The Hierarchy Should Not Outsource Leadership to the Laity

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It might not be surprising, in an age where the concept of hierarchy is met with hisses and equality with cheers, that the divisions between clerics and laity continue to blur. For decades, such blurred distinctions have been visible at most parish Masses, where a line of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion rush the altar, apply the hand sanitizer, and hand out Holy Communion like bingo chips. The complementary roles of clerics and laity are all but erased by the German “Synodal Way,” which suggests that the shepherd-sheep dynamic is unjust and outdated

Most recently, Pope Francis’ Apostolic Constitution Praedicate Evangelium (“Preach the Gospel”) has reduced a major difference between clerics and laity. As an overhauling reform of the Roman Curia, the document details the way the Vatican’s offices are to be reconfigured. One main element that has gained much attention in the media is that the laity can head, at least in theory, the majority of dicasteries of the Curia. Predictably, this move has been met with applause by those who want to see the laity have more power and control in the Church.

When presenting Praedicate Evangelium to the public, Fr. Gianfranco Ghirlanda, S.J., boldly stated that “the power of governance in the church doesn’t come from the sacrament of Holy Orders, but from the canonical mission” as given by the Roman Pontiff. This, however, is only partially true. The “Preliminary Note of Explanation” attached to Lumen Gentium reveals the reason why the Second Vatican Council used the word “functions” (munera) instead of “power” (potestates): this was to affirm the limitations of “power” as needing a canonical mission from the proper hierarchical authority which, in the end, is the pope. 

Truthfully, the power of governance in the Church comes both from the sacrament of Holy Orders and from the canonical mission. According to Catholic teaching, the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders is expressed in the ordination of a bishop (Lumen Gentium, 21). While all baptized Christians participate in Christ’s threefold office of teaching, sanctifying, and governing, bishops are tasked with a higher level of participation. Through the sacrament, bishops most certainly do attain the power of governance in a “proper, ordinary, and immediate” manner (CCC 895).

If the power of governing the Church does not derive from Holy Orders, as Fr. Ghirlanda suggests, then one might wonder: what is the point of the episcopacy? The very word “episcopate” derives from the Greek word episkopos, literally meaning “overseer.” In ancient Greek mythology, episkopos was used to describe various Greek gods who were charged with protecting men. Later, the word took on significance in a political sense, referring to government officials and governors who oversaw the city-states and were responsible for their welfare. 

Christians eventually adopted the term to denote the patriarchal and pastoral responsibility of Christian leaders to their flocks (Acts 20:28; 1 Timothy 3:1). The overseer, or bishop, had a distinct role in the early Christian community, not only as an agent of governance, but also as the principal celebrant of the Eucharist. The early Christian communities were led by a college of presbyters (meaning “elders”) in union with the local bishop. If it does not belong to the bishops to “oversee” or govern, then what purpose do they serve, aside from being elaborately-dressed sacramental dispensers?

We continue to hear how Praedicate Evangelium emphasizes the Church’s evangelizing and missionary orientation, as opposed to being a defensive, doctrinal fortress. This is indicated by the symbolic move to list the “Dicastery for the Evangelization of Peoples” in front of the “Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith” (formerly known as the CDF). The dichotomy between evangelization and doctrine is clearly a false one, for if one is not evangelizing others with the doctrine of the Church, then what is evangelization’s purpose? 

Symbolic moves aside, we also see how Praedicate Evangelium conflates evangelization with governance. “The Pope, the Bishops and other ordained ministers are not the only evangelizers in the Church,” the document correctly states. “It cannot be ignored in the updating of the Curia, whose reform, therefore, must provide for the involvement of lay people, even in roles of government and responsibility” (10). 

It is unclear why there needs to be a direct connection between evangelization and governance. Unless the Church somehow erred until the present moment (a view not rare among the Church’s hierarchy), there is no essential link between spreading the Faith and governing the Church. The laywoman who volunteers at the parish soup kitchen and in the CCD program is not somehow hindered in her vocation by not having access to a curial position. Nor, might I add, do her acts of evangelization gain anything by having those roles traditionally held by bishops.

As a layman living in the twenty-first century, I know too well the imperfection of bishops, whether historically or contemporary. I am the furthest from suggesting that the laity and priests act as helpless infants, deferring to the bishop in all things. But as a layman, I understand my own vocation and mission in light of the Church’s tradition. I am precisely not an overseer and, despite my hubris, I acknowledge my need to be overseen

My primary responsibility is to serve the LORD through Holy Matrimony and through the rearing and education of my children. My study and teaching of theology, I hope, will help the Church’s mission in saving souls and leading all people to deeper love and devotion to the Holy Trinity. But my role is an ancillary one. I happily expect a bishop to govern the local Church, and my lay vocation is actually obscured when such governance is pushed to the side, or outsourced to a committee of lay elites. Despite my own opinions on his successes or failures, I acknowledge the Holy Father’s special role in ecclesial governance.

The Roman Curia exists to help the pope’s mission in guiding the Church, but the vicarious nature of Curial appointments (they receive their authority from the pope) does not mean that any baptized Christian should be promoted to a position of governance. The Roman Curia is at its best when it reflects the collegiality of the Church—bishops in communion with the pope exercise authority and work for the welfare of souls by virtue of their apostolic mission. The Roman Curia is not only harmed by careerism and scandals but also by treating it as a papal “think tank” where anyone, regardless of one’s state of life, ascends the role of overseer and exercises power. 

The Church is not a democratic society, and attempts to make it so will not actually liberate the laity as promised. Ecclesial egalitarianism is hardly a better option than a monarchy, and confusing the roles of laity and ordained will not yield better results at converting the world to the Faith. Although some rejoice to see the possibility of laity to preside over a dicastery, I see it as a sign of the ongoing obfuscation that replaces hierarchical order with professionalist chaos. Clean up the Curia, I say, but in the process, let the laity be led.

[Photo Credit: © L’Osservatore Romano]

John A. Monaco

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John A. Monaco is a doctoral student in theology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA, and a Visiting Scholar with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

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