Will Boycotting Mass Spur Reform?

What would happen if, one Sunday morning, the Catholic hordes stayed home from mass in protest? Would the priests listen to the people’s demands? Or would they carry on without us?

Over the weekend I had an essay at Religion Dispatches about an elderly Irish woman who proposed just such a protest in order to take a stand for women in the church. While I support her cause, I don’t think that her methods do:

It’s clear that Jennifer Sleeman isn’t proposing to abandon the church altogether. But a protest should always be in the image of its goal, the means in keeping with the ends. When I heard of her plan, I couldn’t help but think of all the conscientious, passionate people who have already gone, leaving Catholic progressives to fend for ourselves, increasingly isolated. What feels like taking action from the outside can seem more like abdication from within. We need progressives, especially progressive women, in the church and speaking up.

A big part of the Catholic story over the last few decades, as the historic reforms of Vatican II have faded into a comparatively reactionary turn, is mass exodus. People disagree with aspects of church teaching, or they suffer at the hands of the clergy, and that’s the end. I don’t mean to minimize the significance of either — for so many people, enough really is enough. It’s too painful to go back. What I’m proposing is a struggle, but a necessary one. But their significance can be exaggerated. When progressives leave their counterparts shape the church more and more as they like it.

According to the Irish bishops, mass attendance held steady on Sunday. Despite my complaint, I think I feel a bit disappointed.

For a more stirring essay with much the same point, see Mary Gordon’s “Why I Stay: A Parable from a Progressive Catholic.”