I keep on writing these pieces attacking what I see as the unfortunate adulation of ‘lay leadership’ for the sake of lay leadership.
And I keep on urging action to ensure orthodoxy amongst the clergy (and more broadly).
The problem for bishops of course, is that action is all very well, but how then do they ensure the sacramental and other spiritual needs of their flock are met?
Indeed, just a day or two we had the spectacle of a liberal priest publicly taunting the hierarchy on this subject.
So today I want to start a series that will set out some ideas on alternative approaches that might be at least considered.
But before I launch into suggesting possible alternative directions, today let me explain my position a little more clearly.
In praise of lay engagement
First let me say for the record that I am actually strongly in favour of greater lay engagement in the Church. The documents of Vatican II certainly provided a push for greater lay engagement in the mission of the Church, and I don’t see that in principle this should present us with any problems.
The high degree of clerical control over parish and other activities that prevailed before Vatican II was in large part an innovation of Trent in reaction to the problem of heresy. While one can argue that we are in that situation again, it is pretty obvious that this time around high levels of clerical control actually makes the situation worse, since so many priests seem to hold erroneous positions and propagate them to their congregations!
But before Trent, the laity were accustomed to organizing themselves in order to articulate their spiritual needs: to have Marian Masses said, to pay for extra music, to organize mystery plays, masses for the dead and much more. So there was nothing particularly new about the twentieth century rise of a plethora of professionally based confraternities, third orders and their equivalents, as well as movements such as Catholic Action, the Legion of Mary and Opus Dei, all aimed at supporting the active involvement of the laity in evangelizing the world.
Indeed, the entire traditionalist movement was in large part something of a return to the pre-Trent situation, since it very often involved the laity organising for themselves to get the TLM. Provided the groups involved don't go off the rails or devolve into internal squabbling (as is all to often the tendency!), and do submit to broad clerical oversight when necessary, I don't see anything necessarily wrong with this.
Nor do I have a problem with the laity playing a greater role for the laity in the formal governing processes of the Church. I personally subscribe to Benedictine spirituality, and St Benedict urges the abbot to listen carefully to the views of all before making his decision. It is a model worth emulating.
Many lay people have skills and knowledge that can sensibly be taken advantage of by those in holy Orders, and having a lay perspective in decision-making processes is a sensible way of ensuring that all views are heard before final decisions are made. So, radical as this may be to some traditionalist and the clergy more generally, I’m in favour of lay consultative bodies at the parish and diocesan level; in favour of greater transparency on issues such as finances. And I’m strongly in favour of the laity being engaged in some sensible way on the kinds of discussions of priorities that our bishops’ conferences (hopefully) have.
A key role for lay leadership
I will go even further.
In many areas, lay, rather than clerical, leadership is the most appropriate model.
When it comes to the defense of the family, of life, of medical ethics, education, and politics in general, odds are, the laity will know more about the issues than their priests. There is a role for the clergy in these areas of course – in providing good catechesis on basic principles, making sure that issues are being systematically addressed as needed, and lending moral support to those on the front lines (few things are as effective in terms of abortion mill vigils for example then having a bishop and/or priest or two leading the prayers).
But the lead role in the secular sphere generally will be better left to the laity in my view.
The laity on spirituality, theology and catechesis
I’m also a radical (well for a traditionalist!) in that I do think there is an intermediate area where I do think the laity can be constructively engaged in helping meet the needs of the Church, and even ‘lead from below’, and that is in the areas of promotion of spirituality, theology and catechesis (for example via blogs!).
In these areas they must, of course, be subject to correction and, depending on the task, some greater or lesser degree of supervision by the clergy. Still, there is no good reason why all ideas have to come from the clergy!
But not lay ministry!
But here is where I draw the line. There is absolutely nothing that I can see in the documents of Vatican II or anywhere else that lends any support to the idea that the laity should be preoccupied with Church ministry.
Since Vatican II - and in its spirit rather than what the documents actually say – there has been a push to increase the role of the laity in pseudo-ministerial roles.
I have to admit I still don’t really understand the thinking that lies behind it (by all means try and explain it to me!).
It seem to me to be a purely ideological push that invariably (and inevitably) has a simple substitution effect: told that it was better for the laity to take roles such as teachers in catholic schools, parish organizers and the like, religious sisters exited from their orders – and went straight into professional ministry roles in parishes. And it created a vicious circle. As the recent report ‘See, I am doing a new thing!’ put out by Catholic Religious Australia points out, declining numbers of religious meant the Orders were forced to hand over more and more of the running of their schools and hospitals - to, more often then not, the ex-sisters who had just left them.
Part of the current push of course seems to be about giving women a more visible role in the Church as a response to calls for female ordination. Yet surely the great irony of the destruction of the religious orders of recent decades is that the destructin of religous life is the single greatest factor in the diminished visibility of women in the Church. As religious, women ran their own Orders, ran schools, hospitals and often played a major role in influencing Church directions. As parish associates and the like they became mere employees, and ended up in a struggle to establish their role - resulting in a scrabble for power with unfortunate results in many cases.
Learning from our mistakes
Yet instead of learning from this terrible mistake, we seem intent now on doing the same thing all over again, this time with priests. Instead of responding to the priest shortage by looking at what we need to do to encourage vocations, to treasure our priests more, measures are being adopted that will positively discourage men from taking on clerical roles.
The biggest step was of course Pope Paul VI’s decree Ministeria Quaedam in 1972, which abolished minor orders and inserted the laity into roles such as lector and extraordinary ministers of communion.
The latest push across the country to put the laity into leadership roles in parish management is potentially even more dangerous to the long term future of the Church.
And will it satisfy advocates of women’s ordination? Of course not!
So what is the alternative? More soon.