Smile When You Say 'Laity'

The Hidden Triumph of the Consumer Ethos

“We already run the church.” Reacting to Charles Morris’s question on women’s ordination, Joan Peters of Saint Cecilia Parish in Houston could have been speaking about the American Catholic laity (see Commonweal, “A Tale of Two Dioceses,” June 6, 1997). Though the reality and depth of the laity’s victory may be obscured in certain ways, I want to argue in this essay that the laity have emerged triumphant in the course of a velvet revolution in U.S. Catholicism. Without the usual manifestoes and vehicles—the expropriation of the means of salvation and declarations of principles, grievances, and announcements of a new era—this lay revolution has now overcome or marginalized most pockets of resistance to its victory. Unlike other successes that have many parents, this one is an orphan. Liberals, fearful that a gray, frosty Thermidor threatens the tender plants given life by the spirit of Vatican II, do not recognize how successful their efforts have been. Conservatives, whose pandemonial scenarios reflect at least a sense that something monumental has occurred, do not see how they themselves have fostered this lay revolution, indeed, represent one of its most powerful elements. Yet unless we recognize and come to grips with this revolution, we are in danger of misunderstanding and misconceiving the challenges facing the U.S. Catholic church in the twenty-first century.

The most open and yet best-kept secret of the...

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About the Author

Eugene McCarraher is associate professor of humanities and history at Villanova University. He is completing The Enchantments of Mammon: Corporate Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination.