Peter Kwasniewski


Five ways Catholic laity can powerfully influence Church for good from within

Laity have a remarkable amount of power, and we should exercise it to the fullest.
Thu Nov 8, 2018 - 11:13 am EST
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November 8, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – Earlier this week, millions of Americans voted for their public officials. We live in a democratic age where such opportunities are taken for granted. While there are problems with certain theories of democracy (especially when it is understood in terms of the so-called “social contract”), on a practical level it is hard to dispute that the people of a nation should have some say in how their government operates and how their society is shaped. 

Things are obviously and intentionally quite different in the Catholic Church. Founded as a perfect society by Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Church is governed by a sacred hierarchy consisting of bishops and their subordinate clergy, all of whom are subject to the universal and immediate jurisdiction of the Sovereign Pontiff, the Pope of Rome. Although the laity are overwhelmingly the majority in terms of membership in the Church, their contribution to building up the Kingdom of God has always been understood to be the Christianization of the secular sphere in which they live and work. 

Thus, at one level, they have no “power” in the governance of the Church, and certainly no “vote.” How chaotic it would be if we took seriously the recommendation of liberal or progressive theologians that laity should be allowed to vote on their pastors, their bishops, their liturgies, or even Church doctrine! While it might have made sense in ancient times to elect bishops by popular acclaim, this approach has so many problems (especially when heresy has penetrated deeply into the faithful) that we are better off without it—at least at this time in history.

But on another level, laity have a remarkable amount of power, and we should exercise it to the fullest. We can, so to speak, vote in five ways. I shall rank them here from the least to the most important.

First, we vote with our wallets. Having seen the doctrinally questionable and morally corrupt uses to which diocesan money is put, Catholics are having the understandable reaction of keeping their wallets bolted shut against “diocesan appeals” and the like. Do I want my money to go into huge pay-offs for legal damages? Into dubious catechesis, out-of-date “hipster” youth programs, episcopal residences, or wonky liturgies? Into support for clergy who are not actually providing the faithful with the traditional Catholicism they desperately need and desire? No thanks, we will keep our money—and spend it only on good causes. This may include, of course, a good bishop or a good local parish, but we no longer assume that it deserves our support. Support now must be earned, every penny of it.

Second, we vote with our feet. If the local parish is not providing for our spiritual needs, then, to the extent a better option is available within some reasonable distance, we go there. The reason is simple. The great saints explain that our first obligation after loving God is to love our own souls by becoming holy. Therefore, we must never put the (real or purported) good of someone else ahead of the nourishment we need to live the Christian life and to worship God as He deserves to be worshiped. In this way, as can be seen everywhere, good parishes grow stronger, and bad parishes grow weaker. It is a sort of ironic exhibit of the principle of the survival of the fittest. Lay Catholics have no obligation to allow themselves to be liturgically malnourished, pastorally mistreated, musically abused, or in any other way given the short end of the stick. If this is happening to you, please, for the love of God and the good of your soul, go elsewhere.

Third, we vote with our voices. A lay-run initiative like LifeSite—to take a notable example—has made a huge difference in the Catholic Church in recent decades. Writers have been willing to stick their necks out and say: “Enough is enough.” They have exposed the darkness of cowardice, heresy, and turpitude with a brightly shining spotlight. Many other magazines, websites, petitions, and open letters have been doing the same, with a “game-changing” relentlessness. Bad bishops, bad cardinals, and bad popes cannot hide their machinations any more. Why is this important? It creates a network of well-informed Catholics who will know whom to support or oppose, which programs to adopt or critique, and, in general, how to navigate the extremely complicated and chaotic situation of Church life after Vatican II. It inspires new efforts, informs strategies, encourages the lonely and downtrodden, and best of all, strengthens genuinely Catholic clergy with the knowledge that they are riding the crest of a growing wave. 

Without this chorus of orthodox voices and blazing spotlights, our Church would be even more deeply morassed in stagnant vice. We cannot change things overnight but we can document, analyze, clarify, network, move forward with open eyes and ready hands. Included in this category are letters written by the faithful to their shepherds—which ought to be polite and respectful in tone, of course, but no less forceful for that. It is a work of charity to speak hard truths to those who need to hear them, and to make legitimate demands of those who are entrusted with our welfare.

Fourth, we vote with our protests. A public protest is, in a way, a super-concentrated form of using one’s voice. What I have in mind is something like the “Silence Stops Now” rally that will take place in Baltimore in connection with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ plenary meeting on November 13–14. We all know that some protests are moronic and have no effect, but history also shows protests that have brought about significant change, as with the civil rights movement. If a large number of Catholics descend on the USCCB meeting, at least the bishops will be reminded of how angry the faithful are, and how tired of being put off with the usual flabby-authoritarian response: “We’re very sorry. We will devise new policies and procedures. You just have to trust us. And please… don’t hurt us!” Laity are thoroughly sick of self-indulgent bureucratic posturing. History remembers those who protest injustice, and whether they were successful or not, they stood for the truth at the right time. This is not fruitless as a form of evangelical witness.

Fifth, we vote with our prayers. In our worldly, unconverted mentality we think of prayer as the weakest and last resort, when in reality it is the most powerful, for the simple reason that God is all-powerful and can move human hearts directly from within, which is not something any one of us can do. You can try to persuade someone to be reasonable, but God can make him reasonable. You can try to get him to see the beauty of the Faith, but God can make him fall in love with it. God is on the side of Catholics who love the Lord, His Mother, the saints and angels, and traditional dogma, morals, and liturgy, since He gave us all these good things. He is expecting us, then, to redouble our prayers and penances, as a sign that we really believe He is the source of all good, the one who can restore to us what is lost, repair what is broken, scourge what is evil, and magnify what is holy. 

I like to think of prayer this way: How badly do we want something? If we want it a little bit, we’ll work for it on our own; if we want it more keenly, we’ll get someone else’s help; if we’re smarter, we’ll add a quick prayer to God; but if we want it a lot, we’ll pray and sacrifice in a serious way to get it. God looks at our prayers to see what actually matters to us. Will we be like St. Monica, who prayed for many years for the conversion of her son St. Augustine? Will we be like the Catholics from the 1960s onward who never stopped praying and working for the restoration of the traditional liturgy, in spite of everyone telling them to quit and move on? 

God will answer the prayers of those who put their trust in Him and beg Him to intervene. But He will do so in response to persevering prayer, because it demonstrates that we are more attached to Him than to quick results. He permits delays and setbacks to test our faith and to make it stronger—indeed, unconquerable. As long as there are loyal friends of Christ, the evil in the Church will never have the final word. In this way, the laity cast a “vote” that has God’s own power behind it.

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