Thursday, 30 May 2013

What does the co-responsibility of the laity actually mean?

I mentioned in another post that I'm slowly working my way through the various talks given at the recent Vatican II 'Great Grace' Conference, and today I want to reflect on two given on that most vexed of all questions, the role of the laity, by Professor Anne Hunt and Matthew Tan respectively.

Professor Hunt's talk can be viewed or to listened to.  Mr Tan has also helpfully made the text of his talk available on his blog.

Both talks discuss some important issues, and I found a lot I could agree with Professor Hunt's practical conclusions.

But both, alas, seem to me to position themselves firmly in the 'discontinuity' or 'rupture' school of Vatican II thus tending to undermine the cases they attempt to make for a greater role for the laity in the running of the Church.

What does the co-responsibility of the laity actually mean?

Both speakers latch on to the term 'the co-responsibility of the laity', popularised by Pope Benedict XVI to justify their vision of  greater lay input to decision-making processes and ministry.  Yet both seem to view the concept as a fundamental conceptual shift.

I don't think that position can withstand scrutiny.

Mr Tan's paper is essentially an attempt to rationalise the clericalisation of the laity in the pursuit of lay ministries within the Church, despite Pope John Paul II's clear attempt to curtail this direction of development in Christi Fidelies Laici.

Professor Hunt actually takes the argument somewhat further, claiming that the documents of Vatican II directly reject the notion of distinctive roles and responsibilities of clergy and laity, a direction whose apparent 'resurgence' (in what she dismisses as 'two realms theory') in recent magisterial teaching she decries.

Personally, I think Professor Hunt's reading of the relevant documents is just outright wrong.

Leaving aside, for the moment, a traditionalist perspective on these issues, some of the leading proponents of the so-called 'theology of the laity' such as Fr Jordan Aumann OP, Russell Shaw and many others have taken the view that what Vatican II actually teaches is that the laity have considerable autonomy transform the secular sphere where they in fact have the lead role, while the role of the clergy is primarily to support and form them for this role.

And their position on the texts is supported by subsequent magisterial teaching, particularly in the form of Pope John Paul II's Post-Synodal Exhortation Christi Fideles Laici, which talks about a 'unity in the Church's mission' in which we all participate, even as there is diversity in roles ordered to that mission (see also the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1547).

History of the term

That context, I think, helps us to understand the earliest uses of the term 'co-responsibility' that Mr Tan has been able to locate.  The first is in the Catechism, where the two reasons cited to support the duties of citizenship (such as to vote and pay taxes) are submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good (CCC2240).  The second is in John Paul II’s 1988 Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici, Article 21:

"The Church is directed and guided by the Holy Spirit, who lavishes diverse hierarchical and charismatic gifts on all the baptised, calling them to be, each in an individual way, active and coresponsible."

In Christifideles Laici, Pope John Paul II makes a clear distinction between those areas, viz the secular sphere, where the laity have a leading role, and those areas, viz those relating to the hierarchically ordered ministry, where the laity's role is one of collaboration under the direction of the hierarchy rather than something essentially autonomous.  The current Code of Canon Law reflects this principle.

We might agree then, with Professor Hunt's statement that the "building up of the Church and the fullfillment of its mission in the Church and the world is the work of the whole community of believers, it is a co-responsibility".

I don't think, though, Mr Tan's argument that Pope Benedict's use of the term co-responsibility represents a shift away from the notion of the laity as 'collaborators' when it comes to strictly ministerial functions, stands up to scrutiny.  Rather, co-responsibility, at least as the hierarchy have been using the term, positively depends on respecting the different roles and responsibilities of the ordained and non-ordained in different spheres ordered overall to effecting the common good of the Church's mission.

Rupture theory and the universal call to holiness

In essence both these lines of arguments seem to me to based above all in rupture theory, and in particular the spirit of Vatican II fairy tale that before V2 life for Catholics was horrible, but now things are just wonderful; and that any articulation of the different roles of priests and laity that pre-dates the Council are irrelevant.

Neither of them explicitly articulated outright the commonly stated claim that before Vatican II, the laity were (allegedly) not called to holiness, but it was certainly implicit.  And in my view, the claim is just not true.

There are some texts of Vatican II that are genuinely difficult to reconcile with Magisterial teaching and the tradition that preceded it.  This particular section of Lumen Gentium isn't one of them.

In fact the Catechism of Trent and numerous post Reformation encyclicals provide clear context and support for the Vatican II teaching.  Have a read, for example of the Council of Trent on the sacrament of matrimony.  That Catechism, you may be aware, was directed at priests, so they would know what they had to teach the faithful.  And the section on marriage starts: "As it is the duty of the pastor to seek the holiness and perfection of the faithful..."  A good read of the various social encyclicals of the nineteenth century would also be salutary in this regard.  So too some of the encyclicals aimed at combating heresy, as you can read here.

Another reason for rejecting the claim that the universal call to holiness is an innovation is that it simply does not reflect the historical reality of practice in the Church before Vatican II.  As Catholics we surely believe that the path to holiness depends in large part on obtaining grace through the sacraments.  Yet more Catholics by far attended Mass regularly, went to confession, got married and so forth before the Council than today.

There is a similar problem when it comes to spiritual discipline.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2012-2015) teaches that the path to holiness is through renunciation, asceticism, mortification and a commitment to the spiritual battle. There is a certain irony, then in the fact that most of the demands the Church used to make on the faithful in the name of the path to holiness - such as the more extended Eucharistic fast, Friday abstinence - have been abolished since the Council.  At the time it was claimed that people would find their own ways of training in virtue.  One of those classic cases of a misconceived anthropology that ignores concupiscence in my view!

Similarly, if you actually look at the kinds of ways Catholics practised their faith before Vatican II, you will find a deep commitment to the role of the laity in evangelizing the world.  Think for example of the professional confraternities, such as those for nurses and others; of Catholic Action; 'the Movement' in Australia; and many other such initiatives.

It is true that both the degree of independence of lay action, and the extent to which they were entitled to have input to formal and informal ecclesial decision-making processes have been vigorously contested from time to time.  But the extremist view that the role of the laity was merely to 'hunt, to shoot and to entertain', or to 'pray, pay and obey' was always clearly a minority one, and not one applicable to the vast majority of lives, as the popularity of books such as The Imitation of Christ (the most widely read devotional book after the Bible) and St Francis de Salles' The Devout Life attest.

Resisting the clericalisation of the laity

What then is the role of the laity when it comes to what happens within the Church?

I do think that Vatican II pointed to a 'renewed sense of the co-responsibility for the life and work of the Church', both in calling the laity to reject any separation between their faith and their life in the world, and in acknowledging that they have genuine rights and responsibilities when it comes to the internal affairs of the Church.

I also agree that, sadly, those rights, though recognised in law, are far from fully realised.

Take the right, for example, recognised in Canon Law, to be 'assisted by the spiritual riches of the Church' (CL 213).  How can that be reconciled with the widespread prevalence of liturgical abuses, and the refusal of some priests and bishops to allow the Traditional Mass?

And there are reciprocal obligations.  Making a Mass happen, traditional or otherwise, ideally requires the efforts of more than just a priest, but also members of the laity to sing in the choir, beautify the church, act as servers and so forth.

It would be a grave step backwards, though, in my opinion, to put more emphasis on the laity in ministerial and bureaucratic roles, for surely this just serves to reinforce the utterly erroneous idea that a commitment to holiness can only be realised by becoming a priests, monk or nun!

And it is a particularly dangerous direction when it comes to women, for it implicitly calls into question the exclusion of women from the priesthood.

In the Q&A section of Professor Hunt's talk, a bishop pointed to all the attempts to engage women within the Church asked rhetorically what more could be done.  Personally, I think the answer is to put rather less emphasis on liturgical roles and rather more on engaging the laity on the fundamental challenges we as Catholics face in Australia today.

Constructive engagement

It is not enough, for example, in my view, to pick out a few of the great and good to advise the bishops on how to handle the abuse crisis; what is needed rather is a grassroots engagement with all Catholics on this issue.

In her talk, Professor Hunt suggested that "many of the laity have competencies and charisms that many are willing and able to bring, but little opportunity to place them at the disposal of the Church."

I agree.

But we don't have to be converted into pseudo-priests in order to contribute to the building up of the Church.  Rather, what is needed is a commitment to transparency, accountability and genuine respect for the potential contribution of the laity that has thus far been noticeable by its absence.

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