Shared governance in the Church is 'essential' for integrity, says canon lawyer

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Shared governance in the Church is 'essential' for integrity, says canon lawyer

By Laura Ieraci

CHICAGO — Shared governance in the Catholic Church is “essential” for the sake of the Church’s integrity, said Canadian canon lawyer Lynda Robitaille.

“I think if we don’t move forward on this, the Church is going to shrivel up,” said Robitaille, who has served as the dean of theology at St. Mark’s College in Vancouver since 2013.

“I don’t want to say that we need to do this in order to speak to the world, but we need to do this in order to be true to who we say we are,” she said, referring to steps taken in recent years following the clergy sex abuse crisis and cases of financial wrongdoing in the Church. “We say we’re transparent, we say we do these things properly. Well, being transparent and doing things properly means involving all the faithful in their rightful places.”

Robitaille, an internationally recognized canonist, raised her concern about the Code of Canon Law as regards shared governance in an essay she contributed to the book, “Full, Conscious, and Active: Lay Participation in the Church’s Dialogue with the World.”

The book, published by The Lay Centre and Libreria Editrice Vaticana earlier this year, is a collection of more than 20 papers given at an international conference by the same name, held at The Lay Centre in Rome in 2016. Robitaille, a Lay Centre alumna, presented at the conference. Her essay is titled, “Decision-Making in the Church: Shared Governance.”

“I’m not advocating a change in power structure, nor am I advocating that the Church become a democracy,” she wrote. “Rather, I am advocating that ‘shared governance’ means that while a final decision might rest solely in one person/office — pope, bishop, or pastor — the best decision possible can only arise from actively involving all stakeholders in the decision-making process.”

In an interview, Robitaille said achieving shared governance is not a matter of changing canon law, as much as changing the culture in the Church, in particular as regards the consultative processes between the decision-makers — bishops and priests — and the stakeholders, that is, the rest of the faithful.

Lay people are often left frustrated by the dismissiveness they experience in the Church, she said, recalling her participation in two committees comprised of lay professionals invited by bishops to give their advice on dealing with clergy sexual abuse. Though the committees were “clearly consultative,” the lay professionals could not understand why the points they had presented as important were not retained by the bishop. Often, this frustration leads people to cut bait and abandon church practice, she said.

She spoke of the “conversion” of ecclesial structures that Pope Francis mentions in his first apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii gaudium,” as an opportunity to renew the consultative processes in the Church. This conversion needs to be both spiritual and organizational, she said.

Robitaille hearkened back to the Church of the 1950s, when an “an overabundance” of vocations saw priests “doing everything.”

“That doesn’t mean that they needed to do everything,” she said. But, in 2020, the Church is “still on that path of finding out: What is it that Father needs to do because he’s ordained? And, now that we have fewer priests, what can lay people help with and why?”

The “throwaway” of giving lay people a role to play when there’s a shortage of priests is “what needs to be converted,” she said. “If we’re just filling in the blanks until there are more priests, the Church isn’t going to survive.”

“We can say everybody’s equal because of their baptism, but we don’t live it, we don’t act it,” she said. “If lay people are capable, then let’s act like they matter in our structure.”

Robitaille was back at The Lay Centre this past semester, conducting research for her current work on what she calls “adulthood in the Church,” where “everybody is taking care of the greater good.” While some Church leaders are calling the faithful to “adulthood” and finding ways to include the laity in the Church’s mission at all levels, other clergy have difficulty working with laity, she said.

Seminary would be a good place to address this difficulty, she said, adding that the formation of the laity is equally important. As a step in this direction, St. Mark’s College enrolled lay students and diaconal candidates in the same classes, she said.

“Everybody needs to learn what is the Church, how we work on making decisions, and how we work on building community together,” she said.

To order a copy of the book, please contact 

Photo courtesy Lynda Robitaille

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