DAMON LINKER MARCH 12, 2009
You know that proposal in Connecticut, now tabled, that would have forced the Roman Catholic Church to turn over its governance in the state to boards of Catholic laypeople? As Walter Olson points out, some theocons have (surprise surprise!) been using the controversy over the bill to rally the troops:
Many traditionalist Catholic commentators, like Kathryn Lopez at National Review, have promoted the view that the bill somehow constitutes “retribution” for the Catholic Church’s Culture War stands, specifically its promotion of Proposition 8 in California. (William Lori, Bishop of the Diocese of Bridgeport, has made the same claim.)
As Olson goes on to demonstrate, with links to several stories from local Connecticut newspapers, the proposal has nothing to do with the culture war. It originated in lay outrage at various forms of corruption in the Church, including embezzlement and sex abuse. Olson again:
Organizationally, the main constituency for the bill appears to be a group called Voice of the Faithful, whose website describes itself as “a lay organization of faithful Catholics, who organized in 2002 as a response to the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church” and now claims 30,000 members nationwide. That group’s op-ed in the Stamford, Ct. Advocate has a great deal to say about the ins and outs of alleged parish misgovernance, and nothing at all to say about the social issues Lopez and others claim are the real motivation for the bill.
Olson also points to the influence of such prominent (liberal) Catholic academics as Paul Lakeland and David O’Brien behind the bill.
In short, this is a conflict between the Catholic hierarchy and (a politically active group of) the Catholic laity, not at all (in Lopez's words) "an act of political retribution for the Catholic Church’s opposition to gay marriage."
But it is also an
old American story, going back to the early days of Catholicism in
the United States. The form of
ecclesiastical organization that prevailed in the early American colonies was the congregationalism of New England
Puritanism, in which members of a parish shared ownership of church
property as well as the responsibility for hiring and firing pastors
and other church officials. This was obviously very different than the Catholic Church's hierarchical way of organizing itself. And for a time, during the early nineteenth century, these two outlooks clashed, with several American dioceses attempting to institute a uniquely
American form of congregational Catholicism for the United States. In
this period, lay Catholic Boards of Trustees in New York, Philadelphia,
Charlestown, South Carolina, and other cities asserted their ownership
of church property as well as the right to hire and fire priests and
even bishops. This so-called "trusteesism controversy" pitted most
bishops and the entire Vatican hierarchy against some priests and large
numbers of American Catholic laypeople over the issue of whether
Catholicism in America would be restructured along egalitarian lines.
In the end, Rome prevailed in the dispute and trusteeism was
suppressed, with the American church adopting the same hierarchical
structure that prevails among Catholics in every other country in the
What just happened in Connecticut was a revival of the trusteeism controversy in our own time.