Ecclesia in America: Reform, Renewal and the Role of the Laity in a Time of Turbulence
Mary Ann Glendon gave an address at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum on the role and renewal of the Catholic laity.
Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor, was John Paul
II´s representative at the 1995 World Conference on Woman, held
in Beijing. The article appeared in First
|Mary Ann Glendon|
ROME, NOV. 4, 2002
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.
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
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.
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
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
>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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
there are plenty of people who are only too eager
to harness the giant´s strength to their own agendas.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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."
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."
Here, in Regina Apostolorum, I feel I
am in the presence of many people who have been
moved by that kind of self-sacrificing love, and inspired by
the greatest and truest story ever told. That is why,
for me personally -- as for countless other lay men
and women -- the witness of all the women and
men of Regnum Christi is a source
of enormous hope and consolation. You have put out into
the deep, and you have stayed the course even when
the seas got very rough. I thank you for that,
and I thank Our Lord for your vocations.