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.