Preparing for the Synod on the Laity

“The people are the Church,” they tell us. “They” are the theologians and their disciples in the community in which I teach and live. But who are these “people” who are the Church? I recently heard one of these modern theologians (a priest) who define the Church as “the people” (is he one of the people?) explain the difference between the “Old Church” and the “New Church”: the old had as its model a pyramid with the pope, bishops, and priests above the laity; the new Church has as its model a circle; the old Church imposed teaching from on high to a laity that was supposed to be submissive and docile and obedient; the new Church is enlightened and reflective and honors dissent; the bishops are to learn from the laity.

As I sat there listening, I didn’t recognize myself as a member of either Church; I thought of myself as belonging to the mystical body of Christ wherein all members have vital functions. I further began to wonder if this priest and I belonged to the same church when he told me that the people who are the Church reject the Church’s [the official Church’s] teaching on contraception, that they demanded and like the new liturgy, that they want women to be priests, and that they want much that is time-honored in the Church [the official Church] to change.

Does this mean that my friends and myself and so many others I know do not constitute the Church, since these are not our views? If they were, we wouldn’t think much of them, for our notion of being a part of a Church is to make our views correspond with those of the Church, rather than making the Church change its teachings to fit our preferences. We think this way, of course, because we believe that Christ instituted the Church; we would no more think of trying to change the “mind” of the Church than we would try to change the mind of Christ.

I do not think we are a particularly docile and submissive group, or unreflective, unenlightened, uneducated, and dependent individuals. Indeed, we have found that being faithful Catholics has required of us much moral courage, spunkiness, endurance, and powers of resistance (gifts of the Holy Spirit?). Since most of us find that we are called upon to defend our views and our faith in opposition to the community around us — ecclesiastical as well as secular — we have attempted to become as learned as possible in our Faith. Eventually we discover to our surprise and chagrin that we are the dissenters; we dissent from the “they” who are leaders in the new church — and we find that our show of independence rankles many of “them.”

How have we chosen to express this dissent? We have formed groups which strive mightily to be faithful to the teachings of the Church, since we find so often that many in the community which carries the name Catholic are put out by our faith and zeal. We are doing what we think is the job of the laity. For example we run pro-life groups and pregnancy help centers; we work for St. Vincent DePaul and run soup kitchens; we help settle refugees; we battle Planned Parenthood-inspired sex-ed programs in the public schools and Catholic schools; we form groups that sponsor speakers to inform us about our Faith, our Church, and our God; we teach at, support, and send our children to new and struggling Catholic colleges determined to be faithful to the Church [the official Church!]. We give sacrificially to the Church and to charitable organizations; many tithe and some give even more; if not excluded for our views, we serve on parish councils and boards of community service organizations.

Since we frequently find ourselves without the cooperation of our local priests and bishops, since we frequently find that our local parishes do not fulfill our spiritual needs, some of us join Opus Dei. Others join Catholics United for the Faith, while still others find a home among the charismatics. Most of us just struggle along, going to our parish church, waiting for the day when we will feel at home again. We do not join the Lefebvrites; we flirt not at all with the notion of joining another church, for we live for and though the sacraments and there is only one Church in which we can find them.

Although some are still, and though most of us have been, few of us are now embittered, or angry. In fact, quite the opposite; we are hopeful and quite happy, for we have learned to live well in our quasi-exile. We love Pope John Paul II and his energetic, hopeful, and indefatigable rehearsal of the fundamentals of our Faith. We have found good Catholic friends among cradle Catholics, converts, and “reverts.” We immensely enjoy Catholic chatter; we share publications (there are so many good, stimulating Catholic publications — like Crisis) with each other; we stockpile books about Catholicism, old and new; we have a sense of discovery of spiritual ways of living which we delight in passing on to each other. Word spreads that someone has found a faithful priest who is good at spiritual direction; someone else has found an inspiring biography of a saint; another has discovered the writings of some saint, which soon all of us are clamoring to read. We buy and use daily missalettes and we do novenas for seriously ill friends. We go to benediction and holy hours — when we can find them — not because these are a nostalgic reminiscence of our youth, for most of us in growing up never knew the devotions. We simply like them and find that they help us draw closer to God.

We avoid adult education functions which feature dissenting priests, nuns, and theologians; we find these destructive to our faith and dangerous to our blood pressure. We will travel across the country, though, to attend a meeting of such groups as the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, or Women for Faith and Family; there we find kindred spirits. We live our daily lives centered on the attempt to deepen our faith and be true to it. We are particularly devoted to the family; we love children, and those among us who are married have legions of them. We fret that the Catholic schools are not teaching our children the Faith we love so well, and do our best to teach by word and example why we love this Church.

Many of us go to daily Mass, in spite of the limp sermons and the requests that “we all come around the altar.” Few of us argue with the priests anymore when they deliver their spontaneous Eucharistic prayers or when they change the “sexist” language of scripture, or the like. It is not that we are not upset or scandalized when a priest tells us that “we don’t say the Creed at this Mass, because it would be divisive.” We have become accustomed to this; it no longer surprises us; it no longer unduly upsets us. Rather, we have been working on the virtue of hope and have learned simply to pray and wait.

The chief source of our sadness is, of course, that there are so few of us and that others who might share our delight in discovering the Church may not find it. More profoundly, our concern is that those who need the salvation it promises (which means all of us) may be lost. Certainly, we trust in a loving and merciful God, but so great a gift as the Catholic faith should be lavishly disseminated, not hoarded — or abused — by those who are privileged to possess it. The Church, we believe, was established by Christ, exists now, and will always exist. Th6ixternals and accidentals vary for better or for worse. Those who speak for this Church can be more or less faithful. But the Christ we seek is with this Church, and we know, for we have tried and been successful, that we can find Him there.

Are we then satisfied? Obviously not. What do we want? More faithfulness. We would love to he able to rely upon bishops, priests, nuns, and brothers to convey the teachings of the Church faithfully to us and others. We doubt that those who have left religious life and who now occupy so many diocesan and parish offices can give us the faithful guidance we need. We find it disturbing always to be referred to a “former nun”, or “former priest” who now heads some ecclesial office. We crave energetic pastoral direction based on the teaching of the Church. We want priests and nuns we can revere for their holiness and who will encourage us in our efforts to bring Christ into the world around us. We need to be fortified spiritually so we can do lay evangelization in our families, in the workplace, and in society. We want schools where we can send our kids and have them be educated in their Faith, not in the most recent pronouncement of the most recent reigning dissenting theologian. We want to be able to pray for vocations in the confidence that those who are called will find faithful orders to join which will deepen, not corrupt, their faith; which will enable them to serve, not disrupt, the Church.

We stand ready to serve our Church. We are trying to do so now, rag-tag and bumbling as we are. We hope that the bishops will include us when they seek to determine what the laity wish. For if in consulting the people, they intend to consult the faithful, we hope we are counted among them, for it is our deepest desire — not to be consulted — but to be faithful.


Janet E. Smith, Ph.D., is a retired professor of moral theology.

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