IDEMA: Why the Roman Catholic Church must change

Like the rest of the world, or most of it, I am thrilled with the election of Pope Francis.
Mar 27, 2013


I am especially thrilled with his deep concern for the poor — which, of course, was Jesus' deepest concern, seen most clearly in Matthew 25 in The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. This is a parable about judgment, and there Jesus teaches that we will be judged on the basis of how we treated the hungry, the poor, those in need of clothing, strangers, prisoners, and those who need water. Jesus says nothing about dogma and doctrine or one's personal religious beliefs.

What struck me also is the age of the pope, 76, and the age of the cardinals. The pope even pointed this out himself, but he said that he hoped that the wisdom of the cardinals  would trump their age.

Lastly, when was the last time you remember a pope, after his election, carrying his own bags and paying his own hotel bill? And then getting on a bus, his habitual means of transportation.

I studied with Jesuits in Cambridge, and with Roman Catholic priests in Chicago, such as David Tracy. Being an Anglican, I discovered that our traditions are very similar in many respects theologically, and both are rich in music and liturgy. 

Since Vatican II, when the Bible was truly opened up for scholarship, the Roman Catholic Church has produced some of the world's greatest biblical scholars, such as Raymond Brown and Joseph Fitzmyer. So I am a friendly critic.

Where I believe the Roman Catholic Church needs true reformation — and this was what the Protestant Reformation was about in the 16th century — is giving the lay people power over who becomes a parish priest, a diocesan bishop and a pope. Luther taught "the priesthood of all believers," which is the cornerstone of the Protestant traditions.

For us Anglicans (the Episcopal Church is the Anglican branch in America), the process of becoming a deacon, priest and bishop is mostly in the hands of the laity. Clergy play a role, but the primary power lies with the laity. Lay people select parish priests, with the diocesan bishop's help. The laity and clergy elect diocesan bishops and both together elect the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. Seminarians emerge from our congregations.

In other words, the process works from bottom up, not top down as with the Roman Empire, whose polity influenced the Roman Catholic Church historically.

The great advantage of this way of selecting clergy is that there are checks and balances on the behavior of clergy.

The Episcopal Church has had its share of sex scandals, but I would argue that they are dealt with more openly than in the Roman Catholic Church, due to its hierarchy. The United States military, another top-down organization, has experienced sexual abuse and cover-ups of rape, which is going to be examined by Congress in the near future due to a general overturning a rape conviction by a jury recently.

I believe that, in all denominations, the laity should have the greatest power, not the clergy. This also applies to finances. The Vatican not only has to deal with sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy, but also the corrupt finances in Rome.

I think in all denominations clergy should not be involved at all in finances, except to provide priorities, such as helping the poor. But to have clergy involved in hands-on financial considerations is a conflict of interest. The laity give most of the money in all churches. They pay the clergy salaries. So to have clergy putting their hands into parish money is dangerous. Same with bishops on a diocesan level.

Clergy should be pastors, preachers, worship leaders, teachers, etc., — not CEOs of budgets. Churches have plenty of men and women far more qualified to handle the finances. I hope Pope Francis relies on the laity to clean up the financial mess in the Vatican, not clergy.

To sum up, the laity in the Roman Catholic Church and in all denominations should decide who goes into the ministry, who serves as congregational and diocesan leaders,  and how the money is handled and spent. Moreover, decisions such as the ordination of women and gay people, gay marriage, celibacy, the use of birth control, positions on abortion, etc., should be primarily made by the laity. 

Jesus was a man of the people, not a tool of the priests, who had a hand in his execution because he threatened their power.

— By the Rev. Henry Idema, Tribune religion columnist


Timothy J Burdick

Most Reverend Idema,
I commend your thoughts and opinions. You are correct in saying that we do indeed have much more in common than not as Catholics and Protestants. However, and with all due respect that can be portrayed through these typed words, you are incorrect in saying that the Church “must” change. The laity is the prime benefactor of the Catholic Church’s sacrament of Holy Orders (Priests, Deacons, Bishops and Cardinals) who have sacrificed their lives to studying the life of Christ, practicing it in humility and teaching it to the laity. However, when it comes to having a teaching authority, I would much prefer a man who has dedicated his life to Christ as a Priest (and the many years of preparation he received to attain such grace) than a congregation of people who are burdened by the daily monotony of worldly life.

Take for example the first Christians. The twelve Apostles were commissioned by Jesus to Baptize and teach the Gospel message to corners of the world. He didn’t say “Go and have the people you meet tell you what to do and how to go about believing in Me.”

The Catholic Church is a hospital for sinners and we are all infected with the sickness of sin. The doctors in the earthly E.R. are those who have been called to help heal the wounds of an immoral world. How could the Church benefit more by having the patients call the shots?


Very thoughtful and well said.


As a Roman Catholic, I'm responding to what might be characterized as a guest editorial - written by one who remains an anonymous self-described "Anglican". As that author stated his warm regards for many things Catholic - so I extend mine for may Anglican scholars I've studied and some I've worked with.

That Anglican author states that the root of Protestantism lay in giving power to the lay flock over priests, bishops, etc. The fact is that I grew up in Canada, particularly in British Columbia, and we all knew that the established head of the Anglican Church is the English Monarch - as my Anglican friends loudly proclaimed when the about to become Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip visited British Columbia. Queen Elizabeth has been head of the Anglican Church since she ascended to the British throne in 1952. Some say that is no longer true to some particular branchs or factions of Anglicanism. However no one can rationally disclaim that the roots of Anglicanism are found in the National Church established in England by their King Henry VIII.

The author also states that he rejoices in the election of Pope Francis - particularly because he exercised a particular love for the poor.

The fact is, the Anglican Church began with England's King Henry VIII establishing the Church of England/Anglican Church - and subsequently stripping the Catholic Church of all her property and handing it out selectively to the minor nobility in England - in return for their political loyalty to Henry. This resulted in the closure of almost all the shelters and hospitals for the poor run and maintained by the Catholic Church in England - run by Catholic nuns, brothers, and priests. That seizure of most of the property of the Catholic Church also closed virtually all of the 'Cathedral Schools' which provided for the free education of poor boys in England. It closed virtually all of the schools for girls run by the nuns - who taught the girls household skills, and trades such as weaving if they so desire.

The same basic thing took place under Luther in Northern Germany - and in most of the rest of Europe. The result in each such case was that the poor were left with little more than good wishes. Luther didn't seize the property of the Catholic Church - but he blessed that minor nobility among the German princes who did so.

To this day, Catholic Hospitals and Charities continue to do more for the poor all over the world by far than any other charitable operations. So it seems passing strange that someone would attribute 'love for and care of the poor' to Pope Francis as it is were something strangely new or innovative in the in the Catholic milieu.

As a small boy I grew up in a Catholic home, and in the 1940's, after dinner each night dad read from the bible and we said our Rosary - praying for everyone - including especially the poor - and our enemies.

The editorial's author states; "Since Vatican II, when the Bible was truly opened up for scholarship, the Roman Catholic Church has produced some of the world's greatest biblical scholars…"

I mean no offense to the author - but that individual is not very well aware of history of Catholic Biblical Scholarship. My uncle a priest in the OMI's, and many of his confrers in the 1920's began their scholarly Scripture studies in either Jerusalem or Rome. Those who went to Jerusalem were studying in one of the Oldest institutes for Scripture studies in the Western World. Those who went to Rome studied in the Pontifical Biblical Institute established by Pope St. Pius X in 1909 - for the study of everything from Textual Criticism to historical dating.

The Catholic Church remains the largest charitable institution in the world - and has always exercised its 'Fundamental Option for the Poor'. It did so under Peter, and Peter's successors as recently and John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis.

All my love in Christ

Desmond A. Birch


Who cares what idema thinks. i have never seen anyone who is so universally wrong on almost everything.


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