The Church’s Future Is in Laity’s Hands

The other day, a couple of middle-aged male blowhards who insist on referring to themselves as “Beltway boys” were spouting hot air about the Catholic Church. Life being far too precious to spend time in such company, I can’t say I know much about these bellowing fellows. But I’ve been fascinated, in a car-wreck kind of way, to hear Beltway boys, and their female equivalents, yammering on about a religious institution instead of analyzing the latest Presidential approval ratings or the political implications of some horrific human catastrophe.

The consensus in Cableland and Op-Edville is that the Catholic Church is in big trouble and its leaders need to speak in better sound bites, lest their message be deemed opaque. This is all fine and good for the punditry class, which will move on to the next story whenever it comes along. But out yonder in a place called reality, the Catholic Church’s future isn’t being decided by the stars of this story, those aging cardinals dressed in scarlet. Nor, for that matter, is it being decided by embittered Catholics with books to peddle and buzz to create. It’s being decided on a parish level, by pastors who have earned the laity’s trust, and by lay people who may have scant regard for the church’s hierarchy, but who continue to revere the institution as a source of sacraments, spirituality and comfort.

Cardinal Edward Egan and his colleagues returned from Rome to the season of first communions and confirmations -sacraments associated with childhood and adolescence. Spring is the season when Catholics affirm their young, and when parents reaffirm their own ties to the faith of their youth. And this spring, those parents and those children-and nobody else-have in their power the future of their church.

This no doubt will come as a surprise to members of the punditry class. They seem to think that the church’s leaders have to prove their credibility to them, the keepers of the national conversation about all that matters. But they can, er, pontificate all they wish about whether or not Cardinal Law should resign, and they can debate the meaning of public-opinion polls showing that Americans favor an end to clerical celibacy, and they can insist that the Pope needs to fine-tune his talking points. But their views mean nothing.

What matters is the good opinion of the people in the pews, of the parents of those girls in white dresses and boys in dark suits who are lining up for communion for the first time. If they continue to believe in the essential goodness of the vast majority of priests and other religious, if they keep going to Mass and participating in parish life, if they shake their heads in disgust over the bumbling cardinals but shake the hand of their pastor, the institution will survive this awful crisis.

Although the following analogy probably does justice to none of the institutions cited, the Catholic Church in America has become a good deal like Congress or the public schools. Citizens love to beat up on Congress, and many parents grumble about the state of public education, but polls also show that voters often say they like their local representative, and that parents tend to be satisfied with their local public school. It’s the larger, faceless institution they abhor.

Similarly, lay Catholics who donate time and money to the church feel betrayed by and alienated from the institution. But in my parish, and in parishes where friends of mine worship, Catholics generally are happy with their pastors and other religious staff. My parish serves a diverse, quasi-urban congregation where interfaith marriages and families are common, and while it’s not hard to find something to complain about-what’s with that music, anyway?-few, if any, congregants speak longingly about that nice old Presbyterian church down the street.

Active lay Catholics have made it clear that they can and will have a role in making their church whole again. That alone suggests just how much they care, and just how much they are willing to overlook the institution’s flaws and its leaders’ catastrophic misjudgments. American Catholicism can survive the well-aimed arrows of those who are predisposed to despise the institutional church and those who support it. But if the pews empty out and the faithful decide to look elsewhere for spiritual comfort, the institution will share the fate of St. Sebastian.

That’s why buzz-of-the-moment commentators look so foolish, and why they’d be better off returning to politics as usual. This is not a top-down issue-one that can be driven and influenced by snappy one-liners designed to influence cocktail-party chatter.

The people who will decide where, or how, or if the church moves on don’t plan their Sunday mornings around the water-cooler chatter of political talk shows. They have more important business to conduct.