Rome Says Laypeople Can Govern Like Bishops, but Not Preach Like Deacons

COMMENTARY: The German Synodal Way is using the Holy Father’s arguments against him, with respect to the issue of who can preach homilies at Mass.

Interior of a Catholic Church.
Interior of a Catholic Church. (photo: Unsplash)

In the dispute between the German Synodal Way and Rome over whether laypeople can preach homilies at Holy Mass, the Germans are using the arguments of Pope Francis against him.

If a layperson can head up a Vatican dicastery, perhaps issuing instructions which a diocesan bishop must obey, how can it be that laypeople may not preach at a typical weekday Mass in Germany, when the congregation is made up of only a few elderly people? Isn’t the former a much greater allowance than the latter?

If 20% of the voting members of the next synod of bishops are not bishops, but laypeople, how can the Vatican not authorize lay preaching?

If power in the Church is held by the pope, why cannot he authorize whatever he chooses to authorize? It’s a good question.

To oversimplify matters, over several centuries following the Protestant Reformation, a robust defense of the Petrine office came to be understood by many as a view of the Church in which all power of governance was held by the pope, which he then delegated to his agents, the bishops around the world. When the First Vatican Council taught that the supreme pontiff had “universal jurisdiction” over the whole Church, that view took root in much Catholic thinking.

To use an American metaphor, it is as though the commissioner of baseball can authorize whatever he wishes to govern the game. If he decrees that a runner will appear at second base without ever batting, he can do so, no matter that it diminishes the “sacramental” structure of the game.

The Second Vatican Council sought to correct that view. It taught that bishops are not “vicars of the Roman Pontiff” but “vicars of Christ” in their own right in their dioceses.

The power of governance in the Church comes not purely from a juridical act — delegation by the Holy Father — but is rooted in holy orders, meaning that it is rooted in Christ’s action in the sacraments. That’s why heads of Roman dicasteries, who share in the governance of the Church with the Holy Father, are bishops. They not only have a delegation of authority from him, but as bishops also have their own participation in the governance of the Church.

The Code of Canon Law, updated in 1983, made clear that “those who have received sacred orders are qualified, according to the norm of the prescripts of the law, for the power of governance, which exists in the Church by divine institution and is also called the power of jurisdiction” (129). Canon 1009 adds that “those who are constituted in the order of the episcopate or the presbyterate receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head.”

That apparently changed in March 2022, with the promulgation of the new constitution for the Roman Curia, Praedicate Evangelium, which permitted laypeople to be appointed heads of Roman dicasteries.

When asked about this at the subsequent press conference, Jesuit Father (now Cardinal) Gianfranco Ghirlanda, the leading legal drafter of the document, declared that “the power of governance in the Church doesn’t come from the sacrament of holy orders, but from the canonical mission” — meaning delegation from the pope.

Thus Father Ghirlanda attempted to resolve by means of a press conference a deep and profound matter of theological and canonical debate. Indeed, it appeared that, speaking for Pope Francis, the clear teaching of Vatican II was effectively diminished, if not set aside. To use a favored phrase of Pope Francis, Father Ghirlanda was promoting a “backwardist” view, rolling back Vatican II in favor of thinking associated with Vatican I.

As of yet, no layperson has been appointed as head of a dicastery in Rome that exercises governance. But there are laypeople in Germany who do give homilies at Holy Mass despite it being contrary to liturgical rules, and the German Synodal Way wants to regularly authorize this.

This past week, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, president of the German episcopal conference, repeated his demands in this regard, insisting that Rome can simply authorize this change. And the argument is plausible.

If a laywoman can govern seminaries worldwide, why should she not be able to preach a homily when visiting one?

Cardinal Arthur Roche, prefect of the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, wrote to Bishop Bätzing in March, explaining why the laity should not. While laypeople may have many natural talents and theological formation suitable for other kinds of preaching, the homily is reserved to a cleric because he “sacramentally represents Christ by virtue of the sacra potestas [sacred power] conferred on him at ordination.”

Cardinal Roche is arguing that it is ordination, not mere authorization, that grants the “sacred power” to preach during Holy Mass. It is the same argument that would have been made for governance in the Church before Praedicate Evangelium, interpreted by Father Ghirlanda’s press conference, was issued.

If pressed on the inconsistency, Rome would draw a distinction between a liturgical role and the governance role. But preaching a homily is not like consecrating the Eucharist or absolving sins, where only an ordained priest is capable of doing so.

Homilies, in exceptional circumstances, can be authorized by laypeople. And deacons properly preach, even though their ordination does not enable them to consecrate the Eucharist, forgive sins or anoint the sick.

Thus, when Cardinal Roche links ordination to the faculty to preach at Holy Mass, while at the same time Rome is extending the sacra potestas of governance to laypeople in the Roman Curia and the synod of bishops, he can only stand on narrower liturgical grounds.

The German Synodal Way knows this well, and hence will keep pushing. Cardinal Roche can only respond with his authority, which is now weaker than it was before Praedicate Evangelium. Indeed, imagine if Cardinal Roche were a layman, as perhaps his successor might be. Then a layman would be refusing Bishop Bätzing, the former using his delegated authority, to overrule the latter’s authority from sacred orders.

That odd scenario would be a good example to put before Cardinal Ghirlanda at a press conference.