To the extent of their knowledge, competence or authority the laity are entitled, and indeed sometimes duty-bound, to express their opinions on matters concerning the good of the church.” It might surprise many Catholics that this bold statement on the responsibilities of laypersons in the church comes not from some radical fringe Catholic group, or from a “dissident” theologian, or from an angry former Catholic, but instead from one of the Second Vatican Council’s most important documents, “The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.” And perhaps at no time in the history of the church in this country have these words been more appropriate. As American Catholics reflect on the revelations of the past year concerning sexual abuse in the priesthood, many are feeling moved to “express their opinions.”
One result of the scandals has been, on the part of many laypersons, not only a general distrust of the American bishops but a concomitant desire for a greater role in the decision-making structures of the church. Many believe that the involvement of laypersons would have prevented the reassignment of abusive priests. (One frequently hears it said that a parent would not have been so quick to reassign such a priest.) Others are simply so disheartened with the results of these decisions that they seek arenas where they can express their justified anger and their feelings of powerlessness. Still others see the church as a beloved institution that is deeply troubled and therefore in need of their assistance—in other words, they feel “duty-bound” to help.
Whatever the reasons it is clear that many laypersons increasingly feel called to seek a greater voice in the church. It is also obvious that the church needs to hear this voice in a new way.
Sadly, some bishops have taken a dim view of the lay organizations that have sprung up in response to the scandals. For many months, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston refused to meet with officials of the national organization Voice of the Faithful. (He finally met with three of their leaders last month.) Some bishops have banned such groups from meeting in churches. Some have hinted darkly at a “hidden agenda.” Others have declared them to be “anti-church.”
Such responses fly in the face of the teaching of the quotation cited above. First, laypersons certainly have the right to organize into groups. There is assuredly nothing “anti-church” about organizations of laypersons, particularly those who have faithfully participated in their local parishes as deacons, Eucharistic ministers, lectors and teachers—are not they too the church?
Second, while in canon law the bishop clearly has the ultimate responsibility for church buildings, these buildings are for the community and its members—after all, they paid for their construction and upkeep.
Third, regarding accusations of “hidden agendas,” it is wrong immediately to ascribe negative motives to groups whose stated goals seem in line not only with church teaching but also common sense. Undoubtedly some members espouse positions at odds with the hierarchy, but this is true of any gathering of Catholics—even at Sunday liturgies. In these times, it is helpful for all—laity and hierarchy—to remember St. Ignatius Loyola’s dictum that one should always be willing to understand a person’s words in the most positive light. Bishops who now ask for trust in the wake of the scandals should model this virtue by trusting the laity.
Finding ways for effective lay involvement in church decision-making is not easy. The structures developed after the council have had mixed results. Parish councils are sometimes effective, but at other times are simply ignored. Both pastors and people are often uncertain how to make them work, and a change of leadership can throw them into confusion. “Town hall meetings” can disintegrate into shouting matches between the disaffected and the pastor’s supporters, while mainstream parishioners stay home. Who actually speaks for the laity is a difficult question with no clear answer. Diocesan pastoral councils face similar difficulties with wider and less focused agendas. How many of them have discussed the sexual abuse crisis? All of these structures need to be revitalized and taken more seriously by both bishops and laity.
The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin called for more open and honest dialogue in the church through his Common Ground initiative. Sadly most of the hierarchy ignored or attacked this proposal, for which they are now paying the price. Today the laity feel “duty-bound” to express their opinions. If the hierarchy fails to listen, the U.S. church could suffer from the plague of anticlericalism that has afflicted the European church for more than a century. No harm is ever done by listening.