In This Issue
- Featured Story: The Francis effect and conservative Catholic disaffection
- Sometimes the Jihadists come back—but not usually radicalized
- Guides to secular living follow new atheist polemics
- Diverse chaplaincies seen as military asset
- Outside financial oversight gaining ground in megachurches
- Current Research: November 2014
- Defining Christian martyrdom down?
- Christians play influential role in pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong
- Findings & Footnotes: November 2014
- On/File: November 2014
Observers are saying that the honeymoon is over for Pope Francis, and now serious questions are being raised about his papacy that may point to further divisions in the church—especially among conservative Catholics.
From the start of his papacy, conservatives have raised issues about the manner in which he has sought conciliation with Catholic liberals and non-Catholics on various issues, but they have tended to interpret these actions as more a matter of style than substance. The recent Synod on the Family held by Francis has changed that perception. This especially became apparent when the pontiff appointed a committee that appeared to open the door toward greater leniency on issues such as allowing the divorced and remarried to communion and providing greater welcome to homosexuals in the church.
The Synod officially pulled back from making any such liberalization, but the fact that the pope had drawn up the committee in the first place caused a significant wave of uncertainty among conservatives about Francis’ leadership and their own place in the church.
Ross Douthat writes in the New York Times (Oct. 26) that the pope is on the brink of sowing “confusion among the church’s orthodox adherents—encouraging doubt and defections, apocalypticism and paranoia (remember there is another pope still living!) and eventually even a real schism.” While the conservatives are a minority, “they are the people who have done the most to keep the church vital in an age of institutional decline: who have given their energy and time and money in an era when the church is stained by scandal, who have struggled to raise families and live up to demanding teachings, who have joined the priesthood and the religious life in an age when those vocations are not honored as they once were.”
An editorial in the conservative Christian magazine First Things (Nov.) states “Every time Pope Francis criticizes this or that aspect of the Church’s witness on controversial issues, the media interprets his remarks as a sign of imminent surrender.” This silence or appearance of compromise on the part of Francis does not make the situation easy for conservative Catholics. “In America, Catholics (and others allied with us) are being hammered. Our children are bombarded with the message of ‘inclusion.’ We’re silenced in our workplace, silenced in all but a few educational institutions, silenced in courtrooms where some judges deem a sane view of marriage to be ‘religiously motivated,’ and therefore inadmissible, while others go so far as to denounce it as an irrational animus.”
The traditionalist newspaper The Remnant (September 30) goes much further in its criticisms on the deleterious effects of Francis’ papacy on conservatives and traditionalists and the church in general. The committee that Francis composed to make recommendations to the Synod are said to represent a whole new “Rhine Group of German bishops” who are aiming for similar liberal impact on the church as a group of liberal bishops had during Vatican II. Francis’ demotion of Cardinal Raymond Burke from the Vatican’s highest court has served as a rallying point for conservatives and traditionalists, often at odds over such issues as the importance of the Latin Mass, who feel disenfranchised in the church. The pope’s action against Burke may have created a “sympathetic martyr,” writes Megaera Erinyes. Now that he has nothing to lose after being demoted to a largely ceremonial position with the Order of Malta, Burke is speaking to the press. He is also making regular appearances on the conservative Catholic TV network EWTN, and openly criticizing the opening to liberalization during the synod and Francis’ leadership style, and is now more or less the “defacto leader of the traditionalist movement of orthodoxy in the Latin Church,” Erinyes concludes.
(First Things, 35 E. 21st St., Sixth Fl, New York, NY 10010; The Remnant, P.O. Box 1117 Forest Lake, MN 55025)
The small number of Western Muslims who have gone to Iraq and Syria to fight for the Islamic State (IS) has raised concerns that these jihadists may likely continue and even intensify their extremist views and activity upon returning home.
But there is scant evidence that these returnees will be as militant or fervent in the Jihadist cause as when they left home to take up the battle, write Daniel Byman and Jeremy Shapiro in the journal Foreign Affairs (Nov./Dec.). It is estimated that about 2,500 Muslims from North America, Europe, and Australia and New Zealand signed up as soldiers for the IS. Byman and Shapiro write that the fear of returning jihadists is not new, as it was prevalent during the Iraq War, but most will not return home at all, either being killed in combat or joining new military campaigns (in interviews conducted by the authors, 10-20 percent of these fighters reported no plans to come home). Those that do return will not likely come back as dangerous Islamic extremists. They will either become disillusioned with the radical path or be few enough in number that authorities can monitor them.
Byman and Shapiro don’t discount the reality that even a few returned Jihadists can cause serious acts of terror. It is also true that the new wave of IS recruits have followed a different path into militancy than previous Western Muslim fighters. Whereas the earlier jihadists were lured to the battlefield to prove their bravery or to follow adventure, the IS recruits have stronger religious motivations attracted by the movement’s establishment of a caliphate and nursing their own sectarian grievances regarding the Shia-Sunni conflict. Unlike earlier conflicts that occurred in remote places like Afghanistan, the IS battlefield is easily reached through Turkey and advertised through social media.
The returned fighter does gain credibility and prestige among radicalized Muslims for service to the cause, and studies have shown that such individuals are more adept at carrying out terrorism than homegrown terrorists. Yet Byman and Shapiro conclude that most returnees won’t want to drag their families and friends into these conflicts, and most will go on to lead normal lives.
(Foreign Affairs, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/issues/2014/93/6)
Whether or not atheists and secularists feel that they have made gains against religion in their recent polemics, recently published books are taking a more practical approach and in effect asking “So, you don’t believe in God, now what?” according to Publishers Weekly (Oct. 21).
Rather than arguing about God’s existence as found in the popular new atheist books, the current crop of books such as Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart by Lex Bayer and John Figdor and Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism by Philip Kitcher, are more concerned with helping secularists achieve a fulfilling and meaningful life without the traditional support of religious beliefs and institutions, writes Henry Carrigan. Bayer and Figdor provide a set of “Non-Commandments” that include affirmations including “we can perceive the world through our own senses” and “we act morally when the happiness of others makes us happy.”
Kitcher argues that secular humanism can “take over what religion at its best provides and allow people to flourish and lead richer lives.” Religion’s call for people to be something higher than themselves is translated into being part of a multi-generational secular movement. Such involvement also fosters a sense of community, a role often played by religion.
Carrigan adds that sociologist Phil Zuckerman has written a secular counterpart to Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart, as he seeks to understand how people live their lives when religion is no longer a factor. In interviews he conducted over a 10-year period, Zuckerman finds that most secularists are not hard core philosophical atheists, just people trying to navigate their lives through “spiritual self-reliance, clear-eyed pragmatism, and faith in Golden rule morality,” Carrington writes.
The military is optimizing religious diversity for military priorities and are making chaplaincies an integral part of its efforts to maintain “full-spectrum dominance,” writes Ed Waggoner (Brite Divinity School, Fort Worth, TX) in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (September).
While military chaplaincies have a long history and are seen as being of benefit both to individuals and to unit effectiveness, the argument for supporting chaplaincies is no longer an explicit Christian concern, as it often used to be, but more about pressing for the First Amendment right to exercise one’s religion freely. This has led to more diversity (first Muslim chaplain in the Navy in 1996, first Buddhist chaplain in 2004, first Unitarian Universalist in 2005), but it does not yet reflect the respective shares of different religious traditions within the military.
Waggoner adds that the military’s chaplaincy staffing choices are closely linked to wider debates about what counts as religion. Since 2003, the operative definitions for “religion” are no longer implicit. Following congressional pressure to scrutinize Muslim chaplains, a group recognized by the IRS, as a “church,” must endorse every chaplaincy candidate. A group’s license to field candidates can be revoked if the group is deemed dangerous to the state. “The IRS and civilian endorsers provide crucial pieces for chaplaincy bricolage, but the military retains complete control of its hiring decisions.”
While the Pentagon moves toward more pluralistic chaplaincies with the benefits they bring—credibility of the military claim to religious diversity and showing a respect for constitutional rights—there are barriers to increased diversity, too. There remains strong political opposition to the inclusion of groups such as Wicca in the chaplaincies. Due to the increase in the share of conservative, evangelical chaplains, there is little inclination from many chaplains, and their endorsing communities, to encourage greater diversity. The hiring process would require a thorough overhaul: educational requirements remain based on Christian and Jewish seminary models.
For the military, Waggoner argues, chaplains are meant to promote what is conducive to the projection of national power. The purpose is thus not to maximize, but to optimize diversity for military success. Donning military uniforms, chaplains are “force multipliers,” who contribute to forge a tightly bonded fighting force. They have to work toward the success of any given mission. They also fulfill a role of “moral calibrators,” expected to prevent excesses against enemies, but at the same time to counter moral objections to missions. Chaplains can also be assigned as “religious leader liaisons” in areas of operations.
In some areas, the military sees the advantage of putting a Muslim chaplain before certain audiences, for instance. Sometimes, they are called to help to (re)build military chaplaincies in allied countries. “By deploying chaplaincies in these outward-facing roles, the U.S. military arguably becomes a global religious actor,” even if there is little critical analyses of that role and its impact, Waggoner concludes.
(Journal of the American Academy of Religion, http://jaar.oxfordjournals.org)
Megachurches are increasingly debating and adopting the practice of external oversight when it comes to financial matters, reports Christianity Today magazine (October).
The recent resignation, and more recently dissolving, of the Seattle-based megachurch Mars Hill and other leadership scandals involving finances has put the issue of financial accountability front and center for many megachurches. Scott Thumma of Hartford Seminary says that the practice of external accountability is increasingly prevalent in megachurches. “In some sense, megachurches wouldn’t exist if they didn’t adopt business practices,” he adds.
Another megachurch specialist says that external boards are becoming more common among churches of all sizes, driven by the increasing ease of long distance communication as well as by the growth of church planting. Even in churches that don’t have strong oversight traditions, there is a need to exercise a large degree of control of new churches that they plant.
Critics argue that outside financial oversight cannot be exercised in congregations as it is in other non-profit organizations, because they lack the important dimension of spiritual oversight. Carl Trueman of Westminister Theological Seminary argues that churches need to separate forms of oversight, and reserve financial oversight for external elders and church discipline for internal elders.
(Christianity Today, 465 Gundersen Dr., Carol Stream, Il 60188)
01: A new study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate confirms the dramatic decline in the number of nuns, including those orders that are traditional, over the past 30 years.
The study, drawing on data from the Official Catholic Directory, finds a 72.5 percent decline from a peak total in 1965.
While some popular new stories have suggested that conservative orders have withstood this decline, almost an equal percentage of institutes (including orders) of the more liberal Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the more conservative Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious have no one at all in formation at the present time. The study also finds that almost equal numbers of women have been attracted to institutes in both conferences in recent years.
Only one in 10 institutes have defied the trend line into decline. There has been a slowing of decline since 2000, mainly because some of the smaller communities have been absorbed by larger ones, therefore accounting for less rapid losses in the base community.
02: Both belief in the sovereignty of God and eschatological beliefs are conducive to environmental apathy among evangelicals, report Jared L. Peifer (Baruch College, New York), Elaine Howard Ecklund and Cara Fullerton (Rice University) in the Review of Religious Research (September).
The research is based on interviews with leaders and laity from a predominantly white, middle-class Southern Baptist congregation and from a lower socio-economic status African American Baptist church, both located in a Southwestern American city. According to the authors, this is the first study focusing on the role of religion in shaping narratives about environmental concern across the social fault lines of race and socio-economic status within evangelicalism.
The concept of stewardship emerged in a number of interviews, most often referring to recycling and “not littering.” But regarding environmental care, interviewees were also keen to explain that it should not become “extreme”—i.e. the environment should not be elevated to an equal plane with God or with (or even above) humans; the love for humans should take precedence over environmental concerns.
God’s sovereignty was frequently mentioned: ultimately, God is in control. Evangelicals believe that the world will end, but they do not feel fearful about it, and only God is sovereign over the timing of the End. Moreover, due to Al Gore’s starring in the movie An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Southern Baptists, who tend to be aligned with Republican politics, perceived calls for environmental concern as coming from the liberal side. From that angle, African American Baptists take a more neutral approach.
But a lack of scientific education, more than pressing material needs, limited the ability of African American Baptists to articulate a particular kind of concern over the environment. While the research confirms environmental apathy among Evangelicals, there is a sense of responsibility at the individual level through the concept of stewardship, although this does not translate into collective environmental efforts. But the authors do not rule out a change in environmental attitudes.
(Review of Religious Research – http://link.springer.com/journal/13644)
03: A study of 35 armed conflicts from 2013 shows that religion did not play a role in 40 percent of these cases.
The study, conducted by the Institute for Economics and Peace and the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation, finds that religion did not stand out as a single cause in any conflict. However, 14 percent did have religion and the establishment of an Islamic state as driving causes. Religion was only one of three factors for 67 percent of the conflicts where religion featured as having a part in the conflict. Despite the apparent role of Sunni-Shia conflicts in the Middle East, on a global level, the presence of both of these Islamic divisions in countries does not necessarily lead to high rates of violence.
Rather, it is countries that have lower corruption and better relations with neighbors that show less conflict, regardless of the level of Sunni and Shia. Countries without a dominant religious group and with fewer regulations and social hostilities on religious practice also have an effect, if less robust than political factors, on levels of peace.
(For the full report, visit: http://www.visionofhumanity.org/#/page/news/1085)
04: African Christians are reading authors from their own continent and they are reading Christian literature but the problem is that they are not reading the works of Africans who are Christians, according to a study by Robert Priest in Christianity Today magazine (October).
Priest conducted a survey of 8,000 Christians in four languages and across three countries, finding few respondents who could identify authors who were both African and Christian. The same pattern is evident in the library holdings of five major Christian higher education institutions in Kenya, where only one African Christian, John Mbiti, ranked among the top 15 authors with the largest presence on the shelves.
Kenyan Christian bookstores had a significantly different top 15 authors, but only African author, Dag Heward-Mills, topped their lists. Commercial booksellers and street vendors did not have any African Christian authors among their top 15. African evangelicals tend to see products from the West, including books, as superior to those of Africa, yet these books do not address pressing African concerns such as polygamy, wife inheritance and honoring ancestors.
There has been a significant shift in the pattern of Christian martyrdom in recent years that highlights the motivations of the killed rather than the killers and the inclusion of Christians who have died as a result of mass killings and genocides, writes Todd M. Johnson and Gina Zurlo in the social science journal Society (51).
Johnson and Zurlo have faced some recent criticism for their claim that there are 100,000 martyrs each year, but they maintain that the criteria and definitions of martyrdom have changed, resulting in higher numbers. By taking into account the motives of those killed rather than the killers, Johnson and Zurlo include those who were killed for reasons other than because they were Christians, thus including such well-known figures as Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who were killed more for political reasons even if they were religiously motivated.
Thus, such “martyrs” die in circumstances related to their Christian faith. Johnson and Zurlo use the more controversial criteria of mass killings and genocide because of the “interwoven nature of religion and ethnicity, and the mixed motivations of persecutors.”
They cite research suggesting that persecutors can use ethnic or racial identity as markers for religion or it can be vice versa. Much of the authors’ recent data comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which they consider the “largest martyrdom situation today.” They estimate that there have been 800,000 Christian martyrs among the millions who have been killed from 2000-2010. The various rebel groups kill without much religious motive but many of those Christians killed have been in “situations of witness” for their faith, such as attending church. Johnson and Zurlo find an additional 200,000 Christians killed in the first decade of the 21st century in situations of witness in Sudan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, Iraq, Mexico, Nigeria, China and other countries.
For the future they forecast that martyrdom will likely change from Orthodox and Catholic believers to those in Pentecostal and independent churches as well as from state-based to society-based persecution, with perpetrators representing a “wide variety of perspectives, such as communism, religious nationalism, and various cultural and social traditions.”
The burgeoning pro-democracy protest movement that filled the streets of Hong Kong last month showed a significant degree of Christian inspiration and leadership, according to a report on National Public Radio (Oct. 9).
Hong Kong’s Occupy Central group first announced that it was planning pro-democracy demonstrations last year in a church in the city’s Kowloon section. The group’s full name is Occupy Central with Love and Peace, in the Christian Spirit, and its top leaders included a minister and a law professor who is Christian. There is a strong presence especially among the older generations of the pro-democracy leaders, many of whom were educated in missionary schools, according to political scientist and activist Joseph Cheng, who is Christian himself. “There is this Christian spirit. You are more willing to suffer. Social justice means more to you,” he adds.
Another reason for the strong Christian involvement in the movement is their general opposition to the Communist Party. “If you are a Christian in China, if you are a Christian in Hong Kong, you know the Chinese Communist regime has been suppressing Christianity for more decades,” Cheng says. The country has recently experienced one of the toughest crackdowns on Christianity in many years; in the east China province of Zhejiang, officials have ordered crosses removed from and even the destruction of government-approved churches. David Zweig, a long-time political observer, says that the Chinese Communist Party is most likely viewing the Christian connection in Hong Kong warily.
But others say that the protest movement is not faith-based and that several prominent Protestant pastors have come out against the protests, reflecting their conservative political stance. Some protestors have also infused their activism with other religious sources. In one neighborhood, protestors have built a shrine to an ancient Chinese general known as Guan Gong, seen by devotees as offering them protection from opponents.
■ A combined issue of the journal Religion, State and Society (Vol. 42, Nos. 2-3) is devoted to the role of religion in the European Parliament (EP). The articles are based on a project Religion at the European Parliament (RelEP), using surveys and other methods to understand the place of religion in European politics.
Of special interest to readers is the survey of 167 members of Parliament (MEPs)—the first such study ever conducted—on their religious affiliations and attitudes toward public religion. With the exception of Poland, most of the MEPs reported growing secularization in their countries even while there are signs of backlash and a growing public role of religion. Even the Polish MEPs did not support any weakening of the separation of church and state, even if Polish Catholics increasingly see themselves as a besieged minority in a secular European Union.
This greater public role given to religion at the national level necessarily translates into the emergence of public religion as a key issue at the EP, though it can take different forms. Islam is a less contentious issue in the EP than in national politics (largely because there is a small number of Muslim MPs), and embattled atheist MEPs receive little support in the EP, even by MEPs from secular countries (though British humanists have been more successful in fighting for secular causes). For more information on this issue, visit: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/crss20/current#.VFgpESx0y1s
■ The new book Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America, by RW’s editor and Christopher Smith, provides an in-depth examination of atheist and secular humanist organizations and activism in the U.S. The book looks at how organized “secularism,” our term for atheism and non-theistic forms of humanism, and atheist identity has been revitalized through such developments as the new atheism (even if has not created many atheist converts) as well as through secularist activism and online networks and community-building.
The book also examines the growth of secularist rituals and commemorations, from atheist congregations to Darwin Day, and interest in “secular spirituality.” RW subscribers can receive a 30 percent discount from the regular price of $27.95 by using the coupon code AAFLYG6 when ordering the book at the Oxford University Press website: http://global.oup.com.
■ Published last month is RW’s editor’s book Mystical Science and Practical Religion: Muslim, Hindu and Sikh Discourse on Science and Technology. The book is a study of how engineers and IT professionals of these religions in the U.S., largely immigrants, relate their faith to their work and often share a discourse that their faiths are “the most scientific.” Part of the book was written in response to arguments and findings that link work in these “techno-science” fields with various “fundamentalisms,” especially in the cases of Hinduism and Islam.
Based on interviews with 45 largely immigrant Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh applied science professionals and students, Mystical Science and Practical Religion argues that professionals tend to integrate spiritual elements into science, such as the espousal of intelligent design, while also interpreting their religions in a more pragmatic direction. RW subscribers interested in the book can get a discount copy for $49 by using the code LEX30AUTH15, ordering directly through the web site of the publisher Rowman & Littlefield: https://rowman.com/ISBN/9780739182277.
■ Lydia Bean’s new book the Politics of Evangelical Identity (Princeton University Press, $35) is an interesting study of the singular political identity of American evangelicals, at least in comparison to their Canadian counterparts. Using the ethnographic method, Bean looks at several evangelical churches in Canada and the U.S. and finds that while they hold to similar theology and moral values, they differ dramatically in their degree of political partisanship. While the Canadian churches allow for considerable political diversity, the American evangelicals have moved toward far greater uniformity in their loyalty to the Republican Party.
Bean traces this politicization to congregational life but does not draw a straight line between church leadership and members falling into line regarding directives on party politics. The clergy was far less influential in shaping members’ politics than the role of lay leaders who send subtle but powerful cues to fellow members in connecting everyday life and politics and evangelical faith.
■ Just as the debate about the relationship between violence and religion has returned with a vengeance in recent months, veteran sociologist of religion David Martin takes up a question that marked his early work on pacifism in his new book Religion and Violence: No Logos without Mythos (Ashgate, $35.96).
Early on in the book, Martin targets the new atheists and their broadside that religion has been a major source of war and violence in the past as well as the present. He provocatively turns the tables on such new atheist authors such as Richard Dawkins and A.C. Grayling, as he argues that they employ a type of rhetorical aggression as they attempt to silence and ridicule their opponents. The sociologist doesn’t deny the violent histories marking most religions, but then he complicates the question by looking at the way that “religion is saddled for polemical purposes with specific characteristics and consequences which are in reality shared by all the varied discourses of power. For example, campaigns and rituals of purification are the common currency of religion, political ideology and nationalism.”
Martin sees both the religious and secularist as tending to dismiss the violent elements of their religions and ideologies—i.e., “Torquemada was not a real Christian; Stalin’s atheism was coincidental to his monstrous behavior and his persecution of Christians.” Although Martin is most adept at addressing the complicated relationship between Christianity and nationalism (the latter chapters focus particularly on Eastern Europe and Russia), he discusses how the emergence of personal choice in Islamic societies may counter nationalism.
Martin concludes that violence is built upon the innate desire for unity and “moral hyperventilation about religion is waste of breath. What really cries out for explanation is not war but the vision of non-violence in Buddhism, in Isaiah and the Sermon on the Mount…That is why we are shocked by the difference between loving your enemies and the Puritan cry in the Middle of English Revolution `Jesus and no quarter.’ We rest with unquestioning faith on the religious advances we violently disavow.”
■ Testing Fresh Expressions (Ashgate, $94.46), by John Walker, is one of the first book-length study to shine some empirical light on the attempt of the Church of England to draw Britain’s huge unchurched population to faith through experimental and unconventional congregations. Fresh Expressions is similar to the missional and emerging movements in the U.S. in that it seeks to reach people by shaping church life to widely different contexts, thus the creation of “pub churches” and generally a “mixed economy” in churches that would use both contemporary and traditional modes of worship. Walker conducts ethnographic research of these congregations, interviewing 103 participants, as well as using data from parishes.
Walker confirms earlier research that Fresh Expressions congregations do not necessarily do better than established churches in attracting the unchurched. But they are more effective in drawing and involving children in church life—what has come to be known as the “Messy Church” movement. This may be an important development since there has been a significant downturn in church-Sunday school attendance in this age group, and such involvement often predicts later church-going habits.
The growth of midweek church attendance and activities in the Church of England may be a sign of growing children involvement. Walker concludes that established churches will continue to serve a segment of the population because of the greater range of services and forms of social capital they offer members but that the practices developed from Fresh Expressions may have a beneficial influence on the wider church.
01: While it may be a temporary solution to the decline of urban parishes, the phenomenon of Mass mobs is at least calling attention to the plight of “Rust Belt Catholicism” and other cases of parish decline and closure.
Mass mobs are modeled after “smart mobs,” where spontaneous gatherings started by social media to make a social statement or to engage in protest. The Mass mobs, which are part heritage tours and part mixers, are generated to fill ailing urban churches, bringing thousands of suburban Catholics to visit struggling and, in some cases, closed urban churches of their parents and grandparents. Donations are often made to these churches during these visits.
The Mass mobs are most prevalent in the region around Lake Erie. In Detroit, nearly 2,000 people have shown up to visit churches that usually attract a fraction of that number. Other Mass mobs have taken place in New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and even in suburbs. Several dioceses are helping to promote the Mass mobs through their newspapers and social media. (Source: New York Times, Oct. 11)
02: In reactions against the closure and merging of parishes, some activist groups are shifting these discussions about such decisions to a debate about the role of the laity in the Catholic Church.
As a reaction to the decision of the Roman Catholic diocese of Syracuse, NY to close and merge nearly 40 parishes, a group of laity organized a group called Preserve Our Parishes (POP) in 2009. The lay movement questioned the reconfiguration and shifted the debate “from concerns about the priest shortage and financially challenged parishes to a conversation about legitimate Catholic authority and the nature of parishes,” with an emphasis on the role of laity in the line of Vatican II. POP members criticized what they saw as a “One Priest, One Roof” policy, the absence of laity in the decision-making, and the diminishing Catholic presence in urban centers (in contrast with suburbs).
Based on diocesan appeals for increased lay participation, POP members felt that there could be other models that are less dependent upon resident priests. Activists understood closing parishes “as a threat to sacred space that could remain available without a permanent priest.” In the reconfiguration process, the authors observe that priests offered valuable support to lay activists and were not afraid to disagree with the diocese.
This helped forge the way for a new, merged parish that ensured the involvement of the laity and remained open to public dissent from Catholic leaders. Thus, POP efforts motivated continued activism and led to institutionalizing the lay orientation in the new parish with the launch of a new group called Conscientious Catholics. (Source: Review of Religious Research, September.)