Best Practices for Lay Empowerment: Adult Track

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Marquette University

Project Description

The origin of our grant project (which had both a young adult and an adult track) was rooted in our conviction that the abuse of power was at the heart of the abuse crisis. Recognizing that this abuse of power was only possible as a result of a power imbalance, we identified greater empowerment of the laity as an essential corrective to the conditions that facilitated abuse in the Catholic Church for so long. As members of the laity ourselves, we felt this was a more promising focus for our work than a dismantling of clericalism, which represented another way of undoing the imbalance of power. We also recognized that disempowerment of the laity has been a significant concern for the Catholic Church and needed more attention.

While my colleagues explored lay empowerment for youth and young adults, I researched the question of lay empowerment for adults in the church, to identify resources in the Catholic theological tradition that could support greater equality in the church by elevating the contributions of the laity. This resulted in a focus on the role of conscience and the possibilities for communal discernment. One part of the project developed these resources and explored their potential to serve as a corrective the historical disempowerment of the laity, resulting in a journal article (forthcoming, as of Fall 2022, with Offerings) that shows how these resources can be especially fruitful in light of survivors’ experience of finding spiritual empowerment inside and outside the Catholic Church. The second part of the project produced materials for a parish workshop to lead the laity through a discussion of the role of power in the abuse crisis, the ecclesiological resources supporting equality among the people of God, two different strands of conscience in Catholic theology, and tools for discernment (of conscience) in the Ignatian tradition.

Key Findings


  1. Ecclesial models and metaphors are powerful. There is a close connection between ecclesiology—especially the images of the Church—and the disconnect between the power of the laity and the power of the clergy. Survivors’ experiences pursuing spiritual empowerment can help to challenge insufficient ecclesial models, generating a more egalitarian vision for the important role all people can play as members of the body of Christ.
  2. There is a real theological dimension to the sexual abuse crisis, both in its roots and its effects. We need to do more to address the spiritual injuries of abuse and the power imbalances in our church on a theological level if we want to move forward together.
  3. Lay empowerment is important, but not fully possible without structural reform. Some feedback from the parish workshops highlighted parishioners’ frustration with the limited roles for women in institutional leadership in the Catholic Church. For many of these participants, this gap was a stumbling block to their own hope for lay empowerment and suggested a ceiling for the contributions of a project focused on best practices for the laity themselves without concomitant structural reforms.
  4. Laity need more support for collaborative discernment processes. Participants reflected that the time spent reflecting on discernment, using adaptations from the Spiritual Exercises, was especially valuable. They also highlighted, however, the challenges of cultivating a practice of discernment alone and spoke of a strong desire for greater collaborative support for discernment among the laity. Developing additional discernment practices, particularly practices that can be utilized in a group setting and ideally drawing on resources from other spiritual traditions within Catholicism, would therefore be another valuable avenue for future resource aimed at empowering the laity.

Further Reading

Kelly, Conor. Materials for Embracing Our Shared Responsibility: Spiritual Resources for an Empowered Lay Response to the Abuse Crisis.

Kelly, Conor. “A Theological Crisis Demands a Theological Response: Practical Theology as a Corrective to the Clergy Abuse Scandal,” Offerings 16, no. 1 (2023): 65–89]

Knutson, Sara. “Awake Workshop Explores Essential Role of Lay People in the Catholic Church,” Awake Milwaukee, July 26, 2022,

Principal Investigator

Conor KellyConor M. Kelly, an assistant professor in the department of theology at Marquette University. His research and teaching focus on ethics in ordinary life, particularly practices for conscience formation. He has presented on the theological implications of the clergy abuse crisis and served as a member of Awake Milwaukee’s Advocacy Task Force. His work for Taking Responsibility will develop spiritual practices for lay empowerment.


Kate WardKate Ward, Ph.D., is assistant professor of theological ethics at Marquette University. Her research engages economic ethics, virtue ethics and Catholic social thought. She is the author of Wealth, Virtue, and Moral Luck: Christian Ethics in an Age of Inequality, forthcoming from Georgetown University Press in 2022.