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Lay ministry deserves better than new norms

At face value, the new Vatican instruction on lay ministry would seem to have wrenching implications for the American church. If laity cannot act as coordinators or chaplains, cannot make decisions in parishes, cannot be trained in seminaries, and cannot have official roles in liturgy, American Catholicism would almost literally be turned upside-down.

In fact, most experts predict this doomsday scenario won’t materialize. There’s sufficient wiggle room in the mandates, they say, to allow existing American practice to continue more or less unaltered. In most parishes Catholics will probably notice little difference.

Whatever its real-world impact, however, the document is hardly a welcome note in the church’s effort to come to terms with the growing phenomenon of lay ministry. By suggesting that laity can perform heretofore priestly duties only with specific clerical permission, and only then in case of emergency, the Vatican sends the clear signal that lay ministry is a regrettable concession to circumstance. For the 25,000 professional lay ministers in the United States, the 3,000 lay chaplains, and the 311 lay parish administrators, such language cannot help but diminish the value of their work.

Moreover, the document - though admittedly not a theological treatise - perpetuates existing confusion in the theology of lay ministry. As Zeni Fox notes in her 1997 book Ecclesial Lay Ministry (Sheed and Ward), the church since Vatican II has wanted to have it both ways. The council said the role of the laity is to act as a “leaven” in the world, an understanding that leaves little room for collaboration in internal ministries. Yet the council also pioneered a “people of God” ecclesiology that suggests everyone, lay and ordained, shares in all aspects of church life.

The new instruction says the secular identity of the laity is important, leaning toward the “leaven” understanding, but also affirms that laity have some role to play in church ministries.

On the ground, lay ministry is a growing reality. Though blessed with a higher priest-to-Catholic ratio than virtually anywhere else in the world, the United States and Canada are still nowhere close to having enough priests to meet the demand for ministry. The shortage will only become more acute. According to figures released this week at the Synod on America, in 1986, there were 8,090 men studying for the priesthood in the U.S. and Canada; in 1996, that number was 5,464.

Given that growth in lay ministry is inevitable, and that the full involvement of laity in the life of the church is desirable on its own merits, the U.S. bishops have acted wisely in setting up a group to study implementation of the Vatican instruction, signaling a desire to ameliorate its potentially damaging consequences. In addition, one can only hope that the bishop’s standing subcommittee on ecclesial lay ministry - due to deliver its recommendations in November 1999 - will press ahead with the urgent work of developing a theology that embraces and celebrates the reality of lay collaboration in ministry.

National Catholic Reporter, December 5, 1997