It is hard to see a silver lining in the abuse scandal of the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, the scarring crisis has given Pope Francis a rare opportunity to initiate meaningful reform, and his forceful condemnations of ‘clericalism’ are squarely directed at the reason for the Church’s institutional failure. In an August 2018 letter addressing the crisis, Pope Francis wrote that “whenever we have tried to replace, or silence, or ignore, or reduce the People of God to small elites, we end up creating communities… without roots, without memory, without faces, without bodies and ultimately, without lives.” This painfully gained insight holds true far beyond the Catholic Church. In most Western institutions, the masses are not engaged because all meaningful responsibility has been invested in small groups of elites. By all accounts, we live in a society in which the cultivating and transformative powers of family, government, religion, school, and neighborhood are less effective than they were in the past. However, institutions are not failing because people take them for granted, or because consumerism and advertising have made people selfish, or because technology has made us too autonomous. All the most pressing challenges we face, whether environmental degradation, low educational achievement, drug addiction, broken families, or generational poverty are not overwhelming us because of a lack of resources. Successful institutions require the meaningful participation of members, and the alienation that so many across the political spectrum have written about is, at its core, the failure of institutions to engage with the people they serve.

The dynamism that animates any institution is dependent upon participation which is best achieved through broadly distributed authority, and the most vital institutions have more people making decisions and contributing to the general welfare in a meaningful way. Humans evolved in closely knit groups with dispersed authority. After the family, the most significant institution for most of human existence was the hunter-gatherer clan, and the most remarkable characteristic they shared, according to the anthropologist Robert Bellah, is how egalitarian they were. This is surprising because our nearest relatives are more despotic than egalitarian.  Chimpanzees live in hierarchies that rank individuals from the strongest to the weakest with adult males above females. In his book, Religion in Human Evolution, Bellah asserts that humans have the same propensity for dominance, but our species took a very different route to reproductive success by evolving in a social order, the nuclear family, unknown to other primates. Nuclear families were possible because coalitions were formed to prevent individuals or small groups from dominating the majority. With dominant males prohibited from monopolizing women, it became possible for monogamous couples and their mutual nurturance of children to become the cornerstone of clan life. However, hunter-gatherer clans required constant policing and social pressures to deter self-aggrandizing tendencies. Extended relationships between families built on kinship ties and religious rituals continuously reasserted equality and prevented dominant males from endangering the community. 

We may have recently gained more equality than individuals had in hunter-gatherer groups, but our modern equality is based on autonomy rather than participation. As the scale of society dramatically increased during the last two centuries, institutions were not able to successfully adapt. Friedrich Engels famously described life in London as being like a world of autonomous atoms where people do not even make eye contact in the congested streets: “The brutal indifference, the unfeeling isolation of each in his private interest becomes the more repellent and offensive, the more these individuals are crowded together.” Life for the average person is materially easier than in Engels’s day, but just as alienating. As markets and technology evolved and became more efficient, the vitality of communities and neighborhoods has been supplanted by the large institutions– corporate, governmental, professional, nonprofit, and academic entities– that employ most people. Our present lack of community leaves us incomplete. It runs contrary to the overwhelming portion of human existence in which the scale of life and the immediacy of shared endeavors bound communities into closer union. Large institutions limit the spontaneous cooperation and reciprocity that enliven relationships and engender creativity. They approach the human condition as a series of problems to be solved and discount the satisfaction that can only be gained through relatedness and community. They rely on performance-based measures, but within our personal lives there is an immediacy and a trust that allow local associations to operate with more life-affirming communal values. In their visionary book, The Abundant Community, John McKnight and Peter Block describe a communal culture where everything is personal. Neighbors know each other by name and are valued for their talents even as weaknesses are acknowledged. There is creativity and spontaneity. Tragedy is mourned and faced communally. In the abundant community, families and neighborhoods have reclaimed responsibility for children, health, safety, the local environment, and economic security.

Realizing our potential requires institutional responsibility to be broadly distributed to smaller groups so that families, neighborhoods, schools, and religious groups are reincorporated into daily life. Of course, power is never easily relinquished, but many schools and corporations have been moving in the right direction for decades by becoming more team based and less hierarchical. McKnight and Block describe how local communities can be invested with more responsibility, and they are especially concerned about the herding of the elderly, the mentally handicapped, and addicts into large isolated facilities. But there are other institutions where reform is even more critical. First, families should be empowered with more say in the education of their children. Nothing is more foundational to the existence of families than their involvement in raising and educating children. This does not just mean vouchers and home schools, although they are a good start. More important is the role parents should be given in making the most important decisions at schools. Currently, only the loudest, most difficult parents force schools to engage with them. When more parents are involved, they will naturally curb aberrant behavior because small groups with dispersed authority tend to self-regulate. We should not be afraid to trust parents because their inborn concern and interest will more than compensate for any presumed lack of expertise. Parents are the stakeholders whose motives most closely align with the best interest of children, and the commitment families make to schools is likely to be proportionate to the responsibility parents are given. Furthermore, just as schools should give responsibility to parents, teachers should give more responsibility to students who will mature more fully if they too are treated as partners and taught to help fellow students. Responsive, self-governing, community-oriented schools are the place where community engagement must be learned.

Dynamic communities are charitable and want to help those in need. It is not necessarily inappropriate for the government to provide free health care or housing for those in need, but all assistance should not be means tested. Matching funds for locally run charities would encourage our best instincts. Like all of us, the poor need loving engagement and, when necessary, a stern reproach that can only be effective through more immediate relationships. Neighborhoods in low income communities can be buttressed by requiring all government and nonprofit employees, such as teachers, police officers, and postal workers, to reside in the communities they serve so that there would be a substantial core of invested leaders and role models in those communities. 

Local communities should also be more involved in the whole criminal justice system with volunteer and professional police who are a part of the community. Smaller, local jails would be far more humane than our prisons, and community leaders could decide on a more effective course of action for lesser offenses without involving the courts. Local disputes adjudicated by panels of citizens in community courts could render decisions less influenced by the ability to pay expensive attorneys. 

Religion is an essential component of community, and, as a Catholic, I am hopeful for the revival of the Church as an institution. Pope Francis acknowledges that “without the active participation of all the Church’s members, everything being done to uproot the culture of abuse in our communities will not be successful.” The laity, he wrote in a 2016 letter, should be encouraged and helped to become “the true protagonists of history” not “errand boys.” But active participation of all the Church’s members requires authority to be shifted to the people. The Church should look to its dynamic first few centuries when married elders, deacons, and eventually married priests led services in homes and churches overseen by elected bishops. Perhaps house churches are not a viable solution, but all large institutions that desire engaged members need to experiment with the delegation of authority so long as it is consistent with core values. The goal should be to have more diverse cooperating and competing small communities that are fully engaged. This cannot happen without dispersing governing authority down the hierarchy. A Church proud of its apostolic tradition should not be afraid to take up actual apostolic practices that are more suitable to our present challenges. Some Church leaders have expressed concern that the Pope’s anti-clericalism will make Catholics like Protestants with dispersed authority and diverse doctrines. However, a monolithic Church clinging to power with ever fewer participants is not better than one, like the early Church, that is involved in a passionate debate about truth and God.

The democratic reforms of ancient Athens were a great inspiration for the American founders, and they offer an imperfect but remarkable example of what can be accomplished. Beginning with the reforms of Solon, city leaders gave an unprecedented share of its population real responsibility in the life of the city. Slaves, women, foreigners, and the poor were excluded, but the people included, mostly small farmers, were ennobled by their participation in political and military decisions. They acted as judge and jury in all legal matters, they were expected to participate in the religious cult, the military, and to attend the productions of their great playwrights. This participation revived their institutions and the course of history was changed by their achievements. In his famous funeral oration, Pericles described what made Athenian society better than its peers: “We alone regard a man who takes no interest in public affairs, not as a harmless, but as a useless character; and if few of us are originators, we are all sound judges of a policy.” The Athenians became sound judges of policy because their opinions mattered. While we live in a more free and open society, our institutions are more authoritarian. Only about a quarter of Athenian society fully participated in society, and it was world-changing. The full potential of society today is beyond imagination. The masses are right to be cynical and to doubt institutional leaders and experts because, the opinions of most people do not matter. Anyone without responsibility for outcomes is not a true participant and cannot be made to feel accountable. For those who are excluded, even the most noble leaders of large institutions pleading for the most humane causes can reasonably be seen as self-serving. 

In my hometown of Akron, Ohio, the accepted status quo for the homeless was challenged by a man named Sage Lewis. Wearing his trademark cowboy hat and white framed glasses, he defied the experts and established a new kind of community. According to the local papers, Mr. Lewis installed two portable toilets and invited the homeless to pitch their tents on an acre of his land. He also encouraged them to write and enforce rules for living in this community that grew to about fifty people. Government social workers and advocates for the homeless have been trying to evict the residents because there are enough safer, winterized shelters available in other locations. However, the social workers involved report that the homeless have connected so deeply at this location that they are unwilling to leave. “They are like family here,” one resident said. A thoughtful social worker concluded, “They’re setting up leadership and addressing their own issues in their own way. They have really delighted in the opportunity to be a part of a community.” 

Like Sage Lewis and the homeless in Akron, we can learn to live more meaningful lives by distrusting the experts and entrusting the future to our abundant communities. A more perfect union depends upon the contribution of everyone.