Open Letter to the People of God

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It is amazing how similar the battle for national rights parallels the battle for church rights. This week I received an email from civil rights activist and Georgia house representative, John Lewis. He was a friend of Martin Luther King and was brutally beaten by police in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 while marching for civil rights. In his email, he said: "While we have made progress toward a vision of a more fair, just and open country, the majority of Americans are afraid this country is headed in the wrong direction.... Some leaders reject decades of progress and want to return to the dark past, when the power of law was used to deny the freedoms protected by the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and its Amendments."

Does that sound familiar for those of us who are working steadily for the reform of our Church? Could we not utter these very same words? "While we have made progress toward a vision of a more fair, just and open [church] , the majority of  [people] are afraid this [church] is still headed in the wrong direction....Some [church] leaders reject decades of progress and want to return to the dark past, when the power of law was used to deny [the message of Jesus that is recorded in the Gospels."

 Lewis went on to say: "It took massive, well-organized, non-violent dissent and criticism of this great nation and its laws to move toward a greater sense of equality in America....Often, the only way we could demonstrate that a law on the books violated a higher law was by challenging that law. By putting our bodies on the line and showing the world the unholy price we had to pay for dignity and respect."

Has not the time come for us, who are fighting for equality in the church, for a more just, inclusive and welcoming church, to do the same? This week, people organized in major cities around the world to stand up for women's rights. How timely it would be for men and women to piggyback on that march and speak out for women's rights in the Roman Catholic Church!


Are we ready for this kind of worldwide peaceful demonstration to promote a just and inclusive Church? 

In addition, this week, a man whom I greatly admire gave his farewell speech to America as he leaves the office of President of the United States. Whether you agree with his politics or not, so much of what he said about our country could also apply to our work in the Catholic Church. I want to adapt some of his words now in order that we might learn from his wisdom in our work to move the Church away from past entrenchments and forward into the 21st century. All quotes below in bold are those of President Barack Obama.

"Change only happens when ordinary people get involved and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it." Is this not the essence of what Pope Francis is seeking? And of what we who are working toward the reform of our Church are striving for? But how do we move people out of their comfort level to be motivated to show up and speak up? It is only when we feel oppressed enough that the spirit will rise up in us.

 "Only if all of us, regardless of our particular interests, help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now." Sr. Joan Chittister reached out to reformers in her letter back in August 2013 making a similar point: "Until we raise a common voice we will not only not be heard, we will not even be listened to in the light of larger issues and larger groups, all clamoring for attention." Both Sr. Joan and Barack Obama are right. So as reform organizations and individuals, we must ask ourselves: What is holding our various groups back from coming together to demand the change we want and know is right for our Church? Fear of losing our unique cause or individual integrity? Fear of someone or some other group usurping our power? Fear of losing our financial resources? Joan anticipated these fears when she said: "Nor do I think that we should sacrifice the leadership of each group to some kind of Uber-group...But I do think that our leaders should model together another way of being church...without competition, without distrust, without control."

Hasn't the time come when, if any reform is to come about, we must do this - model a new way of being church among ourselves? And "new" may mean going back to our roots, going back to the early church when there were simply followers of Jesus - no institution, no hierarchy with ranking titles, no monarchy. Together with Francis, the one thing we all hold in common is that we are seeking a decentralized church - one in which the people have a deliberative voice in its governance. "Democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity - the idea that for all our outward differences, we're all in this together; that we rise or fall as one." If we could truly come together, our motivation would be, as the President said, "not to score points or take credit, but to make people's lives better."  Perhaps the time has come when we should stop putting money into the basket, which only demonstrates our allegiance for a church that discriminates against women, against gays, against those whose lives do not comply with the moral standards set by the church hierarchy. But how would we ever get people to act with such boldness?

So many people are "convinced that the game is fixed against them, that their [Church] government only serves the interests of the powerful." So they sit in their pews week after week submitting themselves to clerical power. Our job as leaders of the reform movement is to activate and strengthen the voices of the People reminding them that "they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful (Canon 212 §3).

Sr. Joan again addresses this issue: "We need to raise a common voice on a single issue - the immediate need for the genuine renewal of the Church. The problem is that we can't get anyone to take seriously the most serious issues in the Church because they have yet to take the Reform of the institution itself seriously.  And so we go on as if transparency, lay participation, finances, the women's issue, authority, sexual abuse, the genderization of the church, the nature of the episcopacy, the right to the sacraments and a host of others will not eventually destroy the church no matter how much good work we do. A church that refuses to take the Gospel as its guide on these topics rather than canons that are designed to prop up the structures that spawn them cannot possibly really preach Jesus."

"Laws alone won't be enough. Hearts must change." Besides coming together, if we want to change hearts, what is it that we must do differently than we've done in the past? Pope Francis is leading the way for creating a listening church through his preparatory document for the Synod on Youth. Instead of setting up a gathering in which the bishops will be inclined to lament that young people aren't going to Church anymore, through the online questionnaire, Francis is forcing the bishops "to accompany young people living in the fluid and uncertain reality of today's world."  

Being realistic, we know we can't expect Pope Francis to listen to only our side and, one day, believe the Spirit will guide him to listen to us and us alone and enact the reforms for which we are dedicating ourselves. He represents every member of the Church - the conservatives as well as the progressives, those who hold power and those who have none. If we are to move the Church forward, we need to be talking and listening to members of the Church who don't agree with us. We need to be doing some of the hard work to find compromise between our point of view and theirs. By entering into these kinds of dialogues ourselves, we can only strengthen the values that make us who we are.

President Obama reminds us: "In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, ...then we're going to keep talking past each other, and we'll make common ground and compromise impossible. "One possible way to enter into these kinds of discussions - traditionalists and progressives - is by getting Catholics and former Catholics of all age groups to gather in small groups in homes or parish halls and speak up about what they feel they need from the church, what drove them away, what would bring them back. Invite conservatives holding on to "the way things have always been" and explore with progressives how "things could be." This means, while the other is speaking, we are actually listening with heart and soul to what he or she is saying.  

To consider this possibility, we invite you to go now to www.ThePeopleSpeakOut.org. There you can make your views known and share your response to this letter:

1. By joining in the discussion on our blog.

2. By gathering people together in your community and exploring the changes you want to see in the Church. to help you get started.

3. And most importantly, by sharing the outcomes of your discussions so that they can become part of the agenda of the various Forums.

All of this will be shared with the Global Council Network to help set the agenda for the series of People's Forums being scheduled in various places around the world between this year and 2021.

But remember, none of this happens on its own. All of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship [in our Church], regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging.

Like Pope Francis, as President Obama closed his speech, he turns to young people as our hope for the future. "This generation coming up - unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic - I've seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, and just, and inclusive America. You are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You'll soon outnumber all of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands.

It can't be argued: the future of our countries and our Church are in the hands of young people. If the Church hasn't been listening to us, let's stir up young people to "make some noise" that will be heard all the way to Rome!

Let's not lose this moment. There is much we can accomplish but only if we are truly in this together. Don’t reply to this newsletter. Rather, we invite you to visit the blog now, explore the possibilities, and share your thoughts with one another.

Rene Reid
CCRI Director