Sounding board
Let's pray, pay, and have our say

Let's pay, pray and have our say

According to church teaching, all the people of God have the right—duty, even—to share their opinions on matters concerning the good of the church.

JOHN HENRY NEWMAN WAS ONE OF THE MOST DISTINGUISED Catholic intellectuals of the 19th century. Already an accomplished theologian within the Church of England, Newman became a figure of national controversy when he decided to become Roman Catholic in 1845.

Soon after, Newman made what he thought was a modest proposal well grounded in Catholic tradition. He suggested to English Catholic bishops that they consider consulting all the faithful on matters of both practical and doctrinal concern. He noted that this was a practice common to the early church and that even Pope Pius IX, before defining the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, first queried the bishops regarding whether the faithful already believed in it.

Needless to say, Newman's proposal was not well received. His view was met with derision by one of the leading members of the Roman curia, Msgr. George Talbot, who contended that Newman's provocative views made him "the most dangerous man in England."

Talbot wrote in a letter: "What is the province of the laity? To hunt, to shoot, and to entertain. These matters they understand, but to meddle with ecclesiastical matters they have no right at all." His reaction to Newman was fairly representative of most church leaders at the time.

The proposal to consult the faithful is often met with the same disdain today, usually with the dismissive rejoinder: "The church is not a democracy!" This is certainly true, at least if what one means by democracy is that community beliefs are determined by polling the preferences and opinions of each church member, with the majority view ruling.

Christians believe that the church is not its own lord; we cannot simply reinvent ourselves as we wish. In short, we don't get to vote on our faith. We are bound by the gift of divine revelation offered to us in Christ and testified to in scripture and tradition. But that gift of revelation must be received in the life of the church, and this does not happen all at once. This is where the importance of consulting the faithful comes in.

In spite of the controversy Newman's proposal caused, the Second Vatican Council, which convened more than 70 years after Newman's death, largely vindicated him when it taught in Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) that every baptized Christian possesses a supernatural instinct for the faith (sensus fidei) such that the whole people of God "receives not the word of human beings but truly the Word of God . . . The people unfailingly adhere to this faith, penetrate it more deeply through right judgment, and apply it more fully in daily life."

Each of us has a Spirit-given capacity to recognize God's Word and explore its significance more deeply. Because Christians possess this spiritual instinct for the faith, the council taught that all the baptized, not just clergy, are participants in the ongoing development of church tradition.

It follows that if all the baptized possess this gift, given to them by the Holy Spirit, to discern the Word of God, then church leaders ought to consider what the baptized have to say.

Again Vatican II recognized this. It asserted in Lumen Gentium that "to the extent of their knowledge, competence, or authority, the laity are entitled, and indeed sometimes duty-bound, to express their opinion on matters which concern the good of the church."

Pope John Paul II reaffirmed this important teaching in his pastoral letter, At the Beginning of the New Millennium, quoting St. Paulinus of Nola: "Let us listen to what all the faithful say, because in every one of them the Spirit of God breathes." On another occasion, while addressing the U.S. bishops in September 2004, he said: "A commitment to creating better structures of participation, consultation, and shared responsibility should not be misunderstood as a concession to a secular democratic model of governance, but as an intrinsic requirement of the exercise of episcopal authority and a necessary means of strengthening that authority."

It is difficult to ignore the strong language: Consultation is an "intrinsic requirement" of the exercise of church authority.

So how successful have we been in fulfilling the council's teaching on the sensus fidei and Pope John Paul II's injunction to create structures for consulting the whole Christian faithful? One of the first places we should look is in the Code of Canon Law. There we find provisions for several structures oriented toward input from the Christian faithful. For example, the code encourages the creation of diocesan pastoral councils and the convocation of diocesan synods; in both instances lay participation is envisioned. These councils and synods can provide significant opportunities for church leaders to listen to the wisdom of the Spirit as it speaks through the testimony of all the faithful.

Another structure mandated by the code could, in principle, offer an important venue for consultation: the parish visitation. Canon law requires that the bishop or a proxy visit all parishes in his diocese over a five-year period.

But both diocesan pastoral councils and diocesan synods are only recommended, not required. Moreover, there is often no guarantee that participants will be allowed to speak freely or engage in genuine communal discernment at either these events or the parish visitation. There is also no guarantee that church leaders will take seriously the insight that might emerge from them.

There are some dangers associated with consulting the faithful. First, in a liberal democratic society, many could confuse the Christian process of consulting the faithful with the familiar practice of polling. The differences are crucial. Polling tries to ascertain the beliefs and opinions of a select group of individuals. Consulting the faithful in a process of genuine communal discernment entails calling people to go beyond their own opinions and genuinely listen to the Spirit. This includes listening to what might be learned from those with whom we disagree.

In a society that is losing its ability to engage in civic discourse and too often resorts to caricaturing or dismissing the views of those with whom we disagree, this process of genuine communal discernment will not come easy.

Second, the sensus fidei must be cultivated and formed through authentic Christian discipleship and an attentiveness to the gospel and the received teaching of the church. Although all the baptized possess this spiritual instinct, I am sure we can agree that it is likely to be more fully developed in those who have been practicing the faith than in those whose shadow has not crossed the doors of a church in 20 years.

How might the consultation of the faithful work today? Here are some proposals:

1) We must renew our commitment to adult Christian formation. Members of a mature and well-formed Christian community are better equipped to engage their spiritual instinct in processes of communal discernment.

2) Church leaders must see consultation as vital to their own ministry of leadership. This means having the courage to consult people who are likely to disagree. One of the perennial temptations of consultation is to only consult with people already inclined to agree with you. This is not authentic consultation. Church leaders must be willing to make greater use of councils, synods, and visitations with a humility that assumes they have something to learn from the people. Here they might do well to heed the counsel of that great third-century bishop and martyr, St. Cyprian of Carthage: "It is thus a bishop's duty not only to teach but also to learn. For he becomes a better teacher if he makes daily progress and advancement in learning what is better."

3) One of the most important areas in which consulting the faithful might be applied is in the appointment of church leaders. The process of papal appointment of bishops is a modern development. The early church believed that the people should have a role in selecting or at least determining whether to accept an episcopal candidate being proposed to them. This did not mean that they thought the bishop was their delegate or representative, as would be the case in a liberal democracy; rather the early church believed that the will of God in the selection of a bishop could be discovered in the Spirit-guided discernment and insight of the people.

4) We must be willing to differentiate between what is essential in the life of the church and what is still open to change and development. The church cannot invent itself, but we should remember the ancient axiom quoted in Vatican II's Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World): "Let there be unity in what is necessary, freedom in what is doubtful, and charity in everything."

The Christian community must remain faithful to that revelation that comes to us in Christ in the form of scripture and church teaching, but it must not forget the need to listen to the Spirit of Christ who continues to speak today in the hearts and minds of the whole Christian community.

Richard R. Gaillardetz is a professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Toledo in Ohio and author of By What Authority? (Liturgical Press, 2003). This article appeared in the May 2006 (Volume 71, Number 5; pages 18-23) issue of U.S. Catholic.


If the laity were given a greater voice in the church's decision making, I think the first thing that would change would be . . .

And the survey says . . .

1. At my parish, I believe the pastor seriously considers the insights of parishioners.

Agree 67 percent
Disagree 19 percent
Other 14 percent

2. I think laypeople ought to be involved in choosing or at least approving their own bishop.

Agree 62 percent
Disagree 29 percent
Other 9 percent

3. In order to seriously consult laypeople on matters of faith or church governance, Catholics would need much better adult faith formation.

Agree 80 percent
Disagree 10 percent
Other 10 percent

4. It's ridiculous to expect everyday Catholics to help make decisions about church teaching and practice.

Agree 20 percent
Disagree 64 percent
Other 16 percent

Representative of "Other": "Catholics who are informed about their faith should be consulted. Those who are uninformed or who have no desire to be informed are dangerous."

5. I could envision my bishop hosting a diocesan synod with true lay participation.

Agree 51 percent
Disagree 41 percent
Other 8 percent

6. I think the sex abuse scandal would not have happened had the bishops consulted laypeople on what to do with priests who sexually abused children.

Agree 65 percent
Disagree 23 percent
Other 12 percent
Greater mutual respect between laity, clergy, and bishops.
Ellen M. Donahue
Chestnut Hill, Mass.

The ridiculous rule of priestly celibacy.
Richard F. LaRoche
Murfreesboro, Tenn.

The necessity of annulment for remarriage.
Name withheld
Meridian, Miss.

The teaching on artificial birth control.
Eileen Hammond
Greenwood, Ind.

More accountability of church assets and finances in general.
Name withheld
Pasadena, Calif.

The hierarchy's ability to operate without accountability. The laity has a right to question the decisions made by our bishops regarding church policy.
Susan Roth
Culver, Ind.

Small things that affect the local parish, like the protocol within the liturgy, how the church is decorated, and things that change with each new administration.
Alice Wierzbinski
Frankfort, Ill.

The selection of bishops. We would find more open, pastoral, and justice-oriented people in the episcopacy.
Betsy Kennedy
Michigan City, Ind.

Restored trust that the church takes its own teachings seriously. We say the Holy Spirit teaches through all the church's members, but when it matters, it's still "Father (or Bishop) knows best."
Patricia Lynn Morrison
St. Cloud, Minn.

Full acceptance of women priests and married clergy.
Name withheld
Philadelphia, Pa.

One possible negative consequence of consulting the faithful could be . . .

Greater polarization in the church.
Cecelia J. Olinger
Espanola, N.M.

The extensive time required for consultative decision making.
John Neville
Oakland, Calif.

A further decrease in vocations.
Name withheld
Bloomfield, Conn.

So many ideas and solutions to problems that consensus would be almost impossible and nothing would get done.
Stelle Lewandowski
Chicago, Ill.

Many laypeople are unfamiliar with Catholic social teaching and believe the only morality the church should speak about is personal morality, not economic or political morality.
Anne Nolan
St. Cloud, Minn.

So many aspects need to be considered in a worldwide church because of cultural differences.
Mary Goldman
Bakersfield, Calif.

One might be tempted to put one's own agenda above the needs and well-being of the church.
Barbara Johnson
Krum, Texas

The loud and obnoxious would drown out the humble and meek—and it's the humble and meek that usually know what's going on.
Terry Cynar
Reno, Nev.

I can think of none, providing there is good education surrounding decisions.
Betty Hill
Olympia, Wash.

The best experience I've had or seen in the church of consulting the faithful has been . . .

At my parish. We have a pastoral council and committees to which my priest is very open and prayerfully considers all views.
Victoria Blacklock
Huntsville, Ala.

Lay boards to oversee sex-abuse policies.
Maura McPeak
Voorheesville, N.Y.

Church renovations.
Name withheld
Monticello, Iowa

In my diocese I haven't seen the faithful consulted on any matters of significance.
Name withheld
Warrenton, Va.

Being a delegate to the 1976 Call to Action, when the U.S. bishops convened a nationwide consultation forum with the laity.
Jean Kveton
Abernathy, Texas

Twenty years ago our tiny congregation —newly promoted to parish status—involved most members in plans for expansion (only to be shot down by the chancery). It was exciting while it lasted.
Pat Milligan
Harwood, Md.

The ministry of Natural Family Planning.
Roger Davidson
Houston, Texas

In the 1960s the bishops' conference was putting together their catechetical document and asked for input from pastors. Our pastor realized the value of consulting catechists themselves.
Dorothy Karhnak
Woodbridge, Va.

The Vatican commission to study contraception many years ago—which was later overruled by Pope Paul VI.
William Braner
Freedom, Pa.

Town hall-type sessions where both the pastor and flock have a chance to be heard, ask questions, and be better informed as a result.
Regina T. Thomann
Virginia Beach, Va.

I have not had such an experience. After 76 years I am still waiting.
Jerry Mazenko
Garden Grove, Calif.

The biggest thing our church loses when it does not consult the faithful is . . .

A collective wisdom. If we really believe the Spirit acts in the assembly, we may be missing his voice.
Christine Shannon
Danville, Ky.

The experience of women, married people, and the poor.
Name withheld
Federal Way, Wash.

People. Many are leaving our church.
Margaret L. Hoerr
Peoria, Ill.

Father Oliver Johnson
Austin, Texas

Increasing irrelevance of episcopal pronouncements.
Joseph A. Brown, S.J.
Carbondale, Ill.

Respect for leaders.
Gerard Beaudette
Lewiston, Me.

I would like to be consulted about . . .

Sexual ethics, birth control, divorce and remarriage.
Name withheld
East Arlington, Vt.

The shortage of priests. Let's open a dialogue about the possibility of women priests and married priests.
Caroline Fulkerson
West Seneca, N.Y.

Budget issues and church staffing.
David Stanton
New Brighton, Minn.

The choice of bishops, liturgical styles, homily ideas, and adult formation.
Jane Eschweiler, S.D.S.
Tucson, Ariz.

How to increase reverence before Mass. When did silence in church disappear?
Susan Kwan
Los Angeles, Calif.

Leadership positions for women and lay people in the curia.
Sister Rita Stalzer, C.S.J.
LaGrange Park, Ill.

Catholic education.
Ron Woods
Converse, Texas

Topics that impact everyday life: homosexuality and the church's response, young adults living together outside of marriage, pornography, corrupt politics.
Name withheld
Morristown, Tenn.

How to bring folks back to church. We meet to discuss how to close churches, but we do not have a plan to welcome people back.
Teresa Davis
Cincinnati, Ohio

General Comments

John Newman's idea was ahead of his time. I'm afraid he's still ahead of our time.
Ruth Chronister
Fort Wayne, Ind.

In my current parish I have been consulted about qualities we needed in a new pastor, features we should have in our new worship center, how to improve our RCIA program, and many other matters. Our pastors have consulted the faithful and have listened to us.
Monica M. Wheaton
Chesapeake, Va.

We are facing a crisis of confidence in our church leadership. Good consultations with the broad spectrum of members of the church could go a long way toward restoring that confidence.
Sister Martha Larkin
New Hartford, N.Y.

I've been the wife of a deacon for over 20 years. In that time I've seen our church move backwards, away from the changes proposed by Vatican II to promote more lay involvement. It seems to be maintaining and strengthening the control of the role of clergy in the church.
Kathleen Stojak
Granbury, Texas

We need to do a better job educating the clergy that laypeople should be empowered. Too many of the clergy still have a medieval attitude of knowing what is best for their flock.
Chris Schweihs-DeFoe
Chicago, Ill.

As a lay woman who completed my master of divinity 20 years ago, I experience the church as full of talented, faithful, wise, and Spirit-living Catholics. How wasteful of the hierarchical church to ignore the Spirit's work here!
Anne Walter
Louisville, Ky.

Nothing tears apart a community—in this case, the church—more than when people feel ignored and unheard and that their opinions and experiences do not matter.
Christine A. Olsem
Luxemburg, Iowa

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