Fear of An Ambitious Laity

“Bean-counting” is a dead metaphor for most people, but a few years ago, on retreat, I saw it come back to life. I was serving as junior scullery maid, and the two older women who’d squared off over mastery of the kitchen had agreed that I should sift through the black-eyed peas for errant pebbles. But when it came to safeguarding the purity of legumes, each of these doyennes rated herself a one-woman Magisterium. Each thought her own method infallible and dismissed all alternatives as modernist innovations.

For a good 15 minutes, I sat facing a Matterhorn of peas while these two women covered my flanks and declaimed on how I must address this apparently simple task. Owing to some very old and very bad blood between them whose ultimate source I never did discover, they wasted no words on each other; instead, they lodged their arguments with me, each — like a cartoon angel and devil — claiming one of my ears for the task. Finally, my patience spent, I pleaded exhaustion and flung myself face-down on the sofa in the lounge, leaving them to settle their differences with sword, pistol, or spatula.

To such people, Renée Schaefer Horton would hand over the keys to the parish. In National Catholic Reporter, Schaefer Horton badgers priests to “let go — accept the gifts of their parishioners and stop trying to control everything.” I’ll take Schaefer Horton’s word they don’t do this already. As she’s quick to remind us, she speaks from the authority gained through “25 years of parish service in four different states.” Well, with nothing backing me up but a healthy mistrust of my fellow man, I dare to ask whether there might be hidden costs in letting us inmates run our own asylum.

These days, laypeople are pissed. Schaefer Horton herself knows this — she opens by applauding Mary de Turris Poust’s call for “a revolt from the pews.” Fearing to start that riot, I hesitate to invoke the name of ChurchMilitant TV founder Michael Voris, but I can see no way around it. Like it or hate it, Voris’ prophetic ranting is an extreme manifestation of a growing phenomenon. Only a little less than Voris, increasing numbers of lay Catholics are convinced not only that the Church is broken, but that they alone possess the gifts, talents, and powers of discernment needed to fix it.

To my ear, this claim, this whole attitude, sounds mighty immodest. By suggesting, among other things, that priests “accept the help of the writers in the congregation” in drafting their homilies, Schaefer Horton shows she’s inherited a micromanaging gene or two of her own.

Critics of clericalism — and of clerics — love to bang on about the arrogance of the ordained, in particular, of those ordained since John Paul II ascended the throne. When it comes to the way the bishops handled — and, detestably, continue to handle — reports of predatory priests, they’ve got a point. But one thing I’ve never heard any of these kibbitzers do is check their own baby blues for beams. Could their judgment suffer from a bias or two? And what about their motives? Are they 99.44 % pure, or might these people, like the priests they love to carp about, also be in it for the power or the personal validation?

More to the point, mightn’t they — especially the ones who love to flash their credentials (“I’ll have you know, I just earned my doctorate in pastoral studies!”) — be afflicted with a touch of intellectual vanity? When reaching for a word that sums up everything they don’t like, many cocksure laypeople settle on mediocre. Has it ever occurred to them that most people are, exactly, mediocre? How much regard do they really have for folks who lack their big brains, their refined spiritual appetites, or enthusiasm for — see below — their social-engineering projects?

At least in the comboxes, critics like to present themselves as tribunes for the rest of us. But I wonder how many, at three o’clock in the morning, would admit to thinking of their constituents in terms like Gene Wilder used for the citizens of Rock Ridge: “The simple faithful, the common clay of the New Evangelization…you know, morons.”

Lots of questions here, lots of “I wonder’s.” Unlike certain people, I don’t claim to have all the answers. What I do have is a heap of worry. And well I might. If one goal of parish life is to know and be known, I’d like some warning on whom, exactly, I’m going to know and be known by. Whether they realize it or not, people like Schaefer Horton seem to be cut from the same cloth as Allison Benedikt’s PTA members — the ones who get their way by trampling anyone dumb enough to stand in their paths. I’ve had my run-ins with this type. So, apparently, has Jeannie C. Reilly.

The parish Schaefer Horton recalls most fondly sounds ghastly. “At each Mass every Sunday,” she writes, “you had to meet a new person.” The pastor — his strings apparently yanked by lay busybodies — “wouldn’t start Mass without this. He blocked off back pews so people had to sit close together.” Fa-di-la. What about the parishioners who weren’t people-people, or who didn’t come to Mass for a square dance? Schaefer Horton doesn’t tell us. And why should she? Victors write history.

Even now as I write this, I realize I’m probably speaking for the losers. Because of increasing demands on priests’ time, thanks to the Internet and the bully pulpit it offers the disaffected, laypeople will, increasingly, move into the driver’s seat. I’ll leave the last word to Mather Byles, who was moved by the sight of the revolutionary Boston mob to wonder: “Which is better — to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away, or by three thousand tyrants not a mile away?”

Byles was a Congregationalist minister. He knew exactly what happens when bluenoses get their dander up.

  • MeanLizzie

    Id have to find a new parish or go Byzantine. That much forced inauthentic togetherness is only meant for the week between Christmas and New Years!

  • David_Naas

    ROFL! Yeah, I have long thought that the real problem with the Catholic church is all those other Catholics. especially the ordinary ones who don’t have blogs or websites or personal magazines to display their zeal/intellect/piety/whatever.

  • https://www.facebook.com/matthew.ogden1 Matthew Ogden

    The last thing I would ever want to do is encourage the deadly sin of pride in anyone (for that is what we are talking about). But this trend, as equally obnoxious and insidious as it is, most likely has its origins in a clergy and hierarchy reluctant, if not outright unwilling, to actually lead people and give them what the Church is there to give them: spiritual leadership so they can come to God.

    So this situation has created that two-headed monster that likewise plagues the rest of Western society in its decline: people who (1) know nothing at all, and (2) think they know everything. No doubt this has also had some effect on those wonderful abortion-supporting “Catholic” politicians who justify their “faith” by saying they went to Catholic schools some forty or fifty years ago, and thus they have authority to say what they do. Yeah, maybe in their own minds.

  • Anna

    Respect for the mass and the Eucharist helps. It is supposed to be a contemplative sort of thing. I go to gregorian/Latn mass.

  • guest

    I wonder if the clergy are reluctant, or unwilling. I think it’s more like these people just won’t be told Anything by anybody.

  • Kelil

    I thought I was the only one who found Michael Voris disturbing. On the advice of a respected, conservative friend, I listened to a couple of his tirades. While I personally agreed with the what Voris was saying, I felt like I was listening to the Rush Limbaugh of Catholicism. After further encouragement, I listened to a couple more of his Op-Ed pieces (I’m not sure what to call them) but just can’t get past his inflammatory style. As I listened to him rant, I kept hearing the priest say: “Lord Jesus Christ, who said to your Apostles: Peace I leave you, my peace I give you.” Vitriolic Voris leaves anything but peace in my heart. I’ll listen to him no more.

  • Cordelia

    Amen! We already drive an extra half-hour to avoid the bonhomie of a closer parish where the priest conducts a perky theological quiz at the close of Mass – handing out chocolate bars for the first correct answer.

  • Linus

    I’m a follower, I do what I’m told and don’t volunteer for anything that takes brains or making decisions.
    My priest sent me a note for being reliable ( smile ).

  • carmelini

    Kelil, I don’t follow what you are saying about Michael Voris. You “agreed with what Voris was saying”, but you can’t get past his style. That’s a big problem with our society…we’re much too concerned with style over substance (agreed, we need to be charitable, but he’s much more than you give him credit for). And I’m not sure why the author even brought up his name. Although the author claims he is “ranting”, he does think it’s “prophetic”…isn’t that a good thing? To announce the way…

  • Sygurd Jonfski

    Jesus also called the Pharisees some rather bad names and whipped the moneychangers in the Temple, didn’t he? Our Lord knew that different situations require different responses – a fact conveniently overlooked by the “meek and humble” crowd.

  • lindenman

    Just so we’re crystal clear, gang, the merits and demerits of Michael Voris are not the topic of discussion. I cited him only a vivid example of the aggressively critical layperson. These days, we’re ALL Michael Voris. Stick to that if you please.

  • carmelini

    Should we be passively critical? The Church is in a crisis; it is our duty to speak up and cite examples why…and there are plenty, so why not be aggressive?

  • capaxdei

    At Baptism, each Christian is given charisms by the Holy Spirit, to be used for the good of the Church. It is the duty of a pastor to help his parishioners both to discern their individual charisms and to apply them to the building up of the Church.

    That’s basic Catholic teaching, and it’s not the same thing as letting the inmates run the asylum. At the same time, wanting to be the pastor isn’t the same things as having the charism of pastoring.

  • sjay1956

    It is noteworthy how many more Christians are able to model themselves after Jesus in the Temple then are able to submit to scourging and crucifixion.

  • sjay1956

    Yes, we are and I suppose the specific nature of the threatened metamorphosis varies from parish to parish. In my urban, Jesuit-run, East Coast parish, I’m more likely to run into ex-seminarians and their wives who are ready to provide authoritative counseling on necessary changes in Catholic doctrine not just to us other laity, but to the pope as well. On the other hand, my friends attending suburban parishes two dozen miles down the road get junior Torquemadas ready, willing, and able to minutely identify their failings in carrying out Catholic teaching in family life. Just get me a priest, please.

  • Reanm

    I don’t know what’s so bad about “clericalism.” To me that means you don’t have a bunch of women insisting on using their “gifts” Teanslation: looking for validation for making “art” or trying to get attention and compliments. To me clericalism means men are in charge which means less talking, NO forced mingling, no holding hands, no “art” or interpretive dance, stupid suggestions are not only not entertained but mocked as they should be.

  • TeaPot562

    How about suggesting to the critics that they encourage their sons and daughters to try out religious vocations? Our oldest has served as a priest for more than 25 years. He has received criticism from other clergy, but as far as we know, gets along with laypersons in parishes where he has served, He puts in long hours, works on homilies, and presides, including short homilies, at mass most weekdays.
    Consider volunteering to help out before issuing your criticism.

  • Renee_S_Horton

    Dear Mr. Lindenman: Thanks for reading my column at NCR Today. I’d like to correct a couple of inaccuracies for your readers. First, the pastor at the parish in Alabama was a one-man leadership show. The “forced togetherness” was his idea, and it worked for that particular parish. I’ve never heard of anyone leaving the Catholic Church because it was TOO welcoming, but I’ve heard the opposite frequently. There were people who didn’t come, for instance, to the gatherings he had outside of church. Not everyone joined the softball team, for instance. But that parish was packed every Sunday, and in all the parishes in which I’ve worked in religious education, this was the one parish where parents made sure their children attended and it seems that it was because the parish felt like “home” to them. Not a bad thing. It was also very balanced (for lack of a better term) in that we sang Latin hymns as well as the St. Louis Jesuits, there was weekly adoration but also a weekly softball game, etc.
    Second, I have never said laity have all the answers. All I am saying is that there are gifts in the pews that could help clergy and that many (not all) in the clerical ranks have a hard time letting laity lead in the areas in which the Church approves of lay leadership. I’m no alone in these thoughts; Pope Francis (among others) has expressed them as well.

    Third, as a professional writer I have been asked by certain clergy to help tightening up homilies, but that wasn’t why I used that example; it was simply an example. Another would be having a CPA in the parish talk to you about budgeting or an interior designer help you with liturgical decorations for holy days. The idea here is that God gifted the whole community and calls the whole community … not just the clergy.
    Finally, my last name is Schafer Horton, not, as you misspelled it, Schaefer Horton.

  • Anna

    Yup, sjay1956. That Jesus could read souls and most of us can’t is another fact often conveniently overlooked. Doing exactly what Jesus did ignores the reality that he is one Person and I am quite another.

  • Rebecca Duncan

    “Which is better — to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away, or by three thousand tyrants not a mile away?” I’ve seriously thought this exact thing before when this stuff comes up. Is it better to have people driven away who try to volunteer or work in ministry by having to deal with dozens of committee members pushing all of their own crap on them? Or would it be better to be directed by the priest?

  • OldWorldSwine

    Oh my word. Just when I think I have it bad with the Haugen/Hass praise choruses…

  • thepreraphaelitess

    Ok, so in reading this article and the comments I started wondering if the author and commentors aren’t failing to make a big distinction.
    There’s an old Jesuit saying that goes something to the effect of “No compromise in the essentials, but to heck with everything else”. Yeah, ok, so that’s not the exact wording, but maybe you’ll catch my drift. My point is that there is a difference between lay people who speak up about liturgical abuse, heresy, or error, and laymen who hound their pastor abot the color of font on parish buellitins. If a priest denies the real presence from the pulpit, or invites a pro-abort politician to speak at mass (as I have personally seen happen), I would hope every god-fearing laymen would have the guts to politely, charitably, and tactfully educate such a priest, or report these actions to his superiors. And should this laymen find no change taking place, I would hope he would find another mass for the benefit of his soul.
    On the other hand, to the control-freaks who try to conquer and divide a parish because their way of doing things is so much better(as I’ve also seen happen), please go find a hobby…one that doesn’t involve running other people’s lives.

  • Sygurd Jonfski

    When you read the Gospel accounts of the Passion with a fresh, unprejudiced by tradition eye, you must see that Jesus there is neither humble nor meek. Rather, He bears His sufferings in heroic silence, much like an Indian brave under torture by his enemies. His replies to Pontius Pilate are rather haughty and even His comment about forgiving those “who do not know what they do” is more condescending than humble. Yes, the Gospels hold many surprises but they are often obscured by the blinkers of persistent and tendentious interpretation.

  • Faithr

    This is such a funny post. Funny and sad at the same time! You’ve got your finger on the pulse of parish dynamics. My current parish handles things pretty well. We only have one priest but he’s very collaborative in his approach but he is also very careful about being obedient, so even if the parish really is run by the lay people somehow he still is in charge and draws the line at any looney stuff someone might be inspired to do. I think the thing that helps my parish is that it is a tithing one. It has always, from its beginning, had a very active ministry to the poor. I think this made it possible for both conservatives and liberals to work together. Our old parish we used to attend was so sad. It was run by the woman’s club. I swear they thought they had their own country club. There was extremely little emphasis on doing anything remotely Christlike. It was about fashion shows (I kid you not!), teas, dinner-dances, auctions. Always just to help make the school more competitive in a hoity-toity way. What? Give money to the poor? No, we must have a state of the art scoreboard in our fancy new gym or our kids won’t get into Ivy League schools! Anything bearing any resemblance to religion was purely coincidental. I remember just before we moved a priest got up and said, ‘you know, we have never had one single vocation from this parish ever.’ But since then things have finally changed. Well, I don’t know of they’ve had any vocations yet but they got a new pastor and several homeschooling families moved into the parish and became very active. The youth ministry used to be a joke but now it really seems to be a great program that helps form faithful young adults. Lots of real service projects now. They have a very pro-active pro-life ministry which in this area means actively working with poor immigrant women. I guess there will always be a tension between know it all liberals who’ve decided it is their personal responsibility to bring the Church into the 21st century, or know it all parishioners who decide the Church is just another social circle they can use to further their own worldliness and the pastors who have to put up with them. The important thing is to have leadership from priests and a cooperative group of lay parishioners who all share the same dream, which is worshipping and working together as Catholic Christians loyal to the Church.

  • http://blog.goliard.us/ Blog Goliard

    In our day, the default mode is to bend over backwards to show exquisite sensitivity to the feelings of others…with a few glaring exceptions.

    Introverted people–especially those inclined to formality–are one of the exceptions. When something makes them uncomfortable and unwelcome, they’re expected to just get over it.

    And perhaps this should be embraced as a compliment to their maturity and fortitude. Would be nice if the same rules applied to everyone though.

  • perpper

    Thank you, as a middle-aged hag who has no desire to rule over even the smallest of dominions, I thank you. As an introvert who just wants to be left alone *some* of the time, I thank you.

  • perpper

    You are the foundation of civilization. Thank you.

  • perpper

    ” He blocked off back pews so people had to sit close together.”

    Gag. I would do a WWII vet and tear down his tape (or whatever) so my physically handicapped spouse could sit in a suitable situation. Togetherness is not always helpful for the partially-paralyzed. That pastor sounds really insensitive to special needs folks … oh wait … nvm …

  • ann

    What Horton is really promoting is the scourge of most American parishes, S6P disease, or Same Six People, who run everything except the confection of the sacraments, (not that they don’t also control any aspect of liturgy the priest does not have a lock on already).

  • Howard

    I’m mostly on board with you, but with a couple of reservations. One is that priests do this too. Most parish priests I’ve known had similar frustrations with their bishops: why couldn’t they see the right way to do things when the right way was so evident to their priests? They may have been right, and they may have been wrong, but it’s the same thing. Bishops likely feel the same way about the Pope, though few say it aloud. Some do from time to time, and this makes news, but it’s likely more think it than say it. My other reservation is that just because I don’t know how to fix a problem doesn’t mean I can’t identify it. I’ve never been the skipper of a big ship, but I know the captain of the Costa Concordia was doing it wrong. I couldn’t coach at the major college level, but I know that neither could Mike Shula or Derek Dooley. Or to put it in more biblical language, I may not be able to bear fruit myself, but I can see if a tree is bearing fruit or not. There’s no point in pretending that if I really understood football well enough, I would know that Derek Dooley was a misunderstood genius; I can see the results — but only over time. It *would* take a football genius to know if he was destined to succeed or fail after only three games, as opposed to three years. If a bishop or a Pope has consistently bad results over a meaningful period of time, let’s not pretend we are dealing with a saintly genius; there’s something wrong, even though he is still the coach.

  • Robster

    I personally don’t care if the laity or the clergy get involved, as long as they are reasonably orthodox and not arrogant. I travel 16 miles to attend my parish, though there are several much closer. I know people there, so I feel I belong, and it is not theologically and liturgically liberal. As a yet unmarried 49er (still looking for the Gold Rush), it is hard to fit into the average kid and family friendly parish. Anyway, years ago I remember someone (of a liberal/progressive sort) complaining about the then-new Catechism of the Catholic Church. She was dismayed about the difference between what it said and she and others of her mindset taught. I once inquired of a priest affiliated with the singles group I was involved in then (the above woman was involved there too) for a resource to compare the old Latin Mass and the current vernacular mass to see what changed. He counseled me against such a quest, saying, “It’ll just confuse you.”

  • echarles1

    I never question the refs at my daughter’s athletic events. Never. I would not (could not) be one. It is the same with the ordained. Never question the refs.

  • Joel

    Basically, the priest’s role is to be a professional nice-guy. It’s the underlying assumption of many, and it’s a fallacy.

  • sjay1956

    I don’t ask for the impossible, i.e., “meek and humble”; I merely note the enthusiasm with which the role of whipping the moneychangers is embraced compared to the embrace of martyrdom, humbly or haughtily.

  • sjay1956

    Actually, I have avoided attendance at masses at parishes that are “too welcoming.”

  • Sygurd Jonfski