Sunday, August 12, 2012

Questions on Church Governance

A governance model is all about power; it defines who has power to set roles, make decisions, set policies, perform various acts, and hold others accountable.  Rather than attempt to categorize the church’s governance model as “absolute monarchy”, “constitutional monarchy”, “medieval hierarchy”, “democracy” or some hybrid, maybe it’s better to explore church governance from a practical standpoint.  Who really has power to do what? 

The church hierarchy doesn’t control people’s access to or relationship with the Holy Trinity.  It doesn’t control access to piety practices; anyone can obtain a rosary and pray it.  It doesn’t control access to education or information, especially not since the advent of the printing press and internet.  Though the hierarchy opine about politics and politicians, it doesn’t control how people vote.  It doesn’t control most people’s food, clothing or housing decisions. 

It seems in most societies, church hierarchy has almost no if any power over laypeople, except those employed by the church.  Though the hierarchy created almost two thousand rules in Canon Law, and though some of those rules outline consequences for infractions, there is little if any power to force laypeople’s compliance, again, unless the layperson works for the church.  Without effective compliance enforcement mechanisms, the church hierarchy is largely powerless.  Do laypeople realize this?  Do the clergy realize this?

One might assert, “But the hierarchy does control access to the sacraments…”  Maybe this is why some clergy try to use sacramental access as a compliance tool.  However, examining each of the sacraments, yields a realization that this not unilaterally true. 

Baptism:  The hierarchy acknowledges baptisms administered by most other Christian denominations.  And, anyone, even laypeople, can baptize in an emergency. 

Reconciliation:  Though only baptized Catholics are supposed to use this sacrament, most priests are thrilled to have anyone come during their hours of reconciliation.   No one checks credentials of a penitent to ensure their right to be in the confessional. 

Anointing of the Sick:  Again, though this is supposed to be for baptized Catholics, no one checks credentials.  In deathbed scenarios when a person is successful rousing a priest, I’m unaware of any instances where the priest denied either an anointing, reconciliation or baptism regardless of credentials. 

Eucharist:  Though there is an illusion of control here, there’s really not.  I offer this anecdote as food for though.  A person once told me that reading my blog inspired joining the Catholic Church.  Given my cultural bias, I assumed the person had participated in the formal Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program.  However, this person explained they just started going to Mass and receiving communion and thereby felt a member of the church.  Rarely does a Eucharistic minister deny communion to anyone.

Yes, there are high profile individuals whose communion practices receive great public scrutiny due to some pronouncement by members of the hierarchy.  But most people, even if shunned by the local parish, have enough mobility and obscurity to attend other parishes where they would be just another anonymous recipient of the sacrament.  So, no, the church hierarchy does not really control this sacrament despite many efforts to create the illusion it does.

This leaves only three remaining sacraments: Confirmation and the two lifetime vocational sacraments of Holy Orders and Marriage all of which require credential verification.  Confirmation candidates must show evidence of baptism and sometimes of instruction and service.  In turn, Confirmation is a gateway sacrament to Holy Orders and Marriage. 

Confirmation: Hierarchical officials do control this sacrament.  But, what is the impact of not receiving it from a church approved person?  Sometimes proof of Confirmation is required to perform unpaid labor as a volunteer liturgical minister or for church employment.  However, many if not most church-sponsored ministries don’t require Confirmation credentials.  One can be an usher, a greeter, choir member, refreshment server or preparer, cleaner, advocate for the poor, etc… without being confirmed.  With the internet and self-publishing, one can even be a religious educator outside the hierarchy’s control.  Ministerial work outside church-sponsored groups definitely doesn’t require Confirmation.  Therefore, Confirmation isn’t a tangible concern for most Catholics unless they wish to act as unpaid labor in certain liturgical ministries or receive one of the two vocational sacraments.

Marriage:  In many countries civil unions associated with legal rights and responsibilities are controlled by the secular government with church leaders having been granted the authority to perform such unions.  This is separate from a sacramental union though. With sacramental marriage, the two parties confer the sacrament upon each other with some authorized church person officiating to witness the conferral.  This is why deacons and religious sisters can perform marriage ceremonies done outside of a Mass.  A priest is not needed. 

If one does not confer the sacrament upon one’s life partner in the presence of an authorized church member, what does that impact?  The rules say they aren’t supposed to receive Communion but as mentioned before there is no enforcement.  So, that’s an empty rule.  As with Confirmation, compliance with church marriage practices sometimes limits the unpaid volunteer work open to a person and some paid church positions.  However, I believe that a priest is not supposed to deny sacramental care for children from such unions.  So, with the current governance model, what is the true impact of non-compliance?

Holy Orders:  The hierarchy also does control access to this sacrament. But an amount of control has been shifted because a bishop validly but illegally (in the eyes of many hierarchical leaders) ordained some women and a female bishop. 

However, some sacramental administration and decisions regarding paid and volunteer labor seem to be the only unique powers requiring the sacrament of Holy Orders.  Since most sacraments can be obtained without presenting credentials, that’s really mostly an illusion of power.  And, even if a hierarchical leader banishes someone from performing unpaid work for the ecclesial institution, the person still can imitate Christ’s work with the poor, sick and marginalized outside of church-sponsored groups - and the person can do this without sacramental credentials.  Therefore the power entrusted to hierarchical leaders seems to be an illusion also, at least as pertains to the laity.

The hierarchy does have real powers over clergy, avowed religious, Catholic school employees and perhaps even Catholic school children.  However, according to statistics, in the U.S. the number of those in positions controllable by the hierarchy is falling off the proverbial cliff while numbers of laypeople outside their control is increasing. 

U.S. Figures
Percent Change
Total Priests
33% lower
Diocesan Priests
25% lower
Number of Ordinations
53% lower
69% lower
62% lower
48.5 Million
77.7 Million
60% higher
0.1% higher
Catholic  Schools
30% lower
Students in Catholic Schools
3.441 Million
2.142 Million
38% lower

Of late, the profoundly shrinking ranks of hierarchical leaders are making more aggressive attempts to assert control over the increasing number of laypeople.  Yet the hierarchy has no powers over the masses of laypeople unless the laypeople submit to it.   Does the key to church reform lie in the increasing masses of the Catholic lay population, or in the dwindling ranks of hierarchical members?  Sadly, many of those desiring church reform leave because they feel they cannot change the minds of an entrenched hierarchy.  In doing so, have these people granted more powers to the hierarchy than are actually due? 

By the way, the governance model in Jesus’ time was pretty simple.  He interacted with apostles, disciples and unaffiliated people alike, speaking directly to all of them.  He explicitly told the apostles not to lord it over others, and that he desired mercy more than sacrifice.  That’s about the extent to the governance model he instilled.  Why did the clergy complicate that so much?  Why do the masses of laypeople that outnumber the clergy by almost 2,000 to 1 permit the complication?  With only 23% Mass attendance, do the masses permit it or just leave? 


  1. Well put!! Sadly folk do leave rather than stay and say what they think of so many words and actions of those they think are "in charge". Recently, after I had voiced disagreement with a comment from Pope Benedict,I was told that I should not be in the Catholic Church if I did not obey the Pope. I replied that I had thought, perhaps wrongly, that being a Catholic had something to do with Christ. Fortunately for me many others (maybe the majority) in my parish think as I do. My critic was a woman convert from Anglicanism who opposes any discussion on the notion of women priests. She is a good woman and well educated. Why does she accept that she should be told what to think?
    from Marion

  2. reading your post, especially the paragraph on confirmation reminded me of my Aunt, who taught sunday school for many years as my cousins grew up, and a cousin of mine, who also teaches sunday school at the family's parish in Wisconsin. Neither are Catholic-- they're Lutherans who married Catholics, and are raising their children Catholic, but have decided NOT to convert. So, in some midwestern parishes at least, you don't even have to be CATHOLIC to teach religious ed....