The Catholic Thing
Power to the People? Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Wednesday, 26 October 2011

A good friend, who is on the national Board of Directors (for lack of a better term) of a major American religious denomination and a deacon in his church, told me recently “I’m just about fed up with the institutional church. . . .My wife has stopped going, and as soon as my term is up, I’m done.”  “What’s wrong? Is this a crisis of faith?”  “No, it’s just the institutional stuff that turns me off.”

That same day I happened to be walking by the magazine rack and saw this headline on the front cover of The Tablet:  “Power and Perversity: Una Kroll was one of the first Anglican women priests. She explains why she gave up ministry to become a Catholic.” I’ve been around enough people in Catholic “ministry” for long enough to raise a questioning eyebrow at the unstated premise of that headline:  that to resign from the Anglican priesthood to become a Catholic is to give up on “ministry.” But let’s allow that to pass for now. 

Dr. Kroll’s Tablet article circled around a distinction she repeats over and over and over (and over) between auctoritas and potestas – something she picked up in a graduate theology class, no doubt, and that has become an idée fixe for her ever since. She explains that God gave her “a direct push” to conversion that she could not resist during the 2008 Lambeth Conference, when she realized that there was a desire “for increased hierarchical power (potestas) among many bishops in the Anglican communion.” 

She was shocked – shocked – to discover that, “Some wanted uniformity of belief in the Communion.” She had hoped that the ordination of women “would lead to changes in a male-led institution that might be beneficial to Church and State alike.” And she also hoped that “ordained and lay ministries would become more collaborative.” It was a disappointment to discover, however, that “some women priests have been drawn into male patterns of domination — that is potestas, not auctoritas.” 

I’m not entirely clear on what these terms mean for her, but I’m fairly certain I have neither one in my home. Thus “after the Lambeth Conference,” writes Dr. Kroll, “I realized that God was calling me to exercise a servant ministry rather than a managerial one.” Well, God bless her, I say. I wish her nothing but the best as a Catholic, if that’s really what she wants to be.

What both stories should remind us of, however (which would be sort of absurd to forget), is that Protestants have problems with hierarchy too. Problems with authority (or potestas if you prefer) don’t just go away when you get rid of the pope and make bishops into a feckless group of powerless bureaucrats. People in the pews still fight and struggle. They still get disgusted with the “institutional church.”  They still want things done “their way or the highway.”

Indeed, the history of Protestantism ever since Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli should have proven once and for all that factions and schisms don’t stop at one. They propagate innumerable children, who propagate children of their own, and on and on, until we’ve fully realized John Milton’s vision:  “every man a church unto himself.”

      Luther et alia: Every man a church unto himself?

And yet, from the sound of things coming from groups like the Austrian Priests Initiative and certain other similar groups in the United States, one would think that all we have to do is to get the “hierarchy” out of the way, and then “the people” – the blessed laity – will be duly “empowered” to participate in collaborative ministry.


I’ve had a slightly different experience. I grew up Protestant and am an adult Catholic convert. So when Catholics want to make the Church more “Protestant” in character, my first reaction is:  “Hey guys, I just came from there!  I don’t think you want to go down that road.”

And secondly, I’ve been in too many Catholic parishes that decided to incorporate a “collaborative” vision of “ministry” to trust entirely the notion that the laity are now going to be in charge. What tends to happen in many such parishes (though not all) is that you find yourself inside an angry beehive of warring factions made up of mid-level bureaucrats fighting over turf. 

“The laity” aren’t in charge in such parishes; a few middle-aged boomers with a couple of graduate courses in Theology or Religious Studies under their belts are in charge. And God help us, are they ever in charge! There’s an old joke that goes:  “What’s the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? Answer:  You can negotiate with a terrorist.”

So when these “Priests’ Initiatives” advertize themselves as being in favor of “opening up the Church to the laity,” I admit to grave doubts. Most people I know are busy:  working two jobs, raising their kids, driving their kids all over town, helping out in their neighborhoods – in general, handling their domestic and civic responsibilities. They have to work

When people then ask them to “give back to the community” and “volunteer for ministry,” I wonder:  “Aren’t they doing that already?” Most serious Catholics I know just don’t have the time or the inclination to get involved in parish politics. 

Right now, a few vocal people are unhappy with the hierarchy. If the mid-level bureaucrats who want more power get it, we’ll all be more unhappy. There is a general rule-of-thumb that says, most of the people who want to be in charge probably shouldn’t be.

If the Church should be about service rather than power, then let these disgruntled priests and parishioners do what Dr. Una Kroll did (to her credit) and resign from all positions of power and go serve. God bless them if they do. God help us if they don’t.

Randall Smith is associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston.

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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by rtjl, October 26, 2011
Man. Does this hit the nail on the head. Clericalism is alive and well but oddly enough not practiced by the clergy so much any more. Under the new clericalism the iron fist is wielded by all the new lay liturgical and theological experts who have attended a few weekend workshops and now know the 'one true' way to conduct just about any ministry.
Those who speak the loudest about collaboration are usually the least collaborative to work with: they usually just want a vehicle for getting their own way. Those who advocate for diversity and call for "unity in diversity" are usually just using that as a wedge in order to get others to conform to their agenda. Those who plead the loudest for tolerance are seldom tolerant with those who disagree with them.
Actions speak louder than words. If you want collaboration, tolerance and mutual respect, work with those who have a demonstrated an ability and willingness to behave accordingly, not with someone who is always flapping their gums about them.
Incidentally, contrary to what many seem to think, collaboration, tolerance and respect for diversity are not uniquely liberal values. They can be exercised by conservatives every bit as effectively as liberals and often are. This is because these things are actually virtues, not political values. As such they are practiced by virtuous people, whether liberal or conservative, rather than by ideologues.
written by Manfred, October 26, 2011
@Randy. All of these issues were resolved at the Council of Trent and Vatican I. ALL of them. The Lambeth Conference of 2008? If Dr. Kroll had read on Lambeth, 1930, she would have left Anglicanism then for it was at that conference that the Anglicans agreed on permitting CONTRACEPTION in certain situations-the first time a "christian church?" permitted this. This triggered Pope Pius XI's CASTI CONNUBII in 1931 condemning contraceptive use. The True Church is constantly warring with these man-made religions both in and out of Catholicism. All of this is really a tiresome mess.
written by Louise, October 26, 2011
"God bless them if they do. God help us if they don’t."

It's slightly off the mark, but these two sentences brought to mind something that C.S. Lewis said, probably in the Screwtape Letters:

"Seen on a tombstone:
'Here lies Mary Smith. She was always helping others. Now she is at peace and so are they.' "
written by Chris in Maryland, October 26, 2011
AMEN to Randall Smith and to "rtjl".

The rhetoric of the Austrian Priest Initiative, the anti-Papal AMCHURCH network, and provacateurs like "The Tablet" is completely bound up in the seduction of politics and the relentless pursuit of power; it is adololescent, shameful, and the very definition of NOT IMITATING CHRIST.

One of the serious dysfunctions in our current society is a big deficit in the virtue of humility. I observe Joseph Ratizinger, our good Pontiff, a man who stands in such great contrast to the amplified mediocrity of the media and the blogoshere (both secular and "Catholic"), a man who combines supreme intellect, courage, patience, preaching and loving kindness toward others, and he is a lightning rod of the secular and "Catholic" mediocracy, because the difference is, he knows he is the servant of all, and they covet his position, because they mistakenly construe the papacy as a token of the power the so hungrily crave.

This is what happens to people, parishes and instiutions in The Church who are so porous to the "culture of self-actualization" that they forget the sensibility of self-sacrifice, which is the command of Christ, and instead demand "satisfaction."

God save the Church from those who refuse to imitate the wisdom and gentleness of Christ the way Benedict does.
written by Other Joe, October 26, 2011
Where two or more are gathered - there is politics.
The great weakness of the protestant worldview is that it depends on an individual's interpretation (opinion) and all individuals are fallen. Truth in such a worldview is by definition subjective and the number of denominations spun off is only limited by the energy and free time of opinionated and fallen individuals. One cannot be empowered in respect to the truth. The terms have no meaning in the context. One may follow the truth and be obedient to the truth as it is revealed and understood by fallen creatures (always imperfectly) but the individual is not in a power position in respect to it. When a man or woman (however bright and educated) assumes a theological position above and beyond the Church instituted by Christ, what follows is man-centered rather than Christ (God) centered. It is similar to Lucifer's choice and fails to take note of an important truth that even popes need confession because all fallen creatures are sinful. St. Peter denied Christ. Judas sold him out. It didn't cause the rest of the apostles to deny the validity of apostleship and reach out to empower pagans.
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., October 26, 2011
Bravo, Manfred! You know we arre in trouble when these characters respond the accusation that they are neoprotestants with, "What's wrong with that?" and lecture on why the Church now admits that Luther was right. Yeah, he was right that the Holy Sacifice of the Mass is a greater abomination than murder or adultery. Is there still any sane person who doesn't think that this whole thing was planned and must be brought to a halt?
written by Achilles, October 26, 2011
Thank you professor Smith for an excellent essay!
Chris, we are of one mind and one heart, well stated! I love your statement "amplified mediocrity" it has huge explanatory power in today's ethos. Keep up the good fight brother, Achilles
written by jason taylor, October 26, 2011
Christian unity does not mean "being part of the same bureaucratic system." If all Christians took orders from Rome they would still disagree with each other. I have plenty of respect for my Catholic brothers and sisters but they seem to have a weakness for thinking that "schism" means "not accepting the Pope's jurisdiction"

Schism is regretable but dishonesty more so. If a Protestant were to accept the Catholic doctrine in his mouth while disagreeing in his heart he would have commited a sin far worse then Schism.

The Church has never been "unified". It won't be unified until The End.
written by Achilles, October 26, 2011
How can a protestant agree in any sense with Catholic Doctrine? The Catholic Church is about assent, not protesting. Your two choices are the city of man or the City of God.

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