Many are demanding immediate action. More than 4,400 Catholic theologians, educators, parishioners and lay leaders have called on the country’s bishops to “prayerfully and genuinely consider submitting to Pope Francis their collective resignation as a public act of repentance and lamentation before God and God’s People.” In a recent New York Times op-ed, Catholic historian Kathleen Sprows Cummings demanded that “church leaders voluntarily relinquish their place at the head table.”
Shared power between laypeople and bishops — not merely the symbolic advisory positions lay leaders have taken since the 1960s, but ones with the power to make binding decisions for parishes and dioceses — is needed now more than ever. Previous examples of democratic Catholicism have gestured toward a partnership among laypeople, priests and prelates, but too frequently, the hierarchy has treated laypeople as junior partners, reinforcing the top-down rule that has enabled clerical abuse.
This is not the first time that such systemic church corruption and malfeasance resulted in calls for lay empowerment and democratization. In the early 19th century, lay leaders, known as trustees, governed many parishes. They handled the day-to-day business of their churches and often held official title to parish property.
But when more European priests arrived, reducing the priest shortage that had necessitated lay trusteeship, bishops and priests began asserting their authority and providing more hands-on leadership over church affairs. Conflict quickly erupted. Laypeople evicted priests from their parishes, priests threatened congregants with excommunication, and laypeople and clerics fought each other in court for control of church property and ultimately for spiritual supremacy.
In the end, the church hierarchy emerged victorious.
Subsequently, even when church leaders tried to democratize the church, their efforts largely fell short. John England, the first bishop of the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., arrived in the United States in 1820 to find a three-state diocese — Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina — facing its own potential schism and battles between priests and lay leaders. His solution? A constitution and regular lay conventions to bring democratic governing traditions into the church.
But while England’s proposal offered broader lay engagement, it did not offer authentic empowerment. The constitution, for example, was designed to introduce a measure of republicanism into the Diocese of Charleston, but it continuously reinforced the supremacy of the church hierarchy in all substantive religious matters, providing power to laypeople in minor affairs, such as voting for their own officers for the conventions and issuing nonbinding proclamations.
Under England’s leadership, the Diocese of Charleston conducted 29 conventions from 1823 to 1841. The conventions were the first in the United States to bring together Catholic clergy and laypeople to assist in directing the course of their local churches. The conventions were important sites of Catholic community building, as laypeople and priests scattered across the Southeast met one another for the first time and helped shape Catholic culture in the South.
However, the proceedings of the conventions were largely ceremonial. England would celebrate Mass and deliver an address on the state of the diocese, and the various parties would express praise for one another and try to think of ways to raise money for the perpetually cash-strapped diocese.
Collectively, the constitution, the conventions and the practice of local lay leaders voting for themselves to attend the diocesan conventions contributed to the reinforcement of top-down governance under a democratic guise.
England’s limited democratic experiments could be used by Catholics as evidence of their devotion to American notions of freedom in a period when Catholic loyalty to the nation was suspect. This would be especially helpful when American Catholics came under attack in the 1830s amid a wave of convent tales, which accused Catholic convents of kidnapping and sexually abusing young women.
Unlike the present crisis, these antebellum tales were fraudulent. The stories, however, focused not only on supposed Catholic sexual depravity — itself a recurrent theme in anti-Catholic rhetoric throughout the 19th and 20th centuries — but also on Catholics’ alleged opposition to liberty and democracy. England played a leading role in combating the rumors about the convents, and he and other Catholic leaders did so by appealing to the sorts of democratic practices he instituted in Charleston.
Unfortunately, the democracy that England championed was flawed at best. It purported to share power with the people in the pews but instead papered over the significant power imbalances between clerics and laypeople.
These same hierarchical structures — covered with a democratic veneer — still plague the American Catholic Church.
Today, the reforms stemming from Vatican II (1962-1965) and the growth of a more lay-oriented, bottom-up administration for parishes and dioceses are what disguise the reality: More access hasn’t fundamentally changed the church’s power structures. Today, there are indeed lay parish and diocesan advisory and financial councils. Laypeople serve as lectors and extraordinary ministers during Mass. They also serve as music directors and faith formation leaders for their parishes and are critical members of the theological ranks.
But they have little substantial power. They provide no check against a church hierarchy that in so many dioceses in the United States and elsewhere has not only ignored the abuse perpetrated by its own members against the most vulnerable Catholics, but has played an active role in covering up and even facilitating future abuse.
Institutional corruption is obvious in Pennsylvania dioceses, but none of this should be surprising to those who have been following this criminal activity in other dioceses for years. What is shocking to many is the sheer depth, breadth and severity of the crimes and just how clear the criminality runs in these still largely opaque religious institutions.
This is why the church needs to renew its efforts for substantive lay empowerment. And despite its significant shortcomings, John England’s purported democratization of the Diocese of Charleston is instructive. While England bowed to pressures to maintain white male supremacy in his diocese, present attempts to democratize dioceses must not follow the antebellum example. Catholic democratization must represent the rich diversity of an international church.
As in England’s day, dioceses should adopt authoritative constitutions outlining the powers and responsibilities of laypeople, priests, religious brothers and sisters and bishops. And laypeople must have a hand in writing such documents and amending them when necessary.
Local churches should absolutely continue forming lay advisory councils, but these bodies need further powers to review the backgrounds and résumés of their incoming priests and bishops.
Since Vatican II, many dioceses have conducted lay synods, similar to the conventions England inaugurated in the 1820s. This is laudable work, but these synods must be empowered to formulate and enforce regulations that are binding on their dioceses. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has set a goal of conducting independent investigations of the current crisis, with “substantial involvement of the laity” and “free from bias or undue influence by a bishop.”
This is a positive step. However, these independent investigations must not end with the settlement of the present situation, if such a settlement is even possible. Permanent, lay-led, independent monitoring groups should be established in each diocese to ensure that bishops and priests are not monitoring themselves but are instead being regulated by the people they are supposed to serve.
Are these radical changes? Yes. But extraordinary events require extraordinary measures.
The history of laypeople-clerical struggles for power in the United States — one of democratization that seems to always fall short, of laypeople denied a definitive, authentic say in the lives of their churches and of vulnerable people abused by those responsible for protecting them — provides some useful lessons for radically remaking present conceptions of power in American Catholicism, a reformulation that requires more than mere lip service to the centrality of laypeople to the life of the church.