From The Catholic Herald, the UK’s best Catholic weekly, comes this opinion piece, with my emphases and comments.
We need a sharper divide between priests and laity
Dominic Scarborough presents a plan for recovering a true understanding of clergy and lay roles
11 December 2009
One of the most popular themes for Hollywood films over the years has been the so-called “body swap” film where parent and child exchange bodies and live the other’s life for a while, invariably “with hilarious consequences”. In the end both find that although each has learned a great deal about the other’s life, ultimately each is happier and more fulfilled as they were. A similar phenomenon can be found on our television screens with the familiar “life swap” genre.
Something similar seems to have been happening in the Catholic Church over the past few decades as many priests have started mimicking or even idolising the lay lifestyle while in many parishes it is the laity which increasingly populate the sanctuary. I know of one priest who decided he had to commission more Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion [Remember: they are not Ministers of the Eucharist.] to do his weekly sick calls because his time was being so taken up with the parish accounts (needless to say, one of these new Extraordinary Ministers was an accountant). The tragic element to all this (which outstrips even the comic element) is that there is more than an element of “role-play” escapism or flight from reality in this behaviour. The time may have come for the Church to realise that a clearer delineation of roles might be timely [Nay rather, long overdue.] and that the Church needs to be rooted in reality and not indulging the secular fantasies of its clergy.
As is so often the case, the Holy Father is only too aware of this situation. In a recent speech to the bishops of Brazil during their ad limina visit to Rome he made the following remarks: “Do not secularise the clergy and clericalise the laity … The truth is that the greater the faithful’s awareness of their own responsibilities within the Church, the clearer becomes the specific identity and inimitable role of the priest as pastor of the entire community.” [I consider the purposeful clericalization of lay people by priests and bishops to be a particularly nasty type of "clericalism". What lies at the bitter root of that weed is the false notion that lay people are not worthy unless they are doing things that priests or deacons do, that they are somehow not adequate unless they imitate priests. We have to grant that most clerics who fall into this trap are well-motivated, but it is a trap nonetheless.]
Of course Vatican II sent out a rallying cry to the laity to recognise that they are the “People of God” and to be co-workers with the clergy and religious and not mere consumers of religion. The laity were called to discover a new sense of their sharing in the Priesthood of Christ by virtue of their baptism. But the primary task of the laity in sharing in the sacrifice of Christ was to be their emphasis on making a sacrifice of their own lives in how they lived them out in the world as a living witness and as a means of evangelisation. [We might see it this way: the clergy are to shape the lay people who shape the world around them.] How frequently, though, have these sentiments been interpreted by those with a very narrow and clerical view of the Church who seem to consider that one is not really doing something important in the life of the Church if it is not liturgical? This ideology, more than any decline in priest numbers, has led to the legions of Extraordinary Ministers and superfluous servers we now see crowding our sanctuaries.
One step towards sorting all this out might helpfully come from Rome. An important document, the significance of which even to this day is not fully understood in the wider Church, was Pope Paul VI’s Motu Proprio Ministeria Quaedam of 1972. This document abolished the clerical minor orders of porter and exorcist and re-designated the hitherto clerical orders of lector and acolyte as “instituted lay ministries”. It also abolished the tonsure and delayed the entry of the seminarian into the clerical state until diaconate (the sub-diaconate having already been suppressed). Sadly, the passage of time and the benefit of hindsight could both question the effectiveness of this previously untried system. While no seminarians are likely to feel particularly deprived at not being made a porter, [This could be an interesting point of discussion. In the ancient Church there were many types of ministry to deal with concrete exigencies.] many seminiarians are required by their seminary staff (quite properly, according to the document) to continue to consider themselves laymen even after the reception of the lay ministries of lector and acolyte which they receive at the seminary, until the day of their diaconate when suddenly the clerical state hits them like a train. The old staged progress through tonsure, the reception of the cassock and collar, the saying of the Office and the milestones of the minor orders has given way to literally waking up the morning after diaconate as a celibate cleric.
Similarly, the appetite among the laity for these new “instituted lay ministries” has been entirely absent from the post-conciliar Church. As a policy initiative they have completely failed to take off in the western Church and I would be surprised if the total number of instituted lectors and acolytes in the entire Catholic Church (excluding the seminarians transiting through these lay ministries) would be enough to fill a village hall. Lay people happily fulfil the roles of lector and acolyte as lay people just as they sing or take up the collection but do not feel the need to be “clericalised” to do so. Indeed, according to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal 2002, where an instituted lector and acolyte are present at Mass they should always take precedence in that role. [Which could help with the problems we have in the distribution of Holy Communion as well as helping us to a more solemn liturgy.] The paradox of this is that if it were followed to the letter it would mean no lay person would ever read or serve at Mass again, given that the priest is likely to be the only person present who has been “instituted” in both of these lay ministries. Where the test of time has preserved these roles is in their proper place, in the seminaries, as steps to priesthood. In my view it is high time that the Church looked at this purely disciplinary issue again with the benefit of hindsight.
Where the laity can and should participate in the liturgy they should be proud to do so as lay people and in roles which respect the dignity of that state. Those aspects of the liturgy which pertain to the sanctuary and in a particular way to the ministerial priesthood should be reserved to clerics or to those lawfully deputising for clerics out of real necessity. [Do I hear an "Amen!"?] These “instituted lay ministries” should be quietly dropped, again, motu proprio and, at least in the case of acolyte, should be restored as an instituted role pertaining to the clerical state to which only clerics can be admitted. [Not sure about that... but this is worthy of discussion.] It would help to re-emphasise the different but complementary roles which clergy and laity have in the life of the Church and might result in more priests taking Communion to the sick and more laity helping with the accounts.
Dominic Scarborough is a lay Catholic from the south of England. A qualified barrister and former Civil Service Principal, he has a degree in Modern History from Magdalen College, Oxford. He is a regular commentator in the press and on the internet on Catholic affairs