Amid all the heart-searching that the Catholic Church is doing in response to the ongoing scandal of sexual abuse and episcopal malfeasance, the realization that laypeople need to be engaged in structural reform is central. No group should ever police itself, and that includes the bishops. The 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law made some progress in recognizing the rights and responsibilities of the laity, but it never got beyond allowing them a consultative role in the decision-making process. That this could change is clear, because the heartening truth about canon law is that it is subordinate to the Gospel; it must reflect and support Gospel priorities.
Take a look at the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles. One of the first things the apostles had to do was choose a successor to Judas. This was done by casting lots to decide which of the two candidates proposed should be chosen, but the “electors” were not the apostles. It was “a group of about one hundred and twenty persons” whom Peter charged with this responsibility. A little later, in chapter six of Acts, the apostles decided they needed help in administration, because they wished to devote themselves “to prayer and the ministry of the word” (not a bad call for today’s bishops, by the way). “The proposal was acceptable to the whole community,” who chose seven helpers, or deacons, and presented them to the apostles for ordination. No argument is reported about the suitability of any of the seven whom the community put forward.
We do not need to go that far back in history to see how lay leadership might be effective. If I were to tell you that I know of a bishop who believed in a substantial role for laypeople in the administration of a diocese, who called for expanded voter registration, whose diocese was in the deep South, and who stood up against a political pact between Rome and the civil government because it interfered with the rights of the local church, would you have a clue to whom I was talking about? Would it make it easier if I added that before his ordination as a bishop he was deeply involved in revolutionary republican politics? Would the giveaway be that he was a close friend of Daniel O’Connell? Extra credit to you if you have identified John England. Exactly two hundred years ago, he was appointed bishop of Charleston, South Carolina, at the age of thirty-three, after a decade or so of prominence in Irish politics, especially in his home city of Cork. And would you be surprised to discover that many of his ideas are of great potential importance to the American Catholic Church today?
As you think about John England’s pastoral skill and ecclesiological imagination, would it complicate your estimation of him to know that he is also the author of an influential defense of slavery? To put it more practically, does his defense of slavery nullify his vision of Church reform? Or even more concretely, should we be tearing down his statues? Let’s explore the light and the dark a little more intensely before we answer that question.
One of the striking things that historians like James O’Toole and Patrick Carey have pointed out is how similar in some respects the early American Church and the Church of today seem to be. For example, they had very few priests. John Carroll was elected bishop (elected, note) by his fellow priests in 1790—of whom there were all of twenty-six, though only twenty-three voted for him. And John England was appointed to a diocese that stretched not only through the whole of the state of South Carolina, but also included Georgia and North Carolina. In this ministry he was initially aided by a total of three priests. Yes, three. Not surprising, then, that he or one of the others might ride a hundred miles on horseback to visit one Catholic family. We certainly do not have that problem today, but we are moving in that direction, even if the clergy are not on horseback. Perhaps more importantly, the Catholic people in England’s time were staunchly republican. The colonies had thrown off the yoke of monarchy and now lived under a democratic constitution, one that separated church and state and encouraged Catholics to think that the rules that applied to the state could equally well apply to the Church. And with his background in Irish republican politics, Bishop England supported this way of thinking. He was deeply in love with the American political system.
You do have to wonder if England was appointed at such a young age and named to a new diocese in a country he had never visited because the Irish Church wanted to be shut of him. This seems not to be the case, though perhaps the Vatican thought that sending him into mission territory would remove a thorn in their side in British politics. In his homeland, England was well known for his outspoken advocacy of one cause or another, above all on what was called “the veto question,” where in fact he supported the Irish bishops against an agreement between the British government and the Vatican. Catholic Ireland in the early nineteenth century needed emancipation, and the government in London had offered it in exchange for the right of veto over the pope’s selection of bishops. The Vatican seemed ready to go along with this, but the leaders of the Irish Church resisted Rome. John England believed strongly in the rights of the local Church, as he did in separation of church and state, religious toleration, and freedom of conscience. On the matter of the veto question, he wrote that if the pope interfered it would be an act of “unjust aggression” to be resisted, adding: “In the present case I am led to think it evidently beyond his competency.” This sounds like reason enough to banish him to mission territory.