The Personalist Project

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Accessed on July 09, 2020 - 7:16:41

Disburden bishops; empower the laity

Katie van Schaijik, May 24, 2020

Is it good, is it right that the laity have no say in what's happening right now in our churches?

Let's consider for a moment some of the consequences of bishops owning all the property and all the decision-making power in the Church. 

1) It means they are legally liable. A priest commits abuse, and millions (donated by the laity) drain out of the diocese to compensate his victim(s). If a pastor opens his church in defiance of secular mandates during a pandemic, the diocese gets into political and legal trouble that could cripple it for years. If disease breaks out in that congregation, more lawsuits will inevitably follow, and more millions will pour out. A bishop must have this worry prominently in mind at all times.

2) It means they are impossibly burdened with financial and administrative responsibilities. How can one man make reasonable decisions regarding the physical safety of hundreds of thousands of members in a vast territory with wildly various circumstances? What option does he have but but to play it safe? So, he closes all the churches, because some of the churches are maybe in hotspots and some parishioners are vulnerable. He deprives everyone of "the breaking of the bread and the communal life" for safety's sake. 

It's no slight against the character of those men to say that this is a terrible state of affairs.

I'm thinking of a saying I heard once in a eulogy for a rich man: "Money is like manure. Pile it up and it stinks. Spread it around, and you can do a lot of good."

It's the same with power. Pile it in one person, and you get rot and stench. Spread it around and you get fertility and abundance. The image coheres nicely with the principle of subsidiarity, one of the two pillars of Catholic Social Teaching. Power should be devolved to individuals and the small societies closest to them, not concentrated far away and at the top. (This principle would be better known plus more convincing if we could see it manifest in church operations.)

But set aside that principle for the moment. Set aside, too, the Scriptural and theological case I've made elsewhere (see here and here and here, for example) for enfranchising the laity. Set aside the fundamental personalist insight linking ownership and human dignity (which lies at the heart of the American Experiment.) Let's just take a clear-eyed look at the practical situation. 

We are cut off from the sacraments and public worship right now because the bishops feel responsible to keep the virus from spreading. They feel that way, because as a matter of structural fact, they are responsible. Guess what else they're no doubt feeling? An extreme financial pinch. No masses means no Sunday collections.

I predict that in the months ahead we're going to hear a lot of appeals for more money. I further predict that a lot of faithful Catholics will not be super amenable to those appeals, for very good reasons.

Bishops are going to have a lot of holes to plug, a lot of institutions to prop up, a lot of staff to pay. They're not going to have a lot of time and creative energy for the new evangelization, are they? It's hard to see them moving from "maintenance to mission" anytime soon.

We have a window of opportunity here. The status quo is collapsing. The only question is what will come in the aftermath? I see essentially two possibilities:

1) A reassertion of the old order with a demoralized, dwindling membership.

2) A restructuring leading to a gigantic renewal.

I'm working on a proposal for number 2, one more consistent with Scripture, theology, and the dignity of the person than what we have now. The bishops probably won't like it at first, but in the end, if it's adopted, they'll be so glad.