Change the Church?: Reform requires will, skill and political organization.
My friends and I have worked for many years for renewal and reform in the Catholic Church. We took heart from the Second Vatican Council, the 1976 Call to Action Conference, the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letters on racism, war and economic justice in the 1980s, the awakening of Latinos and the commitment of new immigrants and the amazing generosity of Catholic women. To our great satisfaction, renewal has happened, and is happening, in our American church, but reform is another matter. A Vatican II report card might give renewal a B-plus. But reform, even in the very best dioceses, would only get C-plus, and in too many places a well-deserved F.
At the end of the Call to Action conference (the American Catholic Church’s first and only national convention), Cardinal John Dearden said that we had begun “a new way of doing the work of the church in the United States.” If we had carried out the cardinal’s vision, if we had built shared responsibility in parish and diocesan pastoral councils, if we had formed self-confident associations of diocesan priests, religious and laypeople, and if Catholic academic, medical, social service and ministerial professionals had acted responsibly, then the scandals of clerical sexual abuse would have ended between 1984 and 1993. Files would have been opened, new systems of accountability established, pastoral priorities reordered and priesthood reformed. Criminals would have gone to jail and incompetent administrators would have been turned out of office.
That did not happen, however. The moderate, realistic, nonideological reforms of Cardinal Dearden’s new way (reforms that would have given shape to the term “the people of God”) are not in place in a great variety of parishes, dioceses and institutions. Church reform has its deep and mysterious dimensions, to be sure, but the basics are not rocket science. We know, and have known, how to ensure transparency, accountability and shared responsibility in ways that support the mission of the church; that strengthen, not weaken, the authority of pastors; and that ensure the integrity of the community of faith. But all that did not happen. What was lacking among us was neither knowledge nor imagination but will and skill, commitment, organization, strategy and tactics. Our failure was not theological or spiritual, but political.
If we are serious about changing the church, what we must talk about is ecclesiastical politics. Keeping the faith may be pastoral and spiritual, but changing the church is political. People have many different ideas about changing the church. Politics is the process of sorting out those ideas and making choices among them. In history, Catholic factions who were upset with conditions in the church would call on the government, in best cases the king, to carry out reforms. But the state cannot help us; it is our responsibility as Catholics to make our church a more genuine community of shared responsibility and thus a more genuine witness to the presence of Christ.
Three critical factors will shape the life of the church in the United States in years to come: the universal church, American society and the social composition and location of U.S. Catholics. Each factor has a political dimension.
The Universal Church. What happens in the Vatican and among our sister churches across the globe will make a big difference for us. The Holy Spirit is at work through people. Some good people are working hard to slow the process of renewal, strengthen the church’s central offices, reverse its ecumenical and interfaith initiatives and moderate its ministries of service to development and peace. But renewal is not over; millennial-era synods around the world have offered considerable evidence of post-colonial vitality and deep commitment to human rights in churches worldwide. There is still hope that Catholicism can once again be a communion of local churches rather than a multinational clerical organization with branch plants in each country. In the universal church of the future there will be winners and losers, as there were at Vatican I and Vatican II. As we have learned in our own American Catholic politics in recent years, organized people often gain ground, while those not well organized are disappointed.
Although we often trusted the powerful men’s religious orders to take care of our political concerns in Rome and across the world, their political strength has now waned. That has left U.S. Catholics who are interested in church reform standing alongside women religious outside the walls of the Vatican. Gazing down at us are the grinning faces of restorationists, who may have little support back home but are welcome in Vatican offices.
U.S. Society. What happens to our country will to some extent determine what happens to our church. The American people’s radical freedom, restless quest for community, accelerating religious and spiritual diversity, heroic and paradoxical dedication to their country and its highest ideals touch us because we share them. So do their retreat from civic responsibility, temptation to narcissism and abuse of power. We Catholics are American insiders. Saying that U.S. society and culture will help shape our Catholic future does not mean that we are passive playthings of cultural forces beyond our control. No, we are active participants in shaping a common life as Americans that is no less real because we deny responsibility for it. What we Catholics do to our America, not just what our America does to us, will make a difference in the future of our church.
The Face of U.S. Catholics. How will we provide pastoral care for this ever changing church? New immigrants arrive, Latinos struggle for self-determination through the encuentro process, religious orders spend their limited resources caring for their aging members, and middle-class Catholics become more evangelical, more congregational and more detached from the organizational life of the institutional church. Ours is the bewildering church the Rev. Andrew Greeley once referred to as “do-it-yourself Catholicism,” with genuine explosions of new energy in the charismatic renewal, the peace movement, a distinctively Catholic branch of the women’s movement and apostolic movements like Focolare and Sant’Egidio. Schools, hospitals and social service institutions flourish with the help of lay professionals and collaborative boards. Thousands of lay men and women carry on many of the church’s pastoral and social ministries.
But the organization does not work well. After Cardinal Dearden’s Call to Action, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin struggled to build that new way of doing the work of the church. But Vatican II bishops were replaced by more cautious men; priests’ organizations all but disappeared; religious orders lost numbers and influence; and the burgeoning cadres of deacons, pastoral assistants and directors of religious education never organized. Their ministries continued, but the common life of the church in the United States shriveled. Rather than contest the ground, pastoral leaders adopted the congregational option: we have a good parish and don’t need to go to meetings. In the resulting vacuum Catholics became divided, even polarized. When Cardinal Bernardin suggested a Catholic Common Ground Initiative, other cardinals insisted that the only thing needed for unity was the Catechism of the Catholic Church and guidance by the Holy See. In that climate divisions deepened, pressing pastoral problems were ignored, and our church experienced some yet undetermined degree of corruption. So we face a political challenge.
An Organized Lay Movement
Few things would better serve the needs of the church than an enthusiastic, self-confident, engaged Catholic lay movement to keep the faith and change the church. Toward that end I make a series of appeals:
1. Ask in the church the political questions you would ask in any other public forum. Who is in charge and how did they get there? What is the relationship between power and authority? Are we depending on the good will of an individual bishop or pastor, or are we building systems that express shared values and common objectives?
2. Say yes to all invitations to genuinely shared responsibility. Catholics do need to work together, and there is no virtue in opposition. Say yes when our parish or diocese tries to find structures of decision-making that mirror the body of Christ and when we are invited to help make parish and diocesan pastoral councils more effective. Say yes when boards of Catholic agencies doing good work need assistance.
3. Say yes to independent associations. You will be asked to choose: parish councils or school advisory boards, Voice of the Faithful or Call to Action? If you are a priest, your choice may be between the presbyteral council and an independent forum for priests. The answer is a Catholic both/and, not either/or. Cooperation and negotiation work well when participants are genuinely empowered. There are such things as premature, incomplete and phony collaboration. Parish and diocesan pastoral councils will improve when priests, pastoral staffs and laypeople are better organized and better understand their distinct vocations.
4. Make a preferential, but not exclusive, option for the laity. Think lay. Ask what each church decision or proposal means from the point of view of ordinary lay men and women. Pastoral care in our society requires dialogue, communication, relationships of mutual trust and understanding. Any layperson, for example, could explain that having two priests visit a family to determine whether their claim of clerical sexual abuse is valid is not a good idea. The lay viewpoint is vital.
5. Think about the church as it is on a Wednesday morning at 10 rather than on a Sunday morning at 9. The church is the people of God, the body of Christ, the very presence of Christ in this particular time and place—all the time, not just when people gather at the church. The test of Christian discipleship is the life we live. Catholics everywhere should recapture an idea once identified with Chicago Catholicism: that ministries, structures and prayers should be appropriate to the Catholic community, since its people are scattered in workplaces, households, neighborhoods and public squares.
6. Recognize lay holiness and talk about it. According to Vatican II: “It belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will. They live in the world, that is, they are engaged in each and every work and business of the earth and in the ordinary circumstances of social and family life, from which, as it were, the very web of their existence is woven” (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” No. 31).
7. Affirm and ask the help of laypeople who work for the church. Talk to lay ministers and religious sisters and brothers. Ask yourself: Are they paid well? Do they have good working conditions, access to adequate resources, a place at the table when pastoral policies and priorities are established? If not, why not? They are not mini-priests, after all. If they were organized, and if they would work with like-minded groups, that could make a difference.
8. When you get discouraged, think mission. The why of our church is as important as the what. Our piety and practice, our ministries and offices, are supposed to serve the mission, the purpose, the work of the church. If Jesus came to make known the meaning of life and history, and if after Pentecost Jesus lives on in his church, then there is great work to be done. We can only do it together. Our mothers and fathers sought for us education and material resources so we could have choices they never had. They did not expect us merely to maintain the church and hand it on, but rather to use our freedom and power to keep the faith and, if necessary, change the church so we could change the world the way God would want it changed. In a time of crisis for church leaders, we have to help one another keep that hope alive.
9. The church is all about people. It is a voluntary organization, as our children keep proving to us, that works through persuasion, not coercion. Many of our past problems came about because we did not trust each other. Restoring and preserving trust begins with simple encounters, like the ones used in the interfaith organizing process. Changing the church begins with getting to know each other well enough to work together to make our church, to make us, the presence of Christ. Our rootless young people have a deep hunger for friendship. It is a gift of grace in our churches, mosques and synagogues. As we work toward church reform, let us look for leaders who genuinely like people. As we do, we may witness a renaissance of pastoral life. All the rest will follow. In that spirit let us do the best we can to keep the faith and change our church.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the canonical state of deacons. Deacons are ordained clergy, not laypeople.