New year, new church?

While some are in their second week of resolutions meant to improve themselves, Ken Trainor thinks the church could use some improvement. He says it will take the resolve of the laity for that to happen.

By guest blogger Ken Trainor

In 2012, my hope for the Catholic Church is that the lowerarchy discovers its prophetic voice. The church has a prophetic tradition, but you wouldn’t know it by the silence of the laity. The majority of Catholics seem obedient, accommodating, resigned or philosophical. Catholics leave or lapse or seal their lips. Those who stay seem to pride themselves on making the best of bad situations—as if that were the only measure of spiritual maturity.

“What good would it do to speak out?” I hear. “It won’t change anything.” Maybe not, but it might do you, and your church, a world of good.

For example: “The new translation of the Mass is an insult to our intelligence and to the English language.” It’s not so hard. We should be saying it out loud—and loud enough to be heard.

There are many ways to make a contribution to your church—as lectors, cantors, Mass captains, communion ministers, CCD teachers, members of the parish council, singing in the choir. All admirable, all essential. But it is just as honorable to be a critic.

What separates prophetic Catholics from chronic whiners, cranks, axe-grinders, malcontents, and heretics? The quality of the criticism, the way it is delivered, and a desire to improve a beloved but imperfect church. Disagreeing without being disagreeable, offering genuine insight, providing big-picture perspective, and making a compelling case.

The institutional church, unfortunately, dismisses its dissidents. Rather than listening to what they have to say and carefully assessing its validity, the hierarchy automatically assumes that the prophet has the problem, not the church. Too many defenders of the faith hide behind the Bible: “They will persecute you for your beliefs.” Anyone who criticizes must be an “enemy,” determined to destroy the institution.

But demonizing its prophets deprives the church of something all institutions (without exception) need in order to remain healthy: constructive feedback.

The result is that lay Catholics have been conditioned to keep their criticisms to themselves. Why speak if no one’s listening?

The answer is that it cuts the body off from the head. A body without a head, they say, is aimless. But a head without a body is useless. One of the reasons the hierarchy has done such a poor job handling, among other things, the pedophilia scandal, is that it has been so disconnected from the laity. Without feedback, the institution suffers. The sex abuse scandal is a textbook example.

If the church truly is the people of God, as Vatican II proclaimed, then the Holy Spirit works through the lowerarchy just as much as the hierarchy. It also means that we all have a prophetic voice. The great prophets of the past didn’t speak out in order to be heard. They spoke out in order to bear witness—to the truth. They stood up to authority when it needed standing up to. The church has never needed that more than now.

If we all have a prophetic voice, then we are denying our very nature by not speaking out. We are shirking our responsibility because, as the people of God, we are, in fact, the church.

My hope is that this year, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, ordinary Catholics will find their prophetic voices and begin to speak out–praising where it is earned, criticizing where it is warranted.

There is no better way to serve your church.

Ken Trainor is a practicing Catholic and a practicing journalist whose weekly column can be found at He is currently writing a book about Vatican II.

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians. This post is part of a short series on New Year’s resolutions.