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Dirty Little "Not-so-secret" Secret

Lean in so I don’t have to shout. Here’s the secret: the Roman Catholic Church is not trustworthy. What was once “hidden” has now been revealed. What many have suspected and pushed aside is actually true. She’s not trustworthy.

That revelation started for my son in 2002…he was 21. The news was full of reporting about sex abuse and the Catholic clergy. The Boston Globe had just released a startling story[i] and with the clarity that comes from conviction and youth, he declared he was done. Not just done for now, or done until he gets married, or done until I ask him otherwise. No. He was DONE.

Some years later, when I asked him why he walked out the door and locked his mind and heart against the Church, he said something akin to, “I just can’t. All my life they’ve been preaching to me about my sins and my need to repent. Come to find out, 'they' are not just committing sin, they are committing crimes, and covering it up…for years. And they continue to try and stonewall survivors, protect the image of the Church, and spend millions and millions of dollars continuing the cover up. And NO ONE is repenting, apologizing, begging for forgiveness, willingly paying restitution.”

Not long after that honest and painful conversation, he noted one more thing: “Where are all the ‘good priests’? You know, the ones who are innocent. Why aren’t they speaking up? Why aren’t they indicting their fellow priests? Why aren’t they assuring us it is not them? Silence means complicity…even support.”

Once he reached “done” status, nothing has moved him: not ideas like the Church is both human and divine, or understanding the power of culture to influence us all, or even my own continued work within the Church despite the obstacles. He’s a completely “baked” done!

Why blog about this here in a place dedicated to synodality? Simple: synodality cannot take root without trust, and the Church is not trustworthy. Droves of young people know it. Adults as well. These are the nones and dones: those who have no religious affiliation at all and those who did affiliate but now join my son They are the baptized, on the journey apart from us. But some are also sitting in the pews, refusing to give time, talent or treasure…because they do not trust their local parish. Add to this the many clergy who do not trust their Bishop, or their parishioners and staffs. And continue to add the reality that Bishops don’t trust their priests or their fellow Bishops. There’s a definite trust problem and it’s time to acknowledge it. Why?

Synodality needs trust in order for it to take root. Trust is the fertile soil in which this way of being Church can flourish. Period. Plant a seed in “dead” soil and it cannot flourish. Period.

Not convinced by my personal story or general allegations? Let’s take a look then at some of the anatomy of trustworthiness. Then you can decide for yourself if the soil in your parish or Diocese is healthy enough for synodality to take root.

Breaking Down the Anatomy of Trustworthiness

Let’s start with a quick assessment of your parish. If you didn’t take the free trust inventory, go here and take it. It’s just ten indicators!

OK, now that you have some preliminary results, let’s break trustworthiness down. In later blogs we’ll talk more about the anatomy of trust itself so you can see in very concrete terms what you can influence on the road to the richer soil in which synodality can take root. But first, what do I mean when I say “trustworthy?” I mean that an organization (parish or diocese) is worthy of confidence, dependable. A trustworthy organization emerges because of its qualifications in a particular area, its capabilities and its reliability.[ii]

Frances Frei, professor of technology and operations management says an organization is trustworthy when it displays authenticity, logic and empathy. Want more on this? Listen to her TED talk! [iii]

Let’s look at these 6 trustworthiness descriptors briefly, as you consider how trustworthy your parish/diocese is:

1. Qualifications in a particular area. On the surface, I think people assent to the Church’s qualifications to be the Body of Christ here on earth, sharing His Good News, and being a sign of the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. There’s a mission (evangelization), systems and structures (universal, diocesan and particular), leaders who are extensively trained in theology, pastoral practices and rules (clergy and lay ecclesial ministers), and a long history of presence. Seems pretty qualified.

But what we are now learning is that underneath those qualifications is a long history of choosing the reputation of the institution over all else leading to secrecy, cover-up, moral and legal failures, abuses of power, financial debacles, triumphalism, clericalism, misogyny, racism…and…you get the idea.

The Church, in many concrete and evident ways, is not the shining city on the hill, from which shines the light of Christ for all to see. Her espoused qualifications were not being lived. She’s not been authentic.

2. Authenticity: Walk the talk and talk the walk. Be who you say you are. Honesty, humility, repentance, conversion/change, and being forthcoming and public about this very human journey, is what authenticity is. (That’s a terrible sentence, but it gets my point across.) Lest you think this doesn’t matter, take a look at what brand marketing firm Frontify has to say about authenticity and truth and millennials and Gen Zers.[iv] (The link is in the footnote!)

I know, I know. I’ve heard it a hundred times from Church leaders who don’t want to see with different eyes. “The Church is not like any other organization. We shouldn’t apply business and marketing approaches to the Church. We are not “selling” anything so none of this matters.” Well, here’s a second dirty little secret: Yes we are! We are competing in the marketplace of ideas, of belonging, of connection and commitment and we are competing with every other organization out there! Best we take the data, the learnings, and the ideas and see how they can help us see ourselves more clearly.

3. Capabilities. The Church’s mission is to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with all the world.[v] She is the shining city on the hill where people who have met Jesus and taken his Good News to heart learn, grow and then go forth to share it. She’s the place where it’s possible to meet Jesus, to learn about him, to fall in love with him, and then to learn what it means to follow him in a particular place and time. She’s a matchmaker, an apprentice ground, and a catalyst, thrusting disciples into the world as salt, light and leaven.

The Church is also a lot of other “things”:

· A global institution with billions of affiliates

· Keeper of a 2000+ year Tradition/patrimony

· A male dominated, strongly hierarchical system of governance

· A Euro-centric institution home to more LatinX peoples than Europeans

· An umbrella for works of charity and justice in health care, education, lobbying, care for the poor, immigrants, unwed mothers

· In the United States, a house divided along largely partisan political lines

So capabilities go beyond her primary mission and spread into all these other “things.” That means trustworthiness will flow from how capable the Church is in all these other areas as well. We know she’s just now moving consistently into the evangelization arena. The others are also arenas in which trustworthiness is evident, or not.

4. Logic. This has to do with alignment between values, belief and actions. Logic: does what the organization actually carry out flow from sound research, effective practices, competent communication, and is it getting the desired outcomes? If it is not getting the desired outcomes, is the organization following a logical path to change? Are the necessary changes being addressed using the best thinking, practices, and experiences? Are the best leaders in place to foster logic?

Seems clear many people do not see the logic the Church is using and so she does not seem trustworthy. The role of women in leadership is one area that surfaced during many Synod2023 listening sessions and in the Working Document for the Continental Phase as a failure of logic for many participants. Worth thinking about since this directly impacts trustworthiness.

5. Reliability. On the surface, it would seem a 2000+year old institution is reliable. It’s been around "forever." It’s got big buildings across the globe. It’s got a huge governance system. It’s got literally billions of members. Of course it’s reliable.

But what if reliability also means activities like being there in a crisis not just in ones and twos, but as a group? Think the Red Cross. Or the Salvation Army. That’s more than just a few people who show up. Those are organizations structured to show up. Yes, we have Catholic organizations structured to show up…but what about our parishes and dioceses where members have the most regular contact and who have a designated mission field known as “boundaries”?

What if reliability means showing up for those in need, those close to us, consistently? Wonder how we are doing there? Check out our blog about loneliness as you consider what it means to “show up” in today’s world.

What if reliability means someone answers the phone when I call, returns voicemails, responds to text messages and emails and can be counted on for counsel, prudence and wisdom? What if reliability means regularly updating websites so the information is accurate? Sharing the “back story” on how something happened? Filling in the need to know with what it knows, when it knows it?

Reliability has a lot of components in it! Bet you can name some more, probably from when you experienced the parish/diocese (or one or more leaders) as unreliable.

6. Finally, empathy, or a real care for the good of another, a willingness to accompany others in their good times and bad times, to stand alongside them in the messy and marvelous…the genuine belief that the people matter is a component of trustworthiness. Frei says a lack of empathy is the element that destroys trustworthiness the fastest and the deepest.

My truth with regard to empathy: I can still acutely recall the pain when this failed. And I don’t recall as well when it was in full force on my behalf. The lesson…a lack of empathy, because it’s painful, has a long “memory” shelf-life. So it influences trustworthiness for a very long time. Hence, why I still have some anxiety about entering the parish where I experienced the pain of discovering I only mattered in so far as I produced something. Sigh.


All of this needs to be in place in order for a synodal way of being Church to be possible. Pope Francis is working on elements of this in the Vatican with reforms of systems and structures, changes in leadership, and more transparency regarding abuses of power. While he is leading the way where he has direct influence, down here, where we live in our parishes, we have to do the same.

Until we do, I predict my son and all those nones and dones are just looking in and seeing “same ol’ same ol’.” They don’t WANT to be part of this organization that does not reflect their values or their beliefs and remains inhospitable to them. And they refuse to participate in an organization that cannot be trusted. As for those in the pews…the difficulty many parishes had in getting people to participate in the Synod2023 listening sessions can be seen as one piece of evidence that the parish is not trustworthy, the diocese is not trustworthy…the Church is not trustworthy. More than once we all heard, “I doubt this will make any difference at all!” And for those locales where leaders did not participate in Synod 2023, it might be surmised that leaders do not find their people trustworthy so they find no need to listen to them.

Clearly, we’ve plenty of work to do!

For encouragement in the area of trustworthiness, see We’re here to support building the foundations for synodality! #synodjourney #trustworthiness

[i] Matt Carroll, Sacha Pfeiffer and Michael Rezendes. “Church Allowed abuse by priest for years.’ Boston Globe. January 6, 2002. Accessed 7-1-22 [ii] Computer Security Resource Center: Glossary. Accessed 7-2-22 [iii] Frances Frei How to build (and rebuild trust) 14:57 [iv] “The Age of Authenticity: Why Brands Need to Get Real.” Frontify. Accessed 7-2-22. [v] Carol Glatz. “The church’s joy and mission is evangelization, pope says.” Crux. June 13, 2022. Accessed 7-2-22. Archbishop William E. Lori. “The church exists to evangelize.” Catholic Review. April 26, 2018. Accessed 7-2-22

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