I have a theory about why Occupy Wall Street and its local variations haven’t caught on with the wider public even though most people agree that SIFUAB. It occurs to me that OWS is a lot like Voice of the Faithful, the reform activist group that arose in Boston, and then spread to other cities, in the wake of the 2002 abuse scandal revelations.

VOTF has remained fairly small, and a club for progressive Catholics. That was not their intention — I remember from the beginning that they were hoping to be a broad-based Catholic reform organization — but that’s how it has played out. Which is a shame, because as long as they’re associated with one faction within the Church, they won’t be able to get traction. If you go to their website, you’ll see that they don’t at all take an openly left-liberal, National Catholic Reporter line. But they have some strong ideas about reforming the Church’s government that includes ideas (e.g., the role of women in the Church) that, for better or for worse, are associated with the liberal wing of US Catholicism. However outraged conservative/orthodox Catholics may have been at the hierarchy for the scandal, and however eager they were for change, they couldn’t join with VOTF (slogan: “Keep the faith, change the church”) because both sides fundamentally disagreed on what it meant to keep the faith, and how the Church should change.  Broadly speaking, the conservatives wanted to keep the structure, but wanted the bishops and the priests to repent and do the right thing; the liberals wanted structural changes that went beyond what conservatives could accept.

It was a shame, I thought in my Catholic days, that there was not an orthodox Catholic version of VOTF. In any case, I think most people on the Catholic right and Catholic left who were engaged with the scandal and reform efforts would agree that the overwhelming majority of people in the pews didn’t care enough to get involved one way or the other. It wasn’t that they didn’t know something was seriously wrong, but that they either didn’t realize how serious the problem was, or felt that it was so much bigger than themselves that they simply didn’t want to engage one way or another. Plus, given Catholic ecclesiology, there was precious little any layperson, or group of laity, could do to press a bishop who was bound and determined not to change. So, there was dissatisfaction among the laity, but not enough to cause the people in the pews to rise up en masse to demand change, either from the left or the right. It just didn’t happen.

I think the VOTF model is a pretty good one to understand why OWS is not likely to go anywhere. Like VOTF’s membership, they are, for the most part, committed partisan activists who have strong ideas about what’s wrong, and what needs to change. But their ideas, insofar as those ideas are clear, are fundamentally opposed to what the conservative activists who are concerned, broadly, about systemic corruption believe. And their activism doesn’t resonate with the non-ideologically conservative instincts of the great mass of people, who are, so far, passive in the face of the crisis. Most Americans are worried about the situation, mistrustful of our leadership, and even angry. But they seem to be hoping that This Too Shall Pass, and we can get back to normal life soon, without having had to do anything scary or painful or even very demanding. OWS is demanding radical action to solve a problem that most people don’t experience as radical (= having to do with the roots). The rightists who share the view that the situation calls for radical measures don’t agree on what those radical measures should be, because they have identified different roots of the problem.

Finally, VOTF is hampered by a culture clash. Within American Catholicism, there is a strongly defined progressive culture, with its leaders, its publications, its scholars, and its ethos, and a parallel orthodox culture. Neither side trusts the other very much. This is visceral. It’s hard to imagine them working together, or even marching together. To be sure, the vast majority of Catholics don’t really identify with either activist side, just as most Americans probably don’t identify to a meaningful extent with either Tea Party or OWS, even if they generally sympathize with one side or the other. Unlike liberal or conservative activists, they’re just not prepared to do anything about it. OWS, like VOTF, is not getting anywhere, not because its people are insincere or deficient in any way necessarily, but because, to put it in Marxist terms, the proletariat is not ready for revolution.

Then again, the Catholic laity are in a very different situation from the American people in one important way. If they get fed up with the lack of change and their own powerlessness to affect the situation, they can always quit going to church, or leave for another church. Their suffering will be spiritual, emotional, and maybe social, but there will be no loss in their standard of living. The kids will still get fed, they’ll still have a house to live in, etc. Not so with people hurt by this economy, who have no escape. So this theory of mine has its limits.

Thoughts?