VATICAN CITY—The Vatican appears determined to clear up any blurring of distinctions between the role of priests and the laity.
First, it issued a major document last November entitled Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests. The 38-page text emphasized the unique place in the Church's life of ordained ministry. Now, the Vatican's newspaper, L'Osserva-tore Romano, is publishing an ongoing series of articles intended to bolster that document.
Written by leading theologians, including Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the articles address various aspects of the Instruction and defend it against criticism that has surfaced in the six months since its release. (See “Line Between Clergy and Laity Remains Blurred,” Register April 5-11). The newspaper articles also call for the full implementation of the Vatican Instruction by local Churches throughout the world.
In one article, Professor Winfried Aymans of Munich, Germany, wrote that the new document caused “quite a stir” in his country.
"Some have flatly rejected the Instruction, while others have tried to relativize it,” he said. “A calm examination of the document is necessary to correct “erroneous tendencies” which have crept into the Church since the Second Vatican Council.
Aymans said the fact the Instruction was prepared jointly by eight Vatican congregations— including the Congregation for the Clergy and the Pontifical Council for the Laity—gave the impression that “various sorts of problems had piled up over time and had to be examined from different aspects.’
Pope John Paul II further underscored this by approving the text in forma specifica—a technical phrase meaning any existing rules contrary to the Instruction were henceforth revoked.
The professor noted the specific purpose of the Instruction: The subject is not collaboration between priests and lay people, but the priestly ministry in so far as lay people can collaborate in it.
"The document is thus concerned with only a limited area of the laity's field of activity in the Church,” he said. Its intent is to give direction “to those functions which rightfully belong to the realm of the priest” in which a lay person, however, can collaborate in cases of necessity.
"The vast, ordinary field of activity for lay people in the Church and the world is intentionally not considered by the Instruction,” he said.
As an example, he noted it could never be the Church's objective to replace Mass by promoting Sunday celebrations without a priest. Nevertheless, when there is no other possibility, a lay person, following the instructions of the local bishop, could conduct a Liturgy of the Word for those who have no other opportunity to celebrate the Lord's day.
"It is clear that the lay person here is truly a supplementary aid,” Aymans said. “However, for the good of the faithful—and that is what always counts—he too will be glad when a priest is available to celebrate the Eucharist.’
A subsequent article in L'Osservatore Romano spoke of the mission proper to lay men and women by virtue of their baptism.
Written by Professor Herbert Schambeck, president emeritus of the Austrian Federal Council, the article also stressed the need to avoid “deplorable phenomena such as the clericalization of the laity and the secularization of clerics.’
In the Gospel, he noted, Jesus addresses all believers, priests, and faithful—each involved in a particular service, each in his own way.
"The ordained and non-ordained faithful are related one to the other,” Schambeck said. “One could speak of a relationship which requires union in mission.’
In today's world, when there is a strong commitment to carrying out a new evangelization, he said, “the distinct and complementary tasks of priests and lay people have great importance.’
Baptism defines the laity's position in the Church and their involvement in the world, Schambeck wrote. Thus, their special duty toward the world “spurs them far beyond the field of collaboration” in the ministry of priests.
By putting the Church's social doctrine into practice, he said, the lay person “can make a contribution to private and public life that priests cannot.’
A third newspaper article described the Vatican Instruction as a “reiteration of the norms and principles” of Vatican II.
Written by Professor Hugo Schwendenwein of the theology faculty of Graz, Austria, and a consultor to the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, it said the new document continues along the path mapped-out by the Second Vatican Council.
Schwendenwein noted that following the Council, confusion arose as clergy and laity sought to implement directives broadly mapped-out by conciliar documents.
"There was a period when an effort was made to adapt the not always concrete norms and directives contained in the Council to concrete situations,” he said.
Yet “this time of experimentation and change ended” he said, with the publication of the Code of Canon Law in 1983.
"This definitively closed the search for concrete norms and the implementation of the Council,” the professor wrote—adding that the new Vatican Instruction regarding the collaboration of the lay faithful in the ministry of priests is merely “a reiteration” of these norms.
"The basic goal of the Church's legal structure is to implement the Second Vatican Council in all areas of ecclesial life,” he said.
Despite the “feverish pace” of our era, Schwendenwein said the Church has entered “a period of stability” and that “fundamental alterations” do not need to be considered right now.
This new-found “period of stability” is what prompted the writing of the Vatican Instruction, according to Dr. Francesco Moraglia, a member of the theological faculty of Northern Italy.
"The Instruction stems from a new awareness of the ecclesial situation as a whole,” he said.
Reaffirming Vatican II
During the past decade, Moraglia said, bishops, priests, and lay people had requested “authoritative directives on the identity of priests and lay people” regarding particular cases of pastoral activity improperly exercised by non-ordained faithful.
He said the Roman Curia solicited input from episcopal conferences around the world and from individual bishops in countries where abuses were considered widespread.
"About 92% of those questioned were in favor [of a Vatican instruction] but asked that ambiguous wording be avoided in the text, that the most authoritative legal form possible be used and, given the urgent need for clarification, that the document be published without delay,” Moraglia wrote in L'Osservatore Romano.
He said the basic objectives of the Instruction could be summarized as follows:
• the document “simply reaffirms the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on the positive role of the laity” in the Church's mission;
• it “seeks to encourage ordained ministers by forcefully reintroducing the subject of vocations to the priesthood” and stressing that the Church's life depends on the Sacrament of Holy Orders;
• it reaffirms that the fundamental equality of all Christians by virtue of baptism “is compatible with an essential difference—the ordained ministry.’
"Lay Christians, precisely because of baptism,” Moraglia said, are called to the consecratio mundi, which differs from the task of ordained ministers.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said in his contribution to L'Osservatore Romano that the new Vatican Instruction was needed to avoid a “devaluation of the ordained ministry” and a general misunderstanding about the variety of roles within the Church.
A lay person who exercises for a long period “the pastoral tasks proper to the priest … in reality is no longer a true lay person and loses his proper identity in the life and mission of the Church,” he wrote. “The doctrine on the nature of priestly ministry and on the unity and diversity of ministerial tasks at the service of the edification of the Body of Christ must be underlined with clarity.’
He added that lay people who perform tasks usually reserved to priests must make it clear to parishioners that their service “is only supplementary” and that the community must pray for more vocations to the priesthood.
Stephen Banyra writes from Rome.