What would happen if Catholics took the “Occupy Wall Street” model and “applied it to their passion for and grievances with their own church?” asks Dr. Tom Beaudoin right here on this blog. Judging from the passionate comments in response, Dr. Beaudoin has struck a chord in many readers—and they have offered comments reflecting the pros and cons. It seems to me this question can open up even more discussion and perhaps stir greater reflection on our ongoing struggle to define appropriate roles and boundaries for laity and hierarchy in the church. The “Occupy Wall Street” movement brings into memory happy times for me as a college student at DePaul University in Chicago: seeing Dorothy Day in person, sitting within ten feet of Dan Berrigan as he spoke at a neighborhood church, and even feeling empowered by the increasing voice given to students by the DePaul administration.
It’s great for me to revisit those halcyon days, and I can even admire the spunk and enthusiasm of the young people I recently sat near on the Metro North train as they perfected their placards with last-minute magic marker write-ins on their way to Wall Street. As a college teacher, most of my time is spent talking with and listening to young people. There is great worry among many of them about their future. Many have so many tens of thousands of dollars (or even more than a hundred thousand dollars) of students loans that I worry they will become like the indentured servants of centuries ago—only now they must report to loan agencies with acronyms, anonymous institutions who will not allow even bankruptcy to relieve their students’ indebtedness. As we are aware from many young voices in the church today, the same feeling of being powerless and alienated, feeling frustrated, bored and ignored, occurs too frequently.
When it comes to applying the “Occupy Wall Street” model to the church, my own thoughts lead me to revisit two church documents that specifically examine the laity and the hierarchy and their relationship to each other. These are St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, and "Lumen Gentium: Dogmatic Constitution of the Church." I am always willing to listen to my students, and they know this. But I encourage and even require them to back up their opinions with acknowledgment of other sources. With the online tools available today, one can even evaluate the veracity and importance of the sources one is citing. So if we are going to consider the “Wall Street Model” vis-a-vis demanding change, I suggest that a few hours spent with Paul’s letters to the Church at Corinth and "Lumen Gentium" would be a valuable prelude to any taking to the streets, occupying parishes or even setting up tents near the obelisk in St. Peter’s Square (where, in the past, I have trod with Marist students studying Rome and Vatican History).
In several ways the Church at Corinth displayed many of the characteristics many would like to see more of in 21st-century Catholicism. There was huge emphasis on individual spirituality, of each person “listening to the Spirit” and concomitant speaking in tongues or with prophecy. Experimentation and evolution of liturgical practices was occurring without oversight of a hierarchy and “rules.” There were even “ecumenical” services of sorts, where Christians combined the Lord’s Supper with practices of other religions. There was discussion as to whether Christ’s Resurrection was a factual event or a symbolic and metaphorical one. There was open criticism of Paul as a leader, particularly regarding whether he was driven by self-ambition or was a servant of the community.
Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians served to bring some order back into the community. Even before the Gospels were written, he set down the way the Lord’s Supper was to be celebrated and he delineated its identity apart from Judaism and “the false gods.” He reminded everyone that prophecies will be done away with and tongues will fail but love endures forever and is the greatest gift of all. He emphasized the importance of Christ’s resurrection and the second coming as factual events [“If the dead are not going to be raised, then Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall be dead” (1 Cor 15:34)]. He took responsibility for and banished a sexual abuser from the community.
"Lumen Gentium"—like most of the Vatican II documents—was based on scripture, previous Church Councils, theological and papal writings and discussion of contemporary life. The document uses many of St. Paul’s thoughts in redefining “church” for a nuclear, global world. In fact, Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are directly quoted over 50 times. Directly from Corinthians, the church is defined as the Body of Christ, and Paul’s commendations of the many gifts given by God to the Corinthian faithful form a basis for that great concept People of God, and these words also echo across parishes each Sunday in the hymn "We Are All One Body." However, there is another dimension to "Lumen Gentium," which is based on sources after Paul—Patristic writings, in particular—about the need for hierarchy. Perhaps some of the spiritual chaos Paul had to confront at Corinth showed a need for oversight?
Just as I hope young people heading down to New York or Washington, D.C., to protest the modern way of doing business are well-read in economics and history, I encourage my students and other young people who wish to renew the Church to carefully read St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and "Lumen Gentium." I believe our young people need challenge and guidance to examine their own sometimes-emotional reactions in conjunction with a reasoned look at other issues involved. Just as parents, and teachers and hierarchy owe our young people undivided attention and careful empathy, young people themselves need to bring their considerable intellectual skills to a careful assessment of questions such as the relationship of Church laity to hierarchy in today’s world by examining sources beyond their own immediate feelings.
William Van Ornum