Here in the Diocese of Syracuse, for the last 5 or 6 years, a fairly well organized movement of lay Catholics has emerged to express dissent from the local bishop and the wider Church. Today, this movement is mostly visible in the activities of Faithful Catholics Concerned (FCC), a group I wrote about just under a year ago. FCC’s goals include opposing the local bishop and the USCCB when they become involved in ‘partisan politics’ and are shared by Catholics across the U.S. A few weeks ago FCC hosted a day long workshop with a keynote address by Fr. Jon Sivalon, who some Catholics certainly identify as radical. At the workshop, Fr. Sivalon quoted Thomas Merton to call for a lay-centered, ‘Vatican II’ Church. Local activists promote what could be called a theology of community, meaning that they understand God to be active whenever ‘two or more are gathered,’ and hence they see the institutional church as secondary to the substance of being Catholic. Does this attitude about the institutional Catholic Church make them radical?
In many ways FCC is the continuation of activism in the diocese that started around 2008; the primary motivator being a plan to reconfigure the diocese by reducing the number of parishes through mergers and closings. While the activism did involve significant disagreement with official reconfiguration plans, I wouldn’t call the average activist who was part of this movement radical. In fact, as I spent time with them over the 2 or 3 years I tried to learn about their movement, one of the things that struck me most was exactly how pious and respectful their attitudes were. For example, one of the main activities of a group calling themselves The Council of Parishes Upstate New York was a regular ‘First Friday’ protest outside of the chancery. Symbolically paying homage to a well known, if somewhat ‘old-school’ Catholic devotion, protesters gathered the first Friday of most months to quietly hold signs opposing the reconfiguration process. Their goal was to be present at the chancery – the center of diocesan power, and to clearly offer a variation on a theme of devotion to express dissent. If radical means to break away from existing structures and actions, then this isn’t a very radical move. In fact, it’s a quite pious protest.
In the paper I’ll be presenting at the ASA meetings this summer, I argue that the primary source of contention about reconfiguration in the diocese was not radical Catholics who were set to fundamentally change Church governance, but rather opposed narratives of the meaning of the parish and the relationship between the parish community and its priest. While the lay activists tended to believe a parish was sacred because of work the laity did, over generations, to make the place special, the diocese put forth a reconfiguration plan that privileged ordained leadership as the source of the sacred. This diocesan narrative of the sacred finds support in canon law and Catholic tradition (though that same tradition can be used to critique the role of the priest – Wills 2013), and essentially argues that without the continuing sacramental role of a priest, a parish building is just that – a building. The lay narrative of the sacred is built on, perhaps, radical beliefs about Catholic community relative to canon law, but it also finds support in the Vatican II Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity. This decree argues quite plainly that the apostolate of the laity can do much of the work of the priesthood in “places where priests are very few.” Many lay activists understood their activities as defending the sacred as much they framed it as critiquing diocesan leadership. It was a minority of activists who had a well articulated plan for new parish structures (i.e. Parish Life Coordinators), and all wanted to be clear that they wanted to cooperate and collaborate with the bishop. In fact, once they were able to schedule a few meetings with the diocese to discuss their opposition to the plan, they put a moratorium on the ‘First Friday’ protests. Why continue with this potentially disruptive strategy, they reasoned, when diocesan authorities now seemed willing to listen, or at least meet. These weren’t radical Catholic activists envisioning a new Catholic Church, but rather they were motivated by a desire defend the place they had best known the Church – their parishes.