The Laity and the Scandal: What Next?

Writing to Archbishop (later Cardinal) James Gibbons of Baltimore in February 1882, Bishop Richard Gilmour of Cleveland made a blunt argument for holding the assembly of the American bishops that history knows as the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore. “The clergy need to be strengthened and protected against the people and the people also against the irresponsible ways of the clergy and the Bishop against both,” he explained.

The Third Plenary Council took place in 1884. Looking back over the years since then, a cynic might say that the clergy and the bishop had gotten pretty much what Gilmour thought they needed. As for the people, they’re still waiting to see how things turn out.

But now they also face a vexing quandary. As the clergy sex-abuse scandal has made clear, there is a desperate need for an orderly transition to a more participatory mode of ecclesial decision-making in which laypeople play a greatly expanded role in many areas of the Church’s life, including finances, personnel, and social policy. But thanks to the bishops—and to the progressive theologians and clericalist advisers who often guide their thinking on such matters—any movement along these lines is likely to be in just the wrong direction. In a worst-case scenario not unlike the sex-abuse scandal itself, it could be another case of inviting wolves to tend the sheep.

Two incidents in Dallas last June at the time of the American bishops’ panicky, media-driven meeting on sex abuse illustrate this problem’s dual nature. First, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops tapped two progressives—Margaret Steinfels of Commonweal and Scott Appleby of Notre Dame—to speak for the Catholic laity to the assembled hierarchy. In response, the incorrigible Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, remarked on EWTN, “I have better things to do with my time and money than to listen to Margaret Steinfels.” Second, when conservative Catholics attempted to schedule a panel discussion of the bishops’ meeting at a parish in a nearby diocese, the chancery let it be known that the gathering wouldn’t be welcome on church property. Catholics United for the Faith moved the session to another diocese, where it took place in the auditorium of an independent Catholic school before a standing-room-only crowd of concerned, understandably angry laypeople.

Taken together, these incidents reflect two unpleasant facts relevant to the future of lay involvement in Church decision-making. One is that the clericalized bureaucracy controlling the administrative machinery of the Church seems to be partial—perhaps without even noticing it—to progressives and dissenters. The other is that these unselfconsciously arrogant officeholders often give orthodox Catholics the back of their hand.

Both points will need to be kept firmly in mind if anything comes of the proposal floated by eight bishops last summer to hold a plenary council for the Church in the United States. The council would focus on the spiritual renewal of bishops and priests and their doctrinal fidelity, especially where moral doctrine about sex is concerned. Should the rest of the bishops buy this idea—hardly a sure thing—it will be imperative that preparations for the council (the first since Baltimore in 1884) not fall into the hands of the same Church bureaucrats and academics who have called the shots for years, and that lay participants not be drawn from the ranks of the progressives favored by these folks.

Reflecting on dispiriting matters like these, conservative Catholics may be tempted simply to walk away from the whole mess, concentrate on their own spirituality, and leave it to the bishops and the bureaucrats to cope with the disaster. Although this is not an acceptable option for those who truly love the Church, it would be hard to blame anyone for so reacting, in view of the rebuffs delivered over the years by the kind of bishops George Sim Johnston describes as “mildly ‘pastoral’ men who…chose not to see what was happening on their watch” (“Can the Bishops Heal the American Church?” June 2002).

And yet…more lay participation in decision-making is urgently needed.

It is needed, for one thing, as an antidote to clericalism. As I remarked a decade ago in my book To Hunt, To Shoot, To Entertain, while clericalism is hardly the Church’s only problem, it causes many and is a factor in many more. The truth of that has been on display in the sex-abuse scandal, which saw otherwise sane bishops reassigning notorious repeat offenders and hushing up their crimes as the culture of clericalism had taught them to do.

But lay participation also is right and proper in itself. Among other things, progress in this area might rehabilitate the vision of shared responsibility in the Church that flourished briefly after Vatican Council II before being betrayed by the irresponsible actions of zealots and enthusiasts on the left.

True, the primary setting for lay participation in the mission of the Church is the secular world. Vatican II says laypeople have the “special vocation” of making the Church “present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them that she can become the salt of the earth” (Lumen Gentium). This is the lay apostolate. But the council also reminds bishops and priests that “the laity too have parts of their own to play” in ecclesial affairs. “For this reason,” it says, “they will work as brothers with the laity in the Church and for the Church” (Apostolicam Actuositatem). Shared responsibility in decision-making is an expression of this.

So why has there been so very little sharing for so long?

The Roots of Clericalism

Historically, the sources of clerical resistance to lay participation go back very far all the way back to the struggle in the Middle Ages over the abuse called lay investiture (lay lords naming pastors and bishops—and sometimes even popes) and to the strong emphasis rightly placed by the 16th-century Council of Trent on shoring up the clergy, a necessary project whose unintended result was greatly to increase the clericalization of the Church.

In the United States, special historical factors also are at work, above all lay trusteeism. Catholics of the generation of Cardinal Gibbons and Bishop Gilmour knew the perils of trusteeism all too well, and much of their Church polity was shaped in reaction to it. Trusteeism’s ghost still haunts the Church in America. This crisis of nearly two centuries ago helps explain many of the peculiarities that persist in lay-clergy relations today.

Lay trusteeism had complex causes. These included conflict between immigrant ethnic groups, especially the Irish and the French, misapplication of the ideology of republicanism to the Church, the influence exerted on Catholics by the model of Protestant congregationalism, the demagoguery of rebellious and unstable priests, and the quick tempers of hotheaded laymen spoiling for a fight. By the 1820s trusteeism had become a serious problem in such places as New York, Philadelphia, Norfolk, and Charleston.

The basis of the trustee system was lay ownership of parishes, an arrangement developed in response to American civil law. With lay ownership came the assertion of the trustees’ right to veto pastoral assignments by the bishop and to recruit priests of their own choice. Supporters of the system argued for a lay-clergy balance of powers not unlike the separation of powers under the American system of government. In time, trusteeism also fanned the fires of the movement for a national church. Philadelphia trustees went so far as to send a delegation to Rome to negotiate a concordat with the pope.

Bishops responded in two quite different ways. One was to try to find an appropriate participatory role for the laity. The other was to stamp out trusteeism. “I will suffer no man in my diocese I cannot control,” declared Archbishop John (“Dagger John”) Hughes of New York. In due course, the second approach prevailed.

Meeting for the first time in council to legislate for the Church, the American bishops in 1829 moved to eliminate lay participation wherever they could and to shift the titles to Church property to bishops as rapidly as possible. The policy was enforced by denying parishes pastoral services and in some cases placing them under interdict if they refused to acknowledge the bishop’s right to appoint and transfer parish priests. Says historian David O’Brien, “While affirming republican values of self-government and individual responsibility in public life, [the bishops] all but totally rejected those principles in organizing the church’s internal affairs.”

One notable exception to the new pattern of absolute episcopal control was the Diocese of Charleston, which then covered not only South Carolina but North Carolina and Georgia as well. When Bishop John England arrived there in 1820, he found a hotbed of lay trusteeism. The Irish-born prelate sought to meet the challenge by a policy of reasonable accommodation rather than suppression. The result was England’s famous constitution for the diocese.

By today’s standards perhaps even more than by the standards of the time, the Charleston constitution was a remarkable document. Imagine the astonishment there would be today if a bishop vested ownership of church property in the general trustees of the diocese—himself as president, the vicar general as vice president, three clergy chosen by the clergy at an annual convention, and six laypeople chosen by a house of lay delegates at the convention. That is what England did. His constitution also provided that parish members elect lay vestrymen responsible for the temporal affairs of their parishes (the pastor was president of the vestry and had veto power, though not over contracts); that parishioners elect delegates to the annual conventions of the Church in Charleston; and that the diocesan convention “dispose of the general fund of the Church in the way that it may deem most advantageous” and oversee the administration of the diocese and its institutions.

Laypeople had no authority over Church doctrine, the sacraments, and clerical affairs. But even so the constitution did add this important proviso: “In those cases where the Convention has no authority to act, should either house feel itself called upon by any peculiar circumstances to submit advice, or to present a request to the Bishop, he will bestow upon the same the best consideration at the earliest opportunity; and as far as his conscientious obligations will permit, and the welfare of the Church will allow, and the honor and glory of Almighty God in his judgment require, he will endeavor to follow such advice or to agree to such request.”

Twenty-eight conventions took place in the Diocese of Charleston from November 1823 to November 1840. Not surprisingly, the bishops’ council of 1829 did not adopt Charleston’s constitution as a model for other dioceses, but it did let it remain in place. The Vatican said it had no problems with what was going on in Charleston. That is how things stood until England’s death in 1842, when the constitution became a dead letter. Yet the episode stands as one of the most remarkable in American Catholic history, and its potential as a precedent for the future is worth considering.

But a precedent of a different sort also must be taken into account—the ill-fated Call to Action Conference of 1976. Unlike England’s carefully planned and executed project in the 1820s, Call to Action (a name since adopted by an overtly dissident group) is a case study of how shared responsibility shouldn’t work.

To mark the U.S. bicentennial, the bishops hit on the idea of a high-profile conference on the present and future direction of the Church in American society. The plan was the brainchild of a committee headed by the influential John Cardinal Dearden of Detroit, founding president of the U.S. bishops’ conference after Vatican II. Cardinal Dearden, an advocate of shared responsibility and of a National Pastoral Council to embody it, apparently was frustrated by a go-slow directive from the Vatican in the early 1970s. It seems that he saw Call to Action as, at least in part, a backdoor way of bringing a prototype National Pastoral Council to the American Church.

If so, the idea backfired—badly. Call to Action, held in Detroit in October of the bicentennial year, brought together 1,300 delegates, a majority of them on the payroll of the Church. Given their head, these people rammed through a laundry list of resolutions that not only declared broadly acceptable views on things like world hunger and peace but took controversial stands on hot-button issues like birth control, homosexuality, and women in the Church. The bishops, reacting like men who had looked into the abyss, created a window-dressing “implementation” committee and then quietly shelved most of the Call to Action agenda.

This farcical episode put shared responsibility on ice for at least the next quarter-century. One lesson of the sex-abuse crisis may be that it is time to resuscitate the idea. But there is no certainty that will happen, and there would be reason for alarm if it came about in the wrong way. Already, there are signs that it could.

In announcing the membership of the National Review Board formed to keep an eye on the bishops as they begin to implement their new, seriously flawed sex-abuse policies, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Illinois, president of the bishops’ conference, said the hierarchy wanted “the forthright advice of the laity to help resolve the crisis.” No doubt that is true. But several other facts about the new arrangement bear mentioning. One is that the national board and its diocesan and provincial counterparts have a mandate in an area where badly burned bishops are happy to let laypeople take the heat for a change. Another is that loose-cannon remarks by the board’s chairman, Frank Keating, raise questions about the future directions of the body he heads. And a third is that many laypeople are way beyond wanting only to give the hierarchy advice. They want a share in the decision-making for a Church they consider to be as much theirs as the bishops.

Decision-Making About What?

Finances, for one thing. Recent disclosures—an archbishop’s payment of $450,000 in Church funds to a former boyfriend, the hushing-up by the last two bishops of Palm Beach, Florida (both of whom resigned in the face of sex-abuse allegations) of an unrelated $400,000 embezzlement, and on and on—underline the fact that despite a lot of talk about stewardship and accountability, some clerics still look on the Church’s money as if it were pretty much their own. Diocesan and parish finance councils are a step in the right direction but only a step. Shared lay-clergy control comes next, accompanied by total public candor about where money comes from and where it goes.

Personnel is another area where changes are overdue. This doesn’t mean returning to lay investiture or lay trusteeism. It means letting the laity of a parish that needs a new pastor speak directly to their bishop about parish conditions and the qualifications of priests in the current clergy pool. It means giving lay representatives, through a structure and a process that don’t now exist, a role in preparing the terna—the list of three candidates for the bishopric in an open diocese that the papal nuncio sends to Rome.

The Church’s social and political policies are a third area where the laity should have a voice—and, very likely, a decisive one. The sex-abuse scandal has accelerated the decline, already under way for years, in the bishops’ ability to advance the Church’s political agenda. The time when politicians trembled at the wrath of a powerful prelate like Francis Cardinal Spellman passed long ago. Moreover, since Vatican II, recognition has grown that bishops and priests should teach social doctrine, not act as policy advocates. Advocacy is the job of the laity, addressing political and social issues according to the dictates of consciences formed by the doctrine of the Church. Transitional steps should begin immediately to shift responsibility in this area from clergy to laity, in anticipation of the day when laypeople—representing, no doubt, a legitimate diversity of Catholic views—will speak for the Church on issues of social and political policy.

Daunting obstacles face a program like the one just outlined. It will be objected that it is “Protestant” and “congregationalist,” that it mistakenly applies democratic thinking to the Church. But this is not so. The underlying ecclesial vision here is the communio model of Vatican II. This model is an adaptation of the doctrine of the Church as the body of Christ in which hierarchical and charismatic dimensions both exist. The clericalist culture also can be expected to argue that the current proliferation of “lay ministries” shows that laypeople already are playing a large and growing role in the Church. And in a sense, they are; but it is very much on clericalist terms.

There is another obstacle, though many don’t like to talk about it because doing so is politically incorrect. It is the lack of relevant preparation—education and formation in the faith—so apparent among the mass of laypeople. It is often said that American Catholics are the best-educated body of laity in the history of the Church. But although that may be true in sociological terms, in ecclesial terms it is highly questionable. As a result of the catechetical collapse of the last four decades, huge numbers of adult Catholics today probably know less about the faith than their parents and grandparents did.

A while back, I shared some thoughts about clericalism and lay participation with a sympathetic archbishop. He replied in part: “If your suggestions were carried out with the help of lay Catholics like yourself, it would be good. But I’m afraid they would be carried out by people ignorant of their own Catholic identity or actively antagonistic to the traditions of the faith.”

That is not a fanciful concern. Today’s activist lay groups are generally of the Call to Action variety—agents of organized dissent. Voice of the Faithful, which sprang up in Boston in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal and aspires to national status, says it wants to be a broad-based lay coalition. But its first convention last July was a platform for voices from the left like an organizer for the European-based We Are Church movement and the framer of a proposed Church “constitution” that provides for impeaching the pope.

But even though conservative Catholics have good reason to be leery of coalitions, they cannot afford simply to sit back and watch matters unfold. The sex-abuse scandal has been a watershed event. Whether conservatives feel comfortable with the idea or not, a new role for the Catholic laity is now visible on the far side of the great divide. If orthodox Catholics fail to help shape this new lay role, they will have only themselves to blame when it turns out badly.

As part of this, there is an urgent need to begin forming a corps of reliable Catholic laypeople prepared for responsibility in the Church—the board and council members and ecclesiastical civil servants of the future. The infrastructure for this work of formation already exists in academic institutions, organizations, formation movements, media, and publishing houses of an orthodox persuasion. Now the elements must be harnessed with this end in view.

Another important step will be to draw up realistic criteria for identifying laypeople who might be called to such roles. An ongoing critique, respectful but firm, must be mounted against the woolly-headed inclusivism of leaders who smile on dissent and are more concerned with preserving a false facade of ecclesial unity than protecting the Church against continued subversion from within. Laypeople should participate in decision-making in the Church, but not just any laypeople will do. Faithful adherence to Catholic doctrine as taught by the Magisterium is the indispensable minimum pastors should expect and require. Unfortunately, if the past is a guide to the future, it is far from certain that they will.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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