Reform of the Catholic Church: Efforts from Below

By Penelope Middelboe

Some years ago I had an uncomfortable altercation with a very “Christian” relation. I had taken her to a lengthy hospital appointment and instead of thanking me she asked why I wasted so much of my time being a left-wing activist (an election was imminent). My reply– “I don’t understand the problem. Surely Jesus was the first socialist?”-- was met with incomprehension. 

Jesus preached a radical new society, where race and gender, laws and regulations, status and money, and religious institutions do not matter. All that matters is to love your neighbor. And, if you are lucky enough to know what it means to feel loved by God then love your God and love others “as I have loved you.”

This past January a new online initiative, Spirit Unbounded, set out its mission statement to bring together a global, lay-led Christian and ecumenical network for transformational change. As I write, Spirit Unbounded is supported by 43 reform-minded groups from across the world, with more in the wings. These groups, which we call Companions on the Road, have already begun to discover each other and to work together. We’re stronger together.

At its first assembly, in September 2021, the UK initiators of Spirit Unbounded, Root & Branch (set up to push for root and branch reform in the Catholic Church), assumed that Catholics already understood Catholic Social Teaching and a duty of care to our ecology. We could focus on lay people sharing power with the clerical hierarchy, priestly ordination for all who are called, sexual ethics, and clerical abuse. How naïve we were. 

This time round, as we canvassed our Companions for recommendations for speakers for  our second assembly in October 2023, we quickly saw how much the Catholic Church, which claims to be so “universal,” was in fact made up of myriad of different Catholic churches, each dependent on the prejudices and cultures of its parishioners, priests, and bishops. Each faces its own particular challenges to the Christian equality of all.

For example, in India, although 12 million of the 19 million Catholics are Dalits (formerly known as “untouchables”) they are treated as unworthy to touch vessels, frequent church spaces and more. In the United States, Nate Tinner-Williams, founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, asks how Catholic court justices ruling in favor of capital punishment can claim to be pro-life or how Catholic politicians can run on platforms of hate and revisionism. “It seems that the era of Catholic Social Teaching has somehow now faded into an era of Catholic Social Bleaching,” he says. “‘Where the world and the church is to be made more holy by being made more white!” Tinner-Williams features here in this video trailer. 

Maria Exall, until last month president of the UK Trades Union Congress, believes that Catholic social teaching on trade union rights is central for the future of the Catholic Church and will be speaking on the topic of Workers’ Rights, Social Justice and Catholic Values. Keynote speaker Steven T. Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape Nations), author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (2008), tackles the papal Doctrine of Discovery, which justified the conquest and enslavement of indigenous peoples; while it was repudiated by the Vatican in 2023, many dispute the historical interpretation which the Vatican relies upon.

In India, Sister Prema Chowallur helped found the Rainbow Home of the Seven Sisters in Assam, to give food, shelter, clothing, education, and health support to transgender persons and survivors of human trafficking who are excluded by their families and places of work. In Pakistan, Sister Nasreen Daniel,  now with the Sisters of Loretto in the United States, has teamed up for most of her life with human rights lawyers to help women prisoners. She tells us how the women who go to work as servants in rich houses are very easy prey for sexual abuse. If they resist their employer they are accused of stealing and end up in prison and are then shunned by their families, their lives destroyed. 

‘Biggie’ (not her real name) is a Catholic member of the umbrella group Global Network of Rainbow Catholics. She runs Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG) initially set up to support lesbian, bisexual, and queer women with advocacy, lobbying and dialogue to create greater visibility and voice. Her work has been catastrophically crushed by the new criminal anti-homosexual legislation that threatens capital punishment for offenders, and twenty years imprisonment for landlords or allies of homosexuals (and this includes family members). Working underground, moving from safe house to safe house, her life and the lives of those she helps are in permanent danger. In a very deliberate political move homosexuals are being blamed for all the country’s economic troubles, scapegoated and hounded, denied work, shelter, food, even medical supplies and treatment, and yet the Catholic bishops in Uganda remain either hostile or silent. In her poignant recording sent to me over the phone by WhatsApp (since it is encrypted and therefore safer than email) ‘Biggie” asks the Pope to intervene against this inhuman law. 

As a young nun in a local order in Pakistan, Nasreen Daniel was asked to stop her work rescuing girls at risk of honor killing. When she would not, she was asked to leave the local order. A local bishop helped her get to Holland, where she had friends, and she was eventually offered the opportunity to join the Sisters of Loretto in the United States. She now challenges young trainee priests to speak out against honor killing as well as advising young nuns how to protect themselves from abuse by clergy.

Sherry Balcombe runs the 21-year old Aboriginal Catholic Ministry in Thornbury, Victoria. She says Australia is the only country in the Commonwealth that does not have a treaty with its First People. As a result, her people suffer from substandard housing, extreme poverty, exclusion from education, and in some places segregation. The poverty gap is getting wider by the year. And they have no voice in Parliament. In a country where Aboriginal history is not even taught, she inspires students to be “fire carriers” who commit to bringing Aboriginal spirituality and culture into their school. Fire represents friendship and reconciliation.

Emmah Gesare Nyakundi, a young mother and an Agriscientist from Kisii County in Kenya, believes it is her Christian calling to use her farming skills to help single mothers (and now some single fathers) in her own village become self-reliant. Her project, supported by Christian groups in the United States, provides land for these villagers to farm. At Emmah’s Garden she teaches them new techniques to increase their harvest so that they can grow enough food not only to feed their families but also to sell to educate their children.  

Mark Colville has run a house of hospitality in New Haven, Connecticut, known as the Amistad Catholic Worker, for the past three decades. An outspoken advocate on human rights with the mission to decriminalize homelessness, Colville has opened his own backyard to his unhoused neighbors, offering them a piece of land and giving them a home of their own. He is currently working with a group of local volunteers to raise funds for the Rosette Neighborhood Village, a collection of tiny homes that he plans to erect in his backyard. 

These various efforts may seem a long way from the reform of the Catholic Church. But I don’t think so. Jesus continually found himself with the mentally ill, the socially unacceptable, the long-term sick, the criminal and others who had been excluded from society. He went out of his way to spend time with the unprivileged. A Catholic Church that presents fortress walls to the world, and defends assets and honor at the expense of the vulnerable people its employees sexually exploit is in profound need of root and branch reform. The unfolding Synodal Process has already shown that the bishops are not able to listen to the voices of the marginalized. It is the emerging lay Catholic Church that is taking up the work of Jesus today. 


Penelope Middelboe, a writer, was formerly CEO of a large UK charity using Shakespeare to give disadvantaged youth a sense of self-worth. She is a co-founder of Root & Branch and produces a radical history podcast with her husband, Jon Rosebank.  The week-long conference "Human Rights in the emerging Catholic Church" 8-14 October can be accessed via giving permanent access to 50+ hours of Christian witness. If you can’t afford the lowest ticket price email [email protected]. Some early release clips can be found here.

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