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Archdiocese Sets a Poor Example With Cutbacks

The church is abandoning those on the margins.

September 28, 2002|JEFFREY S. SIKER | Jeffrey S. Siker is a professor in the Department of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University.

It is dismaying that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has decided to cut back on essential parts of its official ministry in response to budget demands.

The offices that are being shut down minister directly to some of the most disenfranchised populations not only of Los Angeles, but of the church itself: the Office of Ministry With Persons With Disabilities, Detention Ministry, Ethnic Groups Ministry, Ministry With Lesbian and Gay Catholics and the Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women, among others.

Can the church truly be the church without officially attending to such ministries? The words of Jesus ring in a particularly haunting manner in light of such action: "I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me" (Matthew 25:41-43).

It's one thing to cut back on programs, it's another thing to completely eliminate them. The action of eliminating official ministries such as those to the disabled, to those in jail and to lesbian and gay Catholics sends a clear message that such ministries are both peripheral and expendable.

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony hopes that local congregations will take up these ministries. But if the cardinal hopes to lead and shepherd by example, how are local congregations to take seriously that ministries to the disabled or to those in jail are really important?

Such action falls short of embodying the gospel in concrete ways. Especially in light of the cardinal's staunch support in the past of those most vulnerable in the world, the present decision is difficult, at best, to understand. The elimination of these ministries among others (Campus Ministry and Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Affairs also were cut) puts the question of priorities in sharp relief.

Finally, if official church leadership is going to meekly bow out of important ministries when the fiscal going gets tough, it raises still deeper questions about the character of the church and its relationship to the public.

Aren't such ministries precisely at the heart of what it means for the church to be the church? Official ecclesial sponsorship of such ministries helps legitimize and authorize the significance of these ministries. Withdrawal of support de-legitimizes them and makes even more marginal those who already feel marginalized by church and society. To put it sharply, when the church hangs up its official ministry to those who are among the most disaffected and disenfranchised, then who cares about a new cathedral?

In a time when the church has suffered great shame through the crisis of sexual abuse cases, is it not still a greater shame to pull the plug on such crucial ministries? If the church can appeal for millions to build a new cathedral, can't it appeal for even a portion of that amount to continue these ministries?

The problems of fiscal management in the church are certainly complex, but they are also wondrously simple, as is the gospel message itself: "As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40).

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