by Rene Reid Reproduced with permission from OMG journal
In an address to the Synod bishops in October 2015, Pope Francis contrasted the hierarchy to that of the powerful of this world and concluded that it must be understood as an “upside-down pyramid,” with the vertex at the bottom rather than the top. Francis stressed that those who exercise authority are called “ministers” because, according to the original meaning of the word, they are miniscule, “the smallest of all,” he said. Similarly, in the religious community of which I was a member for several years, the head person was called the “Sister Servant.”
And just as Jesus washed His disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, Francis said, “The successor of Peter himself is nothing but the servant of the servants of God.” For the disciples of Jesus, Francis insisted, “the only authority is the authority of service, and the only power is the power of the cross.” The pope, although called to guide the Church, as Francis explained, “is not by himself above the Church, but within her as a baptized member among the baptized” and “a bishop among the bishops.” He spoke of a need for greater “decentralization” and an increased role for ecclesiastical provinces and regions, special councils, and especially episcopal conferences in the governance of the Church.
This call for decentralization of the Church is at the core of all other needed reforms within the Roman Catholic Church. Until the decision-making within the Church extends beyond a handful of cardinals to include the baptized, no reform of any significance is likely to come. In the Anglican Church, it was only when all the members of the church were given a vote that everyone became welcomed to the Eucharistic table and that women were allowed to be ordained to the priesthood.
On September 4, 2013, over sixty people from around the world gathered on an historic teleconference call in response to the call from Sr. Joan Chittister urging reform-minded people to come together to raise a common voice on some agreed-upon issue. Led in prayer by Irish priest, Fr. Tony Flannery, in one hour the group agreed easily on a common issue shared by all of us, namely, the need for changing the structure of the church from a monarchical ruling body to one of sharing power with all the baptized. A writing team was suggested and ten people from eight different countries joined together to write our first letter to the newly elected pope. The letter urged the Pope and his council of eight to “give primary consideration to acknowledging the rights and responsibilities of the baptized to have a voice of influence in the decision-making of our Church.” Very simply: we wanted the hierarchical church to decentralize and share its power with all the baptized. [http://www.catholicchurchreform.com/letterNew.html]
Having said this, anyone who has ever been involved in politics has experienced the futility of asking any powerful body to share its power. With perhaps the rare exception of our present pope, few people in power ever want to give any of it up. So how can we who support Francis in this goal ever hope to achieve it? We could ask Church fathers to look to other denominations such as the Anglicans and Lutherans to see their hundreds of years of success of having a democratically-run church. We could hold the U.S. system of governance up as an example that, as imperfect as it is and as filled with problems as it has, it still stands the test of time as one of the best forms of government to effectively include and represent all constituents.
Putting logical arguments aside, the responsibilities and rights of the laity to participate in the governance of the Church are based on Scripture and tradition, accentuated during the Second Vatican Council, and codified in Canon Law. Speaking of the laity, Canon law specifically states 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)
But tell this to Catholics who sit in the pew Sunday after Sunday who are often heard to say: “the Church is not a democracy.” But this is simply not true: ecumenical councils, papal elections and the election of religious superiors occur regularly. Even the first Ecumenical Council in 325 declared that no priest was validly ordained unless the community made the selection. In the early Church, both popes and bishops were often chosen by the people at large.
For there to be any hope for returning to some of these practices of the early Church, two essential steps must occur:
First, as long as reform groups stay in our own little camp fighting for our unique missions – social justice issues, equality of women, optional celibacy for priests, use of contraceptives, rights of the LGBT community, disciplinary action regarding clerical sexual abuse and the cover up of bishops – as important as each of these are, we will not be heard. For reform of the holy Roman Catholic Church to happen, reform groups must cooperate with one another to respond to the call of Francis. Despite the differences in objectives held by the various reform groups on that 2013 teleconference call, the reform representatives did succeed in coming together and agreeing on one common reform: namely, for the baptized to have a deliberative voice in the governance of our Church. If it happened once, can it not happen again? But here is the dichotomy: As much as we want the hierarchy to share power, we reform groups are unable to do this among ourselves. When the suggestion is made that we should collaborate in order to make our voices stronger, the immediate questions arise: “Whose idea is this? Who will be in charge?” We reformers are deathly afraid of sharing our power for fear of losing our unique identity, our monetary source, and our power base.
When Joan Chittister first suggested that we come together, she made it clear that she was not suggesting “the collapsing of reform groups into one agenda or one leadership. On the contrary, every agenda being pursued by church groups in this country shines … a valid and enlightening laser beam on the effects of bad theology or poor church administration in a modern world.” Nor did she think that “we should sacrifice the leadership of each group to some kind of Uber-group.” As leaders of a reform movement, before us is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to model together another way of being church without competition, without distrust, without control.
The second thing that must happen is dependent on the first. With reform groups working together, we stand a far better chance of being heard and taken seriously both by the hierarchy and the Faithful. Pope Francis is calling for dialogue among the people, pastors, and bishops. But all too many bishops, fearful of relinquishing their power, are not following through with such papal promptings. Or if they do call meetings, many are afraid to allow the freedom of bold speech modeled by Francis at the Synod. Francis needs us, the baptized, to take on the “authority of service,” and share in the “power of the cross.” In taking some initiative, we may experience our own form of crucifixion, but what better way to be a follower of Jesus?
If we are serious about reform of our Church, the time has come when reform groups must come together. With unified effort, we might begin to educate Catholics sitting in the pew to get involved at the grassroots level: to “bother their pastors,” as Francis has suggested; to serve on parish councils, to become delegates to the diocesan synods. Why? So that we are no longer a voice crying out in the wilderness. We need to get Catholics who have been taught to sit obediently in the pews to become unafraid to speak out from within the structure. We don’t have to wait for a bishop or pastor to call a meeting. We can be setting up local meetings ourselves and inviting our pastors and bishops to join us. Fallen-away Catholics make up one of the largest denominations in the world. They could be invited to these meetings to openly describe the circumstances that caused them to leave and to share what it would take to bring them back. For those who have a personal story to share, all are welcomed to visit www.PopeFrancisCanYouHearUs.org.
So much reform could happen; but it all depends on reform groups coming together. How can we do this without losing our identities? Perhaps a task force or steering committee needs to be formed with representatives from numerous groups joining together. A moderator could be chosen and traded off periodically among the members. Each could contribute a small amount to set up a shared website. The group might explore what they would they like to do together and take the discussion back to their respective groups. If a large enough project were chosen, the group would have the clout to turn to a major funding source, such as the well-known Catholic, Melissa Gates of the Gates foundation, who has spoken out on a woman’s right to choose. But such foundations would only consider a major donation if the reform groups were truly united in their cause and if the cause were backed by a business plan that has the potential to bring about real reform in the Roman Catholic Church.
“For the first time in years, reform-minded Catholics find themselves at a moment of opportunity, a time that could well begin again the kind of church renewal Vatican II heralded for all the world to see….With the election of Jorge Bergoglio as the simple Pope Francis, it is possible that the time of listening has finally come, if we can possibly get its ear.” So says Joan Chittister. But “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.” Decentralizing so as to involve all the baptized in the decision-making of the Church is the vision of Pope Francis. Are reform organizations ready to model a new form of being church, to share power with one another and take up the cause of supporting Francis in bringing about essential reforms of the Roman Catholic Church? Without such renewal, without the Church becoming a more merciful, more forgiving, and less judgmental institution, the very survival of our Church is at stake.
Rene Reid, a former Catholic nun with an M.A. in theology, is a renowned speaker, writer, and network marketing consultant. She is Director of Catholic Church Reform, International, established when she completed the pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago in 2013.