PORTLAND, Ore. — Lay ministers are taking an ever-greater role in the Catholic Church in 21st-century America. Whether that role will be positive or negative is the subject of ongoing debate.

Virtually nonexistent in 1962, the lay ecclesial ministry now routinely controls youth ministry, out-reach and youth and adult education at the parish level. According to a report by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, there were approximately 30,000 lay ecclesial ministers as of June 2000. With another 30,000 in degree or certification programs, the report said, it is likely the lay ministry will outnumber active ordained clergy 2-to-1 by 2010.

Paving the way for this new class of non-priest parish professionals are academic programs designed to confirm their status as the functional core of local Church life. With the blessing of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and local diocesan authorities, the lay ministers are being educated to serve the priests and parishes.

However, the enhanced professionalism of the lay ministry is not without risk, as many appear to misperceive their position in relationship to both the clergy and the people in the pews.

As the 2000 bishops’ conference report on lay ecclesial ministry stated, “It is essential to maintain the distinction between those ecclesial ministries that are entrusted to the laity appropriately because of their baptismal call and those ministries ordinarily reserved to the ordained.”

Link With Hierarchy?

One example of this conflict over roles is the Archdiocese of Portland training program for pastoral ministry, where the student and faculty view of their position diverges from that of the archdiocese, which sponsors the program.

“Those who are called to the priesthood are to maintain the sacramental knowledge and serve as examples of holiness. Lay ministers are the ones who counsel, visit the sick, teach and care for the parish community,” said Barbara Harrison, director of catechesis for a Portland, Ore., parish and one of 22 students enrolled in the master of arts in pastoral ministry degree program at the Northwest Center for Catholic Graduate Theology, operated by the University of Portland.

Along with the rest of her class, she looks to the future of the Catholic Church and foresees in it a place for specially trained laity as a link between the Church hierarchy and the people in the pews. It is a view their instructors share.

“The ministry of the Church today is more intensive and extensive than before,” said Father Jim Dallen, who was teaching one of the courses. “It's the responsibility of the clergy to facilitate and coordinate ministries.” He said it's the job of the laity to minister.

It has been two years since the University of Portland's department of theology inaugurated the pastoral ministry master's degree. Modeled on a similar degree program at Gonzaga University and offered in cooperation with the Spokane, Wash., school, the University of Portland's weekend program is designed for people already working in lay ministry. The American Theological Society certifies the program through Gonzaga.

Courses mirror a master's in divinity degree, said Dr. Matthew Baasten, director of the graduate program. Emphasis is on biblical studies, systematic theology, contemporary ecclesiology, ethics, the theology of Christian worship and issues in religion and culture. However, he noted, there are “practical components for a broader area than a pastor would be trained for,” such as religious education, youth ministry, outreach and counseling.

The Archdiocese of Portland has been the driving force behind the University of Portland program. It was created at the suggestion of the archdiocese, which also provides the bulk of the scholarship money for students. In addition, the archdiocese has made the master's program a prerequisite for candidates for the deaconate. This requirement alone has provided 13 of the 37 students in the first three cohorts.

“We recognize the importance of lay ministry,” said Father Paul Peri, director of the archdiocese Office of Ministry Formation.

“The members [of the presbyterial council] called for appropriately educated and formed lay people,” he said. “The priests told the bishops that they are depending more on lay staff. They wanted them to have the [theological and ministry] tools.”

While that is the goal, Archbishop John Vlazny of Portland takes exception to the role of the lay minister as intermediary. The archbishop said Harrison and Father Dallen's comments were “a clear signal that these folks need formation.”

“It is true that priests have a unique role in the sacramental ministry of the Church,” he wrote in correspondence with the Register, “but they are in no way excluded from the other ministries cited. They are uniquely commissioned to help the bishop teach, sanctify and guide the people of God.”

Disputed Roles

Archbishop Vlazny's position has been echoed in the bishops’ conference's relationship with the National Association of Lay Ministers, the primary organization for promoting and certifying Catholic lay ministers. It is also an organization that routinely positions itself and its membership as opposed to hierarchy.

In a recent newsletter, the association's board chairman, Dennis Beeman, wrote, “As ministers in the Catholic tradition, we are well aware that our Church is patriarchal. From my experience, there is an almost automatic temptation for the persons at the top of the system's patriarchal pyramid to become self-serving and self-preserving.”

The strained relationship between the association and the bishops was highlighted during the preparation of the bishops’ conference report on lay ecclesial ministry. Disagreement occurred over the bishops’ desire for less quasi-clerical job titles, preferring “manager” and “director” to “minister.”

Pope John Paul II, in a recent address to Brazilian bishops, warned against the trend in the Church to “clericalize” the laity. (See the full story on page 4.)

Said the Pope, “Not everyone has the same function, because not everyone participates in the same way in the priesthood of Christ.”

The Holy Father stressed that Catholics who are not ordained may “carry out some tasks and functions of cooperation in pastoral service” only “when they are expressly appointed by their respective consecrated pastors, in keeping with prescriptions of the law.”

Philip S. Moore writes from Portland, Oregon.