When Joe Marren heard that Australian Catholics were uniting in prayer for William Morris, the bishop who was forced to resign because of his suggestion that the church might want to reconsider its ban on women priests, he reacted with characteristic decisiveness: “Don’t hold prayer rallies; hold elections!”
Joseph Marren does not appear to be a firebrand. With his white hair and neatly trimmed mustache, he looks like the 76-year-old, retired communications specialist and church-going Catholic his neighbors take him to be. He and his wife Mary have nine children, 12 grandchildren (so far), and a peaceful existence in their home on Chicago’s far north side. But deep inside there’s a fire of indignation burning at what he sees as a Catholic hierarchy that has lost its credibility and has to go.
In this respect he’s not terribly different from a lot of Catholics. Some leave the church and some stay, living with discouragement. A few, like Joe Marren, sizzle. They’re not content to pray for better times when maybe a new pope comes along or let a few more decades pass. They want action now. I’ve known him for years, shared breakfast several times, and I admire not only his sizzle but the learning and bold analysis he puts behind it.
In 1998 he wrote a declaration for his children, explaining why he stayed in the church despite its “perverse leadership.” And when the abuse scandal broke in 2002, he decided to expand his views into a book and give his children a “full-throated” statement. That book, self-published last year through iUniverse, is titled Talking Treason in Church: the Lay Person’s Guide to Renewing the Catholic Church. In it he calls the hierarchy “frauds and imposters,” whose continuation as rulers cannot be justified. And he sets out to prove his case with an amazing amount of scholarship in Scripture and Tradition. He is a lifelong student of ancient languages, especially Greek and Latin and has a master’s and bachelor degrees in these studies from Loyola University and the University of Kentucky. He’s also well read in the heavy hitters in history and theology like Raymond Brown, John Meier, John McKenzie, John Henry Newman and Karl Rahner. He travels with them in their analyses of the New Testament. He goes right up to the edge where they stop, but he keeps going.
His fundamental argument is this: Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to the whole church. This community, understood to be the body of Christ, operated in the apostolic age and after by choosing leaders from among its own people. Then gradually between the second and fourth centuries, the church began in its organizational and governmental structure to take on the image of the Roman Empire. That Roman, authoritarian, top-down stamp continues to this day, says Marren, and with it came the royal papacy, the elevated state of the priesthood and the reduction of the laity to obedient subjects.
This far in his argument, Marren is in agreement with the vast majority of modern scholars. However, he doesn’t see this development as a mere turn in the road but a stark repudiation of the gospel message. “Jesus Christ did not die on the cross to preserve the cultural values of the Roman Empire,” he writes. “He did not die on the cross to preserve the Jewish priesthood – or any priesthood…. Rule by authoritarian fiat in the Catholic Church hurls anathmas at the very God who placed the Holy Spirit in every human heart and mind.” As a solution, he proposes a lay-led redefinition of the human constitution of the church along democratic lines, adding, ”If this be treason let us make the most of it.”
He traces his intensity to a kind of transformative experience he had in 1967. He and another active member of his parish were asked to show a filmstrip on the history of the mass to about 20 parishioners in a home setting. The film told how the mass had changed over the years, and afterwards the group discussed what they had seen. Then, says Marren, “as instructed, we had all the people join hands around the long table and say the Our Father. We took an uncut loaf of bread, broke it in pieces and gave each person a piece. Holding the bread in our hands, we all recited together, ‘We will know the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread.’ As we ate the bread in silence, the hair on the back of my neck bristled as if with static electricity. We were all in one room concentrating on the meaning of the Mass. We were all reflecting on the life of Jesus in prayer. And we were all recognizing the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread.” Marren never said anything afterwards to his partner about his reaction but almost every detail remains etched in his memory after 40 years. “It was our first Mass as celebrants,” he says.
Admittedly, there’s a whiff of Protestantism in Marren’s proposals, but he insists he’s not suggesting a new church, just trying to bring Catholicism back to what it’s supposed to be, a community of equal believers.
He is less than clear in the book about how to do this but he’s since parsed out some ideas in more detail. First, he says, the laity must realize the Eucharist belongs to them. So he encourages reform-minded Catholics “to form base communities and once a month celebrate Mass at home.” However, Catholics should continue to support their parishes, he says, while also placing a tenth of their income in special accounts they control. Gradually, he predicts these local groups will organize themselves at regional and national levels, setting up “a shadow government for the church, a sort of power-out-of-power, a loyal opposition…whose very existence will be testimony to the fact that the bishops…are self-elected and do not have the endorsement of the people.”
Toward the end of Talking Treason, Marren says, “Let us face it, you Catholic people: Jesus Christ was a revolutionary! His movement was not for the lukewarm, for the close-minded, for archconservatives, for defenders of the castle. And it was not for Catholics alone or for Christians – it was for all humanity….As for the details, we have the Holy Spirit and each other. God will supply whatever we lack.”
The time is short, says Joe Marren, and the time is now.