Toward the end of his splendid new history of Catholics in the United States (The Faithful, Harvard University Press), James M. O’Toole writes that the church of the twenty-first century is not likely to include broader lay participation in decision making. That’s because, he notes, “too often, bishops still compare such participation to the ‘abuse’ of trusteeism.”

O’Toole is right to put the word abuse in quotation marks. Historical scholarship demonstrates that the lay-trustee system in Catholic parishes in the early Republic (1780–1830), in which elected lay trustees administered church property incorporated in their name, was for the most part highly successful. More than twenty years ago, Patrick W. Carey observed in People, Priests, and Prelates that the great majority of trustee experiences were characterized by “harmony and cooperation.” His meticulous research demonstrated that between 1815 and 1830, the experiment’s most contentious period, the number of Catholic churches expanded to 230, yet there were only six serious trustee disputes. While some parishes experienced problems, the real story is that trusteeism had a 97-percent success rate.

Contrast those statistics with some from the recent clergy sex-abuse scandal. To be sure, the abuse rate of 4 percent among clerics is both shocking and lamentable. Still, attention must be paid to the 96 percent of priests who were faithful to their calling during the same period. When it comes to lay trusteeship, however, a 2.6-percent problem rate is all that seems to matter to some. No attention is paid to the overwhelming 97.4 percent of experiences Carey described as harmonious and cooperative.

In truth, those who invoke past difficulties with lay trusteeship are doing so with an eye to opposing any contemporary initiatives for lay participation in decision making. But the champions of the status quo seem to lack accurate historical perspective. Unfortunately, such misinformation seems to have been passed down from one generation of priests to the next. Forty years ago Carey found that “memories of the former trustee system of church management made many of the older clerics reject the institution of parish councils after Vatican II.”

One might regret that in 1829 the American bishops chose to abolish, rather than refine, the lay-trustee system. As Jesuit historian Gerald P. Fogarty has written, “Unfortunately, the condemnation of lay trusteeism also meant the end of an official lay voice in the church.” The subsequent corporation-sole approach that the bishops adopted—in which property was understood as being held exclusively in the name of the bishop—brought a certain tidiness but also a heightened centralization of episcopal authority. As Carey wrote, this arrangment put “few institutional restraints upon episcopal powers.”

Today we stand in need of a careful, scholarly assessment of the corporation-sole model. It has clear downsides. To limit their exposure to liability claims in sex-abuse cases, some dioceses recently ended the corporation-sole status of parishes and incorporated them as individual, nonprofit parish corporations. Still, the most problematic aspect of the corporation-sole model is that it was accompanied frequently by a corporation-sole mentality on the part of bishops. I think this is what Notre Dame historian Scott Appleby had in mind when he addressed the U.S. Catholic bishops in June 2002 at the height of the scandal. “Catholics on the right, and the left, and in the ‘deep middle’ are all in basic agreement as to the causes of this scandal,” he told the bishops. And he challenged them by calling the scandal “a betrayal of fidelity enabled by the arrogance that comes with unchecked power.”

My point is not to advocate for a return to the lay-trustee system, but to note that historically uninformed and negative judgments of the system are still being invoked to thwart initiatives for broader lay participation. Finding an appropriate balance of powers in the church, appropriate checks and balances in the church’s structures and practice, must be a priority for contemporary Catholicism. What some call a “merely consultative” role is not working for the laity, nor is it working for many clergy, whose views are routinely unsolicited or ignored by their bishops.

The astute O’Toole is correct. Some bishops seem to have allowed their uninformed judgment of the nineteenth-century trustee system to color how they relate to their dioceses. It is time to set such historical misperceptions aside. We need to build a church of accountability and responsibility, the one that tradition calls for and the future requires.


Related: James P. McCartin reviews James M. O'Toole's The Faithful
The Bottom Line, by David Gibson

Rodger Van Allen is professor of theology and religion at Villanova University. He is the author of The Commonweal and American Catholicism (Fortress, 1974) and Being Catholic: Commonweal from the Seventies to the Nineties (Loyola University Press, 1993).
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