Almost a decade ago, as a young graduate student in theology, I lived for a year in the rectory of a Catholic parish.
Like many other parishes in Boston faced with an ever-worsening clergy shortage, St. Mary of the Angels did not have a priest in residence. Rather than allowing the creaky 19th-century Victorian estate house that doubled as the church’s gathering space to stand empty, the parish made the decision to open the doors to laypeople.
I moved into the parish house and into an anomalous existence: I was a 24-year-old woman living in a Catholic church. In exchange for my bedroom above the office, I helped clean the church on Saturday mornings and set out the coffee and donuts—a veritable second Eucharist—after Mass on Sundays, dutifully cutting the pastries into quarters in an attempt to feed as many people as possible on the parish’s nonexistent budget. I compiled the church bulletin and taught fifth-grade catechesis and performed a litany of other odd jobs and pastoral tasks. In return, I was given a rare gift: the chance to experience the life of a parish from the inside out.
St. Mary’s was unique in two respects. First, it was profoundly diverse. Built in 1906 to serve the Irish and German working class in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, it had, for decades, sustained a vibrant community of African American, Afro-Caribbean, Latino, Southeast Asian, and Euro-American parishioners. A significant portion was first-generation immigrants. Even more striking were the ties of friendship that united members across boundaries of race and culture.
Second, laypeople were the heartbeat of parish leadership. People weren’t just involved. They were empowered. In some ways, they had to be. There was no full-time pastor, and no money to pay a large staff. But the tradition of collaboration was born of more than necessity. After Vatican II, St. Mary’s established an interracial parish council of laypeople who put forth a bold agenda for change at the once isolated, struggling church. In 1969, they transferred the church’s financial accounts to Boston’s only black-owned bank in an act of solidarity with the neighborhood’s growing African American community. Collaborative leadership among the parish’s laypeople, religious sisters, priests, and neighbors intensified in the 1970s and ’80s, when St. Mary’s became the epicenter of community peace-building against a rising tide of youth gang violence. In 2004, when the Archdiocese of Boston targeted more than 80 churches for closure or consolidation, St. Mary’s was one of only a few to successfully protest its shuttering. Parishioners organized a community campaign to convince the chancery that the parish was too vital to the stability of the neighborhood to close.
St. Mary’s was a parish that, as the Jesuits like to say, ruined me for life. It ruined me for clericalism, for racism, for xenophobia. Most of all, it convinced me that when it comes to building humble, accountable, inclusive Catholic communities, another world is indeed possible—not in a small, self-selecting alternative community of like-minded individuals, or in the kingdom of God, but in an ordinary city parish here and now.
I thought of St. Mary’s as I read James Carroll’s provocative cover story in the June issue of The Atlantic. The piece is a kind of lament, an excoriation of the Catholic Church’s capitulation to clericalism. In theological terms, clericalism—the elevation of ordained persons over the laity—is not only an unintended consequence of history, but also a social sin, an idolization of power perpetuated by a constellation of social structures and cultural practices.
The most difficult part of transforming structures of sin is imagining what our institutions would look like without them. But like other social sins—racism, nationalism, sexism—the subject is not the same as its distortion. The solution to racism, for example, is not to abolish human difference but (among other things) to transform the laws and practices and false narratives that uphold white supremacy. Similarly, the solution to clericalism need not be, and indeed should not be, to abolish the priesthood. Rather, it is the more painstaking work of transforming the ecclesial structures that engender and sustain this diseased understanding of clerical supremacy.
Carroll and I are emphatically of one mind about the harm that clericalism has caused the People of God. There is room for the kind of creative, grassroots dissent that he seeks. Such communities of resistance already exist, indeed have always existed within the Church, and in numbers more vast and forms more diverse than most Catholics realize.
But if we truly want to reform the Church on a global scale—that is, if we are genuinely interested in saying “never again” to the catastrophe of sexual violence and secrecy that has emerged and reemerged throughout the history of this institution—then what is needed is a perhaps more sober and less triumphant grappling with the way institutional change actually takes place.
There is a saying, popular in intentional communities, that goes, “Everybody wants a revolution, but nobody wants to do the dishes.” The year I spent keeping the lights on in that Roxbury parish house taught me to do the dishes, literally and metaphorically. In certain ways, St. Mary of the Angels looked a lot like the vision of a lay-led church Carroll wants to help us glimpse. Indeed, the parish was, among many other things, a sort of refuge for Boston Catholics who found themselves hanging on to their faith by a thread in the wake of the 2002 abuse crisis. And yet what I learned from the community’s longtime leaders is that changing the culture of power in a 2,000-year-old institution means resisting the urge to burn the whole rotten thing to the ground and instead sticking around and going to meetings and participating in the often infuriatingly slow work of change.
This is why I winced when I read Carroll’s suggestion that clericalism will finally meet its end when laypeople simply decide to be “Catholics on our own terms.” Who, I wondered, in a Church of 1 billion people, is “our”? What can come of such an approach, ultimately, is merely another sort of Benedict option. In the original sense of the term, traditionalists bind together to keep the faith. In Carroll’s version, it’s the reformers who circle their wagons. But the result is the same: a smaller, purer Church of Good People.
At St. Mary’s, by contrast, a culture of inclusive collaboration gradually took root as laypeople and priests joined together to leverage the Church’s institutional power on behalf of the most marginalized members of the local community. Over time, they developed structures and practices to ensure that, no matter who the pastor happened to be, the laity would retain a guiding voice in the parish’s mission.
This local example is instructive for the entire Church. If undoing clericalism means transforming the structures that uphold it, then where might the Church begin? I will suggest one possibility. Currently, beyond the purely advisory role of parish and diocesan councils, laypeople hold no formal role in the authority structure of the Church. This must change. Giving laypeople a powerful voice at every level of Church governance would be a consequential first step in building an ecclesial culture of justice, transparency, and humility.
The Church, as Carroll emphasizes, is the People of God. But this notion wasn’t an invention of Vatican II. The term has its origins in Hebrew scripture, where it is used to invoke God’s covenantal bond with the people of Israel and thus to underscore the fundamentally communal shape of holiness. To call the Church holy, then, as Christians of many denominations do each Sunday when we recite the Nicene Creed, is to contend that whatever is good and beautiful about the Church—indeed, whatever is not beyond redemption—is a function of this communion with God and among people, living and dead, near and far.
The greatest challenge of picking up the pieces of the Church will come in repairing that broken communion. By the grace of God, it might also be the greatest gift.
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