Catholic Laity Needs a Stronger Voice in Church Decisions

By Christine Schenk
Cleveland Plain Dealer [United States]
March 6, 2004

The scope of clerical sexual abuse and coverup is worse than we imagined. Decades of pain and suffering endured by Catholic victims of clergy sex abuse now call us to repent and to reform.

The National Lay Review Board and investigators in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York are to be commended for an extraordinarily honest, thorough and exhaustive investigation and for affirming the thousands of innocent priests who also have suffered greatly in the past two years.

It is also commendable that the review board's report named lack of episcopal accountability as a cause of the crisis and recommended greater use of "fraternal correction," increased lay consultation in the selection of pastoral bishops and an in-depth study of mandatory celibacy.

Faithful lay Catholics underwrite the church's mission. They are now being asked to pay for a scandal of unprecedented proportions that they neither created nor had knowledge of. Yet justice and compassion compel us to compensate victims appropriately if we are ever to heal both victims and ourselves.

Many want to get this issue behind us.

Yet there is no guarantee that clerical abuse and coverups will not occur again if underlying problems in Roman Catholic Church governance are not addressed.

There are no structures in the Catholic Church that require bishops to be accountable to the laity they serve. Ordinary Catholics have no power to remove bishops who covered over criminal behavior and knowingly transferred priest perpetrators. Neither have we power to help monitor and select our leaders. Bishops are accountable only to the pope. Since the pope cannot possibly oversee every bishop and diocese, some bishops can, in practice, be accountable to no one.

We need a system of checks and balances in the church that allows diverse perspectives to be heard and provides due process for redress of grievances such as malfeasance in office.

We Catholic laity have our work cut out for us. We must claim full ownership of and responsibility for our church, especially since many of our leaders seem to have abandoned theirs.

Already canon lawyers in Europe are talking about the need to have governance in the church rest on baptism, not on ordination. This way, all Catholics, including nuns and religious brothers, can find appropriate voice in church decision-making. Clericalism, a root cause of the present crisis, would necessarily diminish if not disappear.

Of course, distinctions must be made between governance and doctrine. Doctrinal decision-making about theological, biblical, canonical and moral issues should remain with those who have the specialized call, training and preparation. Yet even these decisions should not be made only by ordained priests. An increasing number of lay Catholics also have excellent and comparable preparation. These married and single men and women could both balance and broaden male celibate decision-making. This only can strengthen our Catholic community.

Church governance should include lay representative bodies that help select and approve both bishops and pastors. Catholic laity should help elect the pope. Maybe we could create a College of Laity along with the College of Cardinals.

There are calls from cardinals and bishops all over the world for a new church council and decentralization in church decision-making. Any new council or decentralized structure should have lay theological and biblical experts as well as ordained ones. It also must include lay leaders selected from all spectrums of our richly diverse Catholic community.

It is past time to admit that the present governance structure of the Catholic Church is fatally flawed.

Some will accuse me of being a heretic by quoting Matthew 16:18-20: "You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church." They overlook Matthew 18:15-18, where Jesus also gives the power to bind and loose to the Christian community. The community's spiritual authority is a necessary balance to Peter's.

Perhaps the only good thing to come from this worldwide scandal is that ordinary Catholics are realizing that if we are not part of the solution, we contribute to the problem.

If papal and, by extension, episcopal power is to be exercised appropriately, it must be balanced by power exercised by the community of believers. Catholicism will not be set right until an appropriate balance is built into church governance structures.

If we are to not only survive but thrive, Catholic lay people must take their rightful places as the living stones upon which Christ also builds the church.

Schenk is executive director of FutureChurch, an organization of Catholics that promotes reforms in the church.


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