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Now more that ever, bishops need laity

Coming out of their semiannual meeting in Washington, the bishops seem to have lost sight of a critical point. This point is so essential that if they fail to grasp it they cannot return themselves to wholeness and credibility.

The point: It is only through laypeople and their collective judgments that the bishops can once again earn their credibility. Try as the bishops might, speak out as they can, act as they will, it is the laity, as outsiders looking in, evaluating, judging and speaking honestly who will, in the final analysis, determine if the bishops are serious or not in their efforts to accept responsibility for the sex abuse scandals and take appropriate actions.

It is laypeople -- outsiders to the authority structure -- who are left to judge the authenticity and integrity of episcopal efforts to make reparations and protect the young. The simple truth is: The bishops need the laity as never before. But do they understand this?

Consider this image: the U.S. bishops grouped together and sinking in quicksand. On solid ground are laymen and women waiting to throw ropes for the rescue. Curiously, in too many instances, we see bishops rejecting these ropes. Instead of embracing lay efforts within dioceses to watchdog bishops and work with them to bring local churches to greater health, we see bishops driving these lay groups out of their dioceses. We see lay boards being told they have no authority and, furthermore, that they must operate within the realm of secrecy that spawned the crisis in the first place. It is time this nonsense ends.

Not surprisingly, as part of wider efforts to restore the church to health, the U.S. Catholic laity across the ecclesial spectrum is calling for a greater role in decision-making within the church. Catholics are demanding greater accountability of their bishops, starting with financial matters. They want to introduce democratic ideas into an antiquated medieval governing system.

No, church dogma and teachings on morality are not to be the objects of popular vote. However, 20th century democratic notions must find their way into church governance models. New insights into human dignity, the expansion of an educated laity, and deeper understandings of the rights and responsibilities of all baptized Christians are fueling the governance/accountability conversation within the church.

Using the words of Catholic author James Carroll (NCR, Nov. 15) “the Catholic reform movement … must turn the church away from autocracy and toward democracy. The explosion of grass-roots participation by laypeople in the project of changing the church is the first step on the new road. The Catholic reform movement … must restore the broken authority of the church by locating authority in the place where it belongs, which is with the people through whom the Spirit breathes.”

There is growing realization that the key issue in the task of reform is the manner of selecting bishops. Until this is changed, other attempts at reform will be largely toothless. Genuine leadership cannot be imposed on people. Leaders, whether of a parish or a diocese, must be chosen through the thoughtful consensus of the community. At the present time, the selection of bishops is in the hands of a few powerful archbishops who together with the Vatican’s representative to the U.S. church decide who will be a bishop and where bishops will be stationed. Careerism rather than pastoral concern for the needs and potential of a specific local church often guide these decisions. This should not happen in a community of faith.

It was not always this way in the church. For centuries in early Christianity, the candidate for episcopal ordination had to be selected by the community committed to his care. Over the centuries this principle was challenged by the intrusion of civil authorities into church officialdom, challenged also by the power struggles within the church itself, challenged finally by the ministerial monopoly of the clerical establishment and the disenfranchisement of the non-ordained.

However, the procedure to which we have become accustomed, namely appointment by the pope, is relatively new. Just one example: John Carroll, the first bishop in the United States, was chosen by the priests of the new country.

What is needed today is not some innovative organizational revolution but a return to the ancient discipline of the church. The exact manner of local selection of bishops can differ from cultural situation to cultural situation. However, the basic principles of local self-determination and subsidiarity, to which Vatican II itself pointed, must be once again honored.

Critically important as is this issue of the procedure for selecting bishops, it is not by itself the bottom line. A yet more fundamental issue is the true nature of the episcopal function. Quite reasonably, the two tasks of publicly witnessing to the gospel and of managing the affairs of the community very early coalesced into the office of pastoral care. However, evangelizing and governing express two distinct charisms and are separable. Of the two, it is the leadership within a believing people that ordained bishops provide by public attestation to their own faith in Christ as risen Lord and their own behavior as sacrament of Christ’s compassionate concern that is fundamental and irreplaceable. This is what believing Catholics expect of their bishops and what should guide them, if and when they regain their ancient heritage.

One final point needs to be kept in mind. The church is not meant to be two peoples, the clergy and the laity. We are one people of God. It is contrary to the nature of the church that there be a superior and privileged class. There is only the one body of Christ; there is only the one Spirit. As Vatican II’s “Constitution on the Church” insists, there is just the one call to holiness that applies to all the baptized. There is the one ministry to the world that all share.

Entrenched as the division between clergy and laity has become, it is contrary to the character of Christianity. The ordained do not stand between the people and God. They do exercise a distinctive ministry, one of the ministries by which Christians are meant to serve one another and to advance the kingdom of God in the world. It is not enough to recognize theoretically this desired unity of the faithful. We must learn to live it.

National Catholic Reporter, November 29, 2002