Can I Stay in the Catholic Church? by Brian Lennon–Book Review

can i stayCan I Stay in the Catholic Church?

It’s a question many Catholics have answered in their droves, leaving the Catholic Church with their proverbial feet. In his latest book, Can I Stay in the Catholic Church? (Columba, 2012), Jesuit Brian Lennon ultimately answers ‘yes.’

But it is his argument that those who choose to stay in the Catholic Church should take it upon themselves to change the church that it is most compelling.

Lennon has worked for more than 30 years with people affected by the conflict in Northern Ireland. He writes out of a lifetime’s experience in the Irish Catholic Church, which has of course in recent years been crippled by the sexual abuse crisis.

The book tackles the abuse crisis in its very first section, asking ‘Who was to Blame?’, and then examines the role of bishops and religious superiors, the Vatican, and lay people. It is helpful that Lennon includes an extended quote from abuse survivor Andrew Madden, as this reminds the reader of the horror of abuse. This keeps his reflections on ‘blame’ from becoming too abstract, especially when he distinguishes between the ‘personal guilt’ of abusers and those who covered up the abuse, and argues that there is a ‘corporate connectedness’ among all members of the church.

This corporate connectedness is key to his argument that lay people must assume responsibility for reforming the church (p. 35):

‘One of the key causes of the abuse crisis was that we maintained a clerical church which marginalised lay people in direct opposition to the focus of Vatican II on the People of God. If this is to change, all of us, clerical and lay, have a corporate duty to bring that change about. We will not break clerical control of the church without vehement and committed lay involvement.’ (emphasis mine)

Indeed, one of Lennon’s main themes is that the teaching of Vatican II on a greater role for laypeople has not been implemented. He says that the Vatican and the Pope have in fact assumed more power than at any other time in the history of the Church.

In a section on ‘Authority in the Church,’ Lennon explains how this has happened, detailing the ‘increasing powers of the papacy in the nineteenth century.’ This of course includes the 1870 decree on papal infallibility, but also encompasses steps taken since Vatican II, such as:

  • the Vatican moving to appoint more bishops at the national level (something previously done more often by national-level churches)
  • the creation of a Synod of Bishops, answerable to the pope, which pre-empted a collegial structure forming between Pope and Bishops
  • a downgrading of the authority of local synods

Lennon claims this centralization of power has been reinforced by a ‘style of Vatican teaching’ that is authoritarian, sexist and homophobic (p. 104-111). He also details how theologians accused of ‘heresy’ have been treated by the Vatican, arguing that the way investigations are carried out violate basic principles of human rights (i.e. theologians’ work is evaluated secretly at the beginning of the process, so that they have no idea they are being investigated, and they are not given adequate time or resources to defend themselves against  charges) (p. 111-114). The recent cases in Ireland of clerics from the Association of Catholic Priests being ‘censured’ by the Vatican bring this section of the book closer to home.

At first glance, the sheer power of the Vatican described by Lennon may make the reader despair of the prospects for reform.

But in the last chapter, ‘Repentance and Hope?,’ Lennon makes his case that the church is reform-able, including a number of concrete steps that could be taken (a section titled ‘How will the church change?, p. 147-155).

Among Lennon’s suggestions are changing Canon Law 129 (which currently ‘excludes lay people from the exercise of significant authority in the church,’ p. 155) and calling a new ‘ecumenical council’, a Vatican III so to speak. The case for a Vatican III also has been advanced by fellow Jesuit Gerry O’Hanlon in A New Vision for the Catholic Church (Columba, 2011). But while O’Hanlon wrote of the Irish bishops instigating such a council, Lennon says it won’t happen unless there is a broad-based movement in local churches.

In fact, Lennon places the weight of responsibility for change on lay people, noting that ‘The hierarchical church has often acted in a repressive way towards ordained clergy and religious. It has less power to do so towards laity’ (p. 155).

This may be the case, but Lennon is less clear about how an often wounded and disenchanted laity might be inspired to do this. As befits a Jesuit, Lennon attempts to provide some inspiration in his section on ‘Who is God?,’ which hones in on attributes like forgiveness and siding with the powerless. He hints that Catholics could learn about mobilization from secular social movements, and also from Protestant churches through ecumenical engagement.

Ultimately, I think that Lennon does provide Catholics with some hope that ‘staying’ in their church is a viable option. He suggests what they might do to make that church better. He does leave a lot unsaid – trusting, perhaps in the creativity of lay people (or, he might add, the movement of the Holy Spirit) to inspire change. For him, that would be a church worth staying in.

  • Alanbrooke


    if you have a top down elected church with a hierarchical structure, it’s difficult to see how member opinion counts for much or where the pressure can be brought. Historically the only time change impacts the Catholic Church is when it’s in competiton for parishioners – Orthodox, Reformation, Islam. Quite how lay people will mix it up when most of them will want to stay on the right side of the establishment seems a triumph of hope over experience.


    There are a few key questions that need to be asked on this issue and I haven’t read the book, so maybe he answered them.
    What are the consequences of denying anyone’s sexuality and forcing it underground because of clerical celibacy?
    How can a homophobic church have within it’s ministry many homosexual priests, bishops etc and remain homophobic.
    What are the consequences for priests and bishops living as repressed homosexuals in their every day lives?
    Is there no debate on these issues?

  • GEF

    Disillusioned Catholics at present could always start another reformation or could even become a Prod. There are so many sects to choose from. But Dr Frank Mobbs a former lecturer in philosophy and theology doesn’t give much credence towards them either.

    Protestant Reformation: origins and beliefs

  • 241934 john brennan

    Despite all its sinfulness, intolerance etc, the Church has for 2000 years, guarded a Truth which was/is better than all its wrongheadedness. That truth, of course, is Jesus and all he stands for. The Church keeps his memory alive, not just for Catholics, but for the whole world. Without the Church the memory of Jesus would have been lost long since.

  • Hi Barbara,
    There is some debate on those issues in this book – and Lennon looks at it somewhat (though not in great depth) in his section on homophobia in the church.

  • sherdy

    The Catholic Church over the last two centuries has amassed unbelievable wealth, in money, land, property and art works, and as long as it is protecting its worldly assets it can never act in a properly Christian manner.
    Until they divest themselves of such riches, for example they could compensate the abuse victims, sexual and otherwise, they will never get back to the true path of Christ.
    Money, and the greed for it, can never achieve any goodness.
    Which Pope will ever start this process – the new one – or will we have to wait for a future generation?

  • To some extent Brian’s book is 30 years too late because, arguably that was a greater “make your mind up time” than now.
    To use a political reference from thirty years ago, many people such as David Owen and Shirley Williams left the Labour Party to form the SDP. This left Labour with an unelectable rump which took at least 15 years to sort out.
    We have had New Labour but we still await New Catholicism.
    The Catholic Church has always been on the wrong side of History.
    We SHOULD have been Protestants.
    We SHOULD have been on the side of the Whigs.
    We SHOULD have been on the side of the French Revolution.
    We SHOULD have been on the side of Garibaldi.
    We SHOULD have Ben on the side of Socialism.
    We SHOULD have been on the side of Feminism.
    And so on.
    As usual…for those who despise the Catholic Church no explanation is possible and for those who basically approve of it, no explanation is really necessary.
    But obviously Pope Paul VI was a conservative influence which disappointed liberals.
    But the 1970s was a time when liberals and conservatives co-existed. The contraception debate then…is no longer an issue.
    There are of course other issues which will be won in due course. Liberals leaving the Church has actually made it more difficult for liberals who stayed within.
    Every person…Brian Lennon and others…reach a crossroads.
    Unlikely places and times like Summer 1983 when there was the first Abortion Debate in the Republic, David Alton MP was leading a bunch of mostly Tory MPs of the worst kind…many Catholic…who had no other particular interest in being so called pro life…..when I was with my pregnant wife at a discussion on Abortion in a “monastery” less than a mile from where Gladys Ganiel posted this thread.
    One of the points being made…and I stress it was not from an official source was that a pro-lifer should not vote for one of the five Norn Iron parties on the basis that their position was (or represented as being) pro abortion as they wanted British legislation extended to here.
    Much as I dislike that party, I would not categorise them in that way.
    Especially as of the four “acceptable” , on, two or in my vie thre had a mixed record on being pro life.

    Brian Lennon is therefore reflecting on a decision that many Catholics have made up to thirty years ago.
    The balance of probability is that there will be a series of short papacies which will lead the Catholic Church in a particular direction which will be welcomed by lay people who want reform.
    But inevitably Catholics will as always find themselves on the wrong side of History.
    Increasingly Catholicism is an umbrella term…not a Church.
    We should really only use it in the same way we refer to Protestantism….an umbrella term for Presbyterians, Baptists etc.
    Within Catholicism, there are…in effect…many churches …and it’s a matter of picking the preferred version.

    I think it was an eminent Free Presbyterian/politician who observed that the best Protestants in Ireland are the Catholics.

  • 241934 john brennan

    ‘Increasingly Catholicism is an umbrella term…not a Church.’
    Let’s get down to basics. The word ‘church’ comes from the Greek word for ‘belonging to the Lord’. Another Greek, and Latin, word for church is ecclesia. It means ‘those who are called together’.

    Jesus died ‘to gather all the scattered children of God’ (St John’s Gospel). That has been happening and will go on happening till the end of time –as Jesus promised

    The name Jesus means ‘God saves’. That was/is his job description, to save sinners – i.e. Saviour of all of us. To this end he commissioned and gave power to the apostles and their successors, instituted Sacraments (visible signs of the hidden reality of salvation)- and above all has given the Holy Spirit to be ‘the soul of the church, the giver of its life, until the end of time.

    Catholic means ‘all-embracing’ – ‘in tune with the whole of reality.

    Why do I remain a Catholic? Well, there is room and welcome in the Church for sinners like me – a good reason for staying a Catholic – and a good reason for becoming one.

  • GEF

    The Catholic Church is not the only religious organisation
    which has a problem with women wanting to be equals. These five Jewish women were arrested because all they wanted to do was pray.

    “Women arrested for praying at Jerusalem’s Western Wall”
    Five feminist campaigners have been arrested at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, for praying in a manner outlawed after being deemed acceptable only for men by ultra-orthodox Jews.