can you hear me now?

Can you hear me now?

Are laity still getting a bad reception?

A U.S. Catholic survey on the role of the laypeople in the Catholic Church.

THIS PAST WINTER MARKED THREE YEARS SINCE THE BREAKING of the most recent round of Catholic sex-abuse scandals in the United States, a moment when many laypeople suddenly realized they had not paid close enough attention to the church they call home. It was a call to action for many who were shocked to see how Catholic leaders could abuse power, and "Pay, pray, and obey" was no longer an acceptable mantra.

The editors of U.S. Catholic undertook to survey a large number of American Catholics on their opinons about the role of the laity in the Catholic Church. Nearly 2,500 Catholics—including clergy—gave input on the subject, answering questions about appropriate roles for laypeople, sharing their personal experiences, and looking to the future of the church.

For our monthly reader Feedback feature, we generally only survey U.S. Catholic subscribers. But for this subject we went much deeper, soliciting additional responses from more than 100,000 Catholics across the country. In some cases we've separated the data, particularly when making comparisons to a similar survey conducted in 1993 that only polled U.S. Catholic readers.

The struggle of laypeople to find their voice in the Catholic Church has had its ups and downs. Throughout church history there have been times when the hierarchical pyramid has been a little more pointed, as well as times—such as the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council—when laypeople have had higher levels of influence and participation in decision making and the overall life of a parish or diocese.

Both in 1993 and 2005 our readers agreed that fruitful lay involvement requires both a clergy and hierarchy that welcome it and laypeople who are willing to do their part.

James Steinbach of Peachtree City, Georgia sees the problem clear to its root: Members of the church, both clergy and lay, have forgotten their primary lesson as Christians—to serve one another.

A retired lieutenant colonel from the U.S. Army, one might expect that a top-down authority structure like the one so many respondents describe would suit Steinbach just fine, but he clearly recognizes the need for the leaders to see themselves equally as servants, and for laypeople to get active.

He says there is too much need for power and status in the top ranks of church hierarchy, who he believes only want "blind obedience" from laypeople. Couple that with "laypeople who prefer to put their thought process on neutral," and you've got a church that's going nowhere fast.

"At this point," he says, "I find it hard to project a servant church that lives the gospel in the spirit of the early Christian church, which Vatican II attempted to recapture."


Still, according to respondents, the reluctance from higher-ups to deconstruct the division between the roles of laypeople and clergy cannot be denied. Many respondents, including Steinbach, say that they would like to proclaim the gospel at Mass and question why only a priest or deacon is given this honor. Rosemary Kroll of Sanford, Michigan says she finds it "offensive" that laypeople are not allowed to read the gospel. "Are we not worthy?" she asks.

Nearly all respondents say they would be comfortable with some increase in roles for laypeople, such as leading prayer services, giving homilies, or anointing the sick.

Robert Blair Kaiser, a religion writer for Newsweek who covered Vatican II for several news outlets, says that the "very use of the word ‘laity' [in the survey questions] means you've accepted your status as second-class citizens in the church. Laity only has meaning in the context of a rather total domination by clergy." He prefers to use the term "citizen of the church," because, he says, "The analogy to American citizenship works for me."

Parish power-sharing
Not surprisingly, now that so many dioceses across the country are going through major waves of parish and school closings, 62 percent of those surveyed say they want to be able to vote about such a decision. A majority also wants to have more say in the finances and development of their parishes. Fewer (40 percent) say they want to be able to vote on who will be their pastor or bishop.

The most common answer to the question of what one sees as the future role of laypeople in the church is that laypeople will run the business side—finances and administration—of a parish, giving the priest the time and energy to be a spiritual leader. Because of a growing shortage of priests, respondents say, priests will have to dedicate more time to seeing that the faithful can receive all the sacraments when they need them.

Then again, almost half would like to see laypeople administering more sacraments themselves. Forty-one percent would feel comfortable if a layperson baptized others, while even more (45 percent) say that laypeople should be allowed to anoint the sick. A vast majority still wants to reserve the consecration of the Eucharist for the priest, along with giving absolution, confirming, and witnessing a marriage.

Patricia Klosky of Memphis, Tennessee, says she would like to be able to anoint the sick when she brings Communion to those in the hospital. A parish nurse in Michigan laments that, after she has made the journey with those who are ill and dying, a priest is called in to do a ritual she says should be done by the patient, the family, and her.

A Milwaukee woman says that she would like to be able to offer absolution after listening to a person's life story, and Essie Reilly from New Albany, Indiana says she has always wanted to baptize a baby.

Aside from celebrating sacraments, most respondents say they'd like to see laypeople taking on other functions generally reserved for the ordained, such as preaching the homily. Californian Carolyn Matthews is one of many who say they would like to give a homily at Mass. She has a master's degree in theology and is a religious educator, a catechist for RCIA, and a leader of a Bible study.

Of course, these respondents realize that laypeople must be trained, educated, and properly formed before they are allowed to preach, proclaim, or administer sacraments. But for people like Matthews, with advanced degrees and no possibility for ordination, this is frustrating, as she notes, "If a layperson gives a talk or a class, it will never be as well attended as when the pastor ‘headlines.'"

But most respondents say they are not comfortable with laypeople administering sacraments at all. Irene Wise of San Anselm, California says that laypeople should assist in their own way by "helping distribute Communion and preparing the altar, but not by taking over the priest's duties."

Edward J. Gallaher of Snead's Ferry, North Carolina agrees, saying, "[Laypeople] should be supportive of the priest in his role as Christ's representative, but not try to take his place."

Similarly, when asked if they felt the distinction between clergy and laypeople is being lost, many say it's important the distinction not be eliminated. Bonnie Jachowicz of Oak Creek, Wisconsin says, "Clergy have a special function within the life of the church. Their education and formation prepare them for the blessings of the sacrament of Holy Orders."

Perhaps because of her belief that certain functions must remain reserved for the ordained, and because she has 20 years experience and a master of divinity degree under her belt, Jachowicz says she wishes she could be ordained herself so that she could fulfill what she sees as her vocation to serve in this special way.

Still, she recognizes there are some duties she's glad she can skip because she's not a priest, such as the 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week demands on a Catholic parish priest. Other respondents mention they are glad they don't have to referee squabbling parishioners and committee members or endure the nitpicking from those who disagree with them. Others note that they are content not to have to hear Confessions.

What a difference a priest makes
Overall, respondents say that the level of lay involvement in their parish or diocese depends entirely on the pastor or bishop who's in charge at the time. Consequently, that ethos of lay involvement (or lack thereof) can change overnight with a new pastor or bishop, which can be unsettling and confusing for parishioners.

Many indicate that, while their sense of the church as a whole may be one of little lay authority or influence, their particular parish is a place of collaboration and equality where their pastor invites a community ownership of the parish and its activities. Michael Ginty of Wolfforth, Texas (near Lubbock) mentions his parish priests by name—Fathers Gerard Kinney and John Smith—to give kudos for the great job they are doing.

Forty-five percent of respondents say they feel their pastor welcomes input and collaboration from laypeople. In 28 percent of the parishes, the pastor accepts lay input but is sometimes reluctant, and for 17 percent of respondents, their pastor would just as soon make all the decisions himself.

Many also write of the way things had changed at their parish with the arrival of a new pastor—some for better, some for worse. Some pastors came in and squashed an existing sense of lay leadership in the parish; others instituted new policies to get more people involved at high levels of parish management and liturgy planning.

Donna Davis of Fredericksburg, Virginia expresses a great deal of hope at the forming of the first parish council in her parish's history. She calls it a "change so long in coming that many of us still cannot believe the sweet, fresh air."

Others tell stories of the way laypeople can get disenfranchised when a new pastor arrives. Walter Unger of Maryville, Illinois remembers when a new pastor came in and fired the entire staff of lay ministers to bring in people of his choosing.

Carol Moran of Mena, Arizona thinks there should be standards or guidelines for new pastors to follow because her parish has had a high turnover of pastors, which has left the laypeople there "confused on what we are supposed to do, what we are allowed to do, and how much control we have."

Who's to blame?
Still, these same respondents say that it is not only clergy who keep the laity on a lower level. Judy Spencer of Nunica, Michigan says she doesn't think that laypeople "are willing or interested in doing any more than is absolutely necessary, which is why there is only a handful of people in every parish doing all the work."

The 1993 survey revealed the same predominant response: that parishioners felt the majority of responsibility fell on a small group of dedicated volunteers who do more than their share, while other parishioners don't get involved at all. In 2005, too, many express frustration that they end up taking on several committees and as a result feel overextended. On the flip side, some complain that a couple of parishioners take too much control of parish activities to the exclusion of other willing participants.

According to most respondents, a layperson's role in the church is to be a collaborative equal with the clergy and to be invested fully in the life of the parish and church as a whole. Sidney Steele of Locust, Virginia says laypeople should be "co-responsible decision makers" with clergy. Many respondents say that each person must answer his or her own vocation and contribute specific talents to the church, whether that's music or accounting.

Thomas Kyle of Farmington, Michigan says, "Through Baptism, we are all called in stewardship to contribute to the common good based on the gifts we have been given."

Although most respondents say the sex-abuse scandal clearly shows the need for greater lay involvement in the governance of the church, some say it wouldn't have mattered much if laypeople had been involved. Marge Marotto of St. Cloud, Florida says, "The sex-abuse scandal has nothing to do with lay involvement. It has to do with church leaders and their belief in politics over morals."

Lake Jackson, Texas resident David Stedman disagrees, saying the "abuse could not have gone unreported or become so pervasive" if laypeople had had more power.

Most mark the beginning of renewed lay involvement with Vatican II, and many respondents recall their excitement when they were allowed to become eucharistic ministers or lectors at their parish in the late '60s and '70s. Still, 65 percent say that lay involvement since Vatican II has still not gone far enough.

Many express real sadness at the way they see the church treating laypeople. Sonya Quitslund from Bainbridge Island, Washington, who holds a doctorate in religion from The Catholic University of America, says, "I'm genuinely concerned about the future of the church. I see bishops and priests who don't seem to realize we are stakeholders and expect greater honesty, transparency, and most of all, accountability. They are losing us and don't seem to care."

Some said they were quite happy with the status quo in the church and have not felt devalued as laypeople. Most were somewhere in the middle, like Klinedale J. Baker of Deltona, Florida, who says he and his wife are very disappointed by the sex-abuse scandals but are holding out in hope that things will get better and that the influence and inclusion of laypeople will increase.

"We love the church and are trying to live each day as Jesus would have us. We depend on the Holy Spirit to guide us in our decision making and would pray the same for the hierarchy."

Tara Dix is an assistant editor of U.S. Catholic. This article appeared in the April 2005 (Volume 70, Number 4) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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