COMMENTARY: What kind of family will the church be?

c. 1996 Religion News Service

(Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and a sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. His home page on the World Wide Web is at Or contact him via e-mail at agreel(AT)

UNDATED (RNS)-It is in the nature of a family for tensions to arise, as its members seek their own goals, their own needs, their own happiness.

Parents make rules. Children test limits. Siblings compete. Generations view each other from across deep chasms of difference.

Balancing these issues takes patience, sensitivity, balance, a concern for others, much conversation, and a willingness to compromise. When conflicts arise, familial love does not disappear; often, it grows.

The church is a family, too-a family of believers, held together with the same kind of love that is tested and tempered with time.

In families of faith, as in flesh-and-blood families, disputes are best dealt with lovingly and openly. Differences are expressed, explored, compromised and finessed in such a way that love endures and flourishes.

When differences are not dealt with, resentment and anger are driven underground, only to explode with a fury that could tear the family apart. Indeed, research on the break-up of marriage shows that a couple's failure to talk about conflicts while they are still negotiable is a primary cause of trouble.

There is another family style-the authoritarian family, where Daddy (or Mommy) knows best-in which no conflict ever appears. The omnipotent parent, whose word is law, makes all the decisions. No one dares to raise questions or change the way things are. The parent may listen to other members of the family, especially to those who are favorites, but nothing will ever change.

Such a family gives the appearance of smooth, peaceful contentment. It is, of course, a powder keg ready to explode.

Even though most contemporary Catholics-clergy included-come from families accustomed to airing their differences and working out compromises, when priests and bishops invoke the image of a church as family, it is that authoritarian model they have in mind.

It seems to me that when members of the hierarchy talk about dialogue, they mean the dialogue of the authoritarian family. Even before the discussion is held, Daddy has already made up his mind about the way things will be. No amount of argument, cajoling or tears will change his mind.

Daddy may listen. But the expected outcome of dialogue is that your mind will be changed. Daddy's won't be.

The word"dialogue"is frequently used in the Catholic Church-when conflicts emerge about the role of the clergy, the laity, women's concerns, doctrinal and liturgical issues. But it seems to me the word"dialogue"is used far more often than open discussions actually occur.

And despite the differences of opinion that exist among its members, the official Church seeks to be the sort of family in which no one disagrees with anyone else and in which all tension is hushed up because it may be divisive.

Consider the flap over a recent survey by the Gallup Organization-which I commissioned and analyzed, with University of California at Berkeley sociologist Michael Hout. The study indicated American Catholics favor more democracy and more open conversations about differences in the church.

The survey of 770 U.S. Catholics on the qualities of the next pope also showed that 69 want the next pope to allow priests to marry; that 65 percent support the idea of women priests and 65 percent want the next pope to allow clergy and laity to choose their bishops rather than having them appointed by the Vatican.

Monsignor Francis J. Maniscalco, spokesman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, dismissed our analysis of the survey, even though he hadn't read it. Democracy, he said, was not an issue in the church. "Most Catholics participate in the church as a spiritual family rather than as in another political forum in which it is expected that some will win and others will lose,"he said.

Note the distinction - either a spiritual (which I take to mean authoritarian) family or a political forum; nothing in between: Certainly not the model of the democratic family with its ongoing conversation.

I find his contention that the church and democracy are mutually exclusive downright scary. The omnipotent parent essentially says,"I'm the boss. Shut your mouth and do what you're told." This authoritarian attitude is hurtful in flesh-and-blood families: it hampers credibility, undermines authority and diminishes the love that should flourish through good times and bad. Tragically, it could do the same kind of damage to the family of faith.