Disclosures about sexual abuse among priests and coverups by the hierarchy have elicited, at least in Boston, levels of lay dissatisfaction and anger that rival the response to Humanae Vitae, the birth control encyclical issued in the summer of 1968. An interesting question now is whether lay reactions will play themselves out in the same way they did in the 1960’s or will take some new and potentially more constructive form.
The contrast of “exit” and “voice” as strategies for expressing concern (developed by the economist Albert Hirschman in his book Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States, 1970) can be illuminating. Lay reactions to Humanae Vitae mainly followed an exit strategy—complete exit in some cases, selective exit in others. Church attendance among Catholics certainly dropped during that period, though the explanations for that phenomenon are complex. Perhaps more important, lay Catholics and many of the clergy simply “exited” from the teaching. Overwhelmingly, lay Catholics disagree with the teaching on birth control and do not follow it. By and large, the clergy in the United States do not press the issue either in preaching or in individual counseling. There is a tacit agreement to avoid the subject. (In a similar way, conservative Catholics have ignored church teaching on social justice.)
The results of this large-scale selective exit strategy are that the church lost both members and credibility but at the same time maintained its basic structure. Total defections were not numerous enough to provoke a widespread sense of crisis. The implicit pact of silence on the issue worked to maintain an appearance of harmony. But the teaching authority of the church suffered enormously. Lay Catholics were inclined to say, in effect, “The pope is entitled to his own opinion on this,” with the corollary, “And so am I.” Because Humanae Vitae seemed so unrealistic and indeed wrong, other teachings, especially on morality and on church structure, also began to seem much less compelling.
The current crisis will also undoubtedly generate some exits, especially among those whose loyalty was not strong to begin with and among young adults whose stage in life predicts disengagement. But I believe that most lay Catholics are looking for and starting to develop a strategy based on “voice.” Many have articulated the notion that their anger and disillusionment are with the hierarchy; they do not want to leave the faith; they do not see full exit as a viable strategy.
On the fundamental issues raised by the current crisis, selective exit and a tacit agreement to disagree are also less of an option. The majority of concerned laity who have been writing and speaking out at parish and diocesan listening sessions in Boston, for example, see the scandal as revealing fundamental flaws in the governance of the institutional church. They also see the scandal as a crisis in the priesthood. They are reacting to extensive documents published by The Boston Globe in connection with the Geoghan and Shanley cases that showed a picture of closed, self-protective decision-making by the hierarchy, in which the status of priests and the reputation of the institutional church were given much higher priority than the fate of victims or the well-being of parishes. Commentaries on the scandal, even in the official archdiocesan paper, The Pilot, have raised more general questions about the priesthood: the effects of celibacy, the extent of sexual immaturity among priests, the proportions of both active and celibate homosexuals in the priesthood, the social and emotional fallout of male priests living alone and in exclusively male company. Catholics are also well aware of the sharp decline in new vocations and the aging of the priesthood. They feel the effects of all this in their parishes.
The problems of governance and the crisis in the priesthood revealed by the scandals are problems of the culture and structure of the institution. It is hard to see how hierarchy, clergy and laity could reach an accommodation that does not address these deep questions. Catholic sacramental and community life takes place in parishes, presided over by priests and governed by the hierarchy. Until some basic structures and deep-rooted attitudes change, there will be too few priests, they will be assigned without the consent of the parishes they serve, they will have too much power, and they will be strictly limited in their ability to develop genuine communities of disciples. Catholics cannot ignore these facts, even though in some parishes, for some period of time, they can work around them. These are the issues in which American lay Catholics now want a voice.
It would seem that voice for the concerned laity, rather than exit, would also be best for the church, and even for the hierarchy. Though some would prefer a smaller, more disciplined group of faithful, the mission of the church has always been inclusive and welcoming. Surely the church should want to retain its young people and its educated and talented laity—the very groups most disaffected. And although the Vatican might see the American church as self-indulgent and disrespectful, ignoring the church in the richest and most powerful country in the world would seem to be self-defeating.
How then can the effective voice that the contemporary church so desperately needs develop? Many among the hierarchy, and even among the ordinary clergy, seem greatly threatened by the notion. There are both good and bad reasons for their fear. One reason, of course, is that humans tend to hate to give up power and authority, even if sharing power is the only way to make the organization work and enable it to fulfill its mission. Another reason is that clergy often do not know how to work collaboratively—they lack the skills for effective leadership. But there also may be a more fundamental and legitimate fear—that voice means democracy, and that starting down this road implies eventually voting on such matters as the nature of the Trinity. An important part of what is needed, therefore, is a way of thinking about voice that is consistent with the nature of the institution and with the powerful conceptions of the church developed at the Second Vatican Council.
One approach is to make a distinction between what might be called secular issues—financial and investment decisions, for example—and more properly religious issues, and to institute standard secular methods of accountability and participation for the secular issues and to declare the religious issues out of bounds for lay involvement. This has been a typical response to demands for voice. But the issues of most concern, the issues revealed by the current scandal, are not purely secular. Lay Catholics feel a newly urgent responsibility to participate in discussions and decision-making about the nature of the priesthood, the liturgical and pastoral roles of the laity and the formation of both clergy and laity. They want to bring their own voices to considerations of sexual morality and social justice, and the relative importance of the two. They want to be part of the ongoing conversation about the nature of the church and its relationship with the larger society. They expect to participate in ways consistent with their talents, not simply as volunteer staff to the clergy.
Lay Catholics recognize that the church is not a democracy in the sense of an institution that exists to advance the well-being of its members as perceived by those members. The church’s mission, core beliefs and central practices come down through history from the revelation of God in sacred Scripture and tradition. Over time, the church developed structures meant to preserve the deposit of faith and to keep it true to the revealed word of God.
The hierarchical structures that developed in the church in tandem with monarchical structures in the secular state, however, are not the only alternative and are ill-suited to the concept of the church articulated in Vatican II. The church believes that the Spirit remains with and guides the church forever. The continuing action of the Spirit allows the church to read the signs of the times and continually develop its structures, teaching and practice in response to new challenges and new opportunities. The hierarchical model assumes that the Spirit speaks only to bishops, especially the bishop of Rome, who then relay the Spirit’s instructions to the clergy and through them to the laity. But that model contradicts the notions—so powerfully laid out in the documents of Vatican II —that all believers are filled with the Spirit by virtue of their baptism, that all are called to holiness, to ministry and indeed to the apostolate.
More consistent with current ecclesiology and key to institutionalizing voice in the church is the notion that the Spirit acts and works in the community of believers, which collectively discerns the signs of the times and the will of God. This insight has a number of implications. The preferred process for governance in a model of collective discernment would not be democracy, but rather prayerful and reflective deliberation. Such deliberation, often aimed at consensus rather than decision by voting, would work to uncover not the collective will and morality of the citizenry but the will of God. It must therefore give a privileged role to prayer, to sacred texts and to tradition.
A further implication is that some participants in the process should have greater, or different, voices. Recipients of the sacrament of orders have received both special training and special grace to be attentive to the voice of God. Students of Scripture and tradition have a special role in explicating the development of church teaching and practice over time and in suggesting paths for the future. Practitioners of politics and economics in the secular world may have important insights to offer. The poor and the oppressed, those whose voices are most often silenced, are especially privileged in their reading and interpretation of conditions in the world. The hierarchy participate in a special way both by virtue of ordination and by their role as servant leaders of the community of believers, with a special responsibility for protecting continuity and unity.
Working out these concepts will take time and commitment. The crucial need is to develop new structures and a new culture for the church that more fully reflect the vision of Vatican II. The most important changes, for example, opening up discussion of the priesthood and of sexuality, must wait for changes at the Vatican. But in the meantime, significant interim steps can be taken at the diocesan level. For example, parish and diocesan financial councils can vote on budgets and use standard secular methods of ensuring transparency and accountability. Clergy-lay boards can develop through a consultative process principles for guiding personnel and staffing decision-making, most of which will be actually carried out by professionals. Clergy can collectively reflect upon the particular challenges of their calling. All types of groups can pray, study and discuss crucial ethical issues and bring their insights together in regional and international forums. Academic theologians can continually study the foundations of the faith, and respectfully present new interpretations to the academy and the larger community of disciples. Bishops can convene synods to deal with pressing current issues. The church can creatively adapt governance models developed in the secular society, and can create new models especially suited to its sacred character.
The current demands for greater voice offer an opportunity for the development of structures and practices that are both faithful to the church’s sacred mission and responsive to current conditions. They represent true loyalty and a strong desire to exercise voice within the church rather than exit from it. It remains an open question whether the hierarchy will respond to the challenge or try to ignore or stifle it. But in the view of American lay Catholics, the current crisis will be an even greater tragedy if the opportunity is not seized.