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The role of the laity and the sex scandal

As things stand, when it comes to decision-making, the laity are routinely excluded from even a consultative role.

More than 100 young adults pray in front of the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minn., Aug. 20, 2018, during a vigil for survivors of clerical sexual abuse and healing for the church. (CNS photo/Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit)

Can a one-day conference at a university breathe life into a cause that lately appears to have stalled: involving the Catholic laity in ending the crisis of authority and trust afflicting the Church in the wake of the sex abuse scandal? If not, here’s hoping that at least it points a way out of the present impasse.

The February 6 session on this topic at the Catholic University of America brings together Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, university president John Garvey, theologian Christopher Ruddy, and others. I wish them well. Although there’s already been plenty of talk about involving the laity in addressing the crisis, steps toward actually doing that have lagged so far.

Example: last November, as the American bishops meeting in Baltimore were preparing to tackle a proposal for a lay commission to handle complaints about bishops, the vote was sidetracked by order of the Pope. Rome’s explanation was that it was better to wait for results of a late February meeting of bishops whom Francis has summoned to meet and discuss the abuse scandal. And then–who can say? Meanwhile the idea of involving the laity in holding erring bishops accountable is on hold.

This pattern of talk without action is hardly new. On the contrary, the question of the laity and their place in the Church has for a long time existed in a larger ecclesial context involving issues of authority and the distribution of responsibility. These matters, already pressing, are destined to become still more urgent as the shortage of priests gets worse.

As things stand, when it comes to decision-making, the laity are routinely excluded from even a consultative role. I recall an exchange I had with a bishop–a very good one, in fact–regarding consultation with lay people. Yes, he agreed, it’s a good thing, but it takes too long. His point was that the laity don’t know much about ecclesiastical issues and processes, and bringing them up to speed impedes decisions. But that’s a self-fulfilling criticism. Indeed, Church leaders might be surprised at what fast learners lay people can be if given the chance.

From a historical perspective, the situation of the laity in the United States has roots in the struggle over lay trusteeism that saw rebellious lay people hiring and firing pastors and running their own parishes. The resulting contest between bishops and trustees dragged on for the better part of the 19th century. The bishops won, but the price of victory was a passive, silent laity.

Today, of course, the Church is in a new era fraught with new problems–and also with heightened need for the involvement of lay people. That need is screamingly obvious in the case of the sex abuse scandal. And it extends not only to immediate problem-solving but also to the building and sustaining of the sense of communion in the Church.

Almost 160 years have passed since John Henry Newman stirred up a hornet’s nest with his essay “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine.” After describing how bishops wavered while lay people stood strong in the faith in the face of the Arian heresy of the 4th century, he added that the Church is in a happier situation when it involves its lay members than when it keeps them at arm’s length, “which in the educated classes will terminate in indifference and in the poorer in superstition.”

Newman was right. But that has yet to sink in.

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About Russell Shaw 295 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).


  1. What I haven’t seen raised is this: Which laity? Reportedly, 90 to 95% of fertile-age Catholics use unnatural forms of birth control in active or passive dissent from Humanae Vitae. Dissent is based on the proposition that modern men and women CAN take apart what God Himself has put together in the marriage act–and thus the entirety of biblical teaching about love, marriage, and sexuality. Sodomy is another example of that “taking apart…” I submit that those who accept dissent are morally disqualified from participating in some lay investigation of the similar sins of their priestly peers.

    • Well, that essentially disqualifies the vast majority of the laity. Out of that 5-10% of Catholics who aren’t dissenting, how many will actually have the time/interest/capabilities/resources to participate in lay investigations? Many of them will be far too busy taking care of their families.

      So now what?

      Our priest regularly preaches against contraception, but that preaching really does not appear to have made any difference whatsoever in our parish. I am not convinced preaching will change much. Even in the early 1900s, priests in Italy were gobsmacked by how little parishioners would listen to their exhortations to stop using withdrawal and other “natural” (by natural, I mean what your average human thinks it means–the absence of chemicals, devices or other technology) forms of birth prevention.

      I do not pretend to have the answers. Most average Joe humans are just trying to get by each day.

  2. Groups and conferences of Bishops are meaningless and thoroughly mediocre, easily corrupted and leveraged by the McCarrick establishment, which helped to mold the currently fake US Bishops Conference into a tool to be abused and leveraged by post-Christian criminal frauds like Cupich and Mahony, who did the bidding of their fellow post-Christian criminal fraud pals in Rome and Europe, the gang who work for and owe their post-Christian “careers” to McCarrick and Danneels, the global leaders of the homosexual abuser and coverup artist and embezzling racketeer operation.

    To these agents of anti-Christ, faithful Catholic laity are nothing but breeding cattle, who provide the parasitic host on which the episcopal abuse cabal feeds.

    They have their man in Rome to shield them in their idolatry and criminal abuse.

  3. Deflection is another problem – making excuses by blaming others outside the church for committing the same crimes. We must set our own house in order.

  4. The laity are no better than their priests and bishops. How in the world can anyone think that their “involvement” in Church governance will make matters better? Count me among the “clericalists”.

  5. By laity, it was understood to mean The Faithful Laity, supporting The Faithful Priests and Bishops.
    To be Faithful one must remain in communion with Christ and His One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. The Faithful and the unfaithful cannot both be in communion with Christ and His One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, as “It is not possible to have Sacramental Communion without Ecclesial Communion”, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost. (Filioque)
    It Is Through, With, and In Christ, In The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, that Holy Mother Church exists.

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