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.
The sexual abuse scandal underscored how little financial accountability there is in the Catholic Church. Not only did the national bishops conference have no idea exactly how many priests had been accused over the years, they also had no idea how much of the faithful's money had been paid out to victims over the years. They disputed the claims that put the figure at more than $1 billion but had no response beyond a guesstimate of $300 to $400 million. To lay people, a hundred million dollars here or there is real money.
"I am convinced that it is of paramount importance for every diocese in the nation to prepare and widely circulate-at the soonest possible moment-a comprehensive, clear, lucid, understandable, transparent and brutally honest financial accounting to the people-Catholic and non-Catholic alike-of their region," Fred L. Hofheinz, program director for religion at the Lilly Endowment, Inc., told diocesan financial directors at a September 2002 conference. Hofheinz said he was speaking "not so much as a thirty-year program director at the Lilly Endowment but as a sixty-four-year-old, lifelong, faithful, and believing Catholic." He warned: "If the current scandal is followed in the next months or years by even the suspicion of financial misdealings on the part of church officials, I do not believe the Catholic people will tolerate it."
Lay Catholics want to know where the money is going; they don't, contrary to a widespread notion, want to stop giving. The problem for Catholics is that by withholding money they are either penalizing their own parish-the destination for the bulk of their donations-or the poor and needy who benefit from diocesan programs. A Catholic community is so intertwined that a shot aimed at one faction will inevitably hurt someone else.
Lay Catholics can certainly demand greater financial accountability from the bishops, and there are indications that those demands are being heeded by some dioceses. Canon law says little about financial statements, and lay people should press hard for greater openess. What canon law does stipulate is that every diocese and every parish must have a finance council; it is up to lay people to join them and to use them as a springboard for transparency. This is grunt work, and it is crucial. Following the money leads to greater collaboration and responsibility in any organization.
As David O'Brien told VOTF conference: "If we had built shared responsibility in parish and diocesan pastoral councils, if we had formed self-confident associations of diocesan priests, religious, and lay people, if Catholic academic, medical, social service, and ministerial professionals had acted responsibly, these scandals of clerical sexual abuse would have ended between 1984 and 1993. . . . Catholic church reform has its deep and mysterious dimensions, to be sure, but the basics are not rocket science: we know how to ensure transparency, accountability, and shared responsibility in ways which support the mission of the church, strengthen, not weaken, the authority of pastors, and insure the integrity of the community of faith. We knew how to do it, but it didn't happen. What was lacking among us was not knowledge or imagination but will and skill, commitment, organization, strategy, and tactics.
"Our failure," O'Brien concluded, "was not theological or spiritual but political."
Similar assessments came from Catholics across the board. One of the more incisive and remarkable analyses of the scandal-and one that again demonstrates the untapped talents of lay Catholics-came during a "listening session" held at a New Jersey church near my home. During the session at Corpus Christi in Chatham Township, one parishioner dissected the faults of clergy and hierarchy with laserlike precision and an anger born out of deep disappointment. But she did not spare herself or her fellow Catholics:
"We all bear a portion of the guilt for what has happened to these children and for any similarly hidden evil behavior that may yet be revealed," she said. "We share the guilt because we have allowed ourselves to be turned into unquestioning sheep who have been banished from any positions of real leadership within the church. For far too long, we the laity have silently accepted a medieval system where every decision of any real importance has been made by an insular group of men."
While no one wants to return to the brass-knuckle politics of the old trustee controversies of the early American church, lay Catholics do have to change their docile ways before they can change the church. As Tom Beaudoin put it: "Are you and I willing to resist the cheap grace of non-involvement, and to pursue the costly grace of reform? What are we willing to commit ourselves to?"
The activism has to start now. At this point Catholics cannot, and should not, remain passive and simply hope to pray their way to a healthier church. Remember, Catholicism is about doing as well as believing. Lay people have to join parish councils, or start them. Greater collaboration is needed, true, but the structures of collaboration are already there, if Catholics care enough to use them.