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Earlier stories

Spotlight Report

  James Muller and Charles Kenney  

Give laity a key role in fixing church

3/6/2004

THE JOHN JAY College of Criminal Justice report estimating that thousands of priests abused children during the past half century answers some important questions as it attempts to quantify the horror of the sex abuse scandal. But even as it answers certain questions, it raises others. How did church structure permit such a massive coverup by church leaders? What is the underlying cause of the scandal? And perhaps most important, where does the church go from here? What do Catholics do next?

Going forward, there are two critically important changes -- inextricably linked -- that will not only prevent future such scandals but also greatly strengthen the church: The first change -- the foundation of a renewed church -- is for the Catholic laity to exercise the power they were called to assert by the teachings of Vatican II. The second is to enhance the role of women in the church.

Empowering the laity is the bedrock upon which a renewed church can be built. The laity comprise 99.9 percent of the church, yet hold a pitiful amount of real power within the institution.

In recent years, a trend toward democratization has swept much of the world. It is true that the church is not a political entity, yet the wisdom of the people is an immensely powerful ideal, particularly so in an institution where the leadership has failed so completely on a crucial issue of morality. Never before has the Roman Catholic Church needed the collective wisdom of its people more urgently than it does at this moment.

The Catholic lay organization Voice of the Faithful was founded in the Boston area by a handful of Catholics who were shocked by the scandal and deeply disappointed in the failure of the hierarchy. Voice has blossomed throughout the country and even the world on the strength of its core belief -- that lay people must play an active role in the governance of the church; that bishops must be accountable to the people.

At our very first Voice of the Faithful meeting, when there were no more than a couple of dozen people present, one of the women present said of the sex abuse scandal: "This is what happens when you don't have women involved, when you don't have married people involved. If women were involved, this could never possibly have happened."

The laity has been marginalized both by the hierarchy's persistent desire to keep them at arm's length and by its own complacency. Our prior practice of "pay, pray and obey" contributed to the centralization of power that permitted the scandal to occur.

To change the church, Catholic lay people must get up out of their pews and take action. The greatest threat to the church is not an abusive priest or secretive bishop; it is the continued complacency of the laity. While the sexual abuse scandal is a tragedy, it is also a catalyst for change. If we fail to seize the moment and make change that strengthens the church going forward, then the tragedy will have been magnified.

With increased lay participation it will be possible to enhance the role of women in the church. The fact that women are second-class citizens within the church has done more damage to the church than any other single policy. And yet we are blessed with millions of immensely talented women who remain Catholics. Some of these women are content with business as usual, but many others yearn for change.

Jim Post, the president of Voice of the Faithful, put it this way: "In this life, men and women are blessed with equal intelligence, equal capacity to reason, equal capacity to pray, and equal capacity to love. We are taught that the souls of men and women will be indistinguishable in heaven. If gender does not determine talent and ability in this life or status in the next, why does it serve as the fulcrum on which full participation in the life of the church turns?"

Women should be permitted, for example, to serve as deacons. With the increasingly acute shortage of priests, deacons are playing an ever-greater role in church life. Unlike priests, deacons may not absolve sins or consecrate the Eucharist, but they are empowered to baptize and preach as well as preside at marriages and funerals. Deacons perform works of charity with the poor and sick, and they are often involved in religious education and preparation for the sacraments.

We are beyond the point at which the hierarchy has the credibility to get the church back on the right track. Only the people can do that.

Dr. James Muller, chairman of Voice of the Faithful, and Charles Kenney are coauthors of "Keep the Faith, Change the Church."


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