Sunday, 15 April 2012

On the co-responsibility of the laity/1: against cults and congregationalism

Over at Cath Blog, the campaign for congregationalism (that is, lay rule of the Church) continued last week with, inter alia, a post by Gary Everett called Power to the laity

Lay engagement vs congregationalism

Now I'm all for greater lay engagement in the Church: I don't think all our talents are being deployed effectively, and that is due to factors including clericalism, poor catechesis and flourishing error, and the more general politics of power.

But unfortunately the Cath Blog post goes too far, advocating the abolition of the hierarchical constitution of the Church.  And that's a shame, because by advocating what constitutes, in my view, outright error, and one condemned at the time of the Protestant Revolution at that, the progressives are undermining the real case for greater transparency and accountability, and the genuine need for more effective engagement of the laity within the Church.

So this is the start of an occasional series on what I think are some of the real issues around this subject, and the problems around it in the Church in Australia at the moment both in traddieland (truly a different, and not a better, world in some places!) and more generally.

And I'll start by taking a look at that Cath Blog post.

Lay leadership and the Church

The Cath Blog post is basically a call to ditch the hierarchical constitution of the Church and replace it with joint decision-making processes, even if we need a third Vatican Council to achieve it.

We've all heard that before, but the new contribution of the post was to claim the authority of Pope Benedict XVI for this position. 

Needless to say, such a claim is diametrically opposed to what the Pope actually said in the address referred to. 

And equally unsurprisingly, my comment pointing this out was rejected by the moderator over at Cath News.  Oh well, frees me to be rather blunter here I guess...

What did the Pope really say?

The post opens by lauding the recent speech of Robert Fitzgerald on lay leadership, and citing as its authority a 2009 speech by Pope Benedict XVI on Church membership and pastoral co-responsibility:

"In his recent address to a Conference on Leadership, Sydney based lay leader Robert Fitzgerald outlined his views concerning the need for new models of leadership within the Church.

"His basic thesis was that the laity have, through their leadership of some of the largest ministries within the Church, shown that they are both willing and capable of exercising effective models of leadership." [Personally I'd dispute that.  The poor level of catechesis and low level of practice of Catholic schoolchildren, and the US evidence of catholic hospitals freely conducting sterilizations and other procedures in contravention to catholic teaching, for example, suggests that the reduced role of the religious orders in catholic institutions has led to major problems in maintaining Catholic identity.  A recent discussion over at the ABC's religion and ethics site supports that.] 

"Robert claims that these new models are built upon the theology of co-responsibility. This theme was taken up by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 in an address in Rome on the theme of "Church Membership and Pastoral Co-Responsibility". I am not sure if his call was heard." [Agreed]

Unfortunately, what Mr Everett then goes on to say seems to seriously misunderstand what the Pope was saying:

"In my opinion, the fundamental problem is that there is no shared understanding of the theology of co-responsibility, and no shared understandings about its practical applications. [That would be because the progressives are trying to overegg the pudding.  To read far more into what the Pope and others are trying to say than they are actually advocating.  I'd suggest a reread of Pope John Paul II's Christi Fideles Laici, which was the synodal exposition on the proper role of the laity, rather than advocacy of yet another one, might be in order!]. All other problems of lay leadership stem from this single deficiency."

"Let me elaborate. Most Church structures involving laity are “advisory”. Thus, in the Archdiocese of Brisbane, parish councils are advisory; the Archbishop's Pastoral Council is advisory; even Synods are advisory."

"This is so, because the basic notions of leadership are hierarchical, with decision making in all major instances reserved to the ordained..."

He goes on to say all this needs to change.
In reality however the Pope specifically warned, in the speech cited, against any rejection of the hierarchical constitution of the Church in the name of 'spirit of Vatican IIism'.  And while Mr Everett (and he is not, admittedly, alone in this) interprets 'co-responsibility' to mean equal responsibility, it really doesn't mean that in the mainstream literature on the subject.

The constitution of the Church

In fact in that 2009 speech the Pope gives a mini-treatise on the concepts of the Church as both the "People of God" (meaning all the baptised) and the "Body of Christ" (which has a head).  He notes that the two concepts complement each other.

The Pope then goes on to specifically warn against spirit of Vatican IIism:

"Subsequent to the Council this ecclesiological doctrine met with acceptance on a vast scale and thanks be to God an abundance of good fruit developed in the Christian community. However we must also remember that the integration of this doctrine in procedures and its consequent assimilation in the fabric of ecclesial awareness did not happen always and everywhere without difficulty and in accordance with a correct interpretation. As I was able to explain in my Discourse to the Roman Curia on 22 December 2005, an interpretative current, claiming to refer to a presumed "spirit of the Council", sought to establish a discontinuity and even to distinguish between the Church before and the Church after the Council, at times even crossing the very boundaries that exist objectively between the hierarchical ministry and the responsibilities of the lay faithful in the Church. The notion of "People of God", in particular was interpreted by some, in accordance with a purely sociological vision, with an almost exclusively horizontal bias that excluded the vertical reference to God. This position was in direct contrast with the word and spirit of the Council which did not desire a rupture, another Church, but rather a true and deep renewal in the continuity of the one subject Church which grows in time and develops but always remains identical, the one subject of the People of God on pilgrimage."

So what does co-responsibility really mean?

In fact the concept of co-responsibility has a considerable history in Magisterial teaching, mainly in the field of social teaching where it has been used to advocate that workers be treated as responsible, creative individuals capable of making an intelligent contribution to the workplace rather than as mere cogs in the machinery. 

In the literature on worker participation, it is not normally constructed to mean that workers should take the decisions jointly with management (that would be communism!); it does not mean changed accountabilities for decisions.  Rather, it means that they should be actively engaged, their creativity and insights properly utilised, and their views given a fair hearing.  One can find a useful review of papal teaching on this subject by Michael Naughton in the Journal of Business Ethics in 1995.

In the broader arena of Church decision-making, the concept of co-responsibility is part of 'discourse ethics': as Karl-Otter Apel explains it in the Journal of Religion in 1993, it is essentially a 'right to argue', to have a vigorous discussion that exposes the issues, within a particular community. 

In essence, co-responsibility requires that those making the decisions expose their thinking to others within the community, provided and to the extent that doing so won't undercut achieving the end goals. 

The idea is not that the decisions must represent a consensus, but rather that testing out arguments and thinking processes on others will ultimately lead to better decision-making, as well as helping to build greater understanding amongst all involved. 

It is arguably particularly important to do this at times such as the present when the environment poses new challenges, given the tendency of all of us to revert to "group think".

Co-responsibility is not a radical concept!

There is really absolutely nothing new or radical about this. 

One can see such vigorous discussions played out in the early Church as described in Acts and the various New Testament epistles.

One can read about when things went too far in places like Corinth in some of the surviving documetns of the early Church such as St Clement's letter to the Corinthians, calling out the locals for attempting to remove some of their priests!

And one can see the attempt to give those Gospel principles real life in a community in places such St Benedict's Rule.  In his Rule, St Benedict gives the abbot absolute authority for final decisions and puts a great deal of emphasis on the virtue of obedience. 

But he also sets up a Council process so that the arguments can be aired first, and enjoins his abbots to listen to the young, since God often reveals what is better to them, and even to outsiders such as pilgrim monks...

And the course of canon law down the centuries has actually generally been to enhance the rights of community members in various ways, in theory at least: religious communities get to vote on approval of new members and proposals relating to property of the monastery rather than leaving it all in the abbot's hands; parishes have councils; the laity have a right to make their views known publicly; and so forth.

Leading from below and the problem of empowerment

In his post Mr Everett goes on to comment that:

"...It is extremely difficult to feel co-responsible for a decision you didn’t take."

That is true, but a misunderstanding of what co-responsibility is about I think.

What co-responsibility requires is for those within the community to have access to the information so as to reach an informed view, and a chance to have their say and be heard.  It is a potential way of fostering genuine engagement in contrast to the illusion of unity that covers over apathy, despair or cynicism.  But shared responsibility in this context does not mean equal responsibility or the subversion of hierarchy.  Nor does it involve a let out clause from the virtue of obedience.

The big challenge though is that operating effectively in an environment where everyone gets to have their say is not easy for any of the players. 

Those 'below' have to find effective ways of making their case without it seeming like they are being disrespectful or arguing for the sake of arguing.  They have to find ways of making existing structures real not just rubberstamps. 

Those 'above' have to be willing to share information and power, find new ways of engaging with those in their community.  They have to be willing to persuade and cajole and adapt to circumstances, rather than simply decreeing.

And yet they also have to be willing to make the hard call at times, to reject the views from below, since they remain the ultimate guardians of the end goals and the means to achieve them. 

Moreover, for all parties this 'discourse' mode of ethics stands in direct opposition to those who prize the appearance of consensus even where it doesn't really exist; it stands in opposition to those who prize 'tolerance' over truth-telling.

Co-responsibility in the Church here and now: how to make it happen

In reality of course, discourse ethics is already well and truly making itself felt in the Church above all through the social media.

Blogs such as this that often criticise bishops, priests and others may be uncomfortable reading at times for some, but they reflect (hopefully) our love for the Church and engagement with it, our membership of an 'ideal community' even when the real one often falls far short of it at least in the short term.

But there is a long way to go to achieving genuine co-responsibility.

Genuine co-responsibility requires transparency and accountability, and our Bishops' Conference, as well as most dioceses, parishes and Church institutions fall a very long way short of that indeed.

Genuine co-responsibility requires the development of effective mechanisms for lay engagement.  Some dioceses seem to be experimenting in ways to do this quite well; others not so much.

Genuine co-responsibility requires acceptance of the right to disagree in some cases, a right to challenge the status quo and accepted ways of doing things.  And that includes accepting the right of those from the  conservative/traditionalist side of things to have their say, instead of  attacking them as 'temple police' and other nasty epithets, rather than accepting theirs as a legitimate viewpoint of some members of the laity.

It requires priests and bishops to develop influencing skills, the art of leading by doing as much as by saying; the art of forming and supporting groups of like minds; of genuinely interacting and engaging with people rather than just spouting standard lines.  Let's face it: few if any seminaries currently teach these kind of (leadership and management) skills in a serious way.

But co-responsibility also puts the onus on the laity to find ways to make things happen rather than just whingeing about not being heard.  That requires training.

And it also requires the laity to understand and work within the limits of Church teaching and the governing authority of the hierarchy: to accept that there are some things that are not negotiable, and others that are not currently open.  That requires better catechesis.

It requires all of the  'People of God' to get behind decisions once made, and work to implement them rather than commiting to an ongoing guerilla war (consider for example the case of the new missal!).

Can it be done?

So is co-responsibility correctly understood possible? Is it even desirable? 

Personally I think so. 

Many are yet to be convinced though!

Take the case of bloggers.  Are our efforts welcomed or reviled?

Indeed, in the US context, Fr Z is currently calling on the bishops there to take concrete action to back up the nice words about the role of bloggers they recently put out, and call a national meeting of bloggers.

Here in Australia of course there is a get together coming up on using the social media, but it is targeted - and more to the point priced at (!) - 'media professionals' rather than those such as myself!

But even if you do agree with the need to build communities of discourse within the Church, we shouldn't kid ourselves that it will be easy to achieve.

It doesn't need a new Council (shudder) to make this happen!

In my view it requires instead something much harder, namely a commitment to personal conversion, an openness to grace, and a commitment to genuine renewal.

In short it requres a commitment to the Pope's a hermaneutic of reform in continuity in the Church.

It is the Pope's birthday tomorrow (April 16).  Please keep him especially in your prayers.

4 comments:

R J said...

I don't see why you yourself wouldn't count as a "media professional". After all, so far as I (a mere lay Catholic) can determine, you get your facts right; I have yet to perceive a spelling or grammatical error in your commentaries; and you provide sources for your assertions.

Such cannot always be said of the Fairfax and Murdoch empires' myrmidons. Many a self-proclaimed journalist in this country's mass media is a lazy larcenous lump who would be overpaid even if his annual salary was $1.95. The following anecdote regarding these lumps is one which I've cited before, but which perhaps warrants additional exposure.

Many years ago, when I went to work part-time for a famous think-tank, I was solemnly informed by one of the leading policy wonks that it was useless to issue a press release which made the slightest intellectual demands on the reader. What was required – my wonk mentor assured me, whether accurately or not – was prose dumbed-down enough to be plagiarised word for word by journalists, who in turn would be plagiarised word for word by editorial-writers, who in turn would get the press release's contents out into the mainstream. (This was, I need hardly add, the pre-Internet era.)

Naively, I muttered something vaguely on the lines of "Um, isn't plagiarism wrong?" As I recall, the answer was something like "Oh dear, you have got a lot to learn." I have been unable ever since to take the average antipodean Fourth Estate representative at anything like his own Napoleonic self-valuation.

A Canberra Observer said...

I saw some of this nonsense on CathNews.

It is all pretty clearly about PRIDE - look at us, we are so good, we MUST lead.

They make me puke.

Kate said...

Thanks for the compliments RJ. In truth I'd have to admit that I might in fact worked as a 'media professional' in the past, as well as held a number of jobs that required me to draw on those skills heavily.

But what I'm really trying to get at here is that I, like most Catholic bloggers, am not being paid for what I'm doing here (and let's not get into the whole monetizing and marketing your wares via blogs debate on which I remain ambivalent!).

Maybe some bloggers would be willing to fork out a lot of dough and take time off work for a conference of this kind, but in my own case, I'm not in a position to do that.

R J said...

Well, Kate, I wish that you were being paid for your efforts here. I think of one genius at an extremely well-known Australian archdiocesan magazine, one who is indeed drawing a handsome salary, but whose idea of journalistic competence is to refer to the SSPX's Superior-General as "Bishop Brian [sic] Fellay" ... and I wince.