Published in the December issue of The Furrow, appears with the kind permission of the editor.

“You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19).  This means that we belong, that we have a part to play, and that we have rights in the church.  However, the belonging that is part of citizenship (in the church and more broadly) must be distinguished from group-think or tribalism.  These distortions of belonging turn boundaries into barriers; they focus more on being against than being for; they slip into idolatry with regard to our positions, confusing signposts with destinations.  It is when people are caught up in a crowd of the righteous that they sometimes find themselves crucifying outsiders. 

icon Being a citizen in the Church

There is another danger, and here I refer to the danger of the church being unbalanced – having a big head but too small a body – as explored in a new book by François Urvoy, La Tête Sans Corps.[1]  I take it that ACTA is about getting a better balance in the relationship and dialogue between members of the Body of Christ.  My hope for A Call to Action is that it works towards a church that, in striving to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is humble, inclusive, compassionate and committed to the dignity and equality of all its members.  The particular focus of ACTA should be promoting honest, respectful, serious and mutually responsive dialogue in which laity, bishops, clergy and religious can share together their faith experience and their concerns for the church.  A mature church is impossible if, instead of a climate of free and open discussion, there is a climate of fear and lack of consultation; if, instead of communication including all members of the church and respecting the voices, experiences and insights of all, there is limited and unilateral communication from church leaders who assume they already possess the fullness of truth and that they adequately represent and speak for the People of God. 


There are seven steps in the journey of this talk.  First, a comment on the phrase ‘not sheep.’  Second, I share some of the assumptions I am making.  Third, key features of citizenship are unpacked.  Fourth, I will say something about the problem of obedience, but not quite what you might expect.  Fifth, I will claim that the climate for ecclesial citizenship has not been healthy, offering some examples.  Sixth, as an extension of part five, an imbalance between several types of ministry will receive attention.  Seventh, rather fancifully, a comparison between the history wars and controversy in the church is made.  I hope that what I say stimulates your own thinking about our being citizens of the church. 



1.  Not sheep


‘The Church is essentially an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of persons, the pastors and the flock, those who occupy a rank in the different degrees of the hierarchy and multitude of the faithful.  So distinct are these categories that with the pastoral body only rests the necessary right and authority for promoting the end of society and directing all its members towards that end; the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors.’ That was Pope Pius X in 1906.[2]  Here the laity was to pay, pray and obey.  The 1983 Code of Canon Law says: ‘what is proper to the laity excludes them from participation in the governance of the Church. The ordained are to exercise power, while the laity may only cooperate in the exercise of power in the Church.’  Pope John Paul II made it clear that ‘opposition to the teaching of the Church’s pastors cannot be seen as a legitimate expression either of Christian freedom or of the diversity of the Spirit’s gifts.’[3]  Pope Benedict XVI reiterated to the Church in China in 2007: ‘The principles of independence and autonomy, self-management and democratic administration of the Church are incompatible with Catholic doctrine.’[4] 


Let me paint for you a scenario; if necessary, please, temporarily suspend your disbelief about this scenario, just to enter, at least briefly, into the situation.  I would be fascinated if our bishops were asked the following question and then tried to address it:

What is one meant to do if one believes that a good deal of what is said by the bishops and other institutional leaders of the Church is not only misguided, inappropriate and unwise, but also that it obscures the effective communication of the Gospel, is damaging to the common good, indeed is even sinful in some of its assumptions and implications? 


In posing this question, I am assuming that such a person should pray seriously, asking for God’s guidance, in all humility and be aware that they may be wrong in their judgement; I am also taking it for granted that they should ensure that they are properly informed about the teaching and tradition of the Church and this should include reading authoritative texts.  And I take it for granted that such a person should pray earnestly for the deeper conversion and enlightenment by the Holy Spirit of the church leaders she or he is questioning or criticising.  However, after that, then what?  Is it always right to wait for better times?  To keep silent?  To leave the status quo as it is?  To assume it is not for me to try to change things?   If we are sheep, the answer is: it is not our business to question or correct our shepherds who know better than us.  If we are ecclesial citizens, … well, I guess you can see that I think something more robust is called for. 


The theologian Tom O’Loughlin, who spoke to us at the first ACTA gathering in London last October, gives a good example of what is expected of sheep in an article published a few months ago. 

‘Some couple of months ago, a new Parish Priest arrived in a north London parish and said, quite naturally, that he wanted to get to know all the organizations and groups in the parish .  A woman, let’s call her Gladys, had been running a book-reading group in the community, which varied between six and twelve people. They selected, in turn, a book that an individual had found useful, then, having read it, they shared their reactions.  The model is a common one in reading groups across our society.  Gladys invited the new Parish Priest to come to the group when the book for discussion was Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning.  At once he objected that this was not a suitable book for a Catholic reading group, and asked to suggest another, recommended Richard Rohr’s Falling Upwards.  Both these decisions were accepted.  At the next meeting he prescribed another book, and when it was pointed out that it was now not his turn to pick the book, he replied that if they wished to call themselves a “Catholic” reading group, then only he, as a priest appointed by the bishop, could decide what books were suitable.  Gladys, rather embarrassed as she had initially invited him, went to see him to ask why he felt it was necessary to intervene like this, and was told that “the church is not a democracy” and arguing was setting her at odds with the Pope.  Most of the members have now stopped attending the group and Gladys herself no longer thinks it a viable way of finding discussion partners for issues of concern to her.’[5] 


I remember a very similar experience myself.  When the charismatic movement hit the UK in the second half of the 1970s a group of us in my parish wanted to set up a prayer group.  We were summoned by the parish priest and met in the lounge of his presbytery.  He told us, in no uncertain terms, that we could indeed set up a prayer group but only on condition that we agreed to hold our gathering either in the church or in this lounge in the presbytery.  As far as I remember, that group never took off after that. 


Paul Lakeland makes an interesting comment about sheep: ‘The pattern of shepherd/sheep, while it is metaphorically appropriate to the description of the relationship between Christ and his church, is destructive of the daily life of the community of faith.  Shared responsibility and accountability are the characteristics that need to replace this patriarchal and patronizing relationship.’[6] 



2.  Some assumptions


Let me spell out some of my assumptions.  First, as I understand it, discipleship entails a complex interaction between imitation and originality, of docility and creativity.  Just as Christ saves me in a unique way (in relation to my unique combination of needs, strengths, sins, gifts, blind spots, and situation), so my response must also be unique/particular and with my own input providing some element of originality - making something of what I have been given, doing something special with my inheritance.  ACTA is necessary at the moment, though I hope one day it won’t be necessary, because the present climate in the church in recent years has stifled the original aspect of discipleship, over-emphasizing docility and inhibiting true ownership and appropriation, initiative and responsible citizenship within the church - through a false understanding of how authority should work. 


Second, I am assuming that healthy ecclesial citizenship depends on learning from the experience of trying to live Gospel, and also on ownership, participation, trust, space to try things out and make mistakes (unpunished), and learn from these; such citizenship also needs a sense of partnership and interdependence. 


Third, I assume that healthy citizenship in the church will produce not only map-readers – readers of what has been handed on and learned in and from the past - but also map-makers, people who are able to work at the frontiers of knowledge, in new contexts, creatively facing new questions.  To be a map-maker one has to spend some time ‘off the map’ or beyond the current map, as well as being habituated to the use and interpretation of maps (in the plural). 


Fourth, another assumption is that we cannot be a leaven in and for the world without having a voice in the church.  And that one of the places we should learn to ask good questions of the world is in the safety of being able to ask good questions of the church.  Effective citizenship in the world can be boosted and reinforced by the experience of effective citizenship in the church; but a stunted role as an ecclesial citizen is likely to contribute to a restricted contribution as a citizen in the secular world. 


Fifth, I agree with Paul Lakeland that ‘we should test the health of the ecclesial community in ways analogous to those we use to examine the health of the body politic.  A healthy church will possess lively mediating structures, a strong public forum of ideas, and a clear conduit between those in positions of leadership and the members of the community.  This conduit must be a two-way street.’[7] 



3.  Citizenship: features and conditions


Good citizenship depends on citizens possessing a range of personal qualities.  They need an informed awareness of public affairs (we might call this political literacy).  They need a moral compass which helps them to take a principled and consistent view of what is right and wrong among the practical options available.  They need to be committed to community and the common good (being willing to accept burdens and opportunities, responsibilities and rights), wanting to make a positive difference in the lives of others.  In order to participate effectively, they must be able to collaborate with others and be part of a team, including being able to respond constructively to those who have different perspectives and beliefs.  All this applies as much in the church as in society. 


Good citizenship also depends on certain conditions being present in society.  There should be mechanisms in place which allow for one’s voice to be heard and taken into account and where one can call others to account.  There should be flourishing intermediate bodies, acting as buffer zones between the smallest and most intimate groupings such as the family, and the institutional weight of either the state or the international church. These intermediate bodies (for example, parishes in the church, or voluntary associations in secular society) can provide spaces for dialogue, argument and exchange of experiences and perceptions between people (in the church or in society) with diverse roles and responsibilities, so that there can be mutual learning. 

4.  The problem of obedience


One of the problems with our church is that its leaders, obviously with quite a few honourable exceptions among individuals, as a general pattern of their behaviour, seem to have no proper understanding of obedience or any serious appreciation of authority.  The meaning of obedience is deep listening, taking seriously what you learn through that listening, and adjusting your behaviour in response to that listening.  Listening to what?  Listening patiently and respectfully to the concerns, experiences, insights, questions, perplexities, hopes and fears of the people of God.  As for authority, this is something given, by the people if and when they authorise others to act in their name; it is not something imposed on these people, from above, and without their consent. 


In secular society these days, governments of all political leanings in our country find it necessary to check how close or far they are from people’s experiences and perceptions.  They set up fora, groups for sounding out views and responses to what has been offered in current policies.  How often are we, as citizens of the church, asked by our leaders what we have learnt about faith from our living with it, about our perceptions of our faith needs, and about what helps and hinders us as disciples?  But this might make them vulnerable to criticism.  Now, as Donald Cozzens reminds us, ‘one of the marks of a mature person is the capacity for self-criticism.  It follows that a mature institution would be capable of self-criticism.  [but] the Catholic Church abhors self-criticism as something that would weaken its credibility and moral authority.’[8]    


This failure to understand obedience, this failure to appreciate the nature of authority, flies in the face of what most of us have to learn in the course of normal life, in bringing up families, in teaching others, in working in organizations, in seeking to get the best from others in a team.  Thus, it might be claimed that one problem with the Church is that there is far too much disobedience, especially at the highest levels of leadership. 


As for the misunderstanding of authority, this contributes to its abuse in three different ways (abuses, of course, shared by leaders in many walks of life, not just in the church).  The main mistake is that of confusing compliance for commitment.  These two are very different and the conditions that make for compliance are in many ways quite antithetical to the conditions that elicit commitment.  Connected to this is the mistake of confusing disagreement with disloyalty, and thus wanting, wherever possible, to silence disagreement.  Closely connected to this as a mistake is giving in to the temptation to micro-manage what should properly be decided by people close to the action (in order to maintain control over them, lest through imagination, initiative and by thinking for themselves, they act in ways that do not conform to the party line).  When a pattern emerges of more authority being claimed than is accepted, and an atmosphere of evasion and unreality pervades ecclesial relations and communication - you pretend to teach us; we pretend to follow; but we won’t kick up a fuss - eventually this undermines the church as a credible community.  One cannot lead effectively if at the same time one fosters an unhealthy climate for communication.  This is what ACTA is pressing for, as I understand it: a healthy climate for communication: mutual, respectful, serious, open, honest, engaged and courageous conversations between laity, clergy, bishops and religious.  Why?  In aid of more mature discipleship on all sides.  In aid of more responsible participation in carrying the Gospel forward. 



5.  Unhealthy climate for ecclesial citizenship


The secular priest Donald Cozzens, in a searingly honest series of reflections on a church he both loves and has great concerns about, laments ‘The church’s woefully underdeveloped, act-focused, medieval theology of human sexuality.  …  the unmet spiritual needs of Catholics; the church’s restrictive, subordinating attitude towards women; the absence of real financial transparency; and the shocking sexual abuse scandals and the arrogant episcopal cover-ups that made a terrible reality all the worse.’[9]  To these we might add the damaging implications of the language used by quite a number of church leaders about those who are homosexual.   


The proper relationship between structure and life – where structure should serve and enable life – has been reversed.  This is often as true for the church as it seems to be for schools, universities, business and many public services, like hospitals.  The Sabbath, scripture tells us, is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.  Yet, as Lakeland reminds us, ‘At no time in history has the institution behaved more like a corporate giant than it does today, with head offices in Rome and branches throughout the world, staffed by managers called bishops.  … [We have  had] 'a pattern of episcopal appointments that has stressed loyalty to the head office over capacity to lead the local church.’[10] 


Sadly, it seems to me, a very unhealthy climate for ecclesial citizenship has arisen.  Centralized control has led to a situation where too many in the hierarchy and even more so in the Curia in Rome are insufficiently honest, open, humble, listening, inclusive, or pastoral in outlook.  Where this is true it obscures the Gospel, it damages the credibility of the Church, and it contributes to the desperate dysfunctionality of the Church.  Where this is true, it means the church is deaf to the work and voice of God in the world, and this leads to a stifling of creativity, sponsorship of inauthenticity, a stunting of the emergence of responsible discipleship; it has led to the nurture of careerism, priority given to secrecy, and this leaves the way open for abuse of power and de-humanizing manipulation.  Such a modus operandi is gravely unethical and seriously disobedient, both to the injunctions of the Gospel and to the voice of God as reflected in God’s people.  A pervasive divine-right construal of authority relies on a faulty understanding of the relationship between divine action and human cooperation and it leads to a disregard for subsidiarity, excessive centralization and the prevention of open discussion – treating any emphasis on the need for human consent as inevitably opposed to the discovery of divine truth.  


I have for a long time proposed three questions as being very helpful in all kinds of work situations and in organizational relationships.  For example, between teachers and students, between more senior staff and more junior ones, between people at one level in an organization and those at another level.  It would be worth while if these three questions were posed in the context of the church too.  First, what am I doing that you do find helpful?  If I do not know the answer to that, I might stop doing the very thing that you find helpful.  Second, what am I doing that you don’t find helpful?  If I decide I must still carry on with that, at the very least I owe you an explanation of my reasons for not stopping doing what you don’t find helpful.  Third, what am I not doing that you would find helpful?  Although I cannot guarantee to take on all your suggestions, again I owe you an explanation of why I can accommodate some but not others.  To take on board these questions is not to give away authority; it is to exercise it in a way that helps it to be more legitimate. 


In contrast, an authority that assumes that it already has the fullness of truth, that it knows all the answers, that is unwilling to face questions, that is not willing to learn from its mistakes, from those on the receiving end of its decisions, from the people it seeks to serve, from perspectives beyond the pale as well as those from within the ranks, from the dissatisfied as well as those who are happy as things are – such an authority is arrogant, blind, deaf – and self-defeating.  Such an authority places unnecessary obstacles in the path of the people of God, obstacles to spiritual maturity, responsible discipleship, the development of a robust conscience, effective participation in the life and work of the church and a flexible and creative response in addressing the needs of the world. 


As citizens of the church wanting a more healthy ecclesial community, at the moment we have a situation where access to the Eucharist is treated as less important than preservation of clerical celibacy.  And it is one in which the mission of the church is subordinate to its structure, instead of the other way round.  This structure currently obscures the fact that lay people are the vanguard of the church’s mission.  Compliance with the party line seems more essential for eligibility for leadership than pastoral experience, spiritual wisdom, or capacity to galvanize others into action.  No wonder you won’t often meet such leaders at the doctor’s surgery, sitting next to you on the bus, in the queue at the local supermarket check-out, for, outside of special contexts when they are on a pedestal, and usually beyond contradiction, there is not much chance of coming across church leaders where most people are to be found.  Obviously there are honourable exceptions among our church leaders to this, for which we are, of course, very grateful. 


Let me mention one feature of the church that militates against the development of mature ecclesial citizenship.  One sentence stood out for me in an issue of The Tablet last year.[11]  Under the heading ‘More Irish priests silenced by Vatican’ it is stated that: ‘In most cases, the CDF has acted on complaints by anonymous individuals.’  If this is true, given that we are referring here to comments made by these priests in their talks or writings, not to actions they are accused of taking against individuals, this is a flagrant injustice and, as such, a deeply immoral practice.  The default position of those in leadership positions, on receipt of such anonymous complaints, should be threefold.  First, the complaints should be immediately destroyed, either by burning or in the shredder.  Second, the recipient should pray for the soul of the sender, that they may find peace in their disturbed state.  Third, such leaders should periodically issue public advice making clear that they do not welcome anonymous complaints, cannot act upon them, and that senders should have very grave reasons indeed if they have not first made every reasonable effort to persuade the person (who is accused of some error) of the nature and significance of that error and, after they have tried this and failed, at least have the decency to alert the person that a complaint will be sent, to whom, and ensuring that the complaint itself is copied to the person accused.  This is what is required in order to create the conditions for healthy and honest communication within the Church, without which a learning and loving community cannot be built. 



6.  Types of ministry


There are several different types of ministry, for example there is prophetic ministry, pastoral ministry, protective ministry and educational ministry.  All four of these are needed in the church.  The exercise of each one calls for a different style or voice of authority.  These four kinds of ministry are exercised by parents.  One minute we have to speak out about what is right and what is wrong – by word, by example, and sometimes by using sanctions – our children are not naturally saintly all the time!  We have a duty to teach them to think of others, to share, to say sorry, thank you and please, to make sacrifices, to wait their turn, and so on. This is the prophetic ministry in a minor key; as you can see, it merges into the educational.  At another moment, we have to pick up the pieces, mend wounds, heal hurts, make things better, put on plasters, offer medicine; we must accept and forgive – whoever was to blame for the pain.  Our helping predominates when we are in pastoral mode. At a third moment, we must work to keep our children safe, without crushing their initiative, imagination or self-confidence.  We must explain why some actions, some places, some situations, perhaps some people and certainly some kinds of behaviour are dangerous.  This is a protective ministry.  And, often in unexpected ways, we find ourselves being teachers with our children, helping them to learn about bodies, food, animals, nature, other people and the world around us.  In these ways, parents exercise prophetic, pastoral, protective and educational ministries in the domestic church that is the home; and on a smaller scale than the bigger church. 


Unfortunately, in that bigger church, we have experienced for quite some time an unduly narrow exercise of authority and an unbalanced emphasis among these four types of ministry.  While I acknowledge that there is a legitimate role for all four, prophetic, pastoral, protective and educational, ministries, it seems to me that we much too often experience the first and the third, that is, the prophetic and the protective, and much less frequently experience the second and the fourth, that is the pastoral and the educational emphasis.  In the prophetic role of the church we hear what is counter to the church’s teaching and must be resisted and rejected – and perhaps voted against at the next election or lobbied for in letters to our Member of Parliament.  And, for our protection, we note the steps that are taken to prevent the deposit of faith from being contaminated by false interpretations, ensuring the isolation of the simple faithful from misleading theologians and others who might introduce them to errors, in what Cozzens calls ‘sentinel duty.’[12] 



7.  History wars and the church


I recently read an article by Richard Evans called ‘Myth-busting’ in The Guardian.[13] It was about recent struggles over the role of history in the school curriculum.  As I read this article, I constantly found resonances with struggles in the church.  Allow me some licence in this fanciful application of mine.  I will take three sentences from Evans and after each one I will briefly reflect on how it might relate to the church and my topic today.  You might call it history wars applied to the church. 


1.  “If we want to help young people to develop a sense of citizenship, they have to be able and willing to think for themselves.”  So, too, if we want to help people, young and not so young, to develop a sense of citizenship in God’s Kingdom, they have to be able and willing to think for themselves.  Insisting that maverick theologians must be censored and silenced in order to prevent the simple faithful from being disturbed – and giving so much credence to the self-appointed Catholic thought-police (i.e., the inveterate heresy-hunters) – is not the way to equip ecclesial citizens who can think for themselves.

2.  “National identity isn’t something that can be manufactured or imposed on a people by a government.  It has to emerge organically, by popular consent.”  Ecclesial identity isn’t something that can be manufactured or imposed on a people by the hierarchy or Curia.  It has to emerge organically, by drawing upon the experience, insights and contributions of the people of God. 

3.  “Do we want a narrow, partisan, isolationist national identity where foreigners and immigrants are regarded with hostility or suspicion, other countries treated as inferior, and triumphalist historical myths are drummed into our children?”  Do we want a narrow, partisan, isolationist ecclesial identity where people of other faiths or other Christian denominations or unbelievers are regarded with hostility or suspicion or as inferior and a whitewashed and simplified version of the muddy, erratic and complex history of the Church is drummed into our children and adults? 



Of course some of this is painful, painful for me to say about a community I have lived, loved and been committed to all my life; and uncomfortable for some people to hear.  But pain and frustration, even if over-stated, should not be simply suppressed as if they had no right to exist.  They need to be brought into the open, reflected on, refuted where necessary, and responded to appropriately. 



John Sullivan is Professor of Christian Education at LiverpoolHopeUniversity.


[1] François Urvoy, La Tête Sans Corps (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2013). 

[2] Pius X, Vehementer Nos, #8. 

[3] John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor #113. 

[4] Benedict XVI in Letter to Catholic Church in China, 27 May 2007. 

[5] Tom O’Loughlin, ‘The Credibility of the Catholic Church as Public Actor,’ New Blackfriars, March 2013, p.147. 

[6] Paul Lakeland: The Liberation of the Laity (New York & London: Continuum, 2003), p.271. 


[7]Lakeland, op. cit., p.215. 

[8] Donald Cozzens: Notes From the Underground (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2013), p.203. 

[9] Cozzens, op. cit., p.90.    

[10]Lakeland, op. cit., p.240. 

[11] 21st April 2012, p.31. 

[12] op. cit., p.175. 

[13] Review section, Saturday 13th July 2013, pp.2 – 4.