Listening to the Laity

My last month’s column, on the subject of polarization in American Catholicism, touched off a lively and substantial discussion. My thanks to all who took part. I don’t propose to respond here to what was said, but simply to expand on an issue I raised originally but didn’t really develop.
Near the end of the column, I remarked that bishops might do well to consider the views of churchgoing Catholics regarding something like the Obama-Notre Dame incident as an expression of the sensus fidelium. That was more or less a tongue-in-cheek comment, since I’m not really sure the concept of sensus fidelium applies to something like this flap. But there’s a serious question here just the same: Whose views should Church leaders take into account when deliberating on disputed, non-doctrinal questions?
I take it for granted that in such circumstances, bishops and other leaders should take note of other views besides their own. With that as a basic premise, I’d want to mention several other basic principles with a bearing on this matter.
First, making decisions is the right and duty of those who hold the office of decision-making in the hierarchical structure of the Church. At the same time, lay people do have a part to play. In this regard, think of John Henry Newman’s famous On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine.
Newman argues that even — or perhaps especially — on doctrinal questions, the laity do have a role: It’s not to make the decisions, but to provide input, a datum of faith as a useful indicator of what the Church’s faith truly is. This is to be done, he says, by way of consultation (and if on matters of doctrine, one might add, then surely on matters of a practical nature — like whether a high-visibility Catholic university should give an honorary degree to a president who supports legalized abortion).
Second, in determining whose opinions should be taken into account, it would be a mistake to set the bar too high. If only certifiable saints or holders of S.T.D.s are eligible, then very few people will be consulted. Newman held that the Holy Spirit was broadly present and active among the ordinary faithful, and it is this presence and action of the Spirit that counts.
Third, don’t set the bar too low, either. Mere membership in the Body of Christ, as conferred by baptism, isn’t enough — otherwise it would be necessary to consult babes in arms. At the least, one ought to be what is generally called a “practicing” Catholic — non-practicing Catholics need not apply. People who identify themselves as Catholics only because in their own minds they haven’t definitively severed their ties with the Church are not candidates for a consultative process.
Fourth — and this will probably be the sticking point for some — those consulted should be genuinely loyal to the Church: They should accept its teaching authority and its authority of spiritual governance. That doesn’t mean they can’t have questions or objections. But the questions and objections must respect the ecclesial common good. Dissent in its contemporary form — flagrant, persistent rejection of what the Church’s teaching authority says after engaging in due deliberation — doesn’t meet the test.
There’s an ugly example of the violation of this rule in events surrounding Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, including the activities of the famous “birth-control commission” that offered him advice. Some commission members welcomed the pope’s decision and some at least accepted it, but others promptly — and in some cases openly — moved to dissent from a decision they didn’t happen to like.
Fifth, without setting the bar too high or too low, to be eligible for consultation, one must have the same knowledge of Church issues that serious people have regarding other serious matters they seek to understand and form opinions on.
To be sure, no one is a master of everything, and authentically serious people unavoidably know little about many serious matters. But for anyone, some things are important enough to make a real, continuing effort to know a good deal about them, whether it’s college basketball or the Civil War — or the Catholic Church.
Unfortunately, many Catholics, practicing as well as non-practicing, just don’t bother to stay sufficiently informed about Church issues to measure up. Conscientious pastors tell me that the trouble with consulting lay people is that time and again they don’t understand very much about the Church, and bringing them up to speed — supposing it’s possible at all — is hard work. This unquestionably is an impediment to crisp decision-making and timely action.
Where does consultation stand in the Church today? The question is not so easily answered. The Second Vatican Council endorsed the reality of public opinion in the Church and called for its regular expression through “the institutions established by the Church for that purpose” (Lumen Gentium, 37).
And where are those “institutions”? In the United States, bodies like diocesan and parish councils exist some places and are doing good work; elsewhere they appear to be rubber stamps for decisions made by others; and elsewhere still it’s impossible to say whether they exist or not, since their activities (supposing they exist) are kept shrouded in secrecy. This is downright weird in a Church described as a hierarchically structured community of faith — a communio — whose members are fundamentally equal in dignity and rights.
Not all opinions are equally good, but all members of the Church who measure up to reasonable criteria like those suggested here have a right to express themselves and be listened to. Alas, that isn’t how things stand now.



  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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