Another effect of resignation is the current propensity of an activist laity to carve out power for themselves in situations where bishops have been driven from office.

For example, in response to a sex-and-finance scandal two years ago in which a bishop was forced to resign, lay members of the diocese of Santa Rosa, Calif. - about 140,000 Catholics across 42 parishes - are making an unusual, if not unprecedented bid, to remake their parishes and diocese along more democratic lines.

During the crisis, donations slowed, and some parishioners gave only to their own church by writing checks directly to pay for, say, the electric bill. But giving has slowly rebounded as diocese finances became more open - even being posted on the Internet.

Governance is changing, too. In coming weeks, the Santa Rosa diocese will convene a pastoral council involving two or three laypersons elected from each of the 42 parishes.

The result emerging is a power-sharing arrangement with clergy and the new bishop in which laity will have their say over the church's direction. "The Catholic Church is centuries behind - it has really not caught up to the democratic spirit of this country or what's happening in some other churches," says Antoinette Kuhry, a parishioner at St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Boyes Hot Springs, Calif., part of the Santa Rosa diocese. "We're electing two representatives to this council, [who] we hope will have great input into what happens in the diocese.