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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

How Would You Reform the Catholic Church?


Recent years have been difficult for many Catholics. In light of the ongoing revelations from the sex abuse scandals, the marginalization of certain people and groups within the Catholic Church, and the oftentimes dramatic infighting, many American Catholics and Catholics around the world are asking themselves whether it is worth it to stay in the Church.

Others, however, are asking themselves how the Church might change. The Boisi Center’s first event of the year brought a diverse panel together to answer the question, “How would you reform the Catholic Church?” The panel featured Richard Gaillardetz of Boston College, Natalia Imperatori-Lee of Manhattan College, Bishop Mark O’Connell of the Archdiocese of Boston, and Phyllis Zagano of Hofstra University, with Mark Massa, S.J. moderating.

Massa began by asking the panelists what the single most important issue is that they would reform in the Church today?

Zagano answered first, asserting that she would allow women to be ordained deacons. She argued that in doing so the Church would be returning to its history because women were ordained deacons in the early centuries of Christianity. She also noted the consistency of such a decision with the belief that we all were created in God’s image—women, as men, can image Christ and gendered arguments for its prohibition should be denied.

O’Connell focused on overcoming the damage caused by the sex abuse crisis. He argued that to process and heal after the scandal and to ensure it is not repeated, the laity must be more involved. He urged the Church to allow more laypeople to participate in its councils, committees, and synods, and he offered that canon law reform could aid in redistributing power in the fight against clericalism. These two reforms, he argued, could begin the move towards inclusive justice and mercy.

Imperatori-Lee advocated for dismantling the seminary system as it currently exists. She argued that part of the problem of clericalism and the abuse crisis is that  the problems priests face are exacerbated by the fact that seminarians are educated and formed in isolation from the future congregations in which they will live and serve. Instead, she advocated for models of collaborative formation. For example, the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry offers classes where seminarians and priests study alongside lay people. She affirmed this model and pushed for a more universal adoption of it.

Gaillardetz argued to reform the relationship between the local Church and the Church hierarchy. He specifically highlighted the relationship between bishops and the communities they serve. Gaillardetz envisioned a Church in which bishops are not ordained to titular sees, but instead are called from and for their local communities in smaller sees to which they are more accountable. This reform, he proposed, would require dividing existing dioceses into smaller jurisdictions, but it would allow bishops to be more active with the faithful as opposed to the honorific model that some episcopal appointments project.

Massa then invited the panelists to either expand on their first point or to highlight a new theological question of interest. Zagano took this opportunity to expand on her first point—the diaconate for women. She highlighted for the audience that no doctrinal law prohibits women’s ordina- tion to the diaconate, only ecclesial law. She illustrated this point with the story of two women ordained to the diaconate as recently as 19th century France.

O’Connell introduced a new point. He perceives a struggle between the strict and lenient interpretations of Church precepts, laws, and beliefs as well as in the discourse between the two. American Catholics are thus faced with a choice between extreme right or left (conservative or progressive) positions with little room for a middle ground. In response to this situation, O’Connell proposed two remedies. One remedy is “to learn to love baseball before one learns the rules of the game.” In this, O’Connell emphasized that learning to love God should be prioritized over engaging in theological debates about canon law. A second remedy is advocating for a centered Catholicism that refuses the demand adherence polemical stances are making from both sides. These, he believes, ought to be enticing for individuals looking to return to the Church, which can be facilitated by a program— comparable to RCIA—to welcome back lapsed Catholics.

Imperatori-Lee made the case for decolonizing the Church. She asserted that many minoritized Catholics, such as women, Latinx, Asian, and African Catholics, have been subjugated and instrumentalized by the Catholic Church. She hopes that someday non-Western Catholics will be able to fully participate in and thus shape the Catholic ecclesial narrative. As she said, “Wounds heal from the margins in.”

Finally, Gaillardetz hopes to find a new theology that gives people a reason to stay in the Catholic Church in the midst of so many reasons to leave. When the Second Vatican Council declared that salvation can be found outside the Church, out of a sense of salvific optimism, the unintended consequence was complacency by Church hierarchy. Gaillardetz envisions a new practical theology that attracts young people and marginalized communities.

The lively Q&A session that followed focused on inclusion within the Catholic Church. The audience raised issues such as the role of “paraecclesial” communities in the Church and women of color in Jesuit institutions of higher education.