Rebels in the Pews

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Members of the lay-majority clergy-review board of Minneapolis-St. Paul

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Few faiths offer as sharp a definition of a lay person as Catholicism. In most Protestant denominations the line between the the congregation and its pastor is porous. In Catholicism the priest, through the laying on of a bishop's hands, is "set apart," as the church catechism puts it. He is uniquely qualified to act "in the person of Christ" in giving the sacraments and is both a vessel for the church's teaching and the on-the-ground representative of a hierarchy culminating in Rome. For centuries, his seminary training made him more educated than many of his flock. As millions of Catholic peasants and laborers immigrated to the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries, only an elite few would presume to advise the church, much less imagine a role in governing it.

That changed through the next century. As Catholics moved into the middle and professional classes, some anticipated a parallel empowerment within their church. When John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council in 1962, many who flocked to Rome believed he would usher in the Age of the Layman. But the Council's legacy proved ambiguous. Part of the ongoing bitterness regarding Pope Paul VI's 1968 extension of the church's birth-control ban dates to his decision to convene a prominent lay committee to help him study the issue — and then to ignore its advice. The ideological gap only widened when John Paul II definitively ruled out female ordination, and ambitious women came to see lay empowerment as their only vehicle.

Many American parishes eventually found necessary what Rome found distasteful. The growing shortage of priests, combined with a general progressive impulse, has led some hard-up churches to use the laity for every function short of consecrating the host. Even where there was a priest, lay people read Scripture and sometimes even preached the homily. Some bishops appointed pastors from slates provided by the congregations. Lay people — including women — achieved the powerful, previously priests-only administrative position of diocesan chancellor. Conservatives were not happy about the pattern: Novak complains that "lay people are being made into little clergymen, up around the altar during the Mass." He argues that many who agitate for more lay governance are actually more interested in reopening questions of doctrine, such as female ordination.

And in fact such objections find a willing ear in Rome. John Paul could not possibly track all the experiments and infractions, but his bureaucracy has done what it could. It has reiterated the position that lay people may distribute the Eucharist only if ordained personnel are absent. In the late 1990s it issued a document prohibiting lay hospital chaplains from using that title. Two months ago, its most recent step-by-step instructions on the liturgy pointedly noted that only the ordained may give the homily at Mass. Notes Margaret Steinfels, editor of Commonweal, an independent Catholic magazine: "This Pope thinks lay people are empowered to go out and feed the poor, which is natural, but he sure doesn't think they're empowered to run the church."

By the beginning of this year the American church had hit a classic impasse. The majority of U.S. Catholics clearly — but quietly — favored some kind of power sharing. When polled in 1999, reports Catholic University's D'Antonio, 65% of the "high-commitment Catholics" supported "more democratic decision making" at the parish level, and 56% wished for more at the diocesan level. But after years of simply ignoring birth control and abortion edicts out of Rome, many simply did not care enough about church governance to join liberal activist groups. Admits D'Antonio, whose leanings are liberal: "Things were going slowly." That is, until the Boston Globe's reporting connected the dots between abuse and hierarchical arrogance. Suddenly, says D'Antonio, "you have people who were ready to wait another 30 years for any kind of reform saying 'By gosh, this is the time.'"

James Muller, the founder of Voice of the Faithful, is a professorial type who portrays himself as a latter-day Catholic Thomas Paine. The lay people, he would say in his addresses to fellow rebels this spring, were plagued by "donation without representation." The press and legal frenzy over the scandals were like "the Boston Tea Party," and Voice meetings resembled "the Constitutional Convention." Said Muller: "Two hundred years ago, Americans gave representative democracy to the secular world. We're now attempting to do the same thing again — this time for the church."

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