Recalling the fire that destroyed Notre-Dame cathedral this past spring, I want to re-visit the question of where the Catholic church might go from here (see my earlier post on 5/6), focusing in particular on its institutional corruption and prospects for internal renewal through the laity's awakening and active intervention.
In my view, the best general-press critique of the current mess is Jim Carroll's recent Atlantic Monthly article. I sympathize with Jim's call for lay Catholics to adopt a stance of "internal resistance" to a clerical caste incapable of self-reform. Yet when he calls on the laity to "take back the church" and radically renew it by inventing new egalitarian structures and servant-leadership roles (e.g., eucharistic celebrants who are married, female, and of different sexual orientations), I don't think he goes far enough in thinking through what that change process requires. Let me outline an activist alternative.
Concerned, committed laity sympathetic to Carroll's outlook should network, build relationships, and then organize an independent lay Catholic association that adopts the method of nonviolent direct action with the aim of forcing the issue of radical renewal through a sustained, strategic withdrawal of consent. In keeping with the ecclesiology of Vatican II, the group might be called All People of God (APG); crucially, APG would prefigure in its constitution and activities the inclusive, egalitarian church to come. (Think of it as a "charter church," if you will, one that offers a proof of concept that there is another, more faith-filled way of being the people of God--while still being recognizably Catholic!). As the church mobilized for radical renewal, APG would orchestrate civil acts of "ecclesial disobedience" beginning perhaps with non-participation in the sacraments and moving quickly to non-payment of tithes and public postings of a 21st-century version of 95 Theses on Catholic church doors in every diocese. As the "Campaign for Vatican III" unfolded, more edgy and creative forms of ecclesial disobedience would be deployed.
Yes, this proposal runs the danger of polarization, ridicule from outsiders, and further demographic decline in church membership and lay involvement. But that is already the church's present and future, at least in the advanced-industrial world. Theologically, such a movement may be charged by some of suffering from millenarian hubris. Such are the risks, and hence every APG action would need to be grounded in humility and love as well as audacious hope and righteous anger. Both the gospel (starting with Luke 19:45-46) and the best traditions of nonviolence offer inspiration and models.
On this topic, I also find illuminating the work of Catholic scholar (and friend) Joe Holland, author of Roman Catholic Clericalism (Pacem in Terris Press, 2018), who provides a penetrating historical-structural analysis of the present crisis and outlines a similarly inspiring alternative that would liberate the church from its outdated organizational structure.
In briefest sum, Joe shows how the current mess dates back 1,700 years to the formation of the "western clerical institutional system." Joe emphasizes that what many church critics call "clericalism" is in fact an entrenched system imposed from above and not simply a "psychological or institutional tendency" within the church. Historically, that system "developed in three stages: (1) the Constantinian construction of the counter-evangelical hierarchical-clerical class; (2) the high medieval papacy's cruel and forced monastic-inspired imposition of clerical celibacy on Western presbyters (priests) and bishops; and (3) the Council of Trent's mandating of monastic-like clerical seminaries." None of these organizational forms are required by Catholic doctrine, Holland insists. And until we get another global ecumenical council (aka Vatican III) guided by prophetic leadership from the global South and Eastern Catholics, then we can expect to see the church's decline in the West continue.
Joe doesn't say much about how a radical renewal through a convening of Vatican III might come to pass, other than identifying who the key players might be and offering prayerful expressions of hope for the Spirit to blow mightily. Amen to the latter, by all means, but this Pelagianic Catholic wants an activist core to light a hundred little holy fires in the near future in faithful preparation for the Spirit blowing wildly across the land.
And then, come that kairotic moment, may we be renewed in the blessed bonfire that ensues. May a more authentic people of God arise from out of the ashes, whether or not a third global ecumenical council occurs or not.
Such is my prayer-cum-proposal.