Beware a new group called Voice of the Faithful. It isn't what it claims to be.
More than 4,000 Catholics from 35 states and seven countries met in Boston on July 20 for the first national conference of the lay reform organization formed in response to the clergy-abuse scandals.
What did they achieve?
Perhaps their most conspicuous accomplishment was declaring that, contrary to Pope John Paul II's assessment, the root cause of the crisis is the hierarchical structure of the Church. (When he met with the American cardinals in Rome last April, the Holy Father cited dissent from the moral teaching of the Church as the main source of the scandals.)
As Voice of the Faithful sees it, to overcome the current crisis, what is needed is a church that is governed in line with lay consensus.
To make the Church a more democratic organization, Voice of the Faithful wants the laity to have a decisive say in the appointments of priests and bishops. The laity, says the group, ought to have the right to review appointment decisions made by bishops; Church governance must be overseen by egalitarian “building” processes that give everyone a chance to weigh in.
As an immediate, practical measure, Voice of the Faithful will begin grading bishops on a number of issues and post their report cards on the Internet.
Most Catholics believe that reform is needed if the Church is to regain her credibility. I agree. But will a lay-governed Church bring true reform? Is Voice of the Faithful promoting an effective solution?
No. The notion of a lay-governed Church completely sidesteps both the ABCs of Catholic ecclesiology and a genuinely Catholic understanding of the Church. If authentic and lasting reform is to happen within the Catholic Church, certain basic truths regarding its very nature need to remain intact.
For instance, the truth that Jesus Christ founded the Church and instituted a hierarchical structure by calling 12 apostles to continue his work of salvation – along with their successors, the bishops – needs to be upheld. Why? Because our Lord set up the Church this way. Many reform lay groups like Voice of the Faithful would argue that a hierarchical church contradicts the teaching and spirit of the Second Vatican Council. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Vatican II clearly states the exact opposite:
“[T]his Council is resolved to declare and proclaim before all men the doctrine concerning bishops, the successors of the apostles, who together with the successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ, the visible Head of the whole Church, govern the house of the living God” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, No. 18).
God does not call us to success. He calls us to fidelity.
Many critics contend that the current dilemma rocking the Church proves that a hierarchical Church is far from perfect. If it doesn't work well, they maintain, why keep it? This line of reasoning raises another fundamental truth about the Church: Our Lord founded a church that is both divine and human.
She is divine because her founder sustains her and guides her through his Holy Spirit. She is holy in her formal elements, such as the sacraments she imparts, the Word of God she proclaims and the sacred doctrine she teaches. Yet she is also human because her members are humans. The fact that our Lord instituted a hierarchical Church will not shield our bishops and priests from falling into sin or making errors of judgment in church governance.
Of course, the same may be said of the laity. But his doesn't mean that Christians should resign themselves to spiritual mediocrity. On the contrary, Christ calls everyone in his Church to a life of holiness. The immense number of saints in the Church confirms that holiness is within our reach. The Catechism expresses well the reality of the divine and human nature of the Church:
“The Church is essentially both human and divine, visible but endowed with invisible realities, zealous in action and dedicated to contemplation, present in the world, but as a pilgrim, so constituted that in her the human is directed toward and subordinated to the divine, the visible to the invisible, action to contemplation, and the present world to that city yet to come, the object of our quest” (Catechism, No. 771).
What can we do to reform the Church of Christ that we love? All of us, clergy and laity alike, must make a daily commitment to live with faith and love what Jesus Christ teaches us, through his Church, on faith and morals.
Fidelity to the truths of our Catholic faith is the most perfect expression of our love for Jesus Christ. Mother Teresa of Calcutta seemed to understand the power behind this principle quite well when she said: “God did not put me on earth to be successful. He put me here to be faithful.”
If we live the truth of our faith, our very lives will engender continuous, authentic reform: God's reform, not ours.
Legionary Father Andrew McNair teaches at Mater Ecclesiae International Center of Studies in Greenville, Rhode Island.