The Personalist Project

The American lay faithful are feeling both frustrated and galvanized. The scales have fallen from our eyes. We see clearly now that the status quo in the Church is unacceptable. Relations between the clergy and the laity are completely dysfunctional, and we're part of the problem. We have been acting like co-dependents, not properly self-standing adults. We've been living our Catholic life as if the classical definition of clericalism is the truth of the gospel: The clergy are to own all the property and make all the decisions, while the laity are to "pay, pray and obey."

No wonder abuse is endemic.

Happily, the status quo is not the gospel. Rather, I propose, it's a cultural relic of a particular period in history—a set of "human precepts," if you like—radically out of step with both modern developments and the original vision of Christianity. The developments I have in mind are expounded in our What We Mean By Personalism essay. They are rooted in a new and deeper appreciation of the dignity of the person as an absolutely unique and self-determining subject. They were embraced by the Church at Vatican II, magnificently explicated across the great papacy of John Paul II, and confirmed in their organic continuity with Tradition by Benedict XVI.

They have implications for relations between the laity and the clergy that we have yet to realize in practice. 

I suggested in an earlier post that the deep theological inspiration for the kind of reform I have in mind is to be found in the Church's teaching on marriage, especially JP II's Theology of the Body. I'll try to lay all that out more fully in future posts. For the moment, I want to focus on practical steps we can take in the here and now. We don't have to wait for the bishops or the Pope to act.

Like all true reforms, what I'm envisioning is a return to the beginning.

Check out this passage in Acts, chapter 6.

1 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

5 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

Note several key particulars:

1. There is a clear and abiding difference between the apostles and the disciples, or, in today's terms, between the clergy and the laity. The two groups have distinct and complementary roles within the Church. (I'm not advocating spiritual androgyny here.)

2. The laity are asked to take on new responsibilities, because priests need relief from administrative duties. All the time and energy they have to offer is wanted for  "prayer and the ministry of the word of God": saying mass, hearing confessions, preaching the gospel, etc. The management of the practical affairs of the local body of believers, on the other hand, is plainly within the competence of the laity. We're capable of assessing needs, collecting funds, and distributing resources appropriately. We can manage charitable works, educational and enrichment programs, outreach initiatives of every kind and variety. As individuals, as adults, as baptized and confirmed, we have the power! Some of us (not me personally) even have particular gifts and training and experience in those areas.

3. The "seven men" were elected by the laity, not appointed by the apostles. There are important personalist principles embedded in that simple historical fact and apostolic example.

There is an implicit recognition on the part of the apostles that the laity are in a better position to choose good leaders "from among themselves", because they know each other. They know who is "full of wisdom and the Spirit." Trust is built on personal relationships tested over time and in various social contexts. The Apostles have been busy traveling from place to place preaching the gospel and setting up churches. They lack due familiarity with the local community. 

The "seven" are chosen to be representatives of the local faithful, not arms of the Apostles. Right relations require reciprocity and mutual respect, in contrast with the master/slave dynamic of the fall. We're meant to be regarded as co-responsible agents of Christ's redemptive work in the world, not the objects of the clergy's action. The Christian and personal dignity of the disciples is practically acknowledged in their being given the right and responsibility to choose their leaders by vote. Our not having a vote (as in the status quo) is at odds with that dignity. (Someone will point out that we elect members to the parish advisory council. In reply I'd note that an advisory council is not a decision-making body. So, not the same thing. At all.) 

4. The Apostles agree to hand over responsibility. Again, the "seven" are not mere deputies. They're to have actual authority. And that means the clergy have to let it go. They have to stop thinking it's their job to control everything. For one thing, they can't. The mission of the Church is infinitely vast and complex, and they are mere mortals, plus very small in number. (If I had the time and know-how, I would draw an analogy here between the notorious dysfunction of "command economies," where all the decisions are in the hands of a few elites, in comparison with the efficiency and wealth-creating power of free-market economies. Maybe someone else can do it. The bottom line is that the wider freedom and responsibility are spread, the more vibrant and fruitful the enterprise can be. 

As Pope Francis frequently says: It's past time for the Church to move from "maintenance to mission." It will never happen unless we unleash the laity

5. The proposal "pleased the whole group." The mood of the group went from a state of grumbling and tension to a state of peace and eager hopefulness. (Wouldn't that be lovely?)

6. They presented the men to the Apostles, who laid hands on them. The action indicates mutual openness, harmony, and dialogue. The clergy and the laity are "deferring to one another in Christ," like spouses do in marriage. Their way of relating to each other has nothing like the competitive, adversarial tone typical of, say, negotiations between labor unions and management. But neither does it resemble the top-down hierarchical relations of a military operation, or of marriages under Sharia law, where the wife is, as a matter of law and custom, socially beneath her husband. We are aiming for a true "union and communion of persons," which is to say, love.

7. Finally, in the "laying on of hands," the new role of the laity, practical and administrative as it is, is recognized by all as an integral part of the Church's mission. The power to fulfill it well will come from the Holy Spirit, not human talent and effort merely. 

I'll save my practical proposal for moving from where we are to where we ought to be for the next post. Here I just want to begin to show that it's possible, it's called for, and it's going to be great, even if rather messy at first. (Didn't Pope Francis call for us "make messes" in our parishes?)

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