How Change in the Church Really Happens



Historically more from the Bottom Up and in Four Stages

(In fact, just like our own 1776 American Revolution!)



Change in the Church (well I am a church historian) follows a four-stage process. Depending on time and place, the stages can overlap until the change reactions reach critical mass.

(1)   The critical prophets:

The critical prophet, and the critical prophets, are those people who see the need for reform and have the courage to speak out. They are the courageous concerned Catholics. They are usually condemned by the institutional leaders and called “dissidents,” “trouble-makers,” or simply “heretics.” Institutional leaders really try to crucify them.

(2)   Networks of the courageous concerned:

When the courageous concerned prophets survive (usually a sign that they are speaking the needed truth), networks of like-minded people start connecting and expanding. Through networking the courageous concerned share common concerns, common dreams and support one another.  Networking is absolutely essential for effective change. Institutional leaders cannot destroy networks; and when they try, they simply energize people and promote further networking.

(3)   Councils and assemblies of the courageous concerned:

Sharing concerns and dreams is not enough. Delegates and representatives of reform organizations (like, for instance, ARCC: The Association for the Rights of Catholics in the church, COR: Catholic Organizations for Renewal and VOTF: Voice of the Faithful) must gather in well-organized assemblies (like, for instance, the American Catholic Council planned for Pentecost 2011 in Detroit). In assemblies of the concerned, concrete strategies and structures for Church reform are planned and set in motion.

(4)   Implementation of institutional reform strategies and structures:

This is the critical stage: Reform is in motion and it can take two possible directions.

          A.     Institutional leaders acknowledge the need; and they collaborate on strategies and structures for reform.  The institution experiences rebirth and recaptures the spirit of the founder. Or………

          B.     Institutional leaders dig-in their heels and reject the rationale for reform and reject the strategies and structures for institutional Church reform. When this happens, the prophets and courageous concerned — for better or for worse — launch their own institution.




One thing is very certain these days:

the institution is unwell and needs reform and renewal.



6 thoughts on “We CAN Change the Church

  1. John,

    Thanks for this clear road map. It seems all the pieces are in place.

    I have to say, however, that I am uncertain about the likelihood of meaningful action coming out of Detroit in 2011.

    There seems to me to be an elephant in the living room or an 800 lb gorilla in the kitchen which everyone is being extremely careful to ignore.

    The conference leadership seems to be unwilling to allow voices from outside the Roman church to have a public presence. I’m talking about independent Roman Catholics who have aligned themselves with independent Catholic communities which are openly outside the control of the Vatican. These are the folks I have been trying to draw in.
    To be honest, I’m not having any success. These folks have a lot to say about the Roman church but seem unwilling to say it at a time and in a place where it might actually do some good.

    Jerry, COSF

  2. In my previous posting, I neglected to identify the elephant/gorilla.

    I’m referring to an Independent American Catholic Church which is outside the control of the Vatican.

    This is not as looney an idea as some might think.

    It seems the only way to get the Vatican to listen to you is to step outside of it like the Society of St. Pius X, the Anglicans, Orthodox churches, etc.

    I realize these are conservative/traditional folks who are very compatible with the current Roman mind set. However, we progressive reformers have the church’s own council, Vatican II, apostolic tradition, and church history to back us up. They can’t ignore all that forever although they are doing a pretty good job of it so far.

    Jerry, COSF

  3. Thanks for your outline John. I totally agree that change starts from below. SOMETIMES it is formally acknowledged and incorporated. More often the change begins at the grassroots, spreads to other communities and becomes common practice, long before the Vatican or hierarchy “accept” it as valid. See the various examples in Bob McClory’s book, “Faithful Dissenters, Stories of Men & Women Who Loved and Changed the Church.” (Orbis, 2000).

    If you want to participate in the Church that is happening (people who are taking responsibility — “We are the Church”), come check out the Call To Action Conference, Nov 5-7 in Milwaukee. Over 2,000 Catholic people unafraid of diversity working daily for justice, inclusion and accountability. For 33 years Call To Action has continued in the tradition of the original Detroit Call to Action conference, called by the U S Catholic Bishops and Vatican II. Check out the Conference website:

  4. I write, from England, as an archbishop of a “refugee” body of churches from Eastern Orthodox and RC history, but who, all the same honours and respects those wings of the church. I am traditional, but not what might be termed “museumist” and am deeply saddened that Vatican II seems to have been rubbished where it does not agree with the personal and uncollegial opinions of the misguided RC leaders concerned.

    The writer does not seem to account for the aspect of the Holy Spirit inspiring the church through the whole people of God – bishops, clergy and laity, and the bishops being open to and recognising this. Bishops need to be the watchdogs against things that are not of this and the enablers when God is truly speaking in this way. It is a terrible responsibility and they need all of our prayers so that they truly know which situation is which. Apart from this, the article is a good technical analysis.

    I incidentally believe that if a Pope is past the retirement age of Cardinals, for the good of the church, he also should be allowed a comfortable and honoured retirement. I think it utterly cruel too, that the only rest that Popes get, at present, is that of death. This especially when they are suffering so evidently from illness and old age, as HH John Paul II was.

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