Line Between Clergy and Laity Remains Blurred

LOS ANGELES—A priest walks into a sacristy to vest for Mass and is greeted by a layman dressed in a white alb. The man then informs the cleric that he, the layman, is the “ordinary minister of the Eucharist.” The priest asks his lay assistant if he means extraordinary eucharistic minister, one who helps the priest distribute Communion. “Oh no,” his friendly helper assures him, “I'm the ordinary minister all right—I do this every Sunday!”

For key Vatican officials, such incidents highlight a growing and dangerous confusion between ordained and non-ordained ministries in the post-Conciliar Church and, what's more, they're determined to do something about it.

Last November eight Vatican agencies, including the Congregation for the Clergy and the Pontifical Council for the Laity, signed a 38-page document titled Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of the Priest, which emphasized the unique place in the Church's life of ordained ministry based on apostolic succession, calling it “an essential point of Catholic ecclesiological doctrine.” The document had been approved by Pope John Paul II three months before.

As Archbishop Dario Castrillon Hoyos, pro-prefect of the Congregation for Clergy explained in a Nov. 13 press conference, if the activity of a Catholic community does not clearly flow from the leadership and sacramental ministry of a priest, even if he is not resident in a parish, it “becomes a social-religious entity, an institution marked by efficiency.”

The Instruction met initially with criticism from some Austrian and German bishops, and with questions from some bishops in the United States. Bishop Karl Lehmann of Mainz, president of the German bishops' conference, for example, complained that the document indicates “a climate of mistrust for the laity,” and Cincinnati's Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk regretted what he called its “anxious tone.”

Lately, however, “people have been pretending that the document doesn't exist,” Father Peter Stravinskas, Pennsylvania-based editor of The Catholic Answer, complained.

That was before Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, reiterated the Instruction's warning March 11 in an article in the Vatican daily newspaper L'Osservatore Romano—a move that indicated, most observers believe, that Rome is not likely to let the Instruction die a slow, bureaucratic death.

Cardinal Ratzinger said that in some parts of the world “a loss of the meaning of the Sacrament of Holy Orders” and “the growth of a kind of parallel ministry by so-called ‘pastoral assistants’ or ‘pastoral workers’” is leading to confusion about the special identity of ordained priests. He pointed to problems in north-central Europe and, to a lesser degree, in North America and Australia.

Clarity, he said, is needed to avoid undervaluing the ordained priesthood and “falling into a ‘Protestanization’ of the concepts of ministry and of the Church,” as well as to avoid the clericalization of the laity.

The situation is particularly serious, he said, when lay pastoral workers “exercise the role of leading the community, wear liturgical vestments during celebrations, and do not visibly distinguish themselves from the priests.”

The Instruction, which came about, in part, as a result of a 1994 Symposium on “The Participation of the Lay Faithful in the Priestly Ministry” in Rome, attended by the Pope, breaks little new ground, but underlines the vital importance of observing Church norms. For example, the document renews the traditional ban on lay people preaching the homily at Mass and reiterates the conditions under which lay persons may assist at marriages or lead funeral celebrations. Diocesan and parish pastoral councils are also reminded in the statement that their lay members “enjoy a consultative vote only and [that such councils] cannot in any way become deliberative structures … directing, coordinating, moderating, or governing the parish.”

Perhaps the two provisions of the Instruction that have drawn the most attention though, concern the use of extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist to distribute Holy Communion and the use of such titles as “chaplain” or “pastor” by Catholic lay persons.

Extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist have, in many countries, become a regular feature of liturgical life since the Church first permitted the practice in the 1973 Vatican instruction Immensae Caritatis. While the new Instruction acknowledges that “such … service is a response to the objective needs of the faithful,” especially those of the sick and in the case of large liturgical assemblies, “the habitual use of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion,” the document insists, is a source of “confusion,” and should be “avoided and eliminated.”

In a move calculated to affect Catholic hospital and prison ministries, the Instruction also reaffirms the Code of Canon Law's restriction of the title “chaplain” or “pastor” to ordained priests.

A Controllable Problem

Veteran Church observer Russell Shaw thinks that the “confusion” the Instruction addresses “is not yet a roaring big problem in the United States,” but if it's not tackled now, “in the early stages, it will become much worse.”

Some U.S. bishops, Shaw told the Register, have been slow to address the concerns of the Instruction because they're worried that lay people—lay women in particular—who, according to some figures, count for more than 80% of Catholic laity involved in Church-related ministries, “will see the statement as a Vatican slap at them, a ‘shot across the bow.’”

But, said Shaw, who is information director for the Knights of Columbus, “no well-informed lay person thinks of the [Instruction] that way. The problem for the Vatican is not the laity, but the theology of the priesthood.”

“A bad theology of the priesthood, a bad theology of ministry has sneaked in the door in the past 30 years,” Shaw observed, “a theology that, in essence, says there's no essential difference between the ordained and the non-ordained. That may have been [Protestant reformer Martin] Luther's position, but it's not Catholic theology. This statement is an attempt to help priests.”

Father Matthew Lamb, a professor of theology at Boston College, has a name for that “bad theology.” He calls it “congregationalism.”

“There's a strong tendency toward congregationalism in American culture,” he said—the idea that the priest is merely a religious employee of the people and that the Mass is solely the faith expression of the community. “It's hard for Catholics to resist it altogether.”

“It's one of the bad effects of the kind of ‘hail-fellow-well-met, let's-just-get-together-with-the-balloons-and the-guitars-and-celebrate-community’ approach we've entertained in the past decades.”

Some theologians say the Church must move from a priest-centered to a congregation-centered Eucharist.

“But the Eucharist,” said Father Lamb, “isn't priest or congregation-centered; it's Christ-centered. We're celebrating not community spirit—that's what clubs do—but the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That's what's really going on.”

“If the Mass becomes merely a community forum, without the transcendent holiness of the Eucharist—well, Catholics have, and will continue to vote with their feet,” Father Lamb observed. “I don't see this vast increase in conversions to the Church as a result of the ‘congregational’ approach. People are looking for transcendence, for worship, for doctrinal clarity. The low-church Protestant denominations are dying.”

Centers of Dissent

Part of the problem, says Father Lamb, is that several of the leading centers for Catholic liturgical studies in the United States—liturgy departments at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., were two he cited—offer platforms to professors who openly question central tenets of Catholic sacramental theology.

“A Dominican at Catholic University wrote an article recently questioning the notion of the Mass as sacrifice,” he said, “and a Lutheran theologian teaching liturgy at Notre Dame applauded him. The head of the liturgical studies program at Notre Dame is an Anglican who's currently doing ‘deconstruction’ on some of the Apostolic Fathers,” the Christian writers of the first post-apostolic century.

“Frankly, I question the ability of these centers to provide an in-depth formation in Catholic liturgical theology,” Father Lamb said.

If a sound theology of the ordained ministry is at stake in the current crisis, however, so is Vatican II's bold vision of the apostolate of the laity.

“The priority of the task of the New Evangelization,” urges the Instruction, “requires that, today in particular … there be a full recovery of the awareness of the secular nature of the mission of the laity.”

“The faithful can be active in this particular moment in history in areas of culture, in the arts and theater, scientific research, labor, means of communication, politics, and the economy,” the Instruction exhorts. “[The laity] are also called to a greater creativity in seeking out ever more effective means whereby these environments can find the fullness of their meaning in Christ.”

Dominican Father Benedict Ashley, who serves on the adjunct faculty for health care ethics at St. Louis University, couldn't agree more.

“The lay vocation is not so much to help out the clergy,” he told the Register, “that's not the primary focus. It's to fulfill their own complementary vocation in the workplace and the professions, being involved in the problems of our time.”

In fact, he said, there was more of that kind of lay Catholic vitality a generation ago than there is now.

“Forty years ago, we had a strong Catholic movement in the labor unions,” Father Ashley explained, “in Catholic student and worker movements—lay people trying to bring Catholic teachings into the marketplace.”

Now, he lamented, we have lay people encouraged to involve themselves in all sorts of ecclesiastical roles. “We're wasting a lot of energy,” he said.

Father Ashley acknowledged that the Church needs lay people serving in various diocesan apostolates. “Of course, we need catechists, directors of religious education, people serving in Catholic hospitals,” he said, “but that's only a very small part of the laity.”

What the Instruction urges, he said, is a proper division of roles.

“The point is that everybody in the Church—clergy and laity—has a role to play. What kind of a football team would it be if everybody was a quarterback?”

Father Stravinskas puts it more bluntly.

“The idea of delegating aspects of the priestly ministry to the laity—it's an insult to the lay vocation,” the veteran Catholic educator said. “The real lay person is the one most like a priest? The only sanctity you can have as a lay person is something borrowed from the clerical state?”

The Church won't see a wholesale renewal in vocations to the priesthood, and, hence, an end to the priest shortage, or the energized Catholic lay apostolate Vatican II envisions, until an end is found to the vocational confusion, he said.

“It's that simple.”

Senior writer Gabriel Meyer is based in Los Angeles.