Dec 31, 2007


Online Edition – Vol. IV, No. 2: April 1998

Distinction of Roles of Priests and Laity Reaffirmed, Dissent Persists


by Helen Hull Hitchcock

Last November 13 the Vatican issued an unusual document with an unusually long title, Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests.

The Instruction, dated August 15, was unusual in that it was signed by the heads of eight principal Vatican offices of Church governance (dicasteries), and approved by Pope John Paul II in forma specifica — meaning that any practices contrary to the Instruction are to be discontinued.

The Instruction, which applies to the universal Church, did not contain any new teaching. It confirmed and clarified the Church’s current teaching and norms concerning the "diverse ministries and charisms" of the "People of God". It affirmed the Second Vatican Council’s call for active participation of all the faithful, especially in the "primary areas of evangelization and sanctification", where the "lay apostolate and the pastoral ministry complete each other".

"In these areas", the Instruction says, "the lay faithful of both sexes have innumerable opportunities to be actively involved" — explaining, defending, and correctly applying Christian principles to the problems of today’s world’.

Yet the Instruction provoked a strong negative reaction from some quarters:

"Fear permeates the document", said Auxiliary Bishop P. Francis Murphy of Baltimore.

"A dark day… [Catholics should disobey] such backward rules", said Hans Joachim Meyer of the Central Committee of German Catholics.

Bishop Karl Lehmann of Mainz, president of the German Bishops’ Conference said the Instruction produced "an atmosphere of distrust".

The Austrian We Are Church group called the Instruction "…a slap in the face for the laity". The same group’s German branch called for "disobedience" of the Instruction.

"Lay people [have] been ill served by this ungenerous response", proclaimed The Tablet, a Catholic journal published in London.

"I ask you to remain calm", Bishop Ivo Furer of Basel, Switzerland, told his flock.

"Where does this leave the many Catholic lay people, and nuns as well, who aspire to a life’s work of pastoral ministry?" asked Peter Steinfels, a Catholic and long-time religion writer for the New York Times.

Father Joseph Driscoll, director of the National Association of Catholic Chaplains, complained in the National Catholic Reporter of "the ‘hit’ that thousands of Catholic chaplains and others will experience yet another time from their church".

Albany Bishop Howard Hubbard, in his diocesan newspaper The Evangelist, wrote that at the New York bishops’ ad limina visit to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in February,

he raised the issue about the recent instruction concerning the essential differences between ordained and non-ordained ministers. I indicated that many found this document to be somewhat dismissive of lay ministries within the Church as being rather secondary and unimportant, and a departure from the vision of the Vatican Council, which highlighted the call to holiness and ministry that belongs to each member of the Church by virtue of Baptism.

According to Bishop Hubbard, "Cardinal Ratzinger responded that the instruction was intended to address problems which have arisen in certain European countries specifically, where, with the shortage of priests, there are more and more liturgies being celebrated on Sundays in the absence of a priest".

But the abuses are not confined to Europe. Cardinal Ratzinger, in a March 11 article in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, said the Instruction was prompted by problems in North-Central Europe, North America and Australia.

He said that "Noting the risk that abuses could spread to other church regions, it seemed opportune and urgent to clarify the various forms of lay collaboration in assisting with the exercise of priestly ministry". He stressed the need for clarity: "The doctrine on the nature of priestly ministry and on the unity and diversity of ministerial tasks at the service of the edification of the Body of Christ must be underlined with clarity, in order to avoid devaluing the priesthood, clericalization of the laity, and "falling into a ‘Protestantization’ of the concepts of ministry and of the Church".

Cardinal Ratzinger said that "a loss of the meaning of the sacrament of Holy Orders" and "the growth of a kind of parallel ministry by so-called ‘pastoral assistants’" is causing confusion about the special identity of ordained priests.

The confusion is increased, the cardinal said, when non-ordained people who "exercise the role of leading the community, wear liturgical vestments during celebrations and do not visibly distinguish themselves from the priests".

"The risk of a clericalization of the laity who exercise this pastoral profession makes invisible and almost incomprehensible the essential difference between the common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood", the cardinal explained. When the non-ordained regularly take over the work of the ordained there is also a risk of losing the lay person’s "proper identity in the life and mission of the church".

Cardinal Ratzinger said that the Instruction explains the three types of tasks and services proper to the laity:

  • Making Christ present in the world through their activities in society
  • Working for Catholic institutions and organizations
  • Temporarily performing functions normally reserved to a priest "in special and serious circumstances, concretely because of a lack of priests and deacons".

Ignoring or relaxing the Church’s rules, the cardinal said, creates confusion and "leads some to think of the tasks of the laity and of priests as being on a level of substantial equality, generating a ‘functionalistic’ mentality of ministry which sees it from the point of view of functions, rather than from its ontological sacramental reality".

Why such negative reactions to a relatively brief (37 pages) restatement of Church teaching and canonical norms? The reaction is not unlike that which met the letter on ordination, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, and the subsequent Responsum ad Dubium pronouncing the teaching on ordination "definitive". (The Catholic Theological Society of America continued to question the authority for the doctrinal statements on ordination at its most recent meeting.)

The reason for the similar reaction is that, like those documents, the Instruction concerns the fundamental meaning of the ministerial priesthood and authority in the Church. Both have been under attack from some quarters within the Church for many years.

The Instruction strongly re-emphasized that the ordained priesthood is necessary for the very existence of the Church. It emphasized the distinction between the ministerial priesthood (ordained), from the "common priesthood" (non-ordained) of the laity. It called attention to the Code of Canon law governing the rights and duties of all the faithful, pointing out that "the non-ordained faithful do not enjoy a right to … tasks and functions reserved by law to the sacred ministry of cleric", even if they may be permitted to supply some of those functions under certain circumstances. Furthermore, the document candidly recognized the "existence of abuses or improper practices":

Therefore a consistent, faithful and serious application of the current canonical dispositions throughout the entire Church … is extremely necessary .

The Instruction said that pastors must "promptly employ those means judged necessary" to make corrections and changes where this is required.

Where abusive practices have become widespread, it is absolutely necessary for those who exercise authority to intervene responsibly so as to promote communion which can only be done by adherence to the truth. Communion, truth, justice, peace and charity are all interdependent terms.

More simply, any sort of "communion" one may attempt to establish apart from the truth that inheres in the Church is a fiction.

The Instruction’s clarification primarily concerns the liturgy of the Eucharist, although it includes instructions and conditions for "lay collaboration" in the administration of other sacraments — the apostolate to the sick, assistance at marriages, baptism and funerals.

The subject of the Instruction was not new. In April 1994, Pope John Paul II addressed Vatican officials and experts from around the world at a symposium, sponsored by the Congregation for Clergy, on the participation of the laity in the priestly ministry. (That Congregation presented the new Instruction on behalf of the other seven dicasteries who signed it.)

In that address, which provided the germ of the recent Instruction, the pope drew on Christifidelis Laici, his apostolic exhortation following the 1987 Synod on the Laity, and the Second Vatican Council. While acknowledging the valuable contribution of the laity in the pastoral ministry of priests, he expressly warned against the tendency to blur distinctions between the ordained and lay faithful and their roles and service in the Church.

In his 1994 address, the pope pointed out that the Church is "hierarchically structured by the Holy Spirit through His various sacramental gifts". Although he observed that in some parts of the world "one notes a persistent shortage of priests" that is sometimes "insufficient to meet all needs", the pope stressed that the Code of Canon Law, though it presents "new possibilities" for lay involvement, "must be correctly applied so as not to fall into the ambiguity of considering as ordinary and normal solutions that were meant for extraordinary situations".

Along with the good seed, there has also grown the darnel of a certain ideology stemming from a vision of the Church in perpetual synod and from a functionalistic conception of holy orders, to the serious detriment of the theological identity of both the laity and the clergy, and consequently of the whole work of evangelization.

We cannot increase the communion and unity of the Church by ‘clericalizing’ the lay faithful or by ‘laicizing’ priests.

The pope questioned the use of the term ministry for the work of the laity. "The language becomes doubtful, confused and hence not helpful for expressing the doctrine of the faith whenever the difference — of essence and not merely of degree — between the baptismal priesthood and the ordained priesthood is in any way obscured", he said.

Only in virtue of sacred ordination does the word [ministry] obtain that full univocal meaning that tradition has attributed to it. There is an urgent pastoral need to clarify and purify terminology, because behind it there can lurk dangers far more treacherous than one may think. It is a short step from current language to conceptualization.

(The complete text of this papal message is printed in Origins, June 2, 1994, p 40-42)

The first of the thirteen Practical Instruction Articles of the new document concerns terminology.

After the 1994 symposium, the consultation that led to the Instruction was initiated. That the Holy Father and eight principal Vatican offices see the necessity of a stronger, more detailed and more authoritative clarification now — four years later — suggests that the Holy See recognizes that problems, abuses and disobedience have continued to increase. It also suggests that the Holy See is determined to address the "darnel" of dissent and to correct defective ecclesiologies which have caused divisions and disunity in the worship of the Church — and that erode the faith of her people.

(Helen Hull Hitchcock is editor of Adoremus Bulletin, and president of Women for Faith and Family.)

Document: Instruction on Non-Ordained


Helen Hull Hitchcock

Helen Hull Hitchcock (1939-2014) was editor of the <em>Adoremus Bulletin</em>, which she co-founded. She was also the founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She published many articles and essays in a wide range of Catholic journals, and authored and edited <em>The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and the Worship of God</em> (Ignatius Press 1992), a collection of essays on issues involved in translation. She contributed essays to several books, including <em>Spiritual Journeys</em>, a book of “conversion stories” (Daughters of St. Paul). Helen lectured in the US and abroad, and appeared frequently on radio and television, representing Catholic teaching on issues affecting Catholic women, families, and Catholic faith and worship.