The idea that lay people should have an active role in helping the Roman Catholic Church fulfill its mission really isn't all that radical, or even new, according to Scott Fraser, a management consultant in Boston. Mr. Fraser attends church in the archdiocese where the first allegations of clerical abuse surfaced. He says at the Second Vatican Council in 1965, church leaders themselves called for the laity to be given a more active role.
"If you read Vatican II, which many of us have done in the last few weeks, perhaps more than we've ever looked at it before, but the laity are called to participate in the church," he said. "They are called to help, to collaborate with the hierarchy in the fulfillment of the mission of the church."
Scott Fraser is a founding member of Voice of the Faithful, an organization of lay Catholics that started in Boston four months ago with just a handful of members, and has since blossomed to include more than 10,000 people from 40 states and 21 countries. Mr. Fraser says many of the goals of Vatican II haven't been realized in America, and Voice of the Faithful wants to change that. The group is calling for lay people to be formally consulted on the so-called "temporal" affairs of the church, matters that include financial decisions, the hiring of priests, and even certain aspects of worship.
"The laity has been very, very passive in the church in America," he said. "We haven't been asked to do much, other than come to mass and make our financial contributions to the church, and to teach Sunday School and to participate in that way at a local level. But there is so much more that we could do to help the church. There is so much more that we could do to further the church's mission."
Mr. Fraser says the church hasn't always welcomed attempts by the laity to become more active. Even now, Voice of the Faithful has gotten a lukewarm reception from church leaders. A number of priests on the parish level have been supportive of the movement, but Mr. Fraser says at least two parish priests in the Archdiocese of Boston have been called in by their bishop and told not to encourage Voice of the Faithful members in their churches. Father Mark Massa, a Jesuit who heads the Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University in New York City, says without the approval of Vatican officials in Rome, Voice of the Faithful won't be able to implement any of the changes its proposing. And Father Massa says church officials in Rome have been reluctant to give power to American Catholics, because Americans already feel so entitled to tell their leaders what to do.
"Most American Catholics think they're at the forefront of democracy in the church, when in point of fact American Catholics are denied a lot of the opportunities other churches have. Like for instance in Europe, a lot of cathedral chapters themselves nominate who the next bishop is. Americans don't have that," Father Massa said. "Every other major church in the world except the United States has something called a primate who's a first bishop, who brokers the local concerns with Rome. Rome has always denied that to the United States. You say, 'Well, why would we not have a bishop who's sort of the spokesperson for the national church with Rome?' Well, you know, Americans are too prone to embrace democratic values and they have to sort of be kept at a distance."
But, Father Massa says, the current crisis in America's church may be big enough to prompt the Vatican into letting American Catholics have a greater say. And that sort of change, he says, has been needed for a long time, because the composition of the American church has changed dramatically from what it was 50 years ago.
"Between 1840 and 1950, the American church became defined, pretty much, by successive waves of immigrant groups," he said. "First by the Irish, and then by the Germans, and the Italians, and the Slovaks. Many of them came from non-democratic cultures, most of them came at the bottom of the socio-economic scale, most of them came under-educated compared to the American mainstream. All that has changed. The American church has become more affluent, much better educated. These are not people that you can give the argument from authority, and the argument from authority is simply 'do this because I told you so.'"
American Catholics aren't accepting that argument from authority with regard to the current crisis in their church. Very few if any, have gone so far as to actually leave the church by converting to another faith. But they are demanding that their voices be heard by church officials, and they're making these demands with their pocketbooks.
Several chapters of Voice of Faithful have already set up bank accounts that are separate from those of the church, so that lay people can donate to Catholic charities, without having to worry that the money will be used to pay clerical salaries. The money also won't be used to pay the millions of dollars in expenses the Catholic church has already accumulated, as a result of lawsuits brought by the victims of sexual abuse. Voice of the Faithful members hope this pocket book pressure will persuade church officials to give the laity a greater voice.