National Catholic Register


Role of Laity Spelled Out By Vatican

Carrying the weight of full papal authority, a new document reaffirms the limits of lay involvement in ministry and the indispensable role of the ordained priest

BY Stephen Banyra

November 30-December 6, 1997 Issue | Posted 11/30/97 at 1:00 PM


VATICAN CITY—How much pastoral work can lay people perform before it becomes too much? That's a question the Vatican hopes to clarify with a document outlining the differences between the ministry of priests and that of the laity.

“In recent years we've seen a clericalization of the laity and a secularization of our priests,” Archbishop Crescenzio Sepe, former secretary of the Congregation for the Clergy, said in presenting the new text.

While qualified lay men and women may be called to supplement the work of priests in certain emergency situations, he said, “the faithful and the Church will suffer if the lay minister goes beyond his or her auxiliary role.”

The instruction entitled The Collaboration of the Non-ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests was prepared by eight Vatican agencies, including the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical Council for the Laity.

The main point of the document is to reaffirm the limits of lay involvement in ministry and the indispensable role of the ordained priest.

Pope John Paul II approved the text in forma specifica-a technical phrase meaning the instruction bears the full weight of papal authority. It is intended to be studied, above all, by bishops and other Church leaders to ensure that the lines of responsibility between priests and lay people don't become blurred.

Archbishop Sepe stressed the document breaks no new ground. “It contains nothing that is not already in the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the 1983 Code of Canon Law,” he said.

The instruction was issued, he said, in response to many “pressing requests” for clarification of ministerial roles.

The archbishop noted that in some parts of the world, lay people are performing tasks that used to be thought of as the sole province of priests: assisting at marriages and funerals, working with the sick, and leading Sunday celebrations—although not celebrating Mass, which only priests may do.

The 38-page instruction states: “It must be remembered that 'collaboration with' does not, in fact, mean 'substitution for.'” And while the instruction praises the growing involvement of lay people in the liturgical and ministerial life of the Church, it also warns that certain abuses place the faithful at the risk of misunderstanding or ignoring the different vocations, roles, and responsibilities of priests and lay people.

The document restates such rules as the one that reserves preaching of a homily at Mass to an ordained deacon, priest, or bishop. It specifically bars the preaching at Mass by seminarians or non-ordained theology students.

“Indeed, the homily should not be regarded as a training for some future ministry,” the text says.

Archbishop Sepe noted lay ministries that obscure the differences between the ordained priesthood and the laity are harmful to the Church.

“If a nurse, in caring for a patient, performs a task only doctors perform, it is not the doctor's profession which is threatened, but the patient's health.” In the same way, he said, while lay people have helped fill a gap caused by a shortage of priests in many countries, they must not be considered genuine substitutes.

The document reaffirms involvement of lay people in “the pastoral ministry of clerics in parishes, health care centers, charitable and educational institutions, prisons,” and other situations. However, it stresses that this should be done only when necessary because of a lack of sufficient priests “and not for reasons of convenience or ambiguous ‘advancement of the laity.’”

The answer to a shortage of priests cannot be the permanent delegation of ministerial tasks to lay people, the instruction states. Instead, communities must increase their prayers for priestly vocations and their active outreach to potential candidates for ordination.

The text opens with a short chapter on the call of all baptized persons to share actively in building up the body of Christ.

After a second chapter devoted to theological principles governing ministry and distinguishing ordained ministry from the common priesthood of all the baptized, the third and largest part of the document is devoted to “practical provisions.”

Among specific areas dealt with are Church norms governing ministry of the Word, preaching, Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest, ministry to the sick, assisting at marriages, and the use of lay ministers to administer communion.

It notes that care, even in choice of dress, must be taken in parishes to avoid confusing or misleading the faithful. The wearing of liturgical vestments by non-ordained ministers at religious ceremonies is “clearly unlawful,” it says.

An article on the parish priest and the parish, while affirming the effective collaboration of lay ministers in pastoral work, also emphasizes the “extraordinary” character of such collaboration and stresses that competencies of “directing, coordinating, moderating, or governing the parish” belong to the priest alone.

The document states that diocesan or parish pastoral councils and parish financial councils “enjoy a consultative vote only and cannot in any way become deliberative structures” capable of making binding decisions. If a parish council meets without the parish priest presiding or against his wishes, any actions it takes are “invalid, and hence null and void,” it says.

The text also reaffirms the Code of Canon Law's restriction of the title “chaplain” to ordained priests. The title is not to be used to describe a lay minister—not even one appointed by a bishop to carry out such a service in a hospital or prison.

Some bishops in the United States have already voiced concern over practical implications of the Vatican instruction. During their annual fall meeting this month in Washington, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) discussed the new document.

NCCB spokesman David Early said bishops drew attention to limits placed on the titles that lay Catholics may use according to the new instruction. “I think there's some concern among the bishops,” he said, “particularly about the use of the term 'chaplain.'"

Early explained that many states in the country have introduced laws that attach training requirements and affiliation to particular religious denominations to the term “chaplain.”

“Basically, there will be a conflict between state law and this instruction,” he said. Bishops also raised concern over the document's restriction against seminarians preaching at Mass, since this liturgical abuse is common practice in some U.S. dioceses as part of priestly formation.

Archbishop Dario Castrillon Hoyos, the pro-prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy, insisted the new instruction is intended to safeguard the specific identities and vocations of the ordained priest and the lay faithful. “If roles exist that do not allow people to clearly see the difference between the common priesthood of the faithful and the ordained ministry, then the whole Church crumbles.”

Archbishop Castrillon underlined the fact that the Church's structure was founded by Christ to be a community in which different members had specific roles. Anything that ignores those differences harms the Church, he said, which is why so many Vatican offices were involved in drawing up the instruction and why papal approval was necessary for its publication.

The document itself calls for the careful protection and promotion of “the particular gift of each of the Church's members ... without confusing roles, functions, or theological and canonical status.”

It says that where there is a shortage of priests, this must be viewed as a transitory situation to be dealt with long-range by giving priority to priestly vocations. Interim solutions provided for under Church law must not “fall into the ambiguity of considering as ordinary and normal, solutions that were meant for extraordinary situations.”

“The object of this document,” it adds, “is to outline specific directives to ensure the effective collaboration of the non-ordained faithful in such circumstances while safeguarding the integrity of the pastoral ministry of priests.”

Stephen Banyra is based in Rome.