National Catholic Reporter, November 01, 2002
This week's front page

Church in Crisis - Analysis

19th-century lessons in lay governance


“Frankly, sometimes, I am tired of commentaries and prattle about what some think is needed to correct and reform the church. Probably, I have also contributed to the plethora of supposed infallible assertions.”

So wrote Fr. Aldo J. Tos, 72, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Greenwich Village, N.Y., in a June newsletter to his flock, the week before the American bishops were to meet in Dallas to discuss the church’s scandal. In May, St. Joseph’s Pastoral Council had sent a letter to every bishop in the country outlining how they wanted the bishops to respond.

But the deepest issue -- which Tos calls the “culture of mendacity” that has nurtured the abuse and cover-up -- was not on the agenda.

St. Joseph’s, 165 years ago put under interdict by Bishop John Dubois, might have been called then one of the worst parishes in the country. Today it may have some non-infallible answers to some of the church’s problems.

In the 21st century in the world’s leading democracy, a bishop is still a feudal lord, answerable to no one but the pope in Rome, who has appointed him bishop because he would not raise tough questions and not challenge the authority who has given him a ring to be kissed, a throne and a pointed hat.

In America it was not always that way.

Up through the 1830s, laymen, through a system called trusteeism, virtually controlled the daily operations of the church. According to state, not ecclesiastical, law intended partly to limit the influence of religious institutions, churches and colleges were incorporated under the ownership of lay boards of trustees. The boards bought the property, built the church, selected the pastor, set his salary and fired him -- or attempted to, depending on the guts and political skill of the local bishop.

If lay trustees had owned the churches and controlled the finances of the parishes in Boston, Los Angeles, New York and Milwaukee, would an offending priest have been shifted under a cloud of secrecy from one set of victims to another? Would hush money have been slipped to a blackmailer?

New York Daily News columnist Pete Hamill, letting his mind wander during Mass on a rainy Sunday at old St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street, the oldest Catholic church in New York and a short walk from St. Joseph’s, wrote in the May 13 issue of his newspaper: “No, the answer is in the past.”

Conditions have changed. Catholics are no longer threatened by nativist mobs, when they needed a tough Irish prelate like Bishop “Dagger John” Hughes to whip Protestant antagonists and rebellious trustees into line. “But,” says Hamill, “the system created by Hughes, and endorsed by the Vatican, remains in place. A tiny group of careerist clergymen still runs the American church, adept at the intricacies of church politics, but immune from the scrutiny of 633 million Catholics.”

Most historians, theologians and priests with whom I have spoken give the trustee system credit, would not apply it to today’s scandal, but embrace its central principle: The voice of the laity must be heard.

But if trusteeism was so great, what happened to it?

In the early 19th century, democratic elements in church government emerged from several sources: prelates like Archbishop John Carroll, who insisted that American bishops, including himself, be elected by the priests; civil law which mandated trusteeships; national parishes, particularly German and Polish, who brought over European traditions of the laypeople establishing and directing the parish; visionaries like John England, bishop of Charleston, S.C. (1820-1842), sent from Ireland, who arrived with a diocesan constitution, modeled on the American Constitution. His parishes governed themselves through periodic conventions where elected delegates of clergy and laypeople discussed the region’s problems.

From the beginning, American Catholic leaders, known as “republican” Catholics, inspired by the politics of Andrew Jackson, got the idea that American institutions presented a unique soil in which the church could thrive.

At the end of the century a group of progressive prelates, known as “Americanists” -- including founders of The Catholic University of America -- fought an ultimately futile battle to demonstrate that democratic institutions and Catholic belief could complement one another.

But how could that be when the Roman Catholic church is by definition hierarchical, while American Protestant Congregationalism works from the bottom-up? In heartland America, where belief is determined by the experience of the community moved by the Spirit, not by an authority that claims a pipeline to God?

Trusteeism died for several reasons.

Hughes’ brand of Irish Catholicism, which respected authority, came to dominate the church. Vatican I (1870) declared infallibility. “Americanism” was condemned as a heresy.

As historians Patrick W. Carey and Msgr. Thomas J. Shelley have pointed out, trusteeism was not strictly democratic. The trustees were elected not by the congregation but by the pew holders, the wealthier businessmen who rented the church seats while the poor people stood in the back.

Although the system worked well over the long run, there was enough infighting, rebellion, factionalism and scandal to give it a bad name.

In Philadelphia, 1820 to 1824, St. Mary’s cathedral parish went into a schism over Fr. William Hogan, a popular young Irish preacher whom the bishop, Henry Conwell, suspended because he criticized authorities and refused to live in the parish house. The trustees elected Hogan pastor and barred the bishop from his own cathedral. At the next trustees election, Hogan and Conwell ran opposing tickets, and the police had to break up campaign rallies that turned into riots.

In New York in 1839, when trustees rehired as Sunday school teacher a priest that Dubois had removed, his young auxiliary, John Hughes, told a crowd of 600 Irishmen crammed into old St. Patrick’s church that the trustees were like the British and that the “sainted spirits” of the congregation’s ancestors would disown them if they allowed the trustees to prevail. Hughes considered his victory a “revolution,” in effect the beginning of the end of trusteeism in America.

Marquette University historian Carey, author of People, Priests, and Prelates: Ecclesiastical Democracy, Tension, and Trusteeism (1987) and the leading authority on trusteeism, thinks a return to trusteeism would be a bad idea. England’s constitution and periodic conventions worked, and a new form of them could work today, he said. However, based on his experience, Carey is not confident that parish councils, whose members take their values from the local culture, are sufficiently informed theologically and liturgically to run the church.

Others I spoke to echoed the doubt that parish councils, as presently structured, are part of the solution. They can be as rebellious as trustees, as split as political parties, as ignorant and as stubborn as the pastors who ignore them. The Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (536, 537) acknowledges the difficulty in the tension between “deliberative” and “consultative” bodies that either advise or decide on church policy. The degree to which the people of God can actually “govern” has yet to be determined.

On the other hand, Notre Dame historian Jay P. Dolan argues that this is the best educated laity we have had, and that some lay liturgical coordinators know more than the priests. Fr. Tos stresses the parish’s obligation to create the intellectual atmosphere, through courses and lectures that prepare the laity to lead.

Fordham University’s James Fisher, author of The Catholic Counterculture in America, 1933-1962 (1989), sees an opportunity for the church to gain by “putting everything on the table” in discussing the current crisis, which has, in many ways “renewed our sense of parish loyalty.”

Shelley, a Fordham historian-theologian, is writing the history of St. Joseph’s Church. There, in 1836, the trustees, angered by the transfer of a popular preacher, drove out one pastor and declared war on his successor, Fr. Constance Pise, whom they considered a snob. They may have resented him, said Dubois, because he was a native-born American with an Italian father, rather than an Irishman.

Today, says Shelley, St. Joseph’s in an ideal parish. Tos is too humble to agree; but he began as pastor determined to follow Karl Rahner’s advice that the laity should have “deliberative” power. So his leadership style depends on shared prayer and listening.

There is a 12-member pastoral council elected by the 600 registered parishioners; an eight-member finance council of volunteers with money skills; and a parish manager-administrator, a retired CEO who gives it several days a week. Though canon law makes the council consultative, they govern by consensus. Tos says he would be a fool to not follow the voice of the Spirit in the group.

Their letter to the bishops called on the bishops to “exercise genuine leadership,” “beyond defensiveness and reaction, and beyond protectiveness of the church’s material assets,” and to “establish open structures” for conversations among themselves and with the laity on “sexuality, ministry and power, recognizing that these matters and their links form the cornerstone of the present crisis.”

It is an expression of both hope and dismay -- and some anger. But this kind of anger, says Shelley, is a sign of commitment to the church.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is Jesuit Community Professor of Humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. His latest book, Fordham: A History and Memoir, has just been published by Loyola Press. His e-mail address is

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