Catholics: don’t ask for “change”

Clearly, something needs to happen. Changes need to be made. But the problem is that Catholics call for change in a way that may not result in significant changes.

The problem with calling for “change” or “transparency” is that such calls are too vague. If the laity are merely seeking change, then Church leaders could make minor adjustments to procedures and policies and say that they have “heard” and “responded” to the laity. Don’t ask for “change.”

Concrete, specific, actionable

Ask for concrete, specific, and actionable items. Ask for changes to policies and procedures that are measurable. Be as specific as possible. If you want change to a policy, consider proposing new language. If you want a procedure adjustment, lay out how that works at a practical level.

Of course, seeking such changes presumes that you have at least a minimal understanding of canon law, diocesan policies, and chancery inner-workings. It involves work and education in areas that are little understood by the laity. Before proposing these changes, you’d need to study and, if possible, consult professionals in these areas.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been exploring what changes would be most effective in my diocese. At first I did some initial research and came up with a list. But after reaching out to canon lawyers and accountants to understand parish policies and procedures for accountability and transparency, I quickly realized how little equipped I was to call for “change.” Some of my ideas for “changes” had already been implemented in my Archdiocese. Some of them could be accomplished by easier, more practical means, while others had legal (civil and canonical) challenges I needed to take into account. It turned out that “change” wasn’t as easy as I thought. So I needed to do more research, and utilize a team of professionals to give workable recommendations.

Show them you’re serious

Then there’s the issue of being heard. Probably the best advice that I got was from a canon lawyer. She told me that, based on her experience, diocesan administrative leaders will immediately dismiss any letters or calls for action that appear poorly researched or that demonstrate a lack of knowledge on how dioceses actually function. She said that chancellories can get a lot of letters from the laity, and that these letters often include “calls for action” that have already been implemented. So these letters end up in the garbage bin and can contribute towards feelings of condescension towards the general laity. Her advice: if you want to be taken seriously, show them you’re serious. Do your research.

Having recommendations that are concrete, specific, and actionable demonstrates that you’ve researched the way the diocese works. You can cite policies, give recommendations for specific language changes, point out action items that have already been completed and why they are insufficient, and recognize areas for increasing education.

You can *measure* whether they are listening

But concrete, specific, and actionable recommendations do something more. They give you a very clear gauge of whether Church leadership is listening. If you have a concrete request, that request also acts as a way to measure responsiveness. You know whether you are being listened to, because you’ve made it explicitly clear what you are asking for. If you only ask for “change,” you’ll get whatever they can call “change,” and the story’s over. But if you ask for specific language in a policy, you’ve established very clear expectations. These expectations let you know whether the diocese really cares about the voice of the laity, and they’ll have to make a choice: ignore you, explain why they’re not making that specific change, or make the change. They can’t play games with you, because you’ve made the rules very clear.

This may all sound very Machiavellian, but it’s not. I’m only recommending that calls from the laity be clear, specific, informed, and honest. I really do believe that the clergy and the laity must work together for the health of the Church. And one way for us to work together would be for the laity to be very clear about what we want and for the clergy to be very clear about what they think about our requests. It’s all just honesty.

Some advice

Yes, you may be thinking, “I shouldn’t have to become an expert in diocesan law and procedures in order to call for transparency, accountability, and safety.” You are right. We shouldn’t have to do this. But we do. We shouldn’t be in this state, but here we are, and we need to rise to the challenge. If we want to be taken seriously by Church leaders, we need to demonstrate that we are serious. So if you want change, I have the following pieces of advice based on my experience and conversations with others:

  1. Again, propose changes that are concrete, specific, and actionable.
  2. Get to know a bit of canon law, or befriend some canon lawyers who can work through the canonical challenges associated with certain proposals.
  3. Familiarize yourself with the “diocesan laws,” the rules governing parish finance councils, parish appointment policies, seminary admission procedures and criteria, sexual abuse reporting, etc.
  4. Find out whether the diocese uses external auditors, how often they are audited, and whether reports from these audits are released publicly.
  5. Go through every change you want, and make sure it is not already in place. Do a lot of digging. Sometimes, you’ll find that there is a policy in place, but it hasn’t been sufficiently implemented, or it needs to be publicized. Say that.
  6. If you want policies and reports publicized, find out where and when they’ve been publicized in the past, explain why this is insufficient, and offer recommendations for the future.
  7. Cite and/or quote all the policies relevant to your recommendations. This shows that you’ve reviewed them, and it also makes clearer where changes can be made at the policy level.
  8. Talk to experts and those with experience in this area. The best advice will come from people who’ve worked in canon law and/or diocesan leadership. They’ll probably have some ideas as well.
  9. Talk to people who have worked in parish and diocesan offices. Even if policies exist, they may not be relevant to the actual environment of those offices. Take that into account.
  10. Emphasize that your list of proposed changes is not exhaustive.

What advice do you have?

This post was also published at YArespond.

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