Roman Catholics in Boston, the nation's third largest Catholic archdiocese, say this is a watershed time for their Church. Although Catholicism is one of the largest and richest religions in the United States, there has been a gradual decrease in attendance at mass and a sharp drop in the number of priests in the wake of a scandal over clergy sexually abusing youngsters. Outrage over the allegations of mistreatment has rocked the foundation of trust in Church leaders and depleted the finances of several dioceses around the country.
Evelyn Morton, 79, is among the Catholics in Boston who are looking with concern at the future of their Church. "I really can't tell you where it's going," she says, "but I'm trying to save it now [from] man-made laws, people not being open with the church, the hierarchy, secrecy. We need the books open. We need to know what's going on."
Mrs. Morton is not alone in calling for a more open Church. It is a common opinion voiced after Sunday mass at St. Gerard's Church in a Boston suburb, as Father Bernard McLaughlin greets parishioners heading into the church basement for coffee and donuts. Father Mac, as his congregation calls him, says Catholicism in America is in such disarray that it has to change. "It's certainly going to be different in shape," he predicts. "It's very wobbly now." Father McLaughlin indicates that many people are leaving the Church. "I think there's a lot of leakage," he says. "There's a lot of anger still there."
Nearby, Cheryl Overland says she thinks all the time about the future of Catholicism. "There's a lot of division in the Church right now," she says, "as far as what people think of as a Catholic." She sees congregations divided over issues such as gay marriage, abortion, stem cell research and allowing priests to marry. Mrs. Overland worries that the rift will grow. "I'm afraid that our Church will split into different groups, just like the Jewish faith has done," she says. "There are four or five different kind of practices in the Jewish religion. I'm worried about this for our Catholic religion, too."
Other parishioners are praying about the Church's finances. The dioceses of Tucson, Arizona; Portland, Oregon; and Spokane, Washington have declared bankruptcy -- in part to pay claims stemming from lawsuits over clergy sexual abuse. The Boston archdiocese recently saw its donations drop off by 50%. The news is enough to make Kathy Hathaway wonder whether her parish church will even be around for her son as he grows up. "I would be devastated if this church closed," she says, "I really would. I wouldn't know where to go. I am concerned about their financial health. I think so many people were hurt by what happened in the Church that [even if] they [are] still attending [services], they aren't supporting the Church financially or they walked away altogether."
Still, there is considerable optimism about the future. Parishioner Mary Akoury - like most Catholics interviewed for this story -- believe the Church can thrive if it puts more lay people into leadership roles. "I think, as we see a decline in priests," she says, "that the laity needs to take over the everyday managing and operations of a parish…which frees up the pastor to then deal with the spiritual."
Bernice Morley says she remains concerned, but feels confident that the U. S. Catholic Church will get through the current crisis. "I think we're on the right track right now," she says. "I really do. I think this whole abuse has been going on for years and we were either ignoring it or just not dealing with it. But I really feel the church is its people and the people are going to go forward because we love our Church."
As another Catholic put it, "we don't need other churches or religions, we can fix this one."