I agree with everything Larry Chapp says in his recent pieces on the problems of “synodality.” But, perhaps very slightly more hopeful than he is, I want to make some suggestions overlooked by many in the rush to jump on or off the synodal bandwagon at the international level.
In 2018, in the immediate aftermath of the McCarrick revelations, I was on sabbatical writing a book about the sex abuse crisis in the Church. I was having lunch with a friend who made one of those off-handed comments that startled us both. (My friend, come to think of it, is a lot like Larry in his theological views and in his love of Dorothy Day.)
What was suggested between us was that Catholics needed to become much more congregationalist not just in practice but also in ecclesiology.
On the one hand, practically speaking, most of us already are at least semi-congregationalist. Most Catholics attend liturgy and receive the sacraments at whatever parish is at hand; at the same time, most Catholics are blissfully unaware of whatever encyclical some eminence has issued that week from either the diocesan chancery or Vatican bureaucracy.
Thus healthy Catholics (as I aspire some day to be) are not that interested in papal machinations or the structures of the Church at virtually any level beyond the local. Normal Catholics have little time to talk about “synodality” when they haven’t been able to secure enough volunteers for the food bank that week or figure out which squirrelly second-grader is tall enough to do the deed in this year’s May crowning.
Let us build on and extend these concrete and congregationalist instincts of the long-suffering people of God. I am not the only one advocating a move in this direction. No less a figure than Fr. Joseph Komonchak has said as much. One of the most influential ecclesiologists in the last half-century, he gave an interview recently in which he said:
I think we Catholics could use a good dose of congregationalism!…Louis Bouyer said that after the Resurrection and the Ascension and Pentecost, St. Peter didn’t rush off to Rome to establish a bureaucracy. And that the church was, in fact, local communities replicating themselves when people went out from them and founded new communities.
I think Chapp and DeVille are very much in agreement with Komonchak and Bouyer. But let me flesh out my proposals to invite further discussion, aware that this is not any sort of definitive set of solutions, but merely a set of provisional proposals to loosen things up and thus try to get us moving in a better direction.
On that point of it is worth pausing for a moment to consider that perhaps in ecclesiology more than in any other theological discipline, provisionality and flexibility must be the order of the day. For the last two centuries the Church has been obsessed with cementing into place highly inflexible and centralized structures and monopolies on power at all levels. Whatever the historical and contextual justifications for such grasps at permanency, they are fundamentally misguided in light of the ecclesiology of the New Testament and much of the first millennium. As the Orthodox theologian Olivier Clément wrote in his book You Are Peter: An Orthodox Theologian’s Reflection on the Exercise of Papal Primacy, “the true greatness of the period of the ecumenical councils is precisely that the power of decision rested with no one: neither pope, nor council, nor emperor, nor public feeling.” Instead, he shows, it had to be discerned by the whole Church and could and did admit of different forms of decision-making from place to place without the unity of the Church being imperiled.
A move towards more congregationalist and synodal governance is not against tradition, but in fact is much more deeply rooted in 1800 years of Christian life than the present centralized papal and episcopal monarchies and their bureaucracies, all of which are, at most, 150 years old.
What do I mean by Catholic congregationalism?
First we must be clear that we want a strict focus on three realities only. Note, again, the focus on practicality here. This focus is imbued with a tough-minded awareness that local congregations can also have pathologies of power and other problems (which is why I have written so strongly against fantasies of “Benedict option” communities) which must be guarded against, as the proposals below do.
What proposals are we looking at, then? I have insisted for years in many articles that Catholic governance at all levels must focus not on boutique challenges to doctrine or trendy ideas, but three concrete realities: election, legislation, and discipline.
My 2019 book made some practical suggestions in all three areas, but let me restate and amplify them here.
Congregationalism for Catholics requires, at a minimum:
- An annually elected parish council (50/50 men and women) whose monthly (or more frequent as circumstances require) meeting in every parish is mandatory (not optional, as it currently is).
- This council has charge over all non-sacramental matters in the parish.
- The council votes on the installation and removal of clergy in a process of joint discernment with the bishop. (This model is used in some Orthodox and Anglican jurisdictions, as my book showed in detail.)
- The council, in concert with the pastor, legislates the use of all liturgical and musical texts already approved for use in the universal Church. Thus, e.g., if a congregation wants to have a regular celebration of the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite (“Latin Mass”), or share their building with Byzantine-rite or Ordinariate Catholics, that is entirely their own decision to make (without regard for what uniformity the bishop of a foreign diocese in the centre of Italy demands).
- The council has charge over the budget and policy on fundraising and disbursement. This includes an annual decision of how much to forward to the diocese.
- Clergy and parish staff alike would be subject to disciplinary action for various serious offenses. If these were criminal in nature, the council is obliged to bring in local law enforcement first, and inform the bishop after. No longer can clerical offenders of any sort be entrusted to the bishop to be quietly stuffed into some other parish or sinecure.
- The bishop can no longer unilaterally discipline a cleric without specified reasons and the express agreement of the parish council, which itself cannot dismiss a pastor without agreement of the bishop for specified reasons. (This prevents men being punished when their views run afoul of either the bishop or congregation in turn.)
This latter points illustrates that we are operating in a congregationalist-cum-Catholic way to prevent local pathologies from taking root without an episcopal gardener to prune them.
Only once we have some actual experience of congregationalist governance, of a polity that involves the people of God with voice and vote who are not subservient to clerical elites, will all this talk about synodality have a chance of taking root. In other words, the reforms we need in the Church should not be started in Rome and proceed top-down (that way has brought endless disasters for decades), but begin at home with the laics in their congregations.
What say you, Dr. Chapp?
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