Low Morale in the Pews

We all know good and faithful clergy and parishioners, the kind of people who light up the world with their faith and zeal, whose charity is wide and generous, and whose love of the Lord is infectious. Sadly, we also know clergy and laity whose morale is low; who seem to ‘go through the motions’ without communicating any real sense of personal commitment or joy. I must confess there are times when I too wonder whether the Catholic Church in England is wasting away before my eyes. Depending on whom one talks to, one will get a different explanation for the malaise. ‘Poor liturgy’ says one, ‘Vatican II’ cries another, ‘the return to Tridentinism’ asserts a third. Some accuse the bishops of being out of touch, while others point to the decline in priestly and religious vocations. Church schools with mainly non-Catholic pupils are alleged to be a further reason for the weakening of faith and practice. And of course, there is always that old canard, societal change, which means the laity are not prepared to take ‘what Father says’ for granted. Some of the priests I know seem to be almost at war with their parishioners, or at least, to feel besieged, unvalued. The appalling ignorance of Church teaching many Catholics now display is a matter for genuine concern and leads to yet more dissension in the pews.

Dissent is not the same as poor morale, however; and while I think there are elements of truth in all the above (or I would not have mentioned them), I think there is something more fundamental. The extradition to the UK of Lawrence Soper, once abbot of Ealing and now facing several charges of child abuse, highlights a problem for all Catholics. For years now the spotlight has been, quite correctly, on the suffering of those abused, the allegations of cover-up, and the pathetically inadequate response often made by Church authorities. No matter that the Catholic Church in England now has one of the most robust Safeguarding processes anywhere; no matter that we have all (even cloistered nuns) invested huge amounts of time and money in trying to ensure that potential abusers are stoppped in their tracks, we still have a problem — but it is not necessarily the one people assume. The problem we have is that those who have abused have undermined the morale of those — the great majority — who have not abused, and are sickened by the actions of the abusers.

I have lost count of the number of monks and secular clergy, convicted of abuse, who have administered the sacraments and preached to me and fellow community members. I still have a letter from one of them admonishing me, de haut en bas, which, in the circumstances, would be funny were it not so unbecoming of the writer. I have blogged in the past about nuns in the Boston diocese whose house was sold over their heads to meet compensation claims and similar unintended consequences of the attempt to right wrongs; I have even grumbled (God forgive me) about having to pay an annual fee to the Catholic Safeguarding Service when we have no chaplain, no children and no vulnerable adults to worry about or being called upon by the pope to make acts of reparation for guilty clergy. The custom of sending clergy under a cloud to a religious house for a while has often beeen seen as a good way of dealing with ‘a problem’. No thought seems to have been given to what it meant for the religious house concerned or those who came to it. Even now, there are clergy who insist that the abuse question is a witch-hunt, designed to undermine them.

I would like to suggest that we face up to the fact that abuse has affected us all, and that it is a significant factor in the low morale we often encounter in Church members. This is rather more specific than the charge of clericalism sometimes laid against the clergy, but of course, the two are linked because in both there is an abuse of power and authority. I know many will argue contrariwise and point to lively and flourishing parishes/religious houses where clergy and laity are mutually supportive. That is excellent, but it does not invalidate my question: how do we improve morale for the rest of us? What is needed to reinvigorate Church membership? We pray, we fast, we try to be generous in love and service, but there is still something we lack. Is this a desert experience the Church must go through, along with Islamist violence and hate-filled attacks from some secularist elements — a necessary purification — before the Church can arise, spotless and beautiful, once more? I wish I knew the answer — and I wish the pope and bishops did, too.

I have written quite extensively about the problem of abuse in the Church. Although I confine my remarks here to clergy who have abused, since I consider that to be a major factor in a loss of morale, I am well aware that religious sisters and brothers have also been charged with abuse. I am not aware of any allegations against cloistered nuns. Most people, whether monks, nuns, sisters, brothers, priests or laity are NOT abusers.