Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Catholic Leader Calls for Church Reform

By Cara McDonough

Note: This commentary was first published January 18, 2012 by The Huffington Post.

For the most devoted Catholics, the recent holiday season was a time to reflect more fervently on spiritual endeavors, a time celebrate their faith in its fullest terms.

For many, however, Christmas marked the first time they attended Mass in months. Some cite a growing personal conflict with Church practices as reason for abandoning a regular Mass-going schedule; remaining Catholic in name, yet disagreeing with the Church on certain principals, such as abortion, birth control or gay rights.

"Cafeteria Catholics," some call us (yes, I count include myself in this group) – namely, those among the clergy and laity who consider dissent from Church beliefs unforgivable – referring to the "picking and choosing" aspect of this religious lifestyle. It's not a complement.

But Brother Louis DeThomasis, FSC, author of Flying in the Face of Tradition: Listening to the Lived Experience of the Faithful (released in 2012), has decided to turn the term on its head.

"They're the cafeteria Catholics," he says to me, during an interview about his book, of the ultra-conservative individuals not willing to recognize that the Church has changed. "You've got to fight them on their own terms. They're not seeing Vatican II as legitimate. The windows that Vatican II opened are being closed."

This is far from the most radical thing that De Thomasis states in his incredibly frank assessment of the modern-day Catholic Church, which is sure to anger many who view these traditional beliefs as unchangeable.

To others (like me) his book is a crucial – and refreshing – step in the right direction.

DeThomasis, even considering his position as a De LaSalle Brother, is willing to speak out against what he describes as an increasingly inflexible hierarchy, unwilling to bend or even discuss such issues as the droves of young people fleeing the Catholic Church, the difficult questions surrounding sex abuse scandals or the question of ordaining women priests.

"I look at the way the church is treating women ... in this day and age, come on," he says. "You just cannot give any credence to the fact that women shouldn't be equal to men in all things, including ordination."

In this concise, easily digestible yet thought-provoking 10-chapter book, DeThomasis explores conflict within the Church and the resulting mass exodus of Catholics frustrated with an increasingly unbending hierarchy. There volatile subjects are usually reserved for private conversations, but discussing these matters out loud is now crucial, he says; discussion is, in fact, the Christian thing to do.

He begins, in Chapter One, by asking a question: Is the institutional church dying? Yes. And even though it may be politic to add "unfortunately," I offer no such qualification. I believe that the death of the institutional church as we all know it can be the last opportunity for it to transform itself into something that once again is able to carry out its original purpose.

That "original purpose" is getting lost in the shuffle of bureaucracy, says DeThomasis. The hierarchy's recent investigation into the practices of American nuns, for example, not only further disgusted modern Catholics disillusioned by their Church; it was as far from Jesus' original message as you can get.

"I contend they're not doing things in a business sense correctly, they're not doing things in an organizational sense correctly, but most importantly, they're not doing things in a Christian sense," he says in his interview with me. "You looked at Jesus' life -- he bucked the authorities, he called them hypocrites."

While he adds that there are certainly Church leaders who do not fall into this category, and who are doing wonderful deeds, he remarks that the result of a distant, all-powerful and unbending hierarchy is an inevitably disillusioned laity. DeThomasis, who served for 24 years as president and professor at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota, says this attitude is particularly – although not exclusively – prevalent among young Catholics.

"I was immersed with Catholic young people," he says. "Each year it just got worse and worse with the young people not understanding what the hierarchy were saying. It was like speaking a foreign language."

Yet in the face of what seem like insurmountable hurdles, DeThomasis sees the impetus for positive change.

A synopsis on his book jacket states that he doesn't write out of "any malice or mean-spiritedness but rather with a sense of urgency and love."

And he tells me that he is optimistic. In talking to DeThomasis – who is funny, warm and most of all, passionate – I too feel optimistic about the state of a church that, yes, I still choose to identify with, despite disagreeing with many of its core principals and decisions. It is the first time in a long time I have felt that way.

He says an important part of the solution is for the disaffected to stay with the Catholic faith, but not to stay silent: "My faith tells me that the Holy Spirit does work. I am convinced by us talking like this, and I hope this would give you incentive to talk to others. There is a tipping point, and these changes are going to start to happen more and more. So yes ... I am hopeful."

Cara McDonough can be followed on Twitter at

Related Off-site Links:
The Subversion of the Second Vatican Council – Brother Louis DeThomas, FSC (The Huffington Post, April 25, 2012).
Christian Brother and Former St. Mary's President Calls for Women’s Ordination, "Flying in the Face of Tradition" – James Martin, SJ (America via Bridget Mary's Blog, June 15, 2012).

See also the previous PCV posts:
Swiss Benedictine Abbot Speaks of Church Reform
Hans Küng Says Only Radical Reforms Can Save the Catholic Church
Belgium Catholics Issue Reform Manifesto
American Catholic Council Issues "Declaration for Reform and Renewal"
Urgent Tasks for Church Renewal
Hans Küng Urges Peaceful Revolution Against Roman Absolutism
The Call of the Baptized: Be the Church, Live the Mission
Creating a Liberating Church (Part 1)
Creating a Liberating Church (Part 2)
Creating a Liberating Church (Part 3)


  1. Now, here's a book that should be handed out to every Catholic rather than Rediscover Catholicism.
    Great article and links.

  2. The interview is rather silly and misleading. Thus the author states, ""You looked at Jesus' life -- he bucked the authorities, he called them hypocrites." Jesus did not quite "buck" authorities as you put it and this is evident for two reason.

    First, Jesus is quite clear that authorities are to be followed. Jesus instructs us to follow authorities thus he states, "Then Jesus spoke to the people and to his followers. Jesus said, "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees have the authority (power) to tell you what the law of Moses says. So you should obey the things they say. You should do all the things they tell you to do. But their lives are not good examples for you to follow. They tell you to do things, but they don't do those things themselves." (Matthew 23:1-3) Notice Jesus calls them hypocrites and yet he also tells us to do what they say. You might want to think about this the next time that someone you know says that the archbishop is a hypocrite. Even if he is a hypocrite, you should do what he says.

    The second type of authority that Jesus tells us to follow is himself. Jesus only rejected other authorities when they were not in accord with his own authority. To his authority he demanded complete submission. He did not engage in bilateral discussions or democratic procedures but rebuked people for not following his will.

    The author of this article (and the book for that matter) is the very type of hypocrite that he labels others. He tells us to follow Jesus example but his behavior is exactly the opposite. The problem is that I cannot do what these two hypocrites say since it violates Christ's own words.

  3. On a similar note, there's the story of Irish priest Tony Flannery. For many Catholics he's an inspiring figure, as he is resisting and defying efforts of the Vatican to be, in his words, "terrified into submission." His story can be read here.

    Here's an excerpt:

    "In [its] letter [to Flannery], the Vatican objected in particular to an article published in 2010 in 'Reality,' an Irish religious magazine. In the article, Father Flannery, a Redemptorist priest, wrote that he no longer believed that 'the priesthood as we currently have it in the church originated with Jesus' or that he designated 'a special group of his followers as priests.'

    "Instead, he wrote, 'It is more likely that some time after Jesus, a select and privileged group within the community who had abrogated power and authority to themselves, interpreted the occasion of the Last Supper in a manner that suited their own agenda.'

    "Father Flannery said the Vatican wanted him specifically to recant the statement, and affirm that Christ instituted the church with a permanent hierarchical structure and that bishops are divinely established successors to the apostles.

    "He believes the church’s treatment of him, which he described as a 'Spanish Inquisition-style campaign,' is symptomatic of a definite conservative shift under Pope Benedict XVI.

    "'I have been writing thought-provoking articles and books for decades without hindrance,' he said. 'This campaign is being orchestrated by a secretive body that refuses to meet me. Surely I should at least be allowed to explain my views to my accusers.' . . ."



    1. Michael, thank you so much for sharing this. Fr. Tony is a brave, brave man, along with Mike Tegeder, Fr. Roy, etc. It is so sad that some or all of these people must get "run over" before the church gets back to basics and reviews its key purpose. But, the priests and nuns must lead -- they are the ones who've invested their lives in the church.

  4. New Ways Ministry's coverage on Tony Flannery's situation can be found here.

    In this article, Francis DeBernardo of New Ways Ministry shares his belief that Flannery's refusal to be silenced is a "beacon of hope for church renewal."



  5. I hope Saint John Baptist de La Salle is waiting for Brother Louis at the pearly gates with a ruler in hand. The once and future president of USM needs a stern talking to about Church authority and Tradition. It is an absolute shame that indiviudals who believe these things are allowed to be presidents of Catholic universities. No wonder so many of the youth are losing their faith - the teachers don't believe in it!

  6. No, the youth don't believe in it. Here is what my 20-year-old very smart daughter said two weeks ago, "I would never raise my daughter in the Catholic church. I don't think it would be good for her mental health." She was referring to the exclusion of women from ordination.

    In reading this statement, I suspect conservatives will point their fingers at everything but the issue my daughter has. For example, they might say that I, as a parent, didn't raise her strongly enough in the faith. None of that matters. The young people are voting with their feet, and my daughter is likely to be just one such example. A grief of my life is not being able to pass my tradition to my children, after much investment. But, the church, and many in it, just do not seem to have the will to do the research and make the changes that would hold our young people.

  7. Again there is no disucssion of Jesus Christ. Moreover, look at the ridiculous hyberbole. Thus, "He believes the church’s treatment of him, which he described as a 'Spanish Inquisition-style campaign," Spanish Inquistion? Completely absurd. He is writing a book contesting the magisterium. Where is the Spanish Inquisition? This is foolish.

    - Bruno

    1. This sounds like the voice of the Pharisees, "Crucify him - he broke our law." Instead, "He dares CONTEST THE MAGISTERIUM. Take his income, retirement, community, and ministry."

      Do people really not understand the courage of Fr. Tony Flannery and that he is the face of Christ in our midst?

  8. anonymous,

    I do not sound like the Pharisees. No one is saying "Curcify him - he broke our law." There is no inquisition. He published a book contesting the magisterium with absolutely no ramifications thus far. And yet people here talk hyperbolically about "the inquisition" and "his courage". What exactly is couragious about doing something to which there are no negative ramifications? All that will happen to this man is that he will make alot of money from publishing a book like this. How is that "the face of Christ in our midst"?


  9. To be a legitimate Roman Catholic means adeherence to the Magesterium .... and praying for those who are not. In EACH progressive Catholic argument I read (women's ordination, abortion, birth control, Church hierarchy, etc.), it comes down to the SAME thing - SELF.