While the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI has certainly enjoyed major successes, like the pope’s visit last fall to England to beatify Cardinal Newman, the crises that have led to empty pews in the Catholic parishes of England, Europe and the United States persist.
The fundamental criticism of the institutional church is that its clerical, all-male establishment has not made room for other voices. There is no need to list the number of recent policy decisions, from Rome to home, which would have been more prudent if only a variety of laypersons had been consulted.
Jesus told his disciples that they were servants, that they were to feed the hungry and share their wealth with the poor and that they should demonstrate their love for one another by offering their lives in service. Some in church leadership have done the opposite, creating a culture of clericalism that too often values loyalty over accountability. In these circumstances, a project of reform is essential to rejuvenate church leadership and give greater voice to the whole church. As Pope John Paul II wrote in “Novo Millennio Ineunte,” quoting St. Paulinus of Nola: “Let us listen to what all the faithful say, because in every one of them the Spirit of God breathes” (No. 45).
How to begin? No one should anticipate changes in the existing discipline on celibacy or in the teaching on women’s ordination, but there are other ways to reform church structures to allow women and married men to participate in church governance. One proposal is simply to change canon law to admit laypeople to the College of Cardinals. The church could thereby continue its all-male priesthood, yet transform the “men’s club” into a church with a face that more resembles the people of God described in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.
A more realistic proposal, however, would entail two steps: First, reorganize diocesan offices so that laypeople constitute at least half of the bishop’s principal advisers. (Increasing numbers of laity have already been hired as staff in many U.S. dioceses.) Second, create a new body, an international council of laypersons to share functions with the College of Cardinals. After attrition among the cardinals, each of the two bodies eventually could have 100 members. The lay members would be Catholics who love the church and are recognized for sound Christian judgment. They would come from a variety of occupations—education, health, religious life, law, the arts, business, science, government and labor. Church leadership would not be limited to elderly men but would be expanded to include men and women, married and unmarried, of different ages. Wisdom, after all, can be found from a multitude of sources, something that St. Benedict acknowledged when he urged an abbot at a monastery to solicit the opinion of even the youngest member of the community: “By the Lord’s inspiration, it is often a younger person who knows what is best.”
Some members of the council would direct Vatican offices; others would come to Rome for regular consultation. Membership could be proportionate to the Catholic populations throughout the world, chosen for a specified term on the recommendation of grass-roots representative caucuses of clergy and laity. The combined college and council would share three functions: administer the Vatican offices, advise the pope and select his successor.
These laypeople would offer much-needed perspective on the impact of the teachings and practices of the church, including such divisive subjects as contraception, the role of women in the church, the treatment of homosexuals and the failure of authorities to respond quickly and forcefully to the scandal of sexual abuse by members of the clergy. They would understand other pastoral failings, like the denial of the Eucharist to public persons because of their political positions, a too modest peace and justice agenda, lackluster liturgies with unprepared sermons and insensitive celebrants.
One may object that this initiative is a “pie in the sky” idea that the clerical establishment would never accept. Perhaps. Yet the implementation of specific alternatives like a lay council need not threaten the current leadership. For the authority of the church “is exercised in the service of truth and charity” (“Ut Unum Sint,” No. 3). Nor would a council undermine the pope’s authority. As Pope John Paul II wrote of the papacy: “The authority proper to this ministry is completely at the service of God’s merciful plan and it must always be seen in this perspective” (No. 92). Discerning that plan is a task that Catholics should take on together.
Following Pope John Paul’s example, we encourage our readers, clergy and lay, to evaluate this proposal and suggest other reforms that would achieve the same goals. The church has survived these 2,000 years because at key moments it chose the path of renewal. It may be that another such moment has arrived.