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Leonard Swidler[1]


In the wake of the clergy sex scandal and two billion dollars already paid out (and no end in sight!), and three dioceses in bankruptcy, many Catholics are asking themselves: Whatever happened to the Vatican II promise of a collegial Church (in plain English: democratic Church)? Many national Pastoral Councils of the 1970s (e.g., Germany, Austria, France, Netherlands….) moved in that direction–including our own astonishing American “Call To Action” in 1976, participated in by hundreds of thousands of American Catholics–only to be laid waste during the Romanizing pontificate of John Paul II. The response bubbling up is: Leadership from above cannot be looked for; Vatican II reform and renewal must come from below, from the laity, religious, and priests.


Here is a Ten-Step Program “from below.”


Step 1. Prepare the Minds of the Laity To Take Responsibility


We must first recognize that this is a very uneven struggle against a structure that places almost all the power in one set of hands, namely, the bishop’s. Hence, to begin this democratic church movement “from below” we need to have a pastor and some parish laity of a Vatican II mentality. Then “Father Goodpastor”—and most fortunately for us at Old St. Mary’s, we have a “Father Goodpastor” in Father Dominic Chiaravalle—and the lay leaders need to devise a program to raise the consciousness of the parish to realize that all the parish members must share the responsibility of making their parish a mature Catholic community. This might in various parishes take anywhere from six days to six years, and could include many sermons, lecture series, gradual development of parish structures, and many other creative methods. The goal is to get, if not all, at least the great majority of the parish to follow the lead of the pope and all the bishops of the world in Vatican II (1962-65) which stated:


All [not just the bishops or priests, but “all,” that is, the laity] are led to... wherever necessary, undertake with vigor the task of renewal and reform.... Catholics’... primary duty is to make a careful and honest appraisal of whatever needs to be renewed and done in the Catholic household itself.... Christ summons the Church, as it goes its pilgrim way, to that continual reformation of which it always has need (Ecclesia semper reformanda, Vatican II, Decree on Ecumenism).


Now we here at Old St. Mary’s with Father Dominic’s leadership have started that process of raising the consciousness of the lay parishioners to recognize and embrace our right and responsibility to share in the leadership and work of the parish. How much more and in what forms that work might need to be continued the parishioners, lay and pastor, will have to determine. Perhaps you will decide that after tonight the parish is ready to take up its role of responsible lay leaders.


            Step 2. Discuss and Deliberate among All the Parish the Making of the Constitution
Although there obviously must be a smaller cadre of parishioners (meaning pastor and laity) who take the lead in organizing this movement, the whole of the parish must be seriously engaged in coming together to discuss, deliberate, and ultimately decide what exactly a parish Constitution is and what their own Constitution should contain. (Guidance on how to go about this task can be found at .) This must be the decision of fundamentally the whole parish community, for all will have to live by that decision. The effectiveness, and the length of time needed, clearly will be heavily influenced by the quality of Step 1. Precisely how this is to be carried out will be up to the laity who come forward, along with the pastor. Probably one or several parish meetings to which all are invited would be a minimum. Additional possibilities might include mailing a letter and information to all parishioners. Whatever forms this parish deliberation will take, it needs on the one hand to include as full a participation as possible, and on the other hand realistically, only a minority will actively participate. Given the centuries of ingrained passivity in the Catholic laity, we must do the best we can, but in the beginning it will be a challenge.


            Step 3. The Name “Constitution”

As we have briefly discussed in an earlier lecture, some may shy away from the term “Constitution,” thinking perhaps that it is too “profane,” too “secular.” It need only be remembered that the highest authority in the structure of the Catholic Church–the Pope and all the bishops gathered together in an Ecumenical Council–has used precisely that term for its most important documents, e.g., Vatican Council II’s “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” and that Pope Paul VI called for and set up a Commission to develop a Constitution for the Church (Lex Fundamentalis Ecclesiae). Moreover, this Constitution is the document that will constitute, that is, will give form to, the parish community for as long as it exists. By-laws (or the like) is much too transitory a term to name this literally “fundamental” reality which will shape the parish’s existence and actions.


            Step 4. What Should and Should Not Be in a Constitution

It is important to bear in mind that a Constitution is to outline the vital, the formative, elements of the governance of a community, in this case, the Parish. It needs to avoid details beyond the essential, and concentrate on the critical structures of governance. Only a brief prologue should refer to the underlying spirit of the Constitution, being careful not to be too specific theologically, for every theology, no matter how brilliant, sensitive, and Gospel-centered, is only one way to articulate what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and therefore necessarily does not include other articulations. It must include a clear statement of the rights and responsibilities of all parties of the Parish, including such principles as transparency, accountability, representativeness, due process of law, decision-making procedures, terms of office, separation and balance of powers.

Above all, it is absolutely essential that the Constitution be written. As we discussed in an earlier lecture, there is nothing like having to choose the words to write down–especially words that you are going to have to live by–to help clarify thinking. Further, when future disagreements arise, as they inevitably will, it is vital to have written documents to refer to. This will especially be the case when a new pastor arrives! A written Constitution is absolutely vital! I cannot emphasize this enough. Many Catholics have had wonderful parishes in the past so long as “Father Goodpastor” was the pastor, only to see it dismantled when he was replaced by “Monsignor O’Hooligan.” A written Constitution may not be a sufficient cause of a continued Vatican II democratic parish, but it is a necessary cause of one (more about that below).


            Step 5. Liturgical Installation
Once the long process of consciousness-shaping, dialogue, deliberation, and decision has been lived through and a Constitution is arrived at, a further step is very important. One of the strengths of Catholicism is the tradition of giving everything important–and even things not so especially important–a liturgy. A Constitution that a parish is going to live by is in fact a very important sacred reality. It is a sacramental, and hence deserves a solemn liturgical ceremony.

The Constitution ought to be printed and framed in a fittingly solemn manner. A liturgy with an appropriate set of prayers, music, and gestures needs to be designed by the parish liturgy committee for the formal installation of the Constitution. It is important that the Pastor, the Parish Council, and other officers of the Parish, as well as as much of the entire Parish as possible be present at the Installation Liturgy. For the initial installation of the Constitution, it would be well to invite the bishop to be present as an observer (his presence will help to forestall his later sending an autocratic priest as Pastor). The Pastor, Parish Council, and other officers, as well as the rest of the Parish members present, ought to make a solemn public pledge to follow the Constitution.


An appropriate day should be chosen for the annual liturgical re-commitment of all to follow the Constitution–perhaps the feast day of the parish’s name. Such a solemn liturgical installation, and its annual re-confirmation, will keep the Constitution present in all the parishioners’ consciousness, and go a long way toward ensuring it’s continuing viability.


            Step 6. Live by Constitution

It goes without saying that the Parish must then live by its Constitution. Much will be learned in the very living with the Constitution, including the possibility that appropriate amendments will be found to be important, perhaps even essential. The discipline of so living will also gradually re-shape and mature the thinking and action of all members of the parish involved, clergy and laity, including the future generations. Regarding the future, if a parish has lived and grown with a Constitution for five or ten years or more, it will very difficult for a future “Monsignor O’Hooligan” to come in (or even to want to!) and dismantle it (again, more about that below).


            Step 7. Set Up Non-Profit Ownership

The Spokane, WA, and Oregon dioceses bankruptcy decisions have declared the parishes to be the property of the bishop, and therefore subject to the millions of dollars of claims levied against the bishop. The Tucson diocese bankruptcy decision has ruled that the parishes may be set up as separate corporations, and therefore not subject to the claims granted against the bishop. It is very likely that these cases will be the subject of further litigation for at least one of them already is in the process of appeal. The ownership structure of the American Catholic Church may well be dramatically different in the future as a result of these judicial proceedings.

Without waiting, however, and regardless what the outcome of this litigation will be, it is vital that we American Catholics learn both from our past history of parish ownership—the Trustee System, as we discussed in an earlier lecture,[2] and from the world-wide explosion of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Clearly, the ownership of properties and other assets of any institution, including dioceses and parishes, are the source of power. The adage “follow the money” applies to the Catholic Church as much as other institutions. The ideal parish ownership situation would be as it was at the beginning of this country’s history, ownership by the parish as a corporation (as advocated by the Vatican–see – and allowed by the Tucson Federal Bankruptcy Court).


That may at present be very difficult to bring about, but it would not be difficult for a parish to set up a Non-Profit Organization–a 501(c)(3)–especially for any new donations/expenditures. The Non-Profit Parish Organization could be set up to sponsor social-justice work, youth work, construct buildings, schools, buy a parish hall, send out relief workers, missionaries, students.... All the assets of whatever form purchased through this Non-Profit Organization would belong to the Parish and be disposed according to the founding document, based on the Parish Constitution.


If parishioners have a secure say in the disposal of their parish’s various goods, they, of course, will be much more inclined to donate to this 501(c)(3). This is not just a so-called “gut-feeling” or hunch on my part, but is in fact documented in recent research by highly respected Catholic scholars. This was reported just a few days ago in an extensive article in the Los Angeles Times.[3]


Modest tithing is especially noticeable among Roman Catholics, who give to their parishes about half as much as Protestants. In 2003, Protestants gave 2.6% of their income to their churches and Catholics gave 1.2%, according to studies conducted by Empty Tomb Inc., a Christian research and service group based in Champaign, Ill. Why?....


The avoidance of tithing reflects the sense of ownership parishioners feel toward their churches—or more precisely, the lack of it. “The heritage in Catholic thought that still hangs over people is that they are just customers and the clergy really owns the church,” said Dean R. Hoge, a professor of sociology at Washington, D.C.’s Catholic University of America, whose specialty is churches, and is a co-author of  a seminal work on church giving:[4] “It’s almost like we just go there; we don’t own the store,” said Hoge, whose research team surveyed 625 congregations in five mainline denominations across the nation. He said many Catholics think “the priest will give us what we need, and we’ll tell him what we want.”


Thus, setting up a parish 501(c)(3) would not mean less funding at the disposal of the parish, but more. The money needed for normal running expenses would continue to go directly to the parish in the normal fashion. However, for all new activity, whether, as suggested a moment ago, to sponsor social-justice work, youth work, construct buildings, schools, buy a parish hall, send out relief workers, missionaries, provide student scholarships, or whatever, the money would be given to and distributed through the Not-For-Profit 501(c)(3). These will be activities and monies which otherwise would not exist! To re-emphasize, the setting up of the 501(c)(3) would not take money away from the parish, but greatly increase it precisely because of what Professor Dean Hoge’s research made clear: Because the parishioners will have a direct voice in what happens to the money they donate, they will in fact donate more than they would have otherwise. Further, the laity will also consequently become much more active in the parish. As important, or perhaps even more so, as the financial value of this Non-Profit Parish Organization grows, it will automatically support the responsible functioning of the parish Constitution on into the future.


            Step 8. Constitutional Parish Networking

A Constitutional Parish will doubtless be a flourishing parish for it will automatically draw on all the talents of all members–just how flourishing will depend on the combination of the talents of the parishioners (including preeminently those of the pastor and lay leaders), the care with which the Constitution has been planned for and structured, and the wisdom with which the Parish has grown in living it. Consequently the Constitutional Parish will become a magnet for other parishes. (One must also, sadly, reckon with the possibility of a negative envy being generated in some clergy.) However, the Constitutional Parish must, for its own survival, also become an “Evangelizing” Constitutional Parish in the literal sense, that is, it needs to spread the “good news” of creating and living by a Parish Constitution so that other parishes will go down the same path.


If there develop two, three, four, or more Constitutional Parishes in a diocese, it is critical that they learn from, and support, each other. They will need to form a Network of Constitutional Parishes– including the “Evangelizing” work of increasing their number. As their numbers grow, the likelihood of any of them receiving a “Monsignor O’Hooligan” as pastor will proportionately shrink. The Network should be prepared to go to the Bishop and the Diocesan Personnel Committee and lobby for a “Father Goodpastor” successor in their fellow Constitutional Parishes. The Constitutional Parishes must counter the ancient Roman tactic: Divide et impera! Divide and conquer! by taking to heart the saying of our own Benjamin Franklin just a stone’s throw from here: Either we hang together, or we will hang separately.


            Step 9. Negotiate with Bishop/Personnel Committee Ahead of Time
However, without waiting for a Network of Constitutional Parishes to develop, the Parish Council (which includes the pastor) should in good time arrange to meet with the Bishop and Diocesan Personnel Committee to negotiate with them ahead of time a serious role for themselves in the choice of the successor of their pastor. They must insist on the retention of their governing Constitution. Clearly they will want to do all this only after they have lived by their Constitution for some time and built a solid reputation in the diocese. Clearly also, their hand will be greatly strengthened if they do not go into the meeting alone, but with supporting members of other parishes. That is another reason why it is so important for a Constitutional Parish to be an Evangelizing Constitutional Parish and work hard to create a Network of Constitutional Parishes. Here also is an additional reason for developing a vibrant and productive 501(c)(3). The substantial character of the Non-Profit Parish Organization will likewise obviously have a significant influence here–money talks!


            Step 10. Publicize

We know from civil society that freedom of the press is critical to make democracy work. We Catholics also learned that lesson at Vatican Council II when freedom of the press was one of the main engines pulling the Catholic Church out of its Medieval and Counter-Reformation mentality into  that of Modernity. Without it, Vatican II would have been as much of a disaster as Lateran Council V (1512-1517) was. Its failure in the fateful year of 1517 contributed significantly to Martin Luther’s launching the Protestant Reformation in that very same year. As I suggested above with the term “Evangelizing”–that is, spreading the Gospel, the “Good News” of a Constitutional Parish–simply as an insurance policy, the Constitutional Parish needs to publicize itself as broadly and creatively as possible (including on the website of the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church: ).


The Constitutional Parish must not only do good things, it must also be seen doing good things because of their democratic, constitutional structure. They must become known for doing good things as a Constitutional Parish. This is not be pride, but self-defense! I once had a professor of moral theology, who in his homely way put it thus: He who does not toot his own bazooka, the same shall not be tooted! As the Constitutional Parish becomes increasingly known for doing good things, it will encourage other parishes to likewise become Constitutional Parishes, thereby gaining the support of numbers and the Network, but also by burnishing its reputation, the Constitutional Parish will make it increasingly difficult to dismantle their Constitution, especially at the critical juncture of the change of pastors.


As in society in general, a governance structure will be what the governed allow. If most Catholics in an area believe that a shared responsibility governance structure, a Democratic Church, is not possible, it will not happen, regardless of what Ecumenical Councils or Popes have said supporting such. The first, and perhaps most challenging, task is to convince large numbers of the Catholic community, in this case, the Old St. Mary’s Parish, that a democratic constitution for the parish (indeed, also for the diocese and universal Church) is in keeping with the Gospel and Catholic tradition (for supporting documentation, see Leonard Swidler, Toward a Catholic Constitution. New York: Crossroad Books, 1996). Then, after Step One the rest of the nine steps are obvious, though by no means easy.


The critical issue is whether or not a Constitutional Parish can survive beyond its “founding pastor.” As I noted at the beginning, canon law and the reality on the ground stack the chances against it. That is why Steps Five through Ten are vital. They are not individual guarantees against the eventual destruction of a Constitutional Parish, but as each of them is carried out, they will proportionately improve the chances of survival of the Constitutional Parish.

Beyond a Constitution for the Parish, there is also the need for a Diocesan Constitution, and eventually a Universal Catholic Constitution, as Pope Paul VI called and worked for. This journey to a Diocesan, and especially a Universal, Constitution of the Catholic Church will doubtless be long, arduous, and probably also serpentine. But it is a journey that a growing number of Catholics increasingly feel must be undertaken. Those of us so convinced now have not only the privilege, but also the responsibility, to push on in the journey, even though we personally may not arrive at the final destination. What is obtainable in the near future, however, at least for some fortunate ones of us living in parishes with a “Father Goodpastor”—for us at Old St. Mary’s, we are blessed with Father Dominic Chiaravalle—are first, a Parish Constitution and secondly, a 501(c)(3) Non-Profit Organization.

Now that you know, you are obligated!

[1]Leonard Swidler has an STL in Catholic Theology, University of Tübingen and a Ph.D. in history and philosophy, University of Wisconsin.  Professor of Catholic Thought and Interreligious Dialogue at Temple University since 1966, he is author or editor of over 65 books & 180 articles, Co-founder (1964) with his wife Arlene Anderson Swidler,and Editor of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies. His books include: Dialogue for Reunion (1962), The Ecumenical Vanguard (1965), Jewish-Christian Dialogues (1966), Buddhism Made Plain (co-author, 1984), Toward a Universal Theology of Religion (1987), A Jewish-Christian Dialogue on Jesus and Paul (1990), After the Absolute: The Dialogical Future of Religious Reflection (1990), A Bridge to Buddhist-Christian Dialogue (1991) and Muslims In Dialogue. The Evolution of a Dialogue (1992), Die Zukunft der Theologie (1992), Theoria ± Praxis. How Jews, Christians, Muslims Can Together Move From Theory to Practice (1998), For All Life. Toward a Universal Declaration of a Global Ethic: An Interreligious Dialogue (1999), The Study of Religion in an Age of Global Dialogue (co-author, 2000) Dialogue in Malaysia and the Globe (2004), Confucianism in Dialogue Today. West, Christianity, and Judaism (2005).

[2]See Patrick Carey, People, Priests, and Prelates. Ecclesiastical Democracy and the Tensions of Trusteeism (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987).

[3]K. Connie Kang, “Catholics Not Wedded to Practice of Tithing. A study shows they give less than Protestants do. Experts attribute the difference to a lack of a feeling of ownership toward the church,” Los Angeles Times (February 25, 2006).

[4]Dean R. Hoge, Money Matters: Personal Giving in American Churches (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1996)

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