The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 25, 2023 - 11:36:05

Quick takes on the role of laity in the Church

Katie van Schaijik, Sep 16, 2020

A priest of our archdiocese, who knows me and knows how I feel about the status quo between clergy and laity sent me this recent article from Philly Catholic titled, "Laity called to share responsibility for the Church, experts say".

He added the comment, "At least they're talking about it!" 

I agree with him about that. Talking about it is good and necessary. Still. Can I just list some items that get my goat and stick in my craw?

1) Take the title. "Experts say". Experts?! As if we're talking about a recondite point of scholarship rather than the central thrust of the gospel. Only where a clericalist worldview prevails can the co-responsiblity of the laity come as a surprise.

2) Note that the panel discussion was moderated by a priest. And while two of the five were laymen, all were employees of the diocese. No women. No "normal" laymen, i.e. laymen who work and live in the secular world. So, an essentially clericalist panel on the role of the laity. This is like a gathering a panel of men to discuss the role of women in marriage.

3) Fr. Dailey, a professor at the seminary, spoke about the challenge of co-responsiblity during a pandemic. "It’s hard to be all in anything together when we are socially distanced.” I'd say rather that the pandemic has made the disaster of clericalism much more obvious and acute. Apart from the drastic falloff in attendance and funding, it's shown how insubstantial our life-in-common is and how ill-prepared we are as a Church to handle a crisis of this kind. The centralized power of clericalism is too remote, bureaucratic, unresponsive and unwieldy. The situation would have been very different if the laity really were co-responsible—I mean had we already had the kind of lay associations I've been calling for. In that case the pandemic would have been an occasion for our coming together, not a catalyst for our dissolution. In a comment under one of my recent posts on Facebook, reader Paul made the point concretely:

Within a week of the lockdown starting here, in England, our local Evangelical Church had a whole prayer and support network in place for anyone, especially for the vulnerable, including collecting medical supplies on prescription, shopping, and making sure they received a phone call if they needed one. Their congregation has grown as a result ('transfer growth' from mainline denominations as these types of ecclesial communions often are), as these more 'traditional churches' - like ours - the ministers went on 'radio silence'.

4) Here's a welcome point of agreement. John Haas, one of the two laymen on the panel pointed out:

Decades before clergy shortages, declining Mass attendance and the COVID-19 pandemic, the Second Vatican Council affirmed the laity as “sharers in the priestly, prophetical, and kingly functions of Christ” (Lumen Gentium, 31).

But Haas said many, such as Pope Benedict XVI, have “lamented that the teachings of the council had yet to be fully implemented.”

I've been repetitious about it: the status quo is collapsing, and the solution is already given in the dogma and documents; it's just not yet realized in practice.

5) Haas puts his finger on the problem I mentioned above in (2):

Haas pointed to his own career as an example of the “natural trap” to simply view the church’s employment of Catholic professionals as a sign of greater lay involvement.

While working in the banking industry, said Haas, he was just as “co-responsible with the hierarchy in enabling the church” to fulfill its mission as he was while holding positions within the institutional church.

Those who work for the Church are not "normal" laymen. And the agency of the Church is not reducible to the clergy and its staff.

6) Notice how Fr. Dailey totally misses the boat:

Father Dailey said that “increased mobility and the digital culture have expanded the confines of existence … especially in younger generations.”

As a result, he said, parishes must build on lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic — during which livestreamed Masses, video homilies and devotional podcasts became standard — and reimagine how to engage current and potential believers through digital media and formal communications plans.

The solution isn't about the clergy reaching more people more remotely. It's about the clergy  handing over responsibility in the here and now. 

7) I didn't attend the conference, but to go by this article, there was no discussion at all about how the laity might take up actual responsibility, actual power and authority in the Church. There were some sops. Archbishop Perez says he "couldn't have done what I've done" without the laity, which—I'm sorry to say it—is stating the obvious. It reminds me of Newman's comment about the laity, "the clergy would look rather silly without them."

 8) I'll give the bishop this, though [my emphasis]:

That effort requires a real partnership between both clergy and laity, he said, since “we are back to where the early church was.”

And I'll end by pointing out: You can't have real partnership without real reciprocity. The laity will not be duly co-responsible unless and until we share in the ownership and decision-making of parish life.