The Voice of the Faithful in a Clergy-dominated Church

Daniel C. Maguire, Marquette University

Talk given at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Milwaukee to the Voice of the Faithful and SNAP, Jan 9, 2003

Strange as it may seem given the state of the church, I begin this paper on a hopeful note. My hope is grounded in my impression that the American Catholic Church is becoming more and more Italian. My reference is to culture, not to an increased number of Italian Americans. When I was sent to Rome for my doctorate, I am sure the hierarchical hope was that it would give me an infusion of Vatican rigidity. It didn't, thanks to the broader education that the Italians gave me.

Once, on a Friday in Rome, I was trying to get a meatless meal in a restaurant. Everything the waiter suggested had meat. Finally, deferring somewhat to my scruple, he suggested a spinach-filled pasta. When it arrived, it was covered with Bolognese meat sauce. Annoyed, I asked him if he was a Catholic. "Cattolico lei?" His response required no translation: "Cattolico, si. Fanatico, no!" My education had begun.

Still in the salvific Italian spirit badly needed in the United States, the story is told of a cab driver in Rome in 1968 on the day when Humanae Vitae was issued. Even though the pope's advisors overwhelmingly voted to change church teaching on contraception, the pope sided with the minority and chose to continue the ban. There was great excitement that day in Rome and the cab driver had been doing the Vatican beat picking up a lot of priests who were talking about the encyclical. Finally he asked one priest "what happened?" The priest replied solemnly: "The pope came out today and condemned the pill." The cabby shook his head disconsolately and finally said: "Why did they tell him about it?"

That was Italian Catholicism behind that wheel. That driver knew the pope was wrong--was not pope-ing well that day--and he felt sorry for the pope and was annoyed at the people who had gotten him into such an unseemly predicament.

Let me add a few more keynoting quotes and stories to illustrate my theological message. My next keynoter is my son Tommy. When he was three I noticed on a September day that he did not recall the previous two autumns. I came upon him standing in the den, with his thumb in his mouth and his cloth dog Patches in his arm. I said: "Tom, what color are those leaves on those trees?"

"Green," he replied.

"Tom," I said, "soon all those leaves are going to turn yellow, red, orange and brown and then they will all fall down." He looked at me seriously and I could not guess how my message had been received. The next day I was passing the den and Tom was at his post talking to Patches. I sneaked up close, to share this precious moment. What I heard was Tom giving Patches my whole message on autumn. With a voice full of reverence and belief he said: "Patches, all leave green. All turn yellow, red, orange, brown. All fall down."

I realized that if I had told Tom that all the trees out back would soon lift out of the ground and hang in the air for the winter, he would have believed me, and shared his belief with Patches. I realized that when we are shocked by birth and the noises and discomforts thereof, it is baffling, compared to the comfort of the womb. When Tom's little face emerged in the birthing process, I think the question on that face, if it could find words was "what in the world is going on?" That, of course, is the beginning of philosophy and theology.

There are two sources of information for the infant/toddler: a sense experience, which is very impressive, and authority, the authority of these massive figures on which we are totally dependent. As impressive as sense experience is, telling us what is hot or cold or hard, etc., if the authority says something that contradicts that sense experience, the authority prevails over everything that you feel and see. At that age, we require an infallible authority system. And here is the problem: often we don't entirely grow up and we hanker for infallible guidance, whether found in a misused Bible, a Qur'an, or in a cult leader.

All religions have a tendency to become cults. Cults take away your independent judgment; some authority structure takes control of your mind. With Protestants and Muslims this often takes the form of a magically interpreted scripture; with Catholics it is more likely to be a magically interpreted hierarchy. In both cases, the cultically distorted religion inhibits growth. St. Paul's advice is relevant: "Do not be childish, my grown-up in your thinking." (1. Cor. 14: 20) Face the fact that infallibility is not in the human repertoire.

My next keynoter is Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. At the end of the Vatican Council he wrote: "The Church is not the petrification of what once was, but its living presence in every age. The Church's dimension is therefore the present and the future no less than the past."

My next keynoter is Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ In his Presidential address to the Catholic Theological Society of America, he said that Vatican II "implicitly taught the legitimacy and even the value of dissent." Dulles conceded "that the ordinary magisterium of the Roman Pontiff had fallen into error, and had unjustly harmed the careers of loyal and able theologians." He mentioned John Courtney Murray, Teilhard de Chardin, Henri de Lubac, and Yves Congar. Dulles said that certain teachings of the hierarchy "seem to evade in a calculated way the findings of modern scholarship. They are drawn up without broad consultation with the theological community. Instead, a few carefully selected theologians are asked to defend a pre-established position..."  Dulles aligned himself with those theologians who do not limit the term magisterium to the hierarchy. He spoke of "two magisteria-that of the pastors and that of the theologians." These two magisteria are "complementary and mutually corrective." The theological magisterium may and indeed must critique the hierarchical magisterium. Dulles concluded: "we shall insist on the right, where we think it important for the good of the Church, to urge positions at variance with those that are presently official."

Cardinal Dulles was only two thirds right. There is a third magisterium, the sensus fidelium, the experience-rich wisdom of the faithful. Catholic theology at its healthiest said the search for truth rests on a tripod: the hierarchy, the theologians, and the wisdom of the faithful. Again Paul's words: "In each of us the Spirit is manifested in one particular way, for some useful purpose." (I Cor. 12:7) Historically, none of them has turned out to be infallible. At times each has led. The hierarchy was ahead of the other two magisteria when an early medieval pope condemned the torture of prisoners to get confessions. The laity led the way in showing that not all interest-taking is excessive and sinful as was once taught by popes, ecumenical councils and theologians. It took the theologians a century to admit that, and then, a century later, the Vatican got into the banking business and finally conceded---two centuries behind the laity and one century behind the theologians--- that moderate interest was just fine. The theologians were leaders in preparing the way for Vatican II and the pope is still resisting those advances.

My next keynoter is Thomas Aquinas himself, the saintly theologian who exemplified theology done ex corde ecclesiae. Thomas drew a sharp and still useful distinction between the officium praelationis (the administrative office) of bishops and the officium magisterii (teaching office) of theologians. What Aquinas was saying here, as Cardinal Dulles observed, was that the hierarchy does not monopolize the charism of truth and "the theologian is a genuine teacher, not a mouthpiece or apologist for higher officers."

Elsewhere, and relevant to our purposes here, Dulles, speaking at the Catholic University of America wondered whether Thomas Aquinas, "if he were alive today...would be welcome" at CU. Once again, he insisted that the "magisterium of the professors" relies "not on formal authority but rather on the force of reasons." He united himself with St. Thomas Aquinas' view that "with the growth of the great universities the bishops could no longer exercise direct control over the content of theological teaching." "Their role," Dulles insisted, "was primarily pastoral, rather than academic."

My next keynoter is Paul Lehmann, Olim Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Lehmann was invited to give the inaugural address at the dedication of a new church and educational building in Towson, Maryland. The pastor, a former student, introduced Dr. Lehmann with pride. Lehmann mounted the pulpit, looked out into the sea of joyful faces in that beamingly well-lit building, and began with these words: "Do you know what you have built here? A resplendent mausoleum. It stands incandescent in the glow of its own irrelevance as the dynamics of the time rush to pass it by." After they revived the pastor, Dr. Lehmann went on to argue that it need not be so if the Church could read the signs of the times and respond with courage.

My next keynoter is St. John Chrysostom. He said, and let Catholic reformers take note: "Whoever is not angry when there is cause for anger, sins." That deserves a banner in every church.

My next keynoter is an anonymous Boston layman interviewed on National Public Radio. He said: "The gospel says that where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. He didn't say there was a need for golden chalices or multi-million dollar cathedrals. Let the church sell its lavish properties and return to the simplicity of its Master."

My next keynoter is professor Terence McCaughey, a theologian at Trinity College, Dublin. The See of Dublin was newly vacant and a group of Catholic professors were gathered in a pub near the College expressing their hopes that a progressive and powerful leader would fill the archiepiscopal chair. McCaughey was the lone Protestant in the group. When he heard their aspirations, he replied with a twinkle: "I hope you get a terrible bishop here who provides no leadership at all. Then, maybe, at last, you Catholics will respond to your baptismal promises to grow into a mature adulthood in the very image of God." The point was taken but no offense was felt in a pub atmosphere that was flowing with sanctifying grace.

Next, two keynoting stories: Charlie Curran, while still at Catholic University, had a call from Jimmy Carter when Carter was running for president. Some years later I had a call from Geraldine Ferraro asking me to do a briefing to Catholic congresspersons. Why were these politicians--people shrewd enough to run for office and win--why were they calling two Catholic theologians? Did they want to inquire about Catholics' burning concern for African Americans, the perennials orphans of American conscience? Did they want to explore Catholic indignation about a military budget that impoverishes our nation, sucking about ten thousand dollars a second out of our wealth while our schools and infrastructure deteriorate? Were they exploring Catholic sensitivities to the takeover of government by corporate lobbies, or could it have been Catholic rage at the absence of daycare and adequate welfare?

No. Sad to say, it was none of the above. They were calling about the only thing they thought Catholics were morally serious about: abortion. None of the other issues were seen as "Catholic issues," though every one of them relates to the heart and core of biblical values. Catholics, as they read it, are fixated on pelvic issues, particularly abortion.

Somehow we have to get the abortion bone out of the Catholic throat. I just wrote a book reporting on a three-year project involving 14 scholars from the world's religions -- Sacred Choices: The Right to Contraception and Abortion in Ten World Religions, Fortress Press. I concluded that almost all religions have a conservative, "no choice" view on abortion. Yet all of them also came to realize that fertility, which is such a blessing, can also become a curse and that contraception, with abortion as a backup when necessary, is permissible. Both these views coexist in the world's major and indigenous religions. The situation is comparable to the ethics of war. Some religionists read their religion as rejecting all violence and they become pacifists. Other read those same traditions as permitting a "just war." The state gives the pacifists conscientious objector status and allows the others to serve, thus honoring both readings of the religions. The same is true for abortion. The religions can be read as permitting no abortions but they also can be read as permitting the choice of abortion for good reasons. Both views are "orthodox" and, speaking for Catholicism, neither one is more Catholic or more "official" than the other.

Possibilities for Catholic Reform

When I taught at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, the faculty began the year by reciting the mandatory Oath Against Modernism. That oath committed us to teach what was "always and everywhere" taught in church history. When we finished, Raymond Brown, the distinguished scripture scholar commented to me: "I can't think of anything that was "always and everywhere" taught." And he was right. Rembert Weakland once commented that the church today has to "reimagine" itself. In fact, it has always been doing so. There is a widespread illusion among Catholics that God issued a blueprint for all church structure and teaching. That never happened. People kept interpreting teachings and church structure and then assuming in each age that things had always been that way.

Let Professor Dennis Nineham of Oxford University take us on a visit to 10th century European Catholicism. (See his Christianity Mediaeval and Modern.) If we were time-warped back into that time, we might find a copy of the Nicaean Creed and think we would feel at home. But wait and see how these folks had reimagined their Catholicism.

First, they imagined that God enjoyed the company of many angels, but, alas, some of them sinned and fell into hell. To make up for the missing, God made humans. However, he made too many of them to fit into heaven, so most of them would die and go to hell. Indeed, it was estimated that only one out of a thousand could avoid this horrible fate, mostly monks and nuns. Many would try to take the cowl when near death to try to slip into heaven. Babies who died unbaptized and people who lived in parts of the world where there were no Catholics and hence knew nothing about the faith....all of these would go hell. Many teachers taught that volcanoes were the mouth of hell. Mt. Etna was especially thought to be the opening to hell. Purgatory or limbo were not imagined yet.

God, obviously, and Jesus by association with the Father, were not central to piety. Clearly they were too threatening and arbitrary. Devotion focused on the saints who really had divine status. In effect, this was polytheism. All the saints by the way, had been upper class people. Not until the 12th century were poor folks sainted. The Eucharist was mainly seen as a ritualistic means to obtain favors, like good crops.

Menstruating women were not permitted in church and, after birth, a woman could not enter a church for 40 days. Pope Gregory, called for some reason "the Great," taught that to marry is a sin.

So that is how they imagined the church and its teachings. We have imagined it differently, but not all our imaginings have been helpful. For example, we have imagined the church as a monarchy, not as a democracy. That is neither helpful nor necessary. It certainly has no biblical foundation. One of the sayings attributed to Jesus that some scholars believe really does originate with him, relates precisely to governance and structural organization. "You know that in the world the recognized rulers lord it over their subjects, and their great men make them feel the weight of authority. This is not the way with you; among you, whoever wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be the first must be the willing slave of all." (Mark 10:42-43) That is the very opposite of monarchy. Not surprisingly, the New Testament shows fidelity to that mandate. There is no pope in the early Christian community and no monarchical bishops operating as local popes in the style they do today. As church historian Walter Ullmann says, as late as the year 313, "there was, as yet, no suggestion that the Roman church possessed any legal or constitutional preeminence." Bishop Leo decided to change that. The papacy as we know it is not Petrine, but Leonine. The Leo was Leo I, Bishop in Rome from 440 to 461, a Roman jurist who cast the Roman episcopate in terms borrowed directly from the Roman imperial court. The one who was called summus pontifex (supreme pontiff), who held the plentitudo potestatis (the fullness of monarchical power) and the principatus (primacy) was the Roman Emperor. Leo grabbed all this language and applied it to himself. As Walter Ullmann says, "this papal plentitude of power was...a thoroughly juristic notion, and could be understood only...against the Roman Law background."

Leo did not even try to justify his pompous claims by referring to the text in Mathew's gospel, "Thou are Peter, etc." That argument was added later. Leo had his eyes on the church in Constantinople, which was making power claims that Leo didn't appreciate. As one theological wag put it, Jesus no more planned the current form of papacy than did Sitting Bull plan the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The papacy was not original equipment nor were papal-like episcopal leaders in charge of local ecclesial communities. Clearly in the early church, close as they were to the historical Jesus, they were making things up as they went along. There are lists of ministries in I Corinthians 12, Romans, 12 and Ephesians 4 and they all vary without apology. The word, which came to mean bishops, is used synonymously with the word that came to mean priest in Acts 20. In Acts 6 we see that the Apostles had been serving people at table but decided that they would rather devote themselves "to prayer and to the ministry of the word." So they appointed servants (deacons) to wait on tables. Lo and behold, before long the deacons seem to have tired of table work also and they opted for preaching. Today, the office of deacon is tied to preaching. We have to imagine that the women had to take over table work when the boys left to pray and preach.

Clearly, there was a freedom and fluidity to the formation of administration and structure. Taking off into a society where monarchy was the norm, the Christians eventually imitated and aped the dominating, hierarchical forms of their civil society, leaving us with the current monarchical papacy and episcopate. Monarchy is a political anachronism. The pope and the bishops need downsizing to ceremonial status, following the model (to take one of the more benign royal examples) of the Danish monarchy.

The laity must exercise their role as shepherds and stop behaving as sheep. They must stop acting as medieval subjects of medieval monarchs.

Priorities for Reform

Catholic reform should start with its strength. The Protestant theologian Emil Brunner said: "While the Catholic Church, drawing on centuries of tradition, possesses an impressive systematic theory of justice, Protestant Christianity has had none for some three hundred years past." Applying basic concepts of justice from the Catholic storehouse, these are the first practical issues that should be addressed.

(1) Lay control of finances:

There is no auditing of diocesan monies, no transparency, and no accountability. This is obvious when Rembert Weakland could pay $450,000.00 out of diocesan funds to someone alleging abuse, and this figure does not show in any reports. For there to be real reform in the Catholic Church, there must be lay management of all finances. The bishop should answer to an elected diocesan board, not the other way around. The rulings of this board should be deliberative, not advisory. Church dollars are sacred dollars donated by widows on fixed incomes, factory workers, children, and truck drivers. The days of bishops treating these dollars as a private cache is an immoral practice that must be ended. A lay board in Milwaukee, for example, should immediately consider the sale of the lake front seminary property. The American landscape is dotted with half empty seminaries. The seminary property is worth a fortune. It is also unjust to the Milwaukee community to keep all that prize real estate "tax free."

"Tax free" is a fiction; what it really means is tax shifting. The tax burden is shifted to other citizens, Catholic or not. The case for such a sale is all the more compelling when you realize that Catholic seminaries are discriminatory institutions like the Augusta National Golf Club where the Masters is played. In both institutions, women are barred for no just reason. Theology has long since established that, if there are to be priests in the Catholic community, they need not be male. The state has no right to give tax breaks to discriminatory institutions, thus underwriting them with public funds.

Also, and obviously to anyone who has read a newspaper in the last 18 months, the resurgent laity must demand an end to mandatory celibacy as a condition of service. It is irrational and sick. If it were suddenly required that all mathematicians and brain surgeons had to be celibate, would the mathematicians and surgeons not immediately ask: "what in the world does celibacy have to do with my work??!!" Church ministers should ask the same thing. When seminarians enter the seminary full of idealism and good will and ready to serve the church and the world, current discipline says to them: "You may do all that, but you may never fall in love. Married love would pollute your mission." What an invitation to pathology and the evidence of that pathology is overwhelmingly, sickeningly visible for all to see thanks to the Pulitzer prize worthy work of The Boston Globe. When a bishop like the new bishop of Milwaukee, Timothy Dolan, arrives at this scandal-ridden scene and responds to the crisis by launching a campaign to recruit more young people into the sickness of an enforced, not-job-related celibacy, he is part of the problem not part of the solution. Here again the people must lead because clearly the hierarchy cannot.

(2) Establishing a new Catholic, justice-based political identity:

The challenge here is to redefine what are "Catholic issues" and to do so on biblical grounds and in terms of Catholic social justice theory. The philosopher John Dewey offered a simple ethics question. He asked what we would think of the ethics of a U.S. senator who would call his broker before a major vote and ask how he should vote to best enhance his personal portfolio. Obviously such a senator is totally corrupt. Then Dewey moved forward and said that any citizen who votes for the same reason, to enhance his finances, is equally corrupt. Voting is an act of social and distributive justice, the citizen's response to the needs of the common good. It is not an act of personal acquisition. That's a tough message -- prophetically tough. It means that most citizens are totally corrupt and politicians know it and appeal to it. "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"

Let's dream of a Catholic citizenry who take this as their biblically grounded first principle: WHAT IS GOOD FOR KIDS IS GOOD AND WHAT IS BAD FOR KIDS IS UNGODLY. All foreign policy decisions, all domestic spending decisions should be judged by this criterion. This is a simple application of the Hebrew idea of the ANAWIM, a rich word meaning not just the poor, but the needy, the weak, the exploited poor. Children with their absolute dependence exemplify the poor, but there are others, e.g. African Americans whose lives are shortened and embittered by our genocidal and long tenured prejudice. When I was young in Philadelphia and they spoke of a parish as "going down," it meant that people of color were moving in and we were moving out. Blacks turned in great numbers to Islam where such prejudice is rare; they did not turn to us where such prejudice is rampant. Others such as those insulted because of their sexual orientation should be the darlings of Catholic conscience.

Imagine it: Catholics as a powerful lobby for the ANAWIM. Politicians checking their votes to see how they might affect the poor and those suffering discrimination lest they offend the Catholic voters. Now there is a dream!

In all the theories of justice I have studied, none match in heart and power the Hebrew word for justice, TSEDAQAH. (Accent on the last syllable.) The word has an Aramaic root meaning "mercy toward the poor." The goal of TSEDAQAH shows up in Deuteronomy 15:4: "There shall be no poor among you." The goal of justice in this classic theory is the absolute elimination of poverty. Our notions of justice are thin broth compared to this. Our image of justice is a blindfolded lady holding scales that perfectly balance. Isaiah, Micah, and Jesus would find this symbol hopelessly naïve. They would advise the lady to take off the blindfold and see who is fussing with the scales.

The biblical symbol of justice is more dynamic and realistic. Amos 5:23 gives it. Justice is a roaring mountain torrent, an ever-flowing stream rushing down the side of a tall mountain. I never caught the full force of this image until I spent a week in Colorado talking to Lutheran pastors. One day I climbed a mountain. As I neared one of these flowing streams I first heard the thunderous roar of the water smashing against the rocks, rocks that that water would eventually defeat. Fed by winter snows and unmelted glaciers the tonnage of water is enormous. As I neared it I could see the spume rising, and when I came closer, I stepped back defensively. It was as formidable as it was beautiful.

Now that is scripture's image of justice and it is no static statue of a blindfolded lady. First of all it is water, the prerequisite for life. Secondly it is not water at rest, but water with a mission and direction, tumbling powerfully down the mountain. One of the Lutheran pastors was trying to take a picture of his wife standing on a bridge; he slipped and fell in. Fortunately he was thrown against a large rock, where he would have spent the rest of his life if we had not been there to get a rope around him and pull him to safety.

In the biblical image, this torrent represents justice, TSEDAQAH, rushing... gobbling up everything it touches...Lutheran pastors and all...and to what end? Back to Deuteronomy 15:4. "There shall be no poor among you." Justice is a force sweeping away all the causes of poverty, cleansing the earth with the peace-bringing water of life.

If Catholicism is to be healthy it will incarnate TSEDAQAH. It will instinctively reach out to the poor and the wounded, the insulted and the weak, planting justice so that there can be peace. It will say with Judith that our God is a "God of the humble...the poor...the weak...the desperate...and the hopeless." (Jud. 9:11) When Catholicism is not recognized by dogmatism on issues that are genuinely debatable among good people, not by its unnecessary and unsuccessful insistence on celibacy for its ministers, not bit its insistence on anachronistic forms of monarch... but by the justice-love that make the church "good news to the poor" and a prime force for peace...when that happens reform will have happened and bare ruined choirs may fill and sing again.

Perhaps all of this is but a hopeless dream, and, given the stranglehold the hierarchy has on the Catholic Church, it may be. Still it is a stirring dream and, to adapt the words of the Irish poet Yeats, tread softly if you would tread upon that dream!

You can email Maguire at

Daniel Maguire is a former Jesuit and a professor of theology at Marquette University. In 1981, he was president of the Society of Christian Ethics, the largest professional society in the field, including 900 Protestant and Catholic ethicists in the United States and Canada. He has been President of The Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics since 1994. He is the author or co-author of 14 books, starting with Moral Absolutes and the Magisterium (Corpus 1970) and including most notably, Ethics for a Small Planet, co-authored in 1998 with Larry Rasmussen. Dr. Maguire has published articles in many learned journals, has contributed opinion pieces to The New York Times, Atlantic, and USA Today, and he has appeared as a commentator on all the major TV networks.