A Crisis Symposium: Preparing for the Synod on the Laity

The notion that theologians constitute a second Magisterium more or less in rivalry with the first Magisterium of pope and bishops has fallen into abeyance, but some years ago a theologian of note discerned a new threat to the second Magisterium from what he called the third Magisterium. This third Magisterium was said to be made up of a lot of simple Catholics loyal to Rome who would put pressure on local bishops to bring theologians to heel.

Dissident theologians cannot seem to make up their minds whether to be triumphalist in the Thomas Sheehan manner, and just claim victory, or to consider themselves an oppressed class under siege. I would advise the latter. This .symposium on the role of the laity bears out, in a way, the notion of a third Magisterium, incoherent as that notion may be. After all, loyalty to pope and bishops is simply a willingness to be guided by the only Magisterium there is. But that dissident theologians have failed to co-opt the laity in their quarrel with bishops and pope seems clearer every day.

The majority of theologians are clerical, active or laicized, so dissident theology is pretty much a rebellion of the lower clergy. But their offer to represent the laity and, in that odious word, empower them, so that they too could resist the teaching office of the Church, has been refused, if the participants in this Crisis symposium are representative.

One of the recurrent thoughts in the following symposium is that the clergy should be clergy and the laity should be laity. The idea that what laypeople want is to get on the altar as at least spear carriers and then to edge as close as possible to the starring role is ridiculous. A few issues ago we ran a piece by “Lord Acton” on the liturgy and the response was enormous. What people want is reverent worship according to established norms; they do not want inventive liturgies whether authored by jaded clerics or choreographers manques.

That thought suggests another to many symposiasts. Priests ought to stop aspiring to be laymen. Has anyone asked what the priest shortage would look like if all the clerics were removed from various offices and bureaus and campuses and put into parishes? That priests have become so confused about what it is to be a priest turns one’s thoughts to the scandal of the seminaries.

I took my B.A. from the St. Paul Seminary, once a flourishing institution. In these latter days, I have been granted status as an alumnus, so I receive a good deal of promotional material. Reading it credulously, one would gain the impression that the place still thrives. Alas, it is not so. In a recent expensive piece of puffery, there was what seemed to be a picture of the student body, a small huddled bunch looking whimsically at the camera. That the seminaries have all but put themselves out of business should be shouted from the rooftops. Rectors and bishops should not be permitted to say that the recent Vatican report has given them a clean bill. This is something we shall be returning to in future issues. Boccaccio would blanch at the shenanigans in our seminaries.

American Catholics have long been noted for the love and respect they accord priests and nuns. That disposition has been put under severe strain in recent years. But criticism of the clergy is itself a form of love, at least it was with those two Doctors of the Church, Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila. As for the specifically lay task, well, Crisis is one effort to fulfill it. We hope the following pieces will be pondered by those who will be participating in the October Synod of the Laity.

—Ralph Mclnerny


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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