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...

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About the Author

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).