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How ordinary Catholics can respond to the Church’s crisis

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In times of crisis, the laity can feel powerless. But there are still practical things they can do

At risk of sounding like a scratched disc: the crisis in which the Catholic Church is embroiled at present is global, protracted, and persistent. The institutional interests driving it are also deeply entrenched. What the response of the laity ought to be in our circumstances is difficult to discern. Ultimately, there will be as many responses as there are lay people in the Church. What is certain is that we all have a role to play.

Broadly and generally, some outline of appropriate response — individual and corporate — is available: the corporal and spiritual Works of Mercy.

The suggestion sounds trite. Consider it nonetheless:

The Works of Mercy are duties to which each Christian is called by virtue of Baptism, hence they are the corporate responsibility of all the baptized faithful. As such, every Christian — including any group of Christians formed of set purpose — has eo ipso all the rights necessary and applicable to the discharge of the corresponding duties. We require neither the permission, nor the direction of bishops, when it comes to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, welcoming the stranger, visiting the imprisoned, caring for the sick, or even burying the dead (though clerics are especially useful when it comes to those last two).

Likewise, the instruction of the ignorant, counsel of the doubtful, admonishment of sinners, patience in bearing wrongs, forgiveness of offences, comfort of the afflicted, and prayer for the living and the dead, are all things to which every Christian is as such already called, and for which we are all basically prepared (though some of us have special preparation for specific kinds of work, and all of us will be better at some things than at others — and although the bishops’ exercise of it often leaves us wanting, if not consternated, they do have authority to say what the Faith of the Church is).

There are also already existing structures and enterprises of charity, independent of the bishops though animated by Christian — indeed Catholic — zeal and sense of missionary purpose, which are not only prepared to receive our time and treasure, but anxious to receive them.

If this crisis is a struggle for the soul of the Church — and it is — it is also a power struggle: too much power over too many areas of life either not proper to the mission for which the bishops’ office is given, nor directly applicable to the essential ends of their power, has been ceded to bishops with too much willingness and too little oversight over far too long a period of time.

All this will be messy, for sure — and there will be missteps — but then, if it were necessary, we have been exhorted repeatedly by the highest authority in the Church to make a mess, and not to be afraid to get ourselves dirty. If the hierarchical leadership expect the laity to “pray, pay, and obey,” then we might as well give them what they ask of us — only, they might be surprised, as often happens, when they get the things for which they asked. We are also told that ours is a God of surprises: it will be interesting to see what effect the surprise has, when the shoe is on the bishops’ other foot.

In the meantime, we can — we must — tell our bishops what we want of them: transparency, justice, genuine pastoral solicitude, basic decency. We should make it clear that we demand these things as ours of right, not as favours. We should, in short, make it clear to them that they owe us an account of themselves, and that we are no more willing to suffer goats in shepherds’ clothing than we are prepared to tolerate wolves in the same.