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The crowd that overflowed the 304 seats in Devlin Hall's basement auditorium on the evening of September 30 caught me by surprise. Yes, the topic was the Catholic Church, and discourses on some aspects of that topic have in recent months drawn the attention of multitudes. But this evening's aspect was not, on the face of it, prime-time friendly; rather, a panel of three BC theologians and a canon lawyer from Catholic University was going to attempt liftoff under the lumbering title "Laity and the Governance of the Church: Legitimate Expectations," with the advertised goal of examining their topic through long, cool lenses that focused on the first millennium, the 19th century, canon law, and Vatican II. As to the celebrity of the panelists, the best that can be said is that they are known to readers of Theological Studies and that of the dozen or so of their books that can be found on library shelves, The Legacy of the Tübingen School is a representative title. And yet by 6:55 p.m., the seats were filled, as were supplemental folding chairs, as were the aisles from top to bottom, as was the walkway at the back of the auditorium where standees crowded in like gate-crashers behind Section 16 at Fenway. And there was a second audience in the front hall, listening through open doors, and when some of the auditorium crowd left during an intermission, the hallway audience flowed in and took every space. One stout fortyish fellow in a polo shirt and chinos, with a custodian's ring of keys dangling from his belt, could apparently find no place except the floor immediately before the podium, where he lay down to listen like one of those characters you see in devotional pictures of Jesus preaching to blue-collar Jewish throngs in the dusty hills.

This was also an intent crew, full of note-takers and nodders. BC had two video cameras going, and I spotted three others in the audience. It was also one of those crowds that hums when it hears something that resonates. There were BC students in the assemblage, but at least two-thirds were people in the costumes of work, who had come from the law office, the brokerage, the classroom, the social service agency, the kitchen. I was struck to see an old woman sitting on the stairs in an aisle, and a young woman in late pregnancy in one of the folding chairs who shifted her weight every minute or two. Both stayed for the full two hours.

The panel served up a rather rich meal: Cardinal Newman, the 15th canon of Nicea, the Life of St. Polycarp, and Lumen Gentium were among scores of hardcore citations. It wasn't all protein, though. Fr. Michael Himes (he spoke about laity in the 19th century) earned the biggest laugh when he remarked on something said by the previous speaker, Michael Buckley, SJ (first millennium). Buckley had cited a joke by the fourth-century pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus, and Himes followed with "This is a historic gathering, the first time in 16 centuries that Marcellinus got a laugh." It was a funny remark, but the core tension it detonated had to do with Himes's tease "this is a historic gathering." Not 16 centuries, certainly—but how long had it been since 350 pew Catholics jammed a room on an evening after work to hear four theologians read from foot-noted papers?

"The hierarchy is afraid of the laity," a devout Catholic friend recently instructed me, a non-Catholic. And he added with a shrug, "It's always been that way." Whether the origin is fear or anything else, tension between bishops and laity is the molten center of "the crisis in the Church." The 350 auditors in Devlin 008 (and the thousands of others who have flocked to BC's Church in the 21st Century lectures and symposia) surely did not come seeking theological insight into criminal priests. Nor, I suspect, were they pursuing canonical understandings of how bishops came to judge that it was a greater good to endanger children than the reputation of the priesthood, diocese, or Church. From a Christian perspective, Genesis 3 explains all of it very well without aid of a lecture series.

What torques the faithful, rather, at least as I have seen things from my front row seat, is a desperate need to know and establish the conditions under which they will trust their bishops again, and in aid of this they'll seek out insights from the ecclesiologies of the first millennium, 19th century, canon law, Vatican II, and anything else that BC and other Catholic think-tanks can offer up.

Recently, TV news carried the video of a deposition that took place in August in which a bishop admitted that he had placed a priest in a parish knowing that the man endorsed "sex" between men and boys. Asked by a plaintiff's lawyer if he regretted his decision, the bishop replied thusly: "I think I would have done much better had I not made the appointment." And I found myself wondering: what if in response to the question the bishop had just bowed his gray head, covered his face with his hands, and wept? It wouldn't be theology, certainly; but how would it have affected the mood and discourse a month later in Devlin 008?

Ben Birnbaum


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