Sunday, November 18, 2018

Lay Authority

As the USCCB has looked at various options for correcting the failings that have led to the ongoing scandal, I've been interested in how resistant certain sectors of the Church are to options that involve a major role for laity -- lay investigative boards, and the like. The complaint is usually that such things are 'inconsistent with the structure of the Church'. I suppose it depends on what you mean, because the current structure of the Church, with respect to the laity, is anomalous. We have been living for a while in a period in which the laity have less effective authority than they usually have.

Historically, the Church has usually found itself in one of two regimes.

Regime #1: Christians are either persecuted or marginal. In such a case, the authority of bishops depends crucially on the assistance of the laity; the bishops can do nothing without constant lay help, and while the bishops generally provide guidance, the laity in practice have a voice in everything. Practical necessity gives the laity a considerable amount of power across the board.

Regime #2: A Christian state. Christians are relatively in power and thus able to establish the hierarchy in its own right; a symbiosis develops between secular authorities who recognize the rights and privileges of the Church as the Church recognizes the rights and privileges of the secular authorities, and there is mutually recognized overlap. A Christian king has a limited but very real spiritual responsibility for his Christian subjects, and this is explicitly recognized by the Church. If common laity have a problem with bishops, they can appeal to the magistrates and ultimately to the king and emperor. They also have some scope of action on their own if the magistrates are on their side. It's a tricky and complicated system in which laity in general may or may not have significant power depending on circumstances, and can have many points at which to go wrong, but it has a clear and formally recognized lay authority, and what is more, it is ecclesially recognized lay authority with considerably magnified leverage.

We are unusual in that we have been living under neither of these regimes. Because most people in the West live in societies that were Regime #2 but have been de-Christianized, or in societies derived from societies like that, the bishops continue to act as if they have the kind of relative independence they tend to have under Regime #2, so that the laity usually lack the effective power they have under Regime #1, but there are no Christian emperors or kings or even magistrates of the sort that Regime #2 involves, so the laity lack the kind of effective power they would usually have under Regime #2. The kinds of reforms bishops have tended to favor are reforms that have strengthened this; while they say they are putting forward reforms more suitable to democratic societies and an active laity, it's active compliance that they mean, and the particular reforms 'more suitable to democratic societies' are nearly without fail reforms that reduce the actual power the laity have. (A small example: St. Paul VI sharply reduced the role of the Black Nobility in the work of the Holy See; the immediate result of this was that a significant number of laity were removed from having any direct influence over that work. Nothing was ever put in its place to compensate for this. This is a recurring pattern.) Whether reforms are necessary is not the point here; the point is that even faced with real needs for reforms, the bishops have consistently tended to prefer reforms that reduce the say of laypersons in how bishops operate.

It's sometimes said that the problems we have are problems that come from bishops trying to protect their authority. This is arguably true, but also misleading. It makes it sound as if bishops are protecting their authority over people; but this is not true. What authority of this sort do most bishops really have? What effective authority does Cardinal Cupich (e.g.) have over Catholics in his Archdiocese? He can terrorize some clergy, and maybe diocesan staff, but that's about it; most of the Catholic population 'under' his authority just proceed as they would if he didn't exist, indeed, as they would if no bishop at all existed. When bishops protect their authority, what they are protecting is not power over the laity so much as independence from the laity. (Ironically, I think the latter, outside Regime #2 makes the bishops increasingly ineffective.) That they should have some is indisputable; that they should have as much as they'd like given that we don't live in Regime #2 is doubtful; that they should have anything like the relatively free rein that they have had seems to many to be refuted by recent events.

It does seem that our situation, of a relatively educated and (in other aspects of life) active lay population with very little ability to hold their bishops accountable to faith and morals, is not sustainable. Such a laity is used to being heard, even in areas in which they are not obeyed; they are used to putting their weight behind systems in which they are actually allowed some kind of serious participation. And they will inevitably be frustrated and distressed at anything that looks like their concerns are being treated as relatively unimportant. By 'inevitably' I mean in part that it is futile to complain about it if you don't like it, and futile to think that it will go away if you just ignore it, because it falls directly out of the structure in which we find ourselves. And it's important to see that there is nothing irrational or selfish about it: the laity have usually had something like the direct leverage some are rightly complaining they don't have now.

How exactly to remedy the problem is another question. In our day and age, standing lay boards run the risk of capture by various agendas and activisms (one sees this over and over again with schools); something more like temporary ecclesial grand juries would seem ideal for many particular problems, but the organizational requirements for making this a systematic answer are arguably not in our reach; the actual roles for laity that bishops tend to prefer are purely advisory, and what is more, purely advisory confirmations of what the bishops themselves want to do. In any situation, the authority the bishops need to uphold the sacraments and the gospel would need to be maintained. The route we currently seem to be racing down, of the laity appealing to purely secular state authorities, is a disaster waiting to happen, since it will inevitably be highjacked at some point by those who have no concern whatsoever for Catholic faith and morals, and no respect for them, either. Likewise, laypersons 'voting with their feet' and withholding funds, which seems another option people are trying to take, is arguably neither very effective nor very sustainable, and also arguably creates perverse incentives (it is rarely the most rational groups that are most effective in using this strategy). But people who try to dismiss some change along these lines out of hand, rather than addressing specific proposals on specific merits, seem to me to be in every case play-pretending that we live in Regime #1 or Regime #2 as regards lay authority, rather than in an unusual and artificial minimum of direct lay authority that will inevitably have to change in some way.

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