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.

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