Reprinted with permission from America Magazine
and americamagazine.org, Sept. 29, 2003. Copyright America Press, Inc.,
2003. All rights reserved.
Vol. 189 No. 9, September 29, 2003
The Lay Vocation and Voice of the
By Thomas P. Rausch
One unanticipated effect of the sexual abuse scandal that has been
convulsing the Catholic Church in the United States is a growing
realization on the
part of the laity of how little real say they have in the government
of their church. This was first brought home when many who were aware
of abuse went to the authorities and later found that nothing had
been done. But as Catholics began talking to one another about their
they began to realize that while this was the most serious case of
not being heard, it was not the only one.
What is becoming more evident to many lay men and women is that there
are no institutional checks and balances that allow them some say about
how authority is exercised in the church, whether at the parish, diocesan
or universal level. They have no way to address the problem of an incompetent
pastor or an authoritarian bishop, no say over their appointment, no
way to bring their own concerns and experience to t! he decision-making
processes of the universal church. There are no structures of accountability.
Without them, many feel that the church is treating them as children.
And they are more and more coming to see the present crisis as calling
the laity to adult status in the church. This was clearly the intention
of the Second Vatican Council in its concern to articulate a theology
of the laity.
Though the council rediscovered the dignity of the vocation of the baptized,
the church is still struggling to find ways to fully express the laity’s
share in the mission of the church. The scandal of sexual abuse by clergy
has made clear once again how little input they actually have in the
church’s decision-making process. The idea of the autonomous, monarchical
bishop, accountable only to Rome, has more to do with developments in
the late Middle Ages than with anything intrinsic to the office. Donald
Cozzens’ expression, a “still feudal church,” is too
often ac! curate. Finding effective ways to give laity and clergy some
participa tion in the church’s decision-making processes is clearly
one of the crucial issues the church faces today.
There are a number of things that could be easily done without overturning
the church’s papal/episcopal structure. The laity should be involved
on all levels of local church government. Beyond a narrow circle of clerical
diocesan consultors, bishops should have a council that functions on
an analogy with a board of trustees, reviewing and giving input on significant
policy decisions. Note that I say on an analogy with, for the very word “trustees” will
raise the specter of “lay trusteeism,” which lay behind the
controversy over “Americanism” in the late 19th century.
There is nothing in principle that would exclude some kind of lay participation
in councils and synods today. There are precedents in the high Middle
Ages for church representatives other than bishops taking part in ecumenical
councils; and some consultations with representatives of the l! aity
took place at Vatican II, with lay auditors taking official seats on
two conciliar commissions.
An Initiative of the Faithful
At the center of the current crisis, a new initiative for greater lay
involvement has emerged, Voice of the Faithful, a lay organization that
has rapidly spread throughout the United States and now comprises some
30,000 members and 188 parish affiliates in 40 states and 21 countries.
According to its Web site, V.O.T.F. is a group of Catholics who describe
themselves as loving and supporting the Roman Catholic Church, accepting
its teaching authority, including the role of the bishops and the pre-eminent
role of the pope as the primary teachers and leaders of the church, and
believing what the Catholic Church believes. V.O.T.F.’s mission
is “to provide a prayerful voice, attentive to the Spirit, through
which the Faithful can actively participate in the governance and guidance
of the Catholic Church,” while its stated goa! ls include: (1)
to support those who have been abused, (2) to support priests of integrity
and (3) to shape structural change within the church. Since July 2002,
the “Structural Change Working Group” has been seeking ways
to renew church structures in light of Vatican II, with a canon lawyer,
Ladislas Orsy, S.J., as an outside consultant.
The appearance of V.O.T.F. has not exactly been welcomed by the hierarchy.
At last year’s meeting of the U.S. Catholic bishops, only 10 bishops
were willing to meet with the group. Eight bishops, all but one on the
East Coast, ordered their pastors to refuse V.O.T.F. permission to use
church facilities for their meetings, though in late April, Bishop Thomas
Daily of Brooklyn reversed himself, acknowledging after a dialogue with
V.O.T.F. leaders that many of those involved were “good and dedicated
members of our diocese.” In April of this year, Chicago’s
Cardinal Francis George, one of the 10, expressed some cautions about
the movement; but he also pointed out that the V.O.T.F. agenda is stil!
l in formation and so should not be dismissed as an expression of dissent.
By June, V.O.T.F. had met with more than 25 bishops across the country
and has at least spoken with four cardinals.
My own experience of V.O.T.F. came several months ago when I was asked
to address a nascent V.O.T.F. group in southern California on Vatican
II’s theology of the laity. I was impressed. The 60 or so people
gathered were not “movement” types; they were ordinary Catholics,
deeply involved in the life of the church and concerned for its future.
What they lacked was the church language to formulate their concerns
Particularly lacking is a realistic vision of how V.O.T.F. might work
with bishops and local churches, given the nervousness of hierarchy and
pastors. There are at least three models of how V.O.T.F. might contribute
in the practical order to the renewal of church structures. One sees
V.O.T.F. as a structure parallel to that of the diocese, a second und!
erstands it as an advocacy or pressure group, and a third seeks to inc
orporate V.O.T.F. members at all levels of the life of the local church.
Let us briefly consider each.
V.O.T.F.’s call for dialogue with the bishop on local levels suggests
a model of parallel structures. The idea seems to be that in each diocese
bishops would enter into dialogue with an organized V.O.T.F. group. For
example, V.O.T.F. Long Island issued a letter on April 28, 2003, to Bishop
William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., objecting that he would
not acknowledge having met with their organization, rather than simply
with several of their leaders as individuals. In other words, V.O.T.F.
Long Island wants the bishop to meet with them as an organization, giving
them quasi-official recognition.
Another model would have V.O.T.F. function in local dioceses along the
lines of an advocacy group, rather like a political action committee.
In this way, V.O.T.F. groups functioning alongside offici! al diocesan
structures could sponsor lectures, seminars and public meetings for interested
Catholics and serve literally as an alternative “voice” for
the local church, publicizing issues of concern, issuing statements to
the press and organizing in order to bring pressure to bear. For example,
on April 6 New Hampshire’s Voice of the Faithful called on Bishop
John B. McCormack and Auxiliary Bishop Francis J. Christian to resign
their positions as bishops of the Diocese of Manchester, N.H. This was
done only after a period of examining the record of both bishops, finding “a
general disregard to the testimony of sexual abuse victims and an unwillingness
to remove predatory priests from contact with children.” While
this model would on occasion function as a pressure group, it has the
advantage of not needing official recognition. It could also play an
important educational role.
A third model would encourage V.O.T.F. members to b! ecome actively
involved at every level of the local church—as indeed m any of
them already are. If they were to make themselves available as members
of parish councils and diocesan offices, serve on diocesan committees
and advisory boards or as delegates to diocesan synods and pastoral councils,
they would have a hand in shaping policy from within. And this would
be done much more effectively if they continued to meet together and
strategize in their V.O.T.F. group.
Many will see the first “parallel structures” model as unrealistic.
Since it would not necessarily represent all of the faithful of a given
local church, given that not all are V.O.T.F. members or support its
methods, it is unlikely that most bishops would be ready to enter into
dialogue with such a group.
The second model has considerable merit in that Catholics have a right
to organize themselves in order to grow in their faith and exercise their
responsibilities as adult members of the church. Some will object to
their at times confrontational ! approach, but the laity have a right
to have their concerns taken seriously by the hierarchy. According to
the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church”: “An individual
layman [or laywoman], by reason of the knowledge, competence, or outstanding
ability which he may enjoy, is permitted and sometimes even obliged to
express his opinion on things which concern the good of the church. When
occasions arise, let this be done through the agencies set up by the
Church for this purpose” (No. 37). This of course is the ideal,
but where “agencies” or channels are not available, a more
direct, even confrontational approach may be the only alternative.
While the various V.O.T.F. groups may choose one or more approaches
as best suited to their particular situations, the most effective in
the long term may well be the third. It is also the way the church should
work, and often is working. As we all know, no local church or parish
could survive without the active involvement of the lait! y. Many dioceses
already have lay heads of diocesan departments or sec retariats.
But to be an effective presence, lay men and women must be willing to
take the risk of disagreeing with policies and decisions that do not
seem to reflect the good of the community. They must speak the truth
with love, even if this proves unpopular. Just as the bishops often do
not speak out, “lest they embarrass the Holy Father,” so
also lay men and women are reluctant to say something that might embarrass
their pastor or bishop. They must also be willing to take a longer view
of how decisions are ultimately made in the church’s life, to embrace
a gradualist approach. Structural change takes time; it does not happen
in a moment.
But if change is the church’s “dirty little secret,” as
Garry Wills once suggested, in the long run it is unavoidable. Thus we
have to hang in, continue to do our best to educate ourselves and one
another, speaking out when necessary. We need to listen to and learn
from one another, allowing the Spirit to transform! both the church and
ourselves from within. Voice of the Faithful can play an important role
in this process. It might just make a difference.
Thomas P. Rausch, S.J., is the T. Marie Chilton Professor of Catholic
Theology at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, Calif. His latest
book is Who Is Jesus? An Introduction to Christology (Liturgical Press).
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