New York Times religion columnist and former senior religion correspondent Peter Steinfels lectured at Yale’s St. Thomas More Chapel Wednesday. The discussion was part of the Catholic Center’s continuing initiative to promote dialogue concerning the issues and challenges facing modern Catholicism.
Speaking to a crowd of nearly 150 people, Steinfels addressed the sex scandals of recent years, the need for progressive discourse on modern social issues and the transformation of the nation’s Catholic leadership. He emphasized the positive nature of the laity’s impact across America in church-sponsored services, stressing that their involvement in the Catholic community is especially important at a time when Church membership is down, mass attendance is dwindling and a decreasing number of individuals are entering the priesthood.
“Even without the sex scandal, the church would have to face challenges from within, external social pressures and the risk of a soft slide into nominal Catholicism,” Steinfels said. “I’m determined to say that the Catholic people in the United States cannot afford business as usual. That would lead to disaster.”
The talk focused on pressing issues surrounding sexuality, personal identity, gender roles and the institution of family. Steinfels spoke to the need for intense scrutiny of the current state of Catholicism in America, specifically referring to his recently published book, “A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.”
“The Church needs to spend less energy on debating the wording of hymn lyrics and more on the number of people actually singing,” he said.
St. Thomas More Chaplain Fr. Robert Beloin said Steinfels effectively conveyed the current state of the Church and the importance of lay leadership.
“The Ministry is not based in ordination, it’s based in baptism,” Beloin said. “There is a need for more and more laypeople to embrace that teaching and responsibility.”
St. Thomas More Program Director Matthew Wrather ’02 said he hopes community dialogue will lead to lasting change. He said he strives to help the Catholic Center develop a strong campaign to foster education and communication. The talk was prescriptive, Wrather said.
“Hopefully what will come out of this discussion will be conclusions regarding whether structural change is necessary and what that would be,” Wrather said.
Evelyn Tang ’07 said she was intrigued by Steinfels’ discussion of communion and evolution of the Church.
“For young people, the problem is not so much about faith,” Tang said. “They need a community that will draw them in. It was interesting to hear that people are talking about change. I had pictured the Catholic Church as an unchanging institution.”
Steinfels is the author of several books, has been a regular contributor to Nation, Dissent and The New Republic, as well as editor in chief of the Catholic magazine Commonweal. He also writes a bi-weekly column for the New York Times entitled “Beliefs.” He and his wife, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, were recipients of the 2003 Notre Dame Laetare Medal for service to Church and society.
Steinfels concluded his talk with an appeal for optimism.
“Hope is in unexpected or unnoticed places,” Steinfels said. “It is in the Lord who is with us and with whom anything is possible.”
The Chapel’s lecture series will continue in October and November with lectures from Tom Groom, theologian at Boston College, and Delores Leckey, Sr. Fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.