Power to the People?

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 B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.