A Rant on the Power of the Laity

Saturday, January 31, 2009church

If the laity wants a voice in the church, it’s going to have to resolve to exercise some power. We can talk until we’re blue in the face and “speak truth to power” till the cows come home, but until we are actually willing to exercise power in a real way, nothing will change. Organizations change because of inspirational leaders or because they absolutely have to. They do not change because people on the outside talk them into it. The old phone company did a 180 and became an equal opportunity employer when they got sued, not because someone convinced them it was a great idea. 

What power does the laity have? Money. The institutional church has all the buildings and all the cool hats, but we’ve got the cash. And until we’re willing to exercise the power inherent in that cash, the church will not change. And if we don’t do it as a result of the pedophile scandal, we’ll never do it. Cardinal Mahony is under investigation by the FBI for heaven’s sake.  We just need to think our way through it so we do it right. 

I think conceptually the place to start is to unmesh the sacred role of the church (e.g., saying Mass) from the bureaucracy. This struck me in O’Malley’s book (see Church as Mystery; Church as Corporation post below).

There’s no reason at all why the sacred role of the priest has to be associated with an almost exclusively top-down authority. Break that enmeshment and the way opens up to straighten out the institution. And God knows it needs it. Above and beyond the horrors perpetrated on the victims, imagine the good that could have been done with the billions spent on payouts. For starters, see Roman Catholic sex abuse cases Compensation payouts and Roman Catholic sex abuse cases by country.

It seems a no-brainer to set up not-for-profit foundations to which parishioners could contribute, rather than contributing directly to the diocese. Money would then be passed on to the diocese as appropriate with full transparency and accountability.



… from “Qualified Non-expert:”

I agree very much with the basic tenet of your article about the laity using power, but not with the specific comment about hierarchy.  Maybe I mis-read that comment, though. 

I would put the first point even more strongly: just as God has given the laity money, just so far they are responsible for the use of that money as stewards answerable to God, and giving it to any ole Church outfit won’t be good enough.  They (we) must start using the application of, and withholding of, money as befits our role as willing cooperators and co-creators of good. 

This means we need to institute good mechanisms for knowing when an institution under the Church umbrella is sound and worthwhile.  My suggestion is this: set up an institution that operates as an organizational CPA (well, Certified Public Christian Watchdog, say CPCW) for Catholic principles.  If a diocese wants money, I want to see the CPCW report on their operations.  I want to see how the report says whether they use the money the way they say they do, whether they have operational standards for (a) getting rid of bad eggs, (b) investigating heresy, schism, and bad morals in its officers (priests & chancelry), and (c) methods for protecting whistleblowers, and so on.  No diocese is required to submit to audit – its purely voluntary.  They just won’t get any of my money until they do.  Just as I would not invest in a public corporation that would not do periodic public audits.  (And who watchdogs the watchdogs – important question). 

Secondly, Canon lawyer Peter Vere says that ownership of individual parish properties is not supposed to reside in the bishop as corporation sole anyway – this is a quirk (and defect) of American practice.  Church subsidiarity may suggest that there is no principle supporting the bishop owning the whole infrastructure of the entire diocese.  If we the people own the parish facilities, then we have a lot more say about what and when things happen in it than American parishes are accustomed to. 

Third, the laity MUST become more involved in the process of getting new bishops.  The current practice is demonstratively grossly defective – nearly all of the American bishops from 1970 to 1990 either actively engaged in, or at least willingly turned a blind eye to, cover ups about the sexual predatory practices in some rectories.  Nearly all of the bishops in Holland, and many in France, cannot even stand to listen to orthodox teaching and traditional liturgy.  The secret, smoke-filled back-room methods of the good ole boy network don’t serve the Church. 

However, neither of these allows for a situation where, as you put it:  “There’s no reason at all why the sacred role of the priest has to be associated with an almost exclusively top-down authority.”  The hierarchy is an essential facet of the structure of the Church herself, and its lines of authority must be top-down.  At least as far as (a) control of the liturgy, and (b) oversight of teaching and doctrine, there can never be any possible release of Apostolic authority to the laity.  For the authority of the Pope and bishops in communion with him is exactly what prevents us from becoming the Church of England (God help them).  The sacred role of the priest in being the image of Christ to give us the Eucharist is fundamentally connected to the same power that enacts the liturgy, judges in confession, and that teaches without error. 

So, whatever methods and changed ways we implement, they must leave intact the inherent right of the hierarchy to rule the liturgy, sacraments, and doctrine.  I personally would suggest that this implies that while a priest could not run a parish’s finances without the consent of the people who are the trustees of the parish’s wealth, the priest will not consent to be their priest without a certain amount of freedom to govern the parish.  This implies some kind of  quid-pro-quo arrangement with a natural, unavoidable tension, but not an automatic dis-harmony.  Even more difficult would be the relation between the parish laity and the bishop.  What I do not see is any way of putting in practices that allow for greater lay control of assets that does not look like it would devolve into the current Protestant situation, of  churches splintering off each other, and inviting as pastors men that do not have the approval of any higher authority (like the bishop).  If you can come up with a structure that allows us to block a bad priest from being appointed, or from continuing on as pastor, but is not wide open to protestantish defiance of all authority, I am open to hearing it.  




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