Catholics for a Changing Church

"To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often" - Bl. John Henry Newman

The Province of the laity – and Clericalism

a discussion by

Simon Bryden-Brook and Valerie Stroud


“What is the province of the laity? To hunt, to shoot, to entertain. These matters they understand, but to meddle with ecclesiastical matters they have no right at all.” [Talbot to Manning, April 25, 1867. Cf. W. Ward, The life of John Henry Cardinal Newman, London, 1913, II, p. 147. Newman was ultimately made a Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII in 1879. Talbot died in an asylum at Passy, near Paris in 1886]

Simon Bryden-Brook starts the discussion:
Monsignor George Talbot’s nineteenth century views of the laity and ‘matters ecclesiastical’ [expressed of course in reference to John Henry Newman’s ‘On consulting the faithful in matters of doctrine’ The Rambler, 1859] do not of course correspond with modern Catholic teaching, however many clergy today still subscribe to something similar. [There is a very detailed and well documented article on ‘Catholic Laity’ in Wikipedia]. Nonetheless it prompts me to ask “What is the province of the clergy?” Today not all members of the clergy believe that they have the exclusive right to deal with ‘matters ecclesiastical,’ which only they understand. But some come pretty close to it. The Catholic Church is ruled by clerics, who reserve to themselves the right to have the last word. It is definitely not a democracy.

Outstanding leadership?
I do not like clericalism [see George B Wilson SJ, Clericalism: the death of priesthood (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2008)] and believe that a seminary education is a poor preparation for ministry in the Church of the third millennium. But I am reminded of the importance of the institutionalised clerical ministry by outstanding priests I know, servant-leaders, who are the products of such a system. Many of them were in fact educated by religious orders rather than in diocesan seminaries and the religious orders also produce women leaders of exceptional calibre. If we had no professional ministers of this type, can we guarantee that men and women would be thrown up by the Christian community with the education, the immersion in the liturgy, tradition and spirituality of the Church, and the pastoral sensitivity that those priests possess whom we all know and revere? Just because so many priests we come across are ill-educated, incompetent and abusive, this does not mean that we can do without the institution of apostolic ministry all together. One province of the clergy is therefore to be a school for outstanding leadership, perhaps rarely achieved, but nevertheless evidence that the Spirit will not allow the gates of hell to prevail.

Official representatives?
As I sat in church one Sunday recently, taking part in a Eucharist presided at by one such outstanding priest, I recalled that within twelve miles there were two or three other Catholic churches, with less outstanding examples of the clerical ministry, but still filled with worshipping Catholics. No house church or Basic Ecclesial Community in Europe can normally command such attendances. So another province of the clergy is to be the official representatives of the Church calling the people together to celebrate. This is not to say that two or three may not gather together in Jesus’ name, perhaps even to do what he told them to do in his memory, but the ordained minister has this official position to gather the Christian people.

Ceremonial representatives?
Related to that is perhaps third province of the clergy, and that is to represent ceremonially the Catholic Church. The Mayor’s office invites the local clergy to his ceremonies and they attend as official representatives of the institution. This does not mean that Catholics cannot form associations to play their part in public life, as the European Network Church on the Move does at the Council of Europe, just that we are not in a position (and do not want to be) to act in an official capacity.

So perhaps that is it. The province of the clergy is occasionally to produce outstanding Catholic leaders, to call the people together for public worship and to represent the Church ceremonially in the public square. It is not the province of the clergy to take all important decisions, to have exclusive rights of supervision, oversight, and administration of the Church and executive or juridical powers in Ecclesiastical affairs, to define doctrine as the sole teachers on behalf of the Church, to inhibit increased involvement in Church ministry by the laity, to ration out the sacraments, to preach the Gospel, to teach the faithful and to exercise pastoral ministry, to be the experts in ‘matters ecclesiastical’.


Valerie Stroud contributes:
I certainly agree that George Talbot’s view of the laity is still prevalent today. It is consciously or unconsciously part of the formation process in the seminary.
I do not agree with your idea of the province of the clergy but this is because I have a different perspective in a number of ways. I believe in collaborative ministry and the best person undertaking a task. We should get away from square pegs in round holes because that is custom and practice.
I believe we have to explore the aims and objectives of a community and in particular a Catholic Christian community I suggest that the community serves to promote the mental, physical and spiritual development of its members so that they may be the seed and the beginning of the Kingdom of God.
This gives us three main areas in which there needs to be leadership.
Mental
The community needs those who will nourish the minds of its members. These leaders do not need to be clerics but do need to have knowledge which they are willing to share. Catechesis in all its facets is what I am talking about.
Physical
This might relate to the health and fitness of individual members or it could refer to the physical set up of the community. To be a light on a lamp stand, administration, marketing, internal and external communication are all needed and these leaders do not need to be clerics.
Spiritual
Here is the role for the person who has undertaken formation to be a spiritual guide /spiritual director. I suggest that the community might wish the bishop to commission him or her for this particular role. (I have deliberately not used expressions like ‘laying on of hands’).
I would further suggest that the community elects a Council and a Chairman. It is the Chairman who represents the community in the public domain bearing in mind that in certain circumstances other leaders might offer better representation.
Continuing leadership development would be of the essence. The Catechists, Administrators and Spiritual Guides need to keep their talents and skills honed. A community will not thrive if there is stagnant leadership.
The community would need to keep its heart and mind on its objective – to be the seed and beginning of the Kingdom of God. The assembly is where the enthusiasm for this is generated.
If one starts with the nurture of the community, I believe that it will follow that the community will want to have an opportunity to gather to value its achievements - Inject God into this and one has worship. It is a two way process. Naturally arrangements will have to be made for a physical venue and suitable environment; the educators will have their part to play and the spiritual leader will most likely preside at the Eucharist.
What I describe is radical but I believe that this is a skeletal analysis of how things were in the very early Christian community. What we have at the moment is upside down to use a more delicate phrase than the one of which I am thinking.
If everything is down to the clergy we will not move away from the mess we are in at the moment.

[1303 words]
 

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