Mary Ann Glendon on the Reform of Lay Catholics

Where They Took a Wrong Turn -- and Where There's Hope

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ROME, NOV. 4, 2002 (Zenit.org).- Mary Ann Glendon gave an address today at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum on the role and renewal of the Catholic laity. Glendon, a Harvard law professor, was John Paul II's representative at the 1995 World Conference on Woman, held in Beijing. The text below was adapted for ZENIT.



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Ecclesia in America:
Reform, Renewal and the Role of the Laity in a Time of Turbulence
By Mary Ann Glendon

I'm grateful for the opportunity to share with you some reflections on the current state of the Church in the United States -- from the perspective of a layperson who also happens to be a lawyer.

As I am sure you recognize, I have taken the title of this talk, from the apostolic exhortation issued after the 1997 Synod for America. I had the privilege of attending that synod, and I can tell you that, although the discussion ranged over a vast number of topics, no one anticipated the turmoil that would rock the Church in the United States in 2002. Nor did anyone foresee the sudden rise of so many lay movements intent on restructuring (to use their word) the internal life of the Church.

More than once over the past several months I have found myself wishing that more lay people had read "Ecclesia in America" -- for truly it is a document with a powerful message for the laity. Basically, Pope John Paul II tells us that if the Church is to evangelize the culture, the laity are the ones who are going to have to take the lead.

The laity are the ones with primary responsibility to bring Christ to the various sectors of family, social, professional, cultural and political life -- because we are the ones who are present in those sectors. The Holy Father says, "America needs lay Christians able to assume positions of leadership in society. It is urgent to train men and women who, in keeping with their vocations, can influence public life and direct it to the common good."

That's quite a challenge. In a sense, the time has never been better for Catholics in the United States to take up that challenge. There are nearly 64 million of us -- almost a fifth of the U.S. population. And Catholics have arrived -- they have gained enormous influence in social, professional, cultural and political life. One would think that ought to be enough leaven to raise the social loaf!

But the fact is that the message to the laity in "Ecclesia in America" -- like many similar messages over the years -- seems to have had difficulty getting through. So, with the recent upsurge in lay activity, this seems like a good time to ponder what has happened to the way North American Catholics understand the lay vocation.

As I was puzzling over that problem, I was reminded of an unusual novel from another part of the American Hemisphere. Mario Vargas Llosa's book, "The Storyteller," is about the fate of a nomadic tribe of rainforest-dwellers who are confronted with modernity. The tribe is known to outsiders as the Machiguengas, but they call themselves the people-who-walk. The stories and traditions of the people-who-walk have been handed down for centuries by "habladors" -- storytellers. These stories helped the tribe to maintain its identity -- to keep on walking, no matter what -- through many changes and crises.

But as the rainforest gave way to agriculture and industry, the Machiguengas were forced into towns and cities. What kept them bound together in their scattered state were their traveling storytellers -- who went from town to town keeping the Machiguengas in touch with each other and their ancestors. But now anthropologists say that the storytellers have died out, and their stories survive only as charming folk tales. The narrator, however, suspects otherwise, and the drama of the novel comes from his effort to find out whether it is really true that a mysterious red-haired stranger has become the "hablador" of the Machiguengas so that they will not lose their stories and their sense of who they are.

Now I want to make two suggestions about the relevance of that story to the Church in the United States. First, I ask you to consider that about 50 years ago, American Catholics and their storytellers entered a situation that was every bit as much of a diaspora as that of the Machiguengas after their habitat was destroyed.

Secondly, I'd like to suggest that the problem of how a dispersed people remembers who it is and what constitutes it as a people -- lies at the heart of the challenges confronting the ecclesia in America. (Ecclesia, as you know, means, at its root, a people called together.) We Catholics are constituted as a people by the story of the world's salvation, and part of that story is that we are called to witness -- and to keep on witnessing no matter what, in and out of season.

To explain what I mean about the diaspora situation -- and to provide a historical context for my discussion of the events of 2002 -- I'm going to take a few minutes to remind you of how things were for most of our ancestors before Catholics became so comfortable in the United States as they are today.

We often hear that the United States was founded by people seeking religious freedom. But that's not quite true. The dissenting Protestant settlers were interested in religious freedom for themselves, but they viciously persecuted those who disagreed with them.

Indeed, when the Reverend Cotton Mather wrote out for posterity the reasons why the Pilgrims founded the New England colony, the first one he listed was this: to carry the Gospel into those parts of the world, and to raise a bulwark against the kingdom of Antichrist, which the Jesuits labor to rear up in all parts of the world.

From the very beginning, the first Catholic settlers found themselves strangers in a strange land. At the time of the Founding, several states even had established Protestant churches (the First Amendment was originally thought only to ban the establishment of a national church).

Congregationalism, for example, was the official religion of Massachusetts until 1833. Now when Catholic immigrants began arriving in great numbers, that Puritan anti-Catholicism fused with nativism and erupted into violence. In 1834, an angry mob in Boston burned an Ursuline convent to the ground while police and firemen stood by and watched.

The national best seller in 1836 was a book purporting to be the true-life confessions of an ex-nun -- it contained sensational revelations of sexual misconduct by Catholic nuns and priests. This book, "The Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery by Maria Monk," was a complete fabrication, but it sold 300,000 copies and helped to inflame anti-Catholic passions. The following year, 1837, arsonists destroyed most of Boston's Irish quarter, and similar atrocities were repeated across the country.

But the immigrants kept pouring in -- from Ireland, Italy, Germany, Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. And by the turn of the century, the Roman Catholic Church was the country's largest and fastest growing religious group, with 12 million adherents.

Faced with exclusion and discrimination, those immigrant Catholics adopted a strategy of building a kind of parallel universe. They built their own separate set of primary and high schools, hospitals and colleges. They formed countless fraternal, social, charitable and professional organizations -- Catholic lawyers, Catholic doctors, Catholic labor guilds. In historian Charles Morris' words, they constructed a virtual state-within-a-state so that many Catholics could live almost their entire lives within a thick cocoon of Catholic institutions.

And they became masters of politics -- at the state and local levels. But when the Catholic governor of New York, Al Smith, ran for president in 1928, virulent anti-Catholicism broke out again. His resounding defeat reinforced the Catholic sense of separateness. Interestingly, however, that period -- when Catholics were most separate -- was the time when they were most active and effective -- as Catholics -- in the spheres they inhabited.

It was Catholic trade unionists who were instrumental in curbing Communist influence in the labor movement, and it was Catholics who made the Democratic Party in the urban North into the party of the neighborhood, the family and working people.

Those years -- the 1930s, '40s and '50s -- were also a time when the people-called-together were blessed with an abundance of storytellers. In parochial schools, in their neighborhoods and parishes, and around their kitchen tables, Catholics were constantly reminded of who they were, where they came from, and what their mission was in the world.

But as St. Paul told the Corinthians, the world as we know it is always passing away. And as Catholics climbed up the economic and social ladder, they left the old neighborhoods for the suburbs. Parents began sending their children to public schools and to non-Catholic colleges. Geographic and social mobility shrank Catholic communities of memory and mutual aid as relentlessly as agriculture and industry pushed back the rainforest of the Machiguengas. By the 1960s, the nation-within-a-nation had dissolved, and the people-called-together were embarked on what Morris describes in his history as "the dangerous project of severing the connection between their Catholic religion and the separatist culture that had always been the source of its dynamism, its appeal and its power."

That transition was symbolized by the election to the presidency of a highly assimilated Catholic, John F. Kennedy, who swore he would not let his faith affect his public service, and who outdid many Protestants in the vigor of his denunciation of public aid to parochial schools. The lesson of the 1960 election to ambitious sons and daughters of immigrants was that all doors could be open to them so long as they were not too Catholic.

That's how it looks with hindsight. But as one of those who voted for JFK in 1960, I can assure you that it did not occur to most of us at the time that we were involved in a dangerous project. We just thought it was great that the nation had elected a Catholic president.

But the Church's leaders were thinking about the challenges that she would face in the modern, increasingly secular, world. It was just two years after Kennedy became president that the Second Vatican Council was convened. The council fathers, as you know, sent strongly worded messages to lay men and women, reminding us of our baptismal vocation to evangelization, and that wherever we find ourselves, we must strive to consecrate the world itself to God.

But events were already under way in the United States and other affluent countries that made it hard for those messages to get through: The 1960s marked the beginning of a breakdown in sexual mores and a rise in family disruption, accompanied by a culture of dissent as many tried to rationalize their departures from moral norms. The developed nations were engaged in a massive social experiment, for which neither the Church nor the societies in question were prepared.

But of course we didn't see it that way back then. So much of what was happening was linked to genuine progress -- discrimination against African-Americans and women was coming to an end, and things were getting better for Catholics, materially speaking, in those days. We hardly noticed that many of us Catholics were developing a kind of schizophrenia -- putting our spiritual lives in one compartment and our daily activities in the world of work in another. We hardly noticed how many Catholics were beginning to treat their religion as an entirely private matter, and to adopt a pick-and-choose approach to doctrine.

Sad to say, many of our "habladors" -- theologians, religious educators and clergy -- succumbed to the same temptations. In that context, it was not only hard for the strong demands of Vatican II to be heard; the messages that did get through were often scrambled. In an important sense, all the most divisive controversies of the post-conciliar years have been about how far Catholics can go in adapting to American culture while remaining Catholic.

Meanwhile, Protestant culture was changing too. Liberal mainstream Protestantism was becoming more secular, but certain cultural elements of Protestantism remained as strong or stronger than ever: radical individualism; intolerance for dissent -- redirected toward dissent from the secular dogmas that have replaced Christianity in the belief systems of many; and of course an abiding hostility to Catholicism (now seen less as the Antichrist, and more as the most powerful voice in opposition to abortion, aggressive population control, and to draconian measures against migrants and the poor).

For the upwardly mobile Catholic, assimilation into that culture thus meant turning a blind eye to anti-Catholicism to a degree that most of us have not yet fully recognized or admitted. Father Andrew Greeley, with his sociologist's hat on, found in the 1970s that "Of all the minority groups in this country, Catholics are the least conscious of the persistent and systematic discrimination against them in the upper reaches of the corporate and intellectual worlds."

Father Greeley was right. I regret to say that I can cite my own case in point. In the 1970s, when I was teaching at Boston College Law School, someone took down all the crucifixes from the walls one summer. Though the majority of the faculty at that time was Catholic, not one of us entered a protest. When I told my husband, who is Jewish but very pro-Catholic, he was astonished. He said, "What's the matter with you Catholics? There would be an uproar if anyone did something like that at a Jewish school. Why do Catholics put up with that kind of thing?"

That was a kind of turning point for me. I began to wonder: Why do we Catholics put up with that sort of thing? Why did we get so careless about the faith for which our ancestors made so many sacrifices?

In many cases, the answer, no doubt, lies simply in the desire to be accepted. But for most Catholics of the American diaspora, I believe the problem is deeper: the people-called-together seem to be finding it increasingly hard to say what they believe and why they believe it. They seem to be losing their sense of who they are and what they are called to do.

And they seem to have lost a lot of mail as well. At least, it's hard to figure out what happened to all those letters that have been sent from Rome to the lay faithful over the years; letters imploring us to be more active as Catholics in society; letters insisting that lay people are supposed to take the lead in transforming the culture. It's no wonder that John Paul II so often refers to the laity as a sleeping giant.

This brings me to the events of 2002. The giant must have been sleeping the deep sleep of an adolescent, but now that he is stirring, it's beginning to look as though he has the faith IQ of a pre-adolescent.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of people who are only too eager to harness the giant's strength to their own agendas.

In recent months, we have heard many voices purporting to speak for the laity -- voices calling for structural reform, for lay empowerment, and for more lay participation in the Church's internal decision-making. Dr. Scott Appleby, for example, told the American bishops in Dallas that the future of the Church in this country depends on your sharing authority with the laity. We have also heard much talk about the need for a more independent, more American, Catholic Church. Let Rome be Rome, said Dr. Appleby.

Then there is Governor Frank Keating, the head of the bishops' National Review Board, who with a remarkable lack of prudence proclaimed at his first press conference that Martin Luther was right about the role of the laity! And in my own city, Boston, a group calling itself Voice of the Faithful states as its mission: to seek ways through which the faithful can actively participate in the governance and guidance of the Catholic Church. One leader of that group boasted to the press that his organization, essentially composed of middle-aged Boston suburbanites, speaks for all 64 million Catholics in the United States.

Now I need to say that it is understandable that many well-intentioned lay persons have been drawn into these movements. Many Catholics are deeply concerned about recent revelations of clerical sexual abuse; they want to do something about it, and they are grasping the slogans that are in the air.

But slogans about structural reform and power sharing did not come from nowhere. They are the catchwords of what I call the generation of failed theories -- theories about politics, economics and human sexuality that can now be seen to have taken a terrible human toll wherever they were put into practice. The die-hards who still cling to those ideas have seized on the crisis of 2002 as their last opportunity to transform American Catholicism into something more compatible with the spirit of the age of their youth.

Though these people often invoke Vatican II, there is nary a sign, so far as I can see, that they have a sense of the lay vocation as outlined in the documents of Vatican II. I contrast those omissions with a speech by the late Cardinal Basil Hume -- hardly a reactionary in Church matters -- to the reform-minded Common Ground Initiative.

Warning that group against the danger of concentrating too much on the life within the Church, Cardinal Hume said, "I suspect that it is a trick of the devil to divert good people from the task of evangelization by embroiling them in endless controversial issues to the neglect of the Church's essential role, which is mission."

By leaving mission out of the picture, many lay spokespersons are promoting some pretty basic misunderstandings: that the best way for the laity to be active is in terms of ecclesial governance; that the Church and her structures are to be equated with public agencies or private corporations; that she and her ministers are to be regarded with mistrust; and that she stands in need of supervision by secular reformers. (Such attitudes are going to make it very difficult for the Church to move forward through the present crisis without compromising either her teachings or her constitutionally protected freedom to carry out her mission.)

Now, one would think that before one can prescribe remedies for a problem, one must have a clear idea of what the problem is. Here I must part company with many of my fellow Catholics who have profusely thanked the media for bringing a serious problem to public attention. I could not disagree more. The fact that confusion reigns among the laity about what is to be done is due to the fact that the only narrative available to them -- as they struggled to understand what was going on -- was supplied by media accounts that were false in several crucial respects, of which I will name three:

First: For months, the media played the story as though sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests was breaking news, something that was happening right now. Later, they began to dribble out the information that nearly all the reported cases took place long ago -- in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. Was it really news that a tiny minority of Catholic priests succumbed to the general sexual bacchanalia of those years? Yet, these old stories of clerical sexual abuse were the second most heavily reported story of 2002, second only to the war against terrorism.

Second: falsehood. For months, the press created a climate of hysteria by describing the story as a pedophilia crisis, when in fact only a tiny minority of the reported cases involved pedophiles -- abusers of pre-pubescent children -- as distinct from homosexual relations with teen-aged boys.

Third: For months, and to this day, the media has singled out the Catholic Church as a special locus of sexual abuse of minors, whereas all the studies indicate that the incidence of these types of misconduct is actually lower among Catholic priests than among other groups who have access to young children.

I think you can see why I thought it relevant to recall "The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk." The worst offender by far has been the Boston Globe which ran 250 stories in 100 days -- many on its front page -- creating a climate of hysteria the likes of which has not been seen in Boston since the Ursuline convent was burnt down.

I often hear it said that the Globe will receive a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on this matter. All I can say is that if fairness and accuracy have anything to do with it, awarding the Pulitzer Prize to the Boston Globe would be like giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Osama bin Laden.

But here is the question: If the crisis of 2002 is not about rampant, ongoing sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests, what is it about? For nearly everyone admits that the Ecclesia in America is in some sort of crisis.

Some say it is a crisis of leadership -- they point the finger at bishops who settled these old cases, signed confidentiality agreements, and sometimes reassigned abusive priests who had been pronounced cured of their disorders. In these matters, if some bishops relied too heavily on advice from psychologists and lawyers many years ago, the media today has relied too uncritically on the contingent-fee lawyers whose main aim is to extract money from what are perceived to be the deep pockets of the Church.

Father Richard Neuhaus' diagnosis of the current problem is closer to the mark, I believe, when he says that the crisis of 2002 is threefold: fidelity, fidelity and fidelity. But, perhaps because I'm a teacher, it seems to me that the problem is not so much fidelity as it is formation, formation and formation (formation of our theologians, formation of our religious educators, and thus formation of parents).

Far too many theologians in the United States have emerged from nondenominational divinity schools with prestigious degrees, but little grounding in their own tradition. Far too many of our religious education materials have been authored by, and infused with the disappointments of, former priests and sisters. And that has left far too many of us parents poorly equipped to contend with powerful competitors for the souls of our children --the aggressively secular government schools and an entertainment industry that delights in debasing everything Catholic.

Can anything good come out of this confusion and turmoil? Even though I'm from Boston, I believe so. I was heartened to read in the Boston Globe recently that some members of Voice of the Faithful are forming study groups to read Church documents. Instead of just invoking the spirit of Vatican II, they are actually going to read the texts of Vatican II.

Now let's suppose, just suppose, that the members of these lay study groups will take to heart what they read -- that they will be moved to embrace the callings that are theirs in baptism: What an awakening that would be for the sleeping giant! As the Holy Father likes to tell young people: "If you are what you should be -- that is, if you live Christianity without compromise -- you will set the world ablaze!"

But as a teacher, I still can't help worrying. How can we live our faith without compromise, if we don't know our faith? And how many of us lay people have spent even as much time deepening our knowledge of the faith as we have on learning to use computers? I confess I can't help wishing when I read that we are supposed to "put out into the deep," that the Holy Father had added a note to the effect that: "Be not afraid" doesn't mean "Be not prepared."

It seems to me, in other words, that the call to put out into the deep brings us right back to the problem of formation. When Our Lord told the apostles to put out into the deep, he didn't expect them to set out in leaky boats.

In a society like ours, if religious education does not come up to the general level of secular education, our boats are going to start sinking. We are going to run into trouble defending our beliefs -- even to ourselves. We are going to feel helpless when we come up against the secularism and relativism that are so pervasive in our culture.

It is ironic, given our long and distinguished intellectual tradition, that so many Catholics feel unable to respond even to the most simplistic forms of secular fundamentalism. Isn't it supposed to be one of the glories of our faith that we can give reasons for the moral positions we hold -- reasons that are accessible to all men and women of good will, of other faiths or of no faith? St. Thomas Aquinas thought so. He wrote: "Instruct those who are listening so that they will be brought to an understanding of the truth envisaged. ... [R]ely on arguments which ... make people know how what is said is true; otherwise, if the Master decides a question simply by using sheer authorities, the hearer will ... acquire no knowledge or understanding and will go away empty."

St. Thomas' approach inspired Bartolomeo de las Casas, the Dominican missionary who denounced slavery and proclaimed the full humanity of aboriginal peoples in the 16th century, without direct reliance on Revelation. And Princeton's Robert George does the same today, in his philosophical defense of human life from conception to natural death.

Recently, Dr. John Haas, the president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, met with a scientist who had cloned a human embryo. In the course of that meeting, the scientist said he had been raised an evangelical Protestant, but that at a certain point, he had to make a choice between religion and science. Dr. Haas' response was, "But you didn't have to choose," and, like the good evangelist that he is, he began to explain. A meeting that was supposed to last 30 minutes went on for hours.

Pope John Paul II urges us to emulate such examples when he says in "Novo Millennio Ineunte": "For Christian witness to be effective, especially in ... delicate and controversial areas, it is important that special effort be made to explain properly the reasons for the Church's position, stressing that this is not a case of imposing on nonbelievers a vision based on faith, but of interpreting and defending the values rooted in the very nature of the human person."

The only point I wish to make here is that we urgently need to renew the intellectual apostolate. The importance of that task has been brought home to me very concretely in the course of serving over the past year on the National Bioethics Council. Over the past several months -- in discussions of cloning, stem-cell research and genetic engineering -- I've seen not only how necessary it is for theologians and philosophers to keep up with advances in natural science, but also how much the natural sciences need the human sciences -- for natural science on its own simply cannot generate the wisdom it needs in order to progress without doing harm.

Now you might be wondering why, in spite of all these challenges and problems, I remain convinced that we may be moving into a season of authentic reform and renewal. One thing that I find helpful is to think of evangelization as, to a great extent, a matter of shifting probabilities. From that point of view, there are a number of developments under way that seem to me to be shifting the probabilities in a better direction.

One is the upsurge around the world of lay associations, formation programs and ecclesial movements that think and feel with the Church. In this age of great geographical mobility -- in what I have called the Catholic diaspora -- the lay organizations supply many of the needs for formation and fellowship that were once met by parishes. They keep the people-called-together in touch with one another and with their tradition.

One of the joys I have experienced in serving on the Pontifical Council for the Laity has been to become more aware of these groups and of the variety of their charisms. What a contrast between these vibrant groups that work in harmony with the Church and the lay organizations of 2002 that define their aims in terms of power!

Another potential source of renewal for the Church in the United States is represented by the influx of Catholics from Central and South America and the Caribbean. They bring with them something precious from Catholic cultures, a more integrated way of looking at the human person and society.

For example, in the spring of 2002, while members of Voice of the Faithful were debating about Church finances and governance, Boston's Latino Catholics were holding prayer vigils to affirm the solidarity of all the members of the mystical body of Christ -- men and women, rich and poor, clergy and laity, and, yes, victims and abusers.

And perhaps the most promising sign of all is the ever-expanding generation of unapologetically Catholic young people who have been inspired by the heroic vision of John Paul II. Some of these young people, please God, will be called to religious life. Others will embrace their lay vocations with enthusiasm. Together -- priests, laity and consecrated -- they may indeed "set the world ablaze."

Finally, one of the great blessings of having a papacy and a magisterium is that they help to assure that the story of the people called together will be preserved, even in the most trying times.

Now I am nearing the end of these remarks, and some of you may be curious to know what finally happened to the dispersed Machiguengas. In Vargas Llosa's tale, an outsider comes to live among them, a man who loves the people-who-walk and their stories so much that he becomes their "hablador." He travels from family to family, bringing news from one place to the next, "reminding each member of the tribe that the others are alive, that despite the great distances that separate them, they still form a community, share a tradition and beliefs, ancestors, misfortunes and joys."