Thursday, 16 September 2010

The myth of "lay ecclesial minstry"

One of the things that tends to make me froth at the mouth is think pieces like this from the Director of Pastoral Support Services for the Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese, Shawn van der Linden, that promote the idea of  “lay ecclesial ministry”.

Why? Because it is theologically flawed, and extremely dangerous.

Spirit of Vatican IIism

The idea that lay ecclesial 'ministry' (ie the laity taking on roles previously undertaken by priests, up to and including acting as chancellors for a diocese) is a desirable objective is one of those "spirit of Vatican II" ideas that does not seem to have been stymied by the lack of an obvious root in the actual texts of the Council.  Nor is there a sound theological rationale for the subsequent directions in which this idea has developed; quite the contrary.

Pope John Paul II tried to squash it, following a Synod on the subject, in Christifideleslaici, emphasizing (as canon law does) that lay ministries are not the primary focus of the laity, but should only be employed in response to the shortage of priests.  Pope Benedict XVI has similarly tried to reign in this direction.

Yet like a hydra, chop off one head, and two new ones appear....

A confusion of terminology

Even the use of the term 'lay ministry' is problematic in the Catholic Church.  Pope John Paul II stated (CL 23) that lay people cannot technically be ministers at all, even when they carry out Ministerial tasks: "..the exercise of such tasks does not make Pastors of the lay faithful: in fact, a person is not a minister simply in performing a task, but through sacramental ordination.

And there is a reason for that.  In the Catholic Church, holy orders confers the power of jurisdiction, and some Offices in the ecclesial bureaucracy require the exercize of that jurisdiction.  Lay people can, under some circumstances exercize powers delegated to them by priests, and act under their supervision, but they cannot technically formally exercize jursidiction.

Expediency vs desirability

For that reason, Church law and magisterial teaching has repeatedly emphasized that laypeople filling ecclesial offices is about necessity and expediency, and is not the preferred option.

The problem is that too often using laypeople to plug holes in the Church bureaucracy is an easier option than promoting vocations to the priesthood and religious life.  And of course it advances the agenda of those supporting the congregationalist heresy that has infiltrated the Church in Australia and elsewhere.

It must be opposed.  First it diverts the laity from their proper sphere, namely the 're-confessionalisation' of our society: the promotion of catholic values, culture and doctrine in the wider world.  Secondly it encourages a confusion of roles between clergy and laity.  Thirdly, it undermines our view of the importance of the priestly vocation.

What is to be done?

I don't think one can be utterly purist and say the laity should never take up roles in the Church bureaucracy. 

In reality, they always have played such roles, albeit in the main in a somewhat more disguised way (remember all that legion of 'clerks' in minor orders in the middle ages who never advanced to the priesthood for example, and the many female religious who have fulfilled these roles in practice in many places). 

That the laity must take up the slack in the dearth of vocations of recent decades is inevitable. 

Let us not pretend it is a good thing though, and pray and work to make it less necessary.


TLMer said...

Well Canberra Goulburn is the sort of place where you may expect this sort of stuff to emanate from

Terra said...

Call me naive but I would have thought certain other dioceses were far more likely candidates for this kind of thing - at least in C-G the AB is making a genuine effort with some success to recruit seminarians.

R J said...

Thanks Terra. A very fair-minded post. Years ago I found myself thinking (after a run-in with some more-or-less orthodox, but nakedly ambitious - in political terms - "We are Church" types): "Show me lay Catholic activism, and I'll show you Protestantism." Neither this blog item nor anything else in recent Australian Catholic history has changed my mind.

Terra said...

I'm think I know what you are saying RJ, but I would stress that there is nothing inherently wrong with lay activism per se - provided it's object is properly directed.

My point is that lay activism shouldn't be focused on taking over the Church bureaucracy (though prodding those therein is a well recognised, though generally less than welll-received lay charism!), but directed outwards to the secular sphere.

And I also think that there are some areas that could do with a great deal less ecclesial bureaucracy (mostly around social teaching) and a lot more lay activism....

Felix the Cassowary said...

... it advances the agenda of those supporting the congregationalist heresy that has infiltrated the Church in Australia and elsewhere.

What is the congregationalist heresy?

A Canberra Observer said...

Well said Terra - the spirit of Arbp Carroll's interminable synods and the 'spirit of Vatican II' (aka "it saved us all from all that nasty unchristian catholicism").
Many of the supporters of this agenda are still prominent in diocesan affairs.
The hermeneutic of rupture allowed by Paul VI and John Paul II will live with us for many years yet.

Terra said...

Felix - Congregationalism is just a cute name for neo-protestantism as we've seen it erupt in the Church once again - the idea that the ordained priesthood isn't necessary, only the common priesthood of the baptised.

The old Catholic Encyclopedia has an entry on it ( but its most famous modern manifestations in a catholic context have been in the Dutch Dominican proposal of r the laity to say mass if no priest were available (not to mention a few Australian manifestations of the same theory).