Laity on the line

Now more than ever, it's time for laypeople to claim the right to stake out who they are.


A WOMAN WAS DISGRUNTLED AFTER A MEETING WITH HER PASTOR. Dissatisfied with some recent event in the parish, she had gone in to voice her concern. Unexpectedly, however, the pastor erupted: "No matter what we do for you people, it isn't enough!"

Instinctively, she knew he didn't intend a royal "we." The implication was we-priests versus you-parishioners, the defensive posture of two sides in opposition. All of a sudden, she found herself ominously cast behind enemy lines.

Retreating into our differences is an unfortunately reflexive response, especially if we feel under siege. A husband and wife in conflict may very quickly find themselves fuming about "men" and "women" as if they were arguing in a suddenly crowded room. A disagreement between coworkers can escalate to racist stereotypes unconsciously. It is hard to keep a difference of opinion local. And sometimes the problem may be that the root of the conflict really isn't local but in fact does exist in the wider system.

Is there a systemwide breakdown of communication happening in the church? Are laity and clergy facing off on opposite sides of an ever-more-separate experience, reversing the gains in lay-clergy cooperation made since the 1960s? Our communion cautions against accepting such a reality if it exists. Our call is to unity, which is not uniformity but a harmonious complementarity of gifts and tasks. As church, we are in this thing together, and we cannot afford to alienate or marginalize each other in the process.

In the current climate of the clergy sexual-abuse crisis, the rift between church leaders and rank-and-file Catholics seems more poignant than ever, and the U.S. bishops still don't seem to quite get what's going on. Even in their attempts to confront and deal with the problem of abuse and its cover-up, they seem to be displaying the same timid defense of the institution that got the whole church into trouble in the first place. These men, so often quick to condemn others for causing "scandal" in the church and for "confusing the faithful," have themselves caused the greatest scandal and confusion in the history of the American Catholic Church.

But ultimately, after the necessary and hoped-for legal accountabilities are pursued, the structures reformed to ensure responsibility of leaders, sound uniform policies put in place, and healing processes begun, Catholics—clerics and lay—will have to find ways to live together and be the church in some measure of respect and conversation.

The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin warned about the dangerous cleft between conservative and progressive wings of the church, the so-called pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II mindsets so often in collision. But there are other seams in the fabric of the church that are getting threadbare and may be in need of mending.

Laity on the line

The problem with communication may simply be that there isn't any, or that truly productive conversation isn't happening on the levels needed for the result to rise above gossip and venting. When like speaks to like, it's not really a conversation; it's more like a pep rally, as we justify "our side" and are egged on by the already allied. And so irritated laity—conservative and progressive alike—reinforce each other's alienation with "topper" stories of what bishops and priests have done this month, while clergy regale each other with narratives about their common grievances with clueless parishioners. Meanwhile, is anybody on one side of this experience in real dialogue with the other? And where or how can we foster such conversations?

Even when clergy and laity mix it up on social occasions, the suspicion surfaces that they are only talking past each other. Not long ago a group of friends, lay and religious, took in a movie together. One of the side plots involved the sad reality that both the good guys and the bad guys neglected their families in pursuit of their goals. After the show, a priest in the group expressed most sincerely that here was evidence that in some lines of work, celibacy made more sense.

The lay members of the group were amazed at his conclusion. After all, didn't many occupations require an after-hours sense of dedication: soldiers, teachers, police officers, the president of the country, to name a few? Was it being suggested that all of these careers be reserved for "celibates only"? Was it not equally reasonable to reexamine our acceptance of the notion that people should value their professions more than their families?

The issue was not celibacy, but perspective. The gulf separating the view of the clergy from the laity appears so wide as to create a real breach in perceiving, much less resolving, the issues confronting us all. The breach is even more acute because of the imbalance of power: who gets to define the agenda and subsequent action for the whole church. What many laypeople would appreciate is the privilege of defining their own state of life and what most deeply concerns them.

What frustrates folks in the pews is that even in the third millennium of the church, most of the terms of their membership and role are dictated to them as though they were children. And when they reach out to accept greater responsibility and assume more leadership, in keeping with virtually every other aspect of their adult lives, they are often abruptly "put in their place."

It's as if two realities of church coexist, as if the altar rail of 35 years ago has been replaced by another less tangible barrier between who speaks first and who responds.

A glance at the average diocesan newspaper tells the story. The hierarchy meets in Rome or Washington to discuss—when they're not talking about responding to the abuse crisis—the"burning issues" of the church today: approved translations of liturgical texts, the handling of cups and plates at the Eucharist, the need for theologians to get in line with official positions, a reinstatement of the fullness of salvation residing exclusively within the church, and concern about how to get the faithful to be more responsive to the teachings of the magisterium on morality.

Then ask any random group of laypeople what the "burning issues" facing the church are. They'll talk about their children facing a world with skewed values; fears about caring for their medically needy parents; the desire to involve the under-40 crowd with a meaningful experience of church; a compassionate response to the reality of divorce, remarriage, birth control, homosexuality; a realistic reappraisal of the role of women in the church.

When you listen to the talk on both sides, you begin to understand that there are two conversations going on at once. Both involve matters of authority and sexuality, but the perception of what the issues are and how they should be addressed are mind-bogglingly at variance. Two sides talking has never been the definition of a dialogue.

A few years ago a conference placed before itself the task of exploring the "question of the laity." Its purpose was largely to explain church teaching on the subject. The problem was not simply that most of the speakers were priests or religious sisters. But the underlying assumption was that the hierarchy defines who the laity are and what they do. Likewise, members of the hierarchy tend to identify themselves as the church, especially in times of change and uncertainty, in the face of concerns about whether Catholics know and practice the basics of their faith anymore—in other words, when church leaders fear for the survival of the tradition for which they feel ultimately responsible.

Perhaps unwittingly they fall back on the old Catholic idea that the real church, the true church, is the hierarchy. You could take away all the laypeople, but as long as you had the hierarchy, you would still have a church. Perhaps they also return, at least unconsciously, to a chain-of-command model summarized by veteran Vatican journalist Bob Kaiser as one in which "the pope told the bishops what to do, who told the priests what to do, who told the nuns what to do, who told us what to do."

In the past century or so, the hierarchy has gradually increased the laity's share in the mission of the church from mere obedience to the "lay apostolate" in which the laity "assisted" and were directed by the clergy, to the various forms of Catholic Action, and finally to where ever-greater numbers of laypeople work as professional or semiprofessional ministers and leaders. Throughout, the clergy has defined the roles and the goals, as if lay folk were so many pieces of furniture to be shuffled around as needed. But what would clergy think if laypeople, in moments of crisis with the institutional church, took the same liberties?

Even the most up-to-date thinking on the laity refers to its essentially "secular" character, its "unique" mission in the world. Vatican officials even go so far as to say, magnanimously enough, that the laity are the church in the world. The internal work of the church, from this perspective, properly belongs to clergy and religious, while the work of the church "in the world" falls to the laity in their families and workplaces.

This distinction is deceptive. Any priest or religious who abdicates responsibility for bringing the church to the world, and any layperson who separates everyday life from what goes on in the church, is missing something pivotal. Can't church people see the irony that in giving laity more authority in a particular sphere, they're actually finding a new way to fence them off?

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Yet church leaders today fret over the "clericalization" of the laity and the "laicization" of the clergy. In other words, the laity, especially those who work in formal ministry, are acting too much like the clergy, taking on too many roles previously reserved to the ordained, and clergy are acting too much like the laity, ceding too much of their set-apartness. Their solution? Reinforce the differences. Restrict the roles of the laity in the liturgy. Scale back the power of parish councils. Reestablish the authority of the clergy. In short, reassert the divide.

The laity may not wait to be defined again; we may define ourselves. The laity are not dues-paying members or cover-charge-paying guests in the church, whose membership the hierarchy can revoke. Both clergy and laity are the church, under God, indivisible. Such a declaration does not challenge the need for a hierarchy in the church. It simply claims the right of the laity to stake out who they are.

And policies set by the bishops need to lead to a new era of dialogue in the church. National days of penance—for the clergy sexual-abuse situation or other sins of the church—need to carefully distinguish between sinner and the sinned-against for them to be more than only ways for the bishops to use ritual to pass off their responsibility on the rest of the church.

How do we get the church hierarchy and laity to engage in the same conversation? Laity and clergy might also reconsider the policy of emphasizing differences and start talking up what they have in common. One place to start would be the church's own theology.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus describes his relationship to his disciples—and that means Catholics and other Christians today, too—by saying, "I am the vine, you are the branches." And Saint Paul writes in Ephesians 4:4, "There is one body and one Lord, one faith, one baptism...." But Christ, Paul says, bestows a multitude of gifts "that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ."

In the words of the Second Vatican Council: "The baptized members of the church...share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ. In the widest sense, a priest is anyone who makes the world and its people holy by sacrificing and praying on its behalf. In this sense, every single baptized person is a priest" (Constitution on the Church in the Modern World). Say a thing like that, and put it in writing, and you can't register astonishment when someone takes it seriously.

By their commitment to the priesthood, priests call all the faithful to live their own priesthood and serve God's people. By devoting themselves to Christ in the world's cultures, missionaries call all the faithful to be missionaries in the situations where they live. The vows of marriage, too, remind all of us to live and grow together in fidelity, fruitfulness, and love. Because truthfully, we all live "in community"not just the professed and cloistered. And not only the "religious" are religious.

In the end, it's not about levels of sanctity, spiritual power, or prestige but about where Christians live their lives, what their primary commitments are. Whether it's family, marriage, ordained life, celibacy, singleness, a 9-to-5 job, or running a diocese, we all participate responsibly in the mission of the church. The difference is where we enter.

If we took the language of our Baptism seriously and honored each other as partners in the work of the church, it might be a good starting point for a new conversation. Because while we talk past each other, creation is groaning for some good news. And we're the people commissioned to bring it. 

Alice Camille is the author of Seven Last Words, a meditation on the final sayings of Jesus from the cross, and Invitation to Catholicism, both available from ACTA Publications, and Joel Schorn is an associate editor of U.S. Catholic and managing editor of the new In Good Faith/De Buena Fe adult education series. This article appeared in the July 2002 (Volume 67, Number 7) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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