Listening to the Laity


 
My last month’s column, on the subject of polarization in American Catholicism, touched off a lively and substantial discussion. My thanks to all who took part. I don’t propose to respond here to what was said, but simply to expand on an issue I raised originally but didn’t really develop.
 
Near the end of the column, I remarked that bishops might do well to consider the views of churchgoing Catholics regarding something like the Obama-Notre Dame incident as an expression of the sensus fidelium. That was more or less a tongue-in-cheek comment, since I’m not really sure the concept of sensus fidelium applies to something like this flap. But there’s a serious question here just the same: Whose views should Church leaders take into account when deliberating on disputed, non-doctrinal questions?
 

I take it for granted that in such circumstances, bishops and other leaders should take note of other views besides their own. With that as a basic premise, I’d want to mention several other basic principles with a bearing on this matter.
 
First, making decisions is the right and duty of those who hold the office of decision-making in the hierarchical structure of the Church. At the same time, lay people do have a part to play. In this regard, think of John Henry Newman’s famous On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine.
 
Newman argues that even — or perhaps especially — on doctrinal questions, the laity do have a role: It’s not to make the decisions, but to provide input, a datum of faith as a useful indicator of what the Church’s faith truly is. This is to be done, he says, by way of consultation (and if on matters of doctrine, one might add, then surely on matters of a practical nature — like whether a high-visibility Catholic university should give an honorary degree to a president who supports legalized abortion).
 
Second, in determining whose opinions should be taken into account, it would be a mistake to set the bar too high. If only certifiable saints or holders of S.T.D.s are eligible, then very few people will be consulted. Newman held that the Holy Spirit was broadly present and active among the ordinary faithful, and it is this presence and action of the Spirit that counts.
 
Third, don’t set the bar too low, either. Mere membership in the Body of Christ, as conferred by baptism, isn’t enough — otherwise it would be necessary to consult babes in arms. At the least, one ought to be what is generally called a “practicing” Catholic — non-practicing Catholics need not apply. People who identify themselves as Catholics only because in their own minds they haven’t definitively severed their ties with the Church are not candidates for a consultative process.
 
 
Fourth — and this will probably be the sticking point for some — those consulted should be genuinely loyal to the Church: They should accept its teaching authority and its authority of spiritual governance. That doesn’t mean they can’t have questions or objections. But the questions and objections must respect the ecclesial common good. Dissent in its contemporary form — flagrant, persistent rejection of what the Church’s teaching authority says after engaging in due deliberation — doesn’t meet the test.
 
There’s an ugly example of the violation of this rule in events surrounding Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, including the activities of the famous “birth-control commission” that offered him advice. Some commission members welcomed the pope’s decision and some at least accepted it, but others promptly — and in some cases openly — moved to dissent from a decision they didn’t happen to like.
 
Fifth, without setting the bar too high or too low, to be eligible for consultation, one must have the same knowledge of Church issues that serious people have regarding other serious matters they seek to understand and form opinions on.
 
To be sure, no one is a master of everything, and authentically serious people unavoidably know little about many serious matters. But for anyone, some things are important enough to make a real, continuing effort to know a good deal about them, whether it’s college basketball or the Civil War — or the Catholic Church.
 
Unfortunately, many Catholics, practicing as well as non-practicing, just don’t bother to stay sufficiently informed about Church issues to measure up. Conscientious pastors tell me that the trouble with consulting lay people is that time and again they don’t understand very much about the Church, and bringing them up to speed — supposing it’s possible at all — is hard work. This unquestionably is an impediment to crisp decision-making and timely action.
 
Where does consultation stand in the Church today? The question is not so easily answered. The Second Vatican Council endorsed the reality of public opinion in the Church and called for its regular expression through “the institutions established by the Church for that purpose” (Lumen Gentium, 37).
 
And where are those “institutions”? In the United States, bodies like diocesan and parish councils exist some places and are doing good work; elsewhere they appear to be rubber stamps for decisions made by others; and elsewhere still it’s impossible to say whether they exist or not, since their activities (supposing they exist) are kept shrouded in secrecy. This is downright weird in a Church described as a hierarchically structured community of faith — a communio — whose members are fundamentally equal in dignity and rights.
 
Not all opinions are equally good, but all members of the Church who measure up to reasonable criteria like those suggested here have a right to express themselves and be listened to. Alas, that isn’t how things stand now.

 

Russell Shaw

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Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

  • Ted Seeber

    A full, consistent, logical tying of the opinion back to the Deposit of Faith and dogma.

    For instance my recent attempt at lay theological expansion of the definition of intrinsic evil failed because I failed to properly separate profit used charitably from profit used or gotten unjustly. It was right of the three people in the discussion on health care reform to knock me down for it; I haven’t entirely given up on the idea but because of them I do have better ways to describe the sin involved.

    Likewise when the Laity propose something new, our first question should always be, how does this fit into the original Deposit of Faith, or even, does it fit at all?

    A Lutheran friend who claims to be “culturally Catholic” as of late said that an uncle of her husband converted to Catholicism precisely because we are the last bastion against untested liberal ideas. We should be very careful not to lose that.

  • Ann Marie Watson

    The fact is that most American Catholics are busy working, raising families and trying to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. We draw from our experiences from the parishes we were raised in. So perhaps you “experts” on dogma can forgive us for not being fluent on Church doctrine, although, it sounds like some pastors feel the laity doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to understand it. We are the real Catholics that make up the Church and, in most cases, are the ones volunteering and giving their hearts and souls to building His kingdom. We are the backbone of this Church. So, please, forgive us if there are times when we question the kings in Rome who don’t behave anything like Jesus. I suppose it’s easier to dismiss us as ignorant, disobedient and disloyal “liberals”.

  • Ted Seeber

    So perhaps you “experts” on dogma can forgive us for not being fluent on Church doctrine, although, it sounds like some pastors feel the laity doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to understand it.

    Isn’t that true of ANY specialty that people are required to get a Master’s degree or above to practice?

    Heck, I even see this attitude invading computer programming now- even though less than 1/10th of the computer programmers out there even have a bachelor’s degree.

  • I am not Spartacus

    There’s an ugly example of the violation of this rule in events surrounding Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae,

    Joseph Cardinal Bernardin on Humanae Vitae: “That goddam encyclical”

    That Encyclical was promulgated in 1968, the same year the Cardinal became the first General Secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

  • Maria B

    The fact is that most American Catholics are busy working, raising families and trying to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. We draw from our experiences from the parishes we were raised in. So perhaps you “experts” on dogma can forgive us for not being fluent on Church doctrine, although, it sounds like some pastors feel the laity doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to understand it. We are the real Catholics that make up the Church and, in most cases, are the ones volunteering and giving their hearts and souls to building His kingdom. We are the backbone of this Church. So, please, forgive us if there are times when we question the kings in Rome who don’t behave anything like Jesus. I suppose it’s easier to dismiss us as ignorant, disobedient and disloyal “liberals”.

    It sounds like you feel personally insulted by Mr. Shaw’s article, but why?

    “Working, raising families and trying to walk in the footsteps of Jesus” are not excuses for not knowing the tenets of one’s faith. Some of the most well-informed Catholics I know are extremely busy with careers and kids. The real Catholic is anyone who seeks to know and live the Gospel. There is a tendency to divorce “doctrine” from practice. These must go together. Most lay people aren’t theologians, but if they call themselves Catholic, they need to know what that means.

  • Tom

    but I still don’t want the laity consulted on anything remotely connected to doctrine.

    Not because they don’t have the capacity, but because there’s always an agenda.

  • Austin

    The Bishops do not care what the laity thinks. The Laity has no authority and the Bishops have all the authority, hence they tend to regard us as ignorant, unwashed peasants. Tyrannical pastors run roughshod over devout parishoners, and dismiss any question with quips such as the famous “The Church is not a democracy.” Indeed. Wel, a lot of people vote with their feet and a lot of people just plain ignore the Bishops on issues such as contraception. I don’t see any changes on either side. The Vatican lost a lot of credability with its stand on contraception, which was largely ignored and the American Bishops on the clerical sex abuse scandals.

    Until the Vatican and clergy makes its peace with the modern laity, this will continue.

  • Maria B

    but I still don’t want the laity consulted on anything remotely connected to doctrine.

    Not because they don’t have the capacity, but because there’s always an agenda.

    This makes no sense. Most laity have no agenda. And the fact is, many theologians are lay people. Bishops and priests are shepherds and spiritual leaders, but shouldn’t be the sole decision makers in the Church.

  • Lawrence Gage

    I just went to a talk on Newman last night, and the issue of consulting the laity was a substantial part of the talk. It sounds like Newman wanted the laity “consulted” primarily by looking at the way they worship and not necessarily by asking their (verbal) opinions.

    Right away, of course, such a qualification removes from consideration all non-practicing Catholics.

    LG

  • William W.

    Two things:

    The laity of Newman’s day and the laity of today–big difference.

    Most of these issues–for example, whether to give a pro-abortion politican an honory law degree–are not difficult enough to require or invite consultation.

  • Carlist

    The author assumes there is a sufficient knowledge of the Faith to arrive at good spiritual decisions.

    After observing our hierarchy,clergy and laity over the past half century or so, I can assure him that he’s delusional!

  • Rich

    It sounds like everyone here on this site is simply smarter and much more well rounded than every other Catholic out there.

    I am blessed to be able to post here and read all this marvelous writing!

    Thank you so much!

  • John

    The fact is that most American Catholics are busy working, raising families and trying to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. We are the real Catholics…. backbone of this Church. So, please, forgive us if there are times when we question the kings in Rome

    Given that only a third of American Catholics go to mass anywhere near regularly, and even fewer study their faith, it is debatable whether they are “trying to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.” I have been blessed to work in the Church for the past year, and have been incredibly impressed with the holiness, dedication, and humility of most of the priests and bishops I’ve met. Likewise some of the laity fall into this category, but others…not so much. Many lay people are incredibly arrogant, uninformed, close minded and divisive about their pet issues. Claiming that the laity are “the real Catholics” is not only silly (the clergy who bring us the sacraments aren’t?)but harmful to the Body of Christ. Pride really is deadly.

  • D.B.

    …or alternatively titled “Confessions of a Lay Clericalist”

    The Laity should and does have a role…HOWEVER…that role needs to be clearly defined, and the boundaries enforced. The Magisterium says what is and isn’t doctrine…Not me, not the Editorial board of the National “Catholic” Reporter. The Church’s Teaching on Contraception is Clear and Unquivocal (to pick one issue)…the Truth isn’t up for a majority vote…and I wouldn’t give a damn if 99 out of a 100 Catholics disagreed, because that 99 would be wrong and the 1 who stayed faithful to Church Teaching would be right. The same goes with any other issue…..Obedience is a part of who we are…it isn’t the only thing, but it is a part of who we are. We live in such an arrogant, morally bankrupt age that we’ve lost sight of both the virtue of Obedience and how to treat one another.

  • Laurie

    When the clergy express that trying to keep the layperson informed is hardwork, I just want to scream. Isn’t this his jo?.
    I no doubt agree that many a layperson is ignorant about their faith but they are also quite confused. There are too many mixed messages. To stand up unequivically for the doctrine of the church is so desperately needed right now. These bishops and priests need to be concerned about their flock. It just doesn’t always seem that way. Is abortion a intrinsic evil or is it not? Is social justice the most important issue or not? These two issues have to be clarified completely. That is where the real division is. I know I so desperately would love to hear alittle more of the “John the Baptist” kind of preaching rather than just “Jesus loves you! Alleuia! The laity is committing grave sins and they really are not aware of it. Some issues have to be reiterated many times before most lay people will understand these are grave sins, Contraception is one of the biggest out there right now. If a Catholic goes to church, it is for an hour a week. That priest has only a hour to lead their flock. This is definitely a difficult task. With all the abstractions from t.v., the internet and so on that influence a person’s point of view. The priest does have to work extra hard.
    I know prayer and fasting for these men are so important to their success and to ours.

  • Marie

    About that photo…is that for real? Is that part of the assembly at Mass? Or are they at a concert?

    It sure looks pretty dense by most churches’ standard. Where I come from, people hardly fill out the front pews – although there are lots standing in back.

    It also looks like a very homogenous congregation – not one person below 50? Where are the families? Where are the children? the Latinos? the Blacks? the Asians?

    (Don’t mind me. I’m just asking.)

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