Protecting children: Overcoming resistance to usher in positive change

Drew Dillingham of the USCCB office of child protection is pictured in Rome Jan. 31. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Drew Dillingham
Catholic News Service

(Sixth in a series)

ROME — During class this week, a student asked the professor why it takes so long for things to get done in the church. The professor answered with an analogy. He asked students to raise their hands if they had changed their seats since the first day of class. Not one hand was raised. The professor then asked how many people would have been happy if he told them to change their seats. Again, no one raised his hand. Lesson learned: people are naturally resistant to change.

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The reality is that real and transformative change does not come about quickly or easily, especially in large institutions. This is not an excuse — it is a fact. It takes the hard work, patience and perseverance of many dedicated individuals, as well as the grace of God, before change begins to take root.

It is also important to note that resistance to change can also be positive — change isn’t always a good thing. Change in the church should only come about when necessary and should find its foundations in Scripture, her own traditions and teachings, as well as reason and science. When it does so, the church is not intrinsically changing but merely becoming a truer version of herself. The church can better serve Christ and his people, and ensure her efforts to protect and heal the most vulnerable resemble those of a loving mother through this type of change.

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When considering how to bring about necessary changes, we must remember that the church is one body, composed of many members. Therefore, steps need to be taken if we are to overcome the natural resistance to positive change at both institutional and individual levels. This is particularly true when considering our efforts in the safeguarding of minors and reconciliation with those who have been abused.

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Painting of Jesus healing a blind man by El Greco (Source: Wikipedia)

In this context, change at the individual level does not simply come from the creation and adherence to new policies and procedures, but rather through repentance and a complete conversion of our hearts. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “conversion is first of all a work of the grace of God who makes our hearts return to him.” We cannot rely on ourselves to bring about or even know of all the change that is necessary within the church. Like Bartimaeus, described in the Gospel of Mark, we are often blind to what is most needed. Only by accepting the fact that we are blind and finding the courage to beg God to lead us forward in faith can we provide the best version of protection and healing for those in our parish communities. True conversion or changes for the good can only occur through a “conversion of the heart.” Otherwise, our outward works such as policies and procedures, will be “sterile and false.”

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Bishops and alter servers process out after Mass at St. Peter Claver Church in Baltimore Nov. 14 during the annual fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

How can the church ensure individual conversions are maintained and yield fruit at the institutional level? According to the Causes and Context Study, a theoretical framework for understanding how change takes place in institutions was developed in the 1970s called, The Diffusion of Innovations. This framework provides four attributes that enable organizations and their members to accept proposed institutional changes. This framework can empower the church to ensure her methods to institute change are loyal to Catholic values and will be readily accepted in dioceses:

  • First, all innovations must be “compatible” or “perceived to be ‘consistent with the existing values…and norms of a social system.” i.e. All changes must be intrinsically and fully Catholic.
  • Any changes must be put in terms of their “relative advantage” or “the perceived degree of relative advantage over the status quo.” i.e. It must be explained why changes are needed, and why are they needed now?
  • Complexity” or the fact that “innovations that are difficult to understand and use are adopted more slowly” must be taken to account. i.e. Sometimes the simplest approach is best.
  • Of great importance is the “observability” of an innovation: “the easier it is for individuals to see the results of an innovation, the more likely they are to adopt.” i.e. The outcome of any change must be transparent if changes are to be made permanent.

The Causes and Context Study states that these four factors, noted as “conducive to ‘innovation’, may have been somewhat attenuated by the culture and social structure of the Catholic Church in the United States.” Going forward, with both this knowledge and our hearts fixed on Christ, I pray our efforts to advance Christ’s mission to protect and heal the most vulnerable lead to meaningful change within the church. As we progress in our course, my classmates and I hope to learn how we might lower any unnecessary resistance that may stand in the way of further protecting children and offering support to victims/survivors, as expressed in the bishops’, “Promise to Protect, Pledge to Heal.”

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Drew Dillingham is the Coordinator for Resources and Special Projects with the Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.  He is an avid reader of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and shares his April 26th birthday. Dillingham also dabbles in the works of Bishop Robert Barron, thanks to the ongoing encouragement of his wife, Kim. 

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2 Responses to Protecting children: Overcoming resistance to usher in positive change

  1. Keith says:

    Drew,
    Thank you for taking the time to write this series. I find it very interesting and, as with other publishes on this blog, helps me reflect and improve my relationship with God. I wish you all the best during your stay in Italy and may God bless you.

  2. Drew Dillingham says:

    Thank you for your comment, Keith!

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