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Laity should move their assets and reclaim church.

The struggle of parishioners in Worcester, Mass., to keep their church open (NCR, April 30) may seem to be of minor importance. But this incident holds the seeds of the most important reform movement in the Catholic church. Those who occupied the sanctuary for 13 months until the police removed them had modest goals. They wanted traditional parish life to continue. Bishop Timothy Harrington, trying to run his diocese in the black, decided that repairs to the church would be too costly and wanted it closed.

The protesters raised the question: Who owns the church? I mean church in the most concrete sense: the property, the land, the facilities, the assets. Who has the final say about church real estate? This question is probably as important to the liberal directions of Vatican II as shelves of theology. In most American dioceses, the bishop (the ordinary) as corporation sole and a small group of advisers control church property. The legal incorporation of property for religious orders would be somewhat different. My point is that most church property is "owned," in terms of acquiring and disposing of it, by a small group of celibate male ecclesiastics.

Have you ever wondered why mandatory celibacy for priests is so important to the present rulers of the church? Why it must be maintained at all costs despite dramatic pastoral needs that go unmet? Conservative arguments about a celibate Jesus or about special dedication are largely theological smoke and mirrors. In the Catholic church, celibacy is related directly to control of property and other assets. It has less to do with sex than with power. The imposition of celibacy in the Middle Ages had to do with keeping church property from being passed on to priests' heirs. Private inheritance of ecclesiastical assets is not the problem today. Rather, the issue is the exclusion of the laity and the lower clergy from deliberative representation related to church property.

The parishioners of St. Joseph in Worcester presented the most dreaded challenge to ecclesiastical authority, which, despite its pious talk about "people of God," holds a tight grip on the people of God's property. These parishioners were making an effort to democratize monarchical church structures. Although it wasn't articulated this way, the dispute was about who should control the church's purse strings.

Democratized church structures, in which the laity has a determinative voice with the professional religious leadership at every level of church life, are more appropriate to the Christian ethos and the spirit of Vatican II than the absolutist, monarchical system we know today. The latter evolved in imitation of secular monarchies in the West. Today the absolute, monarchical papacy and hierarchy is passe and destructive to the best interests of the Christian religion. It doesn't have to continue this way. Literature dealing with this topic exists in such books as Authority in the Church and A Democratic Catholic Church.

As the people of St. Joseph's Parish discovered, however, the problem is how to get from a system of the king-bishop to a democratized, participational church. There are no easy answers, especially since American courts are inclined to honor the corporation sole status of the bishop. Moreover, courts try to stay clear of adjudicating theological claims. Yet we know that lay trustees administered a number of parishes in the last century, even to the point of hiring priests. The trustee system eventually lost out to centralized control by the hierarchy. But there are legal precedents within Catholicism for strong lay involvement in running church. In addition, we have much to learn from the experience of Protestant churches in their ongoing attempts to balance lay and clerical determination of ecclesiastical assets.

Preliminary changes need to go on in the Catholic psyche before any serious challenge to episcopal control of property can be supported. First, Catholics would need to understand that democratized, decentralized and pluralistic church structures are theologically possible and desirable. Most Catholics still think the bishop is boss, just as any corporate CEO is boss. They accept the vertical line of authority common in the business world. Vatican II theology about the church as a people of God and about Christian egalitarianism has not been put to the test in parishes and dioceses, especially in relation to property and other wealth. If we are the church, why shouldn't we "own" church assets in some measure? Shifting the Catholic psyche in this realm calls for much education, which is unlikely to come from the hierarchy.

Second, Catholics would need to divest themselves of a subservient and fearful attitude. To stand against structures imposed by the hierarchy is still seen by many as a dangerous act against God's appointed ones. Instead of becoming spiritually empowered, well-intentioned people continue to submit to externalistic religion. Such religion is often more a form of crowd control than it is the nurturing of personal spirituality.

Third, Catholics in general, but especially priests and religious, would have to break through the mists of gnostic spirituality that keep them from appreciating down-to-earth theology. Pick at random any of thousands of post-Vatican II writings on theology and ecclesiology. Show me where they deal seriously with church property and money. That's what I mean by Catholic Gnosticism, a tendency to plane above ecclesiastical lucre and possessions. It's seen as dirty stuff, or at least not spiritual enough to merit attention. This very dichotomizing of the material and the spiritual undermines options for timely and effective church reform. As long as the gnostic mentality prevails, theologians will speak eloquently about "a discipleship of equals," but in Rome and in diocesan chanceries, it will be business as usual. "Let them eat theology," the hierarchs will say.

Imagine this scenario in terms of moving toward long-delayed reforms of Vatican II. First 50, then 100 then 200 parishes decide that parishioners should have determinative voice in the disposition of church property and wealth. Like the Catholics of St. Joseph's, they organize well and stage nonviolent protests. They also begin legal procedures to obtain their rightful voice in the determination of parish and diocesan properties. They enlist the best canonical and secular legal minds to help them discover how in state and federal law their case can be effectively made. They stop giving regular donations to their churches and put these funds in a trust that can be used to support the movement and help other worthy causes. They continue to worship in the parish church where possible, or they form smaller communities within parishes to foster spiritual life. Eventually, they join cognate movements on a national scale and meet to draw up a democratic constitution for the church of the United States.

Imagine, against the odds, that such a scenario was possible and actually got under way. What might be some results? First, of course, cardinals and archbishops would scream schism and deplore disunity. But schism is in the eye of the beholder. Catholics in such a movement would be organizing peacefully against what they interpret to be oppressive usurpation of their rights concerning church property. Would such a movement, if it spread widely, bring the hierarchy to the table for mediation and negotiation, not only about possession and disposition of church property, but also about the unfinished agenda of post-Vatican II issues?

Perhaps the energy and the will just isn't there among the laity, priests and religious who would like to live in a democratized Catholic church. Everybody's busy with little time for strong reform based on tough theology. And why would a democratized church be any better than an absolutist, monarchical one? After all, the latter has made its Masses run on time. And democracies are so messy and time-consuming. And maybe the laity's deliberative involvement with church property will only lead in less progressive directions

Isn't it odd, however, that when people experience participational democracy, they rarely want to return to absolutist systems. Perhaps, just perhaps, the protesting Catholics in St. Joseph's in Worcester glimpsed a vision of the new Catholic church, shaped in the image of a community of equals.
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Author:Bianchi, Eugene C.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Aug 27, 1993
Words:1342
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