Can lay Catholics find a way through the minefields of canon law, church tradition, and their own divisions to change the course of the Catholic Church?
A promising strategy has emerged, and it is contingent on a two-track approach to reform that disengages issues of church teaching from issues of church governance. Governance can be negotiated and addressed more directly than teaching, and without threatening the core of the faith or the province of the bishops in guarding doctrines that a lot of lay Catholics don't want to put up to a vote.
In her writings and speeches in 2002, Harvard's Mary Jo Bane sketched out how this might work. Changes on issues of sexuality and a celibate priesthood, Bane argued, should wait for change at the Vatican. That's how it should be, she says, because "the Church is both a sacrament of our faith and a human institution."
But she also noted that there is plenty that lay Catholics can do to exert some measure of influence in church operations. They can join their parish council (or lobby to create one), press their diocese for greater financial transparency, or form clergy-lay boards to have input on the personnel process. "To these, what I would call secular aspects of the church, we can in fact legitimately and sensibly bring our demands for openness, for accountability, and for shared decision-making. We can also bring our expertise." This, she says, can lead to "new models" of governance suited to the church's "sacred character."
The promise of the two-track approach was given its most eloquent endorsement by Frank DeAlderete, a technical writer and computer products trainer from Bedford, Massachusetts, who is a self-described "ordinary parishioner dealing with extraordinary times." DeAlderete is a father of three who was invited to speak at the [July 2002 Voice of the Faithful] conference and offered a presentation that belied the bomb-throwing image that conservative critics like to stick on the group. DeAlderete, burly and bearded, is the image of a Catholic mensch. Catholicism, as he told the reformers, is as integral to his being as his DNA. He is Catholic "from the Rosary in my pocket, to the wedding band on my hand, to the medal of the Blessed Mother on my chest."
"For starters," he continued, "let's agree that we're going to stay Catholic. And that means that dogma, theology, and to a great degree, tradition, is off the table for now."
The first step, DeAlderete told the gathering, echoing Bane's approach, is to get everyone familiar with the avenues already available. "We have to renew wherever possible and replace as a last resort. Don't rob Peter to pay Paul. If you think your parish council should be an elective body, don't create a new one. Fix the old one. We must work for gradual, incremental, and reasonable change. What do you think we have a better chance of getting in the next six months? The vote for a bishop? Or the right to review a priest's résumé and public ministry? We have to accept our sphere of influence, which means that we do what we can where we can. We have to build from our parish outwards. We can discuss, as all families do, what we would do if we were in charge. But we have to be practical in where we invest our energies."
DeAlderete didn't get the most enthusiastic reception, but his approach is the closest thing American Catholicism has to a consensus in this turbulent era. It is something a lot of Catholics can live with.
The first step in the strategy of pragmatic reform could come in the arena of church finances.
If there is one thing that both bishops and laity can agree on, it is that money is the lifeblood of the church's daily operations, and that all of it comes from the pews.
As the revelations of abuse kept coming in 2002, Catholics grew just as angry over the number and size of secret settlements that had facilitated the cover-ups as they did over the abuse itself.