Rome won’t fix the sex abuse crisis in U.S. churches. Let U.S. lay Catholics try.

This might seem to present American Catholics with a Catch-22. Centralized Roman governance stifles reforms, but we need reforms to move us away from centralized Roman governance. The solution, however, is for laypeople to recognize that within our own national borders, we are not nearly as powerless over the clergy as we sometimes think we are.

Church history has been full of battles between clerical and lay leaders. Each side has weapons proper to it, and neither side has a monopoly on truth or righteousness. Those lay leaders in the past were often Catholic emperors, kings, or lords. In their battles with popes and bishops, they took actions that we can only find shocking: they blocked the selection of bishops, defied interdicts, executed papal ambassadors. No one can be nostalgic for those days. But at least our history ought to remind us that spiritual power rarely checks itself. It always needs to be balanced by temporal power. And temporal power is rightly placed in the hands of the laity. In the American republic, the kings and lords are all of us.

The American Catholic laity needs to start thinking hard about how to make use of the legitimate machinery of secular politics and society as a source of pressure on the hierarchy.