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Rome issues new limits on lay ministry

NCR Staff

Lay people may not govern parishes, assume titles such as “coordinator” or “chaplain,” deliver homilies, make decisions on parish councils in the absence of a priest, wear stoles or other liturgical garb, or receive training in seminaries, according to a new document co-signed by eight Vatican agencies with the specific approval of Pope John Paul II.

Exactly what force these prohibitions will have in the United States is uncertain. While the clear intent is to restrict the titles and roles open to lay ministers, experts suggest that close analysis of the text may give American bishops room to protect existing practices.

The Vatican document, addressed to the worldwide church, affirms the growth of lay ministry but condemns “abuses” that confuse the distinction between laity and the ordained. It warns that erosion of the uniqueness of the priesthood may diminish vocations, and states that lay participation in church ministries is a matter of deputation rather than right.

Though claiming merely to reiterate provisions of the Code of Canon Law, the document either discourages or forbids several well-established customs. In addition to the above, laity are restricted in their ability to lead baptisms or funerals, and are forbidden to employ liturgical gestures or prayers at Mass. They are not allowed to perform anointings with sacred oils. Laity may act as eucharistic ministers only when priests are unavailable.

In extraordinary cases when laity must perform ministerial functions, they are to have proper formation, though not in seminaries, which are “reserved solely for those preparing for the priesthood.”

Approximately 25,000 lay people are employed full-time in parish ministries in the U.S., many using titles such as “coordinator,” according to the National Association of Church Personnel Administrators. The National Association for Catholic Chaplains reports a membership of 3,600, approximately 80 percent of whom are lay people.

The personnel administrators also report that slightly less than two percent of U.S. parishes are run by laity due to priest shortfalls. Of the 311 lay administrators, 190 are religious sisters, 69 deacons, 62 laity, and 10 religious brothers.

Moreover, approximately 21,800 more lay people are presently in ministry formation programs, according to figures from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Though exact figures were unavailable at press time, a substantial number of these trainees are attending seminary programs.

Ironically, the American bishops conference, through its Commission on Certification and Accreditation, has standards in place to certify “chaplains” and “coordinators” of various lay ministries.

In order to counteract priest shortages, the Vatican document instructs bishops that they are not required to accept the resignations of priests over the age of 75, unless grave health concerns or disciplinary issues are involved.

The instructions respond to “many pressing requests” received by Vatican offices for clarification, according to the document. It is described as the result of deliberations within the Vatican, a 1994 papal symposium on the role of the laity, and “extensive consultation with many presidents of conferences of bishops, individual prelates, as well as with experts from the various ecclesiastical disciplines and from different parts of the world.”

In Germany, the bishops’ conference has registered objections to the instructions. Bishop Karl Lehmann of Mainz, president of the conference, said they indicate “a climate of mistrust for the laity.”

American episcopal reaction has been more muted. In presenting the document at the recent bishops’ conference in Washington, Bishop James Hoffman of Toledo, Ohio, argued “the intent is to restate the indispensable role of the ordained priest in the life of the church. ... This document is not intended to disvalue the positive ministry that is being accomplished by lay men and women.”

Noting that the bishops’ Lay Ministry Subcommittee has been working toward a definition of ecclesial lay ministry, Hoffman suggested that the Vatican instructions would not derail that effort, since “the notion of deputation is central” to the emerging definition, which will “carefully maintain the distinction” between the ordained and the laity.

Despite Hoffman’s reassurances, reaction from leaders in lay ministry has been critical. “The tremendous contribution the lay faithful have made for centuries cannot be relegated to filling a temporary shortage,” said Holy Names of Jesus Sr. Mary Louise Bond, head of the National Association of Lay Ministers. Suggesting that the Vatican acted in part to protect the status of ordained priests, Bond said, “If the institutional church keeps upholding a hierarchical relationship as a greater value, this attitude will impede the growth of laity and clergy in partnership.”

Bond complained that the document did not make clear whose “pressing concerns” prompted the instructions. “They make allusions to reports they’ve received,” she told NCR. “But you don’t know who was reporting these things, or how many complaints there were — there’s no way to evaluate how serious it is,” she said.

Fr. James Driscoll, head of the chaplains association, said his membership was “quite surprised” at the prohibition of the term “chaplain,” given the bishops’ accreditation. Driscoll said that his group had obtained an opinion from a canonist in the 1980s indicating use of the term was consistent with the code.

Moreover, Driscoll pointed out that in the health care environment, where most lay ministers are employed, “chaplain” is the accepted term. “Most hospitals will only hire chaplains who are board-certified,” he said, “so this runs up against very practical questions about people’s employment.”

While expressing confidence that the bishops would ultimately allow lay chaplains to continue using the term, Driscoll worried about the psychological impact of the Vatican statement. “What will this do to chaplains who see this as a step backwards?” he said. “To some, this could be a really devastating kind of message from the church.”

At the bishops conference, Archbishop Thomas Kelly of Louisville, Ky., the episcopal liaison for the chaplains association, defended use of the term. He also recently sent a letter to the chaplains’ association membership stating his intention to work on their behalf.

On the broader question of whether the expansion of lay ministry threatens the uniqueness of ordained ministry, Dominican Fr. Thomas O’Meara of the University of Notre Dame expressed skepticism. “We’ve had this new model [of lay ministry] for 25 years,” he said. “The pastor is not threatened or diminished — in a way he’s enhanced, he has a more challenging job. But the role of the presbyter/bishop is clear and not questioned,” O’Meara said.

“All of us that I know want to affirm the growth of lay ministry,” said Fr. Don Wolf, president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils. “We’re not threatened by it.”

The wording of the document may permit adaptation to local circumstances. For example, the instruction says laity may not “assume” titles such as “chaplain.” That could be interpreted to mean lay people can use such titles as long as they have authorization from proper clerical authority to do so.

“I have confidence that the bishops will interpret the document in ways consistent with American practice,” said Zeni Fox, a consultant to the subcommittee on the laity. Fox acknowledged, however, that in “some dioceses” a more literal interpretation of the norms may be enforced.

National Catholic Reporter, December 5, 1997