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The question of “who owns the Church” has had a stormy history in Catholic America, although the terms of reference have changed considerably over time. In the nineteenth century, “lay trusteeism”—a system of lay boards that owned parish property and sometimes claimed authority over the appointment and dismissal of pastors—was a major headache for the U.S. bishops. Today, the question is more likely to arise from the wetlands of psychobabble; thus one Midwestern diocesan chancellor recently spoke about a diocesan “needs assessment” that “can give ownership to the people,” presumably of their lives as Catholics.

A similar imagery of ownership was used during the Long Lent of 2002, in response to the crisis of clerical sexual abuse and episcopal misgovernance. In March of that year, a religious sister in Boston, the epicenter of the crisis, said, “This is our Church, all of us, and we need to take it back.” Similar sentiments are heard today from “pastoral planners” who take their cues from Protestant megachurches in which creating a feeling of “ownership” on the part of the congregation, often by blurring the border between sacred and profane, is very much part of the marketing-and-retention strategy.

Lent is always a good time to ponder this business of “ownership,” and Lent 2017 seems an especially apt moment to reflect on it. For “ownership” is being contested in the Church in sharp ways: The college of bishops is divided on questions of sacramental discipline; prominent Catholic leaders claim something like an “ownership” of Scripture and tradition, by which they decide what in revelation is binding and what can be jettisoned; the half-century-long struggle about who “owns” Vatican II continues to rage.

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