One of the most important works of ecclesiology to be published this century was the English translation of Fr. Nicholas Afanasiev’s The Church of the Holy Spirit, which appeared in 2007. It is a book that all Catholics, in this supreme moment of crisis, need to read. None need to read it more than the bishops, starting with Cardinal Wuerl, who recently floated an unacceptable, vague plan for bishops to hold each other accountable.
Afanasiev died in late 1966, not long after the end of the Second Vatican Council, at which he was an official Eastern Orthodox observer. He was so widely respected that he enjoyed the extremely rare privilege of being cited in the draft documents of the Council. His work played a part in helping shape the vision of the Church that emerged in the conciliar documents.
But the Council’s reading of him—and far too much subsequent Catholic theology—was very selective, and largely and conveniently ignored what I take to be the most important part of his work: his strong theology of what he calls the laics. That was the term he used to designate the fact that the people are not just non-clergy, but constitute a distinct and co-equal order within the Church alongside priests and bishops, all of us participating in the one royal priesthood of Christ. Clergy, of course, exercise that priesthood in particular sacramental ways. But the laics—who are not, he says, “lay” people in the conventional sense of those having no special training, service, or official designation and office—have their own proper ministry within the Church, too, and this is marked by what Afanasiev called their “ordination,” which takes place at their baptism-chrismation.
As I have recently argued here at CWR, other churches—e.g., the Anglican and the Armenian—do a much better job of giving concrete expression to the order of laity within their ecclesial structures and life. The Catholic Church, especially the Latin Church, is arguably the weakest of all Christian bodies on this front, and it shows. Never has the need for dramatic change been as acute as it is now, when the entire order of bishops has sabotaged its own claims to authority and credibility, and no plan such as Wuerl’s is anything other than self-serving and even cowardly.
Of what is Wuerl afraid? In a word, power. Or loss of power. Nobody, in any time or place throughout history, willingly cedes power if one does not have to, especially when that power may be used to expose one’s misdeeds. Far too many bishops today have very good reason to be afraid not only of their own misdeeds being exposed, but perhaps more damningly their lack of interest in doing anything about the malfeasance of McCarrick and others.
But what I want to argue here is that many bishops afraid of the laics—afraid of the power of an independent lay-led commission investigating episcopal sins of omission and commission and afraid of a theology of the order of the laity—misunderstand everything if they think of this solely, or even primarily, in terms of power understood in a retributive sense. Nobody should think of proposals for structural reform in the Church as being simple power grabs. If such proposals are indeed little more than expressions of what St Augustine memorably called libido dominandi, then they will ultimately fail, and the Church will merely have swapped one sort of tyranny for another.
If proposals for reform are not about power, what are they about? Here we must understand the importance of a theology of communion, which the Church has struggled since Vatican II to understand and live. A theology of communion fears nothing if all people are seeking to deepen, purify, and extend that communion so that it becomes ultimately the communion of saints we profess weekly in the Creed. Holiness, then, is the goal, and it, being a fruit of the Holy Spirit, can be given equally to those orders of laity, clergy, and bishops.
The bishops, right now in this time and place, give scant evidence of having received that fruit in anything like abundance. As a whole they have, for now and a very long time to come, seriously damaged and even destroyed their credibility and trustworthiness.
What, then, is to be done? A significantly better proposal than Wuerl’s came from the bishop of Albany, Edward Scharfenberger, whose ideas are very much in accord with those of Afanasiev. His statement began with commendable candor, stating that “we have reached a point where bishops alone investigating bishops is not the answer.” Instead, he argued the following:
It is time for us, I believe, to call forth the talents and charisms of our lay faithful, by virtue of their baptismal priesthood. Our lay people are not only willing to take on this much-needed role, but they are…essential to the solution we seek. What is needed now is an independent commission led by well-respected, faithful lay leaders who are beyond reproach.
I have not seen any similar statement from any other bishop to date. Nor have I seen his brothers in the episcopate doing the only sensible thing, which is to endorse this statement.
Again, fear is the answer, but again there is no room for fear here, no need or cause to be afraid that the office of bishop will somehow be abolished by, say, a revolutionary Comité de salut public about to unleash a Reign of Terror by lobbing off every head to ever wear a mitre. The laics today who care about exercising their God-given responsibility for purifying and renewing the Church will never do anything intentional to destroy her God-given apostolic constitution.
Those laics who still have life can raise it from the dead through the power of the “Lord and giver of life.” For this reason, Scharfenberger is right to say that the task of investigation and purification is to be “put… in the hands of the Holy Spirit, and to entrust our very capable lay people, who have stood with us through very difficult times, to help us do the right thing.”
What would that entail? It seems to me that one of the benefits of the current pontificate, especially one so volubly given to talk of synodality, is that Pope Francis can do what Pope John Paul did more than twenty years ago now: have specially convoked synods in Rome on a regional basis, as he did in preparation for the Great Jubilee. Earlier in the 1980s, when the synod of my own Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church was badly divided and dysfunctional, the pope called special synods in Rome on his personal authority and brought all the UGCC bishops together to hammer out their problems.
Pope Francis, then, could call such synods or gatherings right now, especially for Australia, Honduras, and the United States, all in the forefront of this crisis. These would be chaired by the pope, and, unlike most other things labeled “synod,” filled not with bishops but laics: two each from every diocese in a given country, selected according to their knowledge, expertise, and love for the Church. The bishops and other clergy would be invited but without voting power. They would be required to appear before the synod to answer questions and give testimony under oath before the pope and people, who together would have the right to depose all those bishops they felt deserving of such a penalty, the people voting to depose but the pope ultimately undertaking the act. The synod would also have the right to decide on other penalties and penances to be imposed by the pope.
At the end, when a plan of further action was agreed upon, the pope could put it into action directly via a motu proprio, which normally has legislative and canonical power beyond the usual post-synodal apostolic exhortations. The synod members could depart to supervise the work back in their home country, with reports due to the pope twice a year, and further sessions of the synod in Rome meeting as and when either the pope or a majority of members felt it necessary to do so. Part of their homework would, as I argued on here a few weeks ago, consist in local restructuring of the diocesan church so that its life would now be lived on a permanent synodal basis, allowing for permanent and ongoing accountability between bishop, clergy, and laics.
This all, I grant, seems very far-fetched. A synod, but composed of lay people—with power to summon bishops to appear, and to recommend their deposition? And synods in every diocese, with real powers? Has the Church been turned upside down? Yes, in fact, it has. But extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.