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Inside NCR

Church in crisis. The words have become a standing page label for NCR, and we have become, I daresay, numb to what they mean. Each week, however, it becomes clearer that crisis is the correct word. From the Rockville Centre, N.Y., diocese and the somewhat mystifying pronouncements of Bishop William Murphy (he objects to Voice of the Faithful and assures us that issues urgent to laity in the diocese will be taken up in a synod he says is planned for 2007) to the Los Angeles archdiocese where it is clear that a $200 million cathedral cannot hide the fact that things are coming apart, the term crisis applies. (For the stories, see Pages 9 and 17.)

During the past six months I have talked to priests, bishops and lay people across the conservative-liberal spectrum and across the range of church interests, ministries and pieties. Almost to a person, there is agreement that some manner of structural reform aimed at holding church leadership accountable is necessary.

Beneath that conviction -- that greater accountability is essential -- the old divisions begin to show again. Some people believe that we need tougher seminaries and a greater emphasis on celibacy. Some believe that Vatican II was the beginning of all our problems; others that the frustration of Vatican II reforms have resulted in the problems.

But the common ground is that we all feel betrayed, and we’re all frustrated at the lack of leverage laypeople have to effect any change. Bishops remain the sole gatekeepers. Even the vaunted national lay committee -- and this is not to impugn anyone on that committee -- is made up of people selected by the bishops. Don’t despair, there’s a good idea on the way.

After resisting for months, I have joined those who, like Boston College theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill, believe that the only way laypeople are going to have any influence over the situation is to make some noise with their money. I have resisted that route because it always seemed such an ill-defined ambition. There is certainly no mechanism for gaining control of church funds, and I suppose I was one of those who held out hope that the severity of the crisis would bring change, that somehow all of the early talk about new levels of accountability would be fleshed out in new structures that would create greater transparency when it comes to how the church’s treasury in used. I suppose I hesitated, too, because not all dioceses are the same, and in some there is a high degree of accountability. Nor do I think that the long-term answer to overbearing clericalism is an opposing power center, equally unaccountable, of lay people. But we are eons from the balance tipping in that direction. In too many dioceses there is little real accountability, and in some of the dioceses most seriously affected by the crisis, the bishops won’t even talk to the lay groups that have developed in response to the scandal.

Given all that, I pass along an intriguing idea forwarded to me months ago by Sharon Friedman and Paul Imse (she a government worker; he a retired lawyer and both members of the choir at their local church), under the title, “A Simple Plan to Protect Catholic Contributions.” Friedman and Imse, a married couple, (available by email at maryslent@aol.com) noted that an often-advanced strategy to get the bishops’ attention is to stop giving money to the church. “But to many of us, our community of faith and its ministries are an important part of our lives and our service to the broader community.”

Instead, they suggest that parishioners “join together to support their parish’s and the church’s charitable activities. The organization -- not the pastor, not the bishop, not the pope, would decide how, for what and when these contributions will be expended.”

“Just think of the effects this could have. It would empower the donors to participate in deciding how their money is spent. It would require that the clergy and hierarchy participate in an open dialogue relating to how and where and when the money is spent. It would create transparency and openness about the decision-making process and about the expenditure of these funds. It could even be an avenue for a meeting of equals (men and women, lay and clerical) to address other issues and questions in an open, respectful manner.

Friedman and Imse believe that each parish has among its membership enough financial and legal expertise to create a legal entity to which tax-deductible contributions can be made, separate from the parish and the broader church. The first step would be to establish a tax-exempt corporation that ultimately would be governed by contributing members of the parish who would elect a board of directors. Instead of writing checks each week to the parish, parishioners would donate to this new organization, and the contributions would be given to the parish for specific activities. The level and allocation of support for the bishop’s activities might also be controlled and administered by a bishop’s council, composed of representatives of a board of the people of God from each of the parishes, Friedman and Imse propose. “The bishop would then ask for contributions from the bishop’s council for upkeep or specific projects. Members of the council would then coordinate with all the parish boards for contributions and input regarding allocations.”

I don’t know if they have hit on a solution, but I have heard enough pastors and parishioners say the kind of structural change many think is essential will come only when laypeople use funding as a lever to gain the bishop’s attention, that I think Friedman and Imse’s suggestions are a good starting point for a conversation. I can’t help wonder how different things might be if, some 15 years ago, a bishop had been required to consult a board of laypeople and pastors to gain access to funds for the purpose of settling a sex-abuse suit.

What do you think? Please let us know, and if there is sufficient interest, we’ll report on the responses.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 27, 2002