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Posted July 1, 2008

Book: Church Chicago-Style
Author: William L. Droel
Acta Publications. Chicago, IL. 2008. Pp. 126

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

Church, Chicago-Style is a celebration of the history of active leadership and lay involvement in the Catholic Church over the last fifty years. By profiling some of the grassroots figures in the Chicago Church and excerpting some of their key writings, author William L. Droel has painted a picture of the passion and personalities that have made the Catholic spirit in Chicago admired and acclaimed around the world.

Included in this book are writings by:

Sr. Patricia Crowley, OSB

Russell Barta

Msgr. John Egan

Fr. Dennis Geaney, OSA

Msgr. George Higgins

Ed Marciniak

Mary Irene Zotti

National Center for the Laity

An Excerpt from the Book:

A Warning From Chicago

Monsignor George G. Higgins

The highly praised Chicago Declaration of Christian Concern, a statement issued in 1977 by a group of Chicago area Catholics [and reprinted in this book], warned that the Catholic church may have lost a generation of lay leadership because of its preoccupation since Vatican II with internal “Churchy” affairs and its consequent devaluation of the laity’s social responsibility.

In particular, the statement pointed to three recent developments among American Catholics. The first was the movement to involve lay persons in the Church’s official ministries; this had the ironic effect of drawing attention away from the secular mission of the laity. The second was the tendency of some clergy members to preempt the role of lay Catholics in social reform. The third was a trend of diminishing interest in Christian social thought as the mediating ground between the gospel and specific political and economic issues. . .

Drafters of the Chicago Declaration wait “impatiently for a new prophecy, a new word that can once again stir the laity to see the grandeur of the Christian vision for man in society and move priests to galvanize lay persons in their secular-religious role.” They point out that the in the final analysis, “the church speaks to and acts upon the world through the laity . . . . Without a dynamic laity conscious of its ministry to the world, the church in effect does not speak or act,” The Chicago group added: “It would be one of the great ironies of history if the era of Vatican II which opened the windows of the church to the world were to close with the church turned upon herself.

Ecclesiastical chauvinism has no more to recommend it than civil national super-patriotism. This is by way of saying that a Chicago priest ought to have enough common sense to avoid boasting about his own city or his own archdiocese. Bearing this caution in mind, I will risk saying that the informal committee of Chicago priests, sisters, brothers, and lay people ---- in their call for “a reexamination of present tendencies in the church,” in hope of “a new sense of direction” — performed a very useful service to the U.S. Catholic community.

This is not to suggest, nor do its signers pretend, that the Chicago Declaration had the last word on the subject. It did, however, raise many of the right questions. The group’s purpose was not to try to answer these questions once and for all but to start a serious dialogue about them among fellow-Catholics not only in Chicago but throughout the nation.

That much it did, at least to some extent, even if the issues pressed by the Chicago Declaration have never made it to the top of the church’s agenda in the United States. To add a few remarks to the conversation, I would begin by suggesting that the Chicago Declaration — to which, in main, I fully subscribe — may have drawn too sharp a distinction between the respective roles of the laity and the clergy in the social ministry of the church. Those who drafted the statement expressed concern that the absence of lay initiative may take us down the road to a new form of clericalism. If this happens, they suggest, the blame would go to many priests, sisters and brothers who “have bypassed the laity to pursue social concerns of their own [and] have sought to impose their own agenda for the world upon the laity.”

The point is well taken, but I believe the late German theologian, Father Karl Rahner, SJ, came closer to the truth when he observed that clerics have no monopoly on the new forms of clericalism criticized by the Chicago Declaration. Rahner pointed out that “the same fault, but with the sign reversed, is probably met with just as often among the laity (or among clerics with lay mentality). . . How many times have we read editorials by lay Catholic journalists who set up a problem — say, famine in sub-Sahara Africa — and then rush to the question: What are the bishops going to do about this? To me, however, a more important question is: What are we, the whole church, “the people of God,” going to do about it? Rahner describes these lay people as “lay defeatists.”

Rahner did not say that clergy should withdraw from the church’s social ministry. He said that clergy zeal for social reform, admirable in itself, out to be coupled with a sense of realism. Clergy should realized that they don’t have all the answers to all complicated problems confronting the modern world. The laity should not expect them to provide such answers. More profoundly, Rahner argued that the Church and the church’s ministry are not exactly the same. He wrote, “The limits of the church’s possibilities and those of its official hierarchy are not to be regarded from the outset as identical.”

In substance, the Chicago Declaration says the same thing. But Rahner has gone a step further by reminding us that clericalism or clerical triumphalism presents a somewhat more complicated problem than the Chicago Declaration would suggest. In other words, it is not simply a matter of clergy and religious usurping the role of the laity.

In the late 1980s, the debate resurfaced as bishops around the world gathered for a synod in Rome to address the role of the laity (in all spheres of church and social life). Articles, pamphlets, meetings and at least one book offered a fresh look at the Chicago Declaration. William Droel and Gregory Pierce, in their 1987 book Confident and Competent: A Challenge for the Lay Church, provided an extended commentary and elaboration on the Chicago Declaration’s themes. The authors did not sign the Chicago Declaration, nor were they involved in the consultation leading up to it. Yet they agreed with the statement’s thrust and, on the basis of their own experience and in light of subsequent developments, attempted to flesh it out, so to speak, and bring it up to date. They did so convincingly, and in view of the fact that the 1987 synod in Rome dealt with the laity’s role, their timing was perfect.

I suggest however, that while we need such books what we need more is the living example of lay-initiated programs based on the principles of the Chicago Declaration. The laity have a right to expect the so-called “official” Church to respect these principles and to help the laity put them into practice. Droel and Pierce correctly cite “a tremendous need for programs to support the laity in their vocation to job, family and neighborhood.” Experience suggests, however, that lay initiative in developing programs of this type is indispensible.

To spend too much time theorizing about the laity’s role or lamenting the failure of official Church leaders to deal with the problem is to sell the laity short or, worse, to encourage a new form of clericalism, or “lay defeatism.” this is not to say that the drafters of the Chicago Declaration fell into this trap. To the contrary, they have played an indispensable role in clarifying the mission of lay Catholics. It would be a mistake, however, to think that statements alone will bring about the changes that they have rightly called for. In short, the time has come for a new burst of lay-initiated action of the type, if I may say, that brought a fleeting measure of fame to Chicago-style Catholicism in the 1940s and 1950s.

Table of Contents:

Russell Barta

The vision of Vatican II

A theology of work

Let the laity be laity

Monsignor John Egan

Liturgy and justice: an unfinished agenda

In praise of Vatican II

Father Dennis Geaney, OSA

Hillenbrand and the shift to Vatican II

Work: a lost identity

Creators of the world: the meaning of work and vocation

Monsignor George Higgins

The social mission of the church

The act of social justice is organizing

A warning from Chicago

Ed Marciniak

Being a Christian in the world of work

We need action

Mary Irene Zotti

History of the young Christian workers

National Center for the Laity

A Chicago Declaration of Christian Concern

Nine principles for lay initiative