side! But I don’t mean to be divisive…)

    And while I think we do have to acknowledge our very real differences with our non-Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ, I don’t think there is any reason to be divisive. I seem to remember that the Corinthians were chastised for this rather harshly. We all want to love and serve God. That should be enough reason to love each other and find common ground.

    And please note that I do not wish to offend by using "non-Catholic": I know there are Christian churches that do not consider themselves Protestant, and yet are not Catholic, so, from my perspective, they are "non-Catholic". If there is a better term, let me know. The brilliant ecumenical monk Thomas Merton wrote that as soon as you divide the world into your mob and the other mob, you have failed Christ. That’s a hard one for all of us, isn’t it?

    May God continue to bless you, Phil.

  6. It’s me again. Sorry. About the very real and urgent priest shortage: you’re right. I think the Eastern church has an answer that the Roman church needs to consider: a two tiered priesthood. There is one for married men and one for celebate men. If you are married when you become a priest, you are a married preist, and if you are single when you become a priest, you remain single. This avoids the horrifying idea of a priest who is "dating". To a Catholic, this would be appalling. There are others subtleties involved, but it is an interesting idea. There are already a very small number of married Catholic priests, mostly converts from other sacramental churches whose priesthood is recognized as valid by the Catholic Church, but this is a tiny number. I think we do need to consider these options, as many Catholics do. The celebate priesthood was a response to conditions at the time, and conditions may have changed significantly enough to justify reconsidering. We can only wait and see what the priests themselves decide.

  7. I mentioned the line about cloaking their decisions in a rationale of doctrinal orthodoxy, as the "perception" – not necessarily the reality.  My whole purpose in this blog is getting Christians and the Church to deal with the reality of perception, because in a media driven world – from the public’s perspective – the perception is the reality.  And right now, the perception of the Church as a whole needs help.  

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