Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Exit, voice, and loyalty in the Catholic Church

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 17, 2019

Different people react in different ways to the crisis in our Church. Reflecting on that fact, I find myself thinking about a little classic of a book that was published almost 50 years ago: Exit, Voice, & Loyalty, by Albert O. Hirschman.

At a glance you might say that Hirschman’s book has nothing to do with Catholicism, and you’d be right. Hirschman was an economist, and in this book he was examining how individuals express their dissatisfaction with the firms, organizations, or institutions with which they are affiliated. Like most good social-science studies, the book is filled with common-sense observations that might strike the reader as obvious—until he realizes that he hadn’t made those observations himself.

There are, Hirschman writes, three basic ways to respond to dissatisfaction with an institution. You can exit—that is, walk away from the institution. You can raise your voice and work to change whatever it is that has caused your dissatisfaction. Or you can show your loyalty by accepting the situation without complaint. (Of course this is only a telegraphic explanation of the book’s analysis, and in practice your reaction to dissatisfaction will probably be some mixture of two, or perhaps even all three, of those basic approaches.)

You will lean toward exit when you have no particular ties to the institution. You join a social club because you enjoy playing bridge. Over time the membership of the club changes and you find that you can’t drum up four players for a table. So you have no reason to continue your membership. You exit.

You will show loyalty when you have particularly strong ties to the institution. You enlist in the Marine Corps. You aren’t happy when the Corp begins appointing female officers. But nobody asked for your opinion, and you’re only five years away from retirement with a full pension. You keep your mouth shut and do your job.

You raise your voice when you see the opportunity to change the things that bother you. You love your family, but someone in the family is doing something that harms everyone else. You can’t leave your family—exit is not an option—but you can’t simply accept a toxic situation. You have a chance to change things. More than that you have a duty to change things.

How do these three approaches apply to Catholics in the current crisis?

For believing Catholics, exit is not an option. Where else can you find the Eucharist? Where can you find a sure understanding of the Word of God? “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” [Jn 6:68-69]

Generations of good and faithful lay Catholics have responded to problems with commendable displays of loyalty, humbly accepting direction from the clergy and the bishops, swallowing hard and suppressing any misgivings they might have felt. But that approach has its limitations. Loyalty becomes dysfunctional when it requires acceptance of objectively immoral situations. You should always show respect for your father, but if your father’s behavior is harming the entire family, you also have responsibilities to protect your mother and your siblings. Pure loyalty may be required of consecrated religious, who have taken vows of obedience. But for lay Catholics, blind loyalty—that is, acquiescence—is not a moral option.

If you, as a morally responsible actor, recognize that the current situation in the Church is harmful to the faithful, then you have a responsibility to work for change. Exit is not an option. And loyalty? Well, the question is: what are you loyal to? If your loyalty is to the Church—to the Body of Christ, the People of God—then you have no real choice but to raise your voice.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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