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A looming clash between priests and lay ministers


The most radicalized Catholics in Europe today are in German-speaking countries. It is there petition drives demanding change have garnered millions of signatures, there reformers are fixtures in the media, there that the pope can’t hit an airport tarmac without drawing protests.

In part, the tumult is attributable to a series of controversial episcopal appointments and clerical scandals; in part, it’s traditional resentment by German-speaking Catholics of Vatican hegemony (reaching back to the “away from Rome” movement in the 19th century).

But there’s another, deeper factor. The church in these areas is supported by a state-collected tax, which funds a sprawling network of ministries, charitable organizations and educational ventures. These church operations are staffed by tens of thousands of lay people, most of whom are fairly well-paid and quite well-educated. It is, in effect, a Catholic civil service.

It is these lay professionals -- the so-called ecclesial nomenklatura -- who are the avant-garde of reform efforts. The Austrian “We Are Church” movement, for example, was launched in 1995 by a high school religion teacher and a parish worker. Such lay professionals work for the church full-time, so they have an enormous stake in its policies. Clericalism grates on them in a special way because they’re in the trenches with it 9-to-5. Since most of them have graduate training in theology, they have the intellectual wherewithal to critique the system.

Some naturally fear reprisals for speaking out -- they’re afraid of losing their jobs, or not getting promotions or raises. While only a minority therefore go public, many others lend behind-the-scenes support.

I bring this up in light of ongoing discussion about the new breed of American Catholic seminarians, who on the whole appear to be remarkably conservative. Dean Hoge of The Catholic University has published research showing that while younger Catholics resemble their Baby Boomer parents -- meaning they think the church needs to be more flexible on issues such as married priests and birth control -- younger clergy take a much more traditional stance. Hoge has suggested, apropos these findings, that we can expect increased tension between priests and people in the pews in the years to come.

But there’s a twist to this scenario, and that is the surging number of professional lay ministers in America taking over jobs formerly held by clerics, such as hospital chaplaincies, youth ministries and religious education programs. Today there are approximately 27,000 lay people employed in some ministerial role for at least 20 hours a week in the U.S. church with more than 30,000 in training -- a solid majority of them women. That dwarfs the number of new clergy moving through the pipeline; in 1998 there were 3,386 graduate seminarians in the United States.

The U.S. church is thus generating its own lay nomenklatura, analogous in some ways to the European scene. I phoned the experts -- Hoge, Msgr. Philip Murnion of the National Pastoral Life Center and Zeni Fox of Immaculate Conception Seminary -- all of whom said they’re not aware of any hard data about the attitudes of lay ministers on church issues. All said, however, that anecdotal evidence suggests lay ministers are progressive theologically. They have an egalitarian ecclesiology and could be expected to support change across a wide range of issues.

As they fan out into parishes and schools, these lay ministers are likely to butt heads with younger, more traditionalist priests. The American Catholic church is, in other words, currently educating two sets of ministers whose belief systems are worlds apart.

On one level, it’s possible to find this prospect encouraging. It means that conservative forces can’t eradicate the vision of Vatican II simply by ordaining priests who act like it never happened. Instead, the legacy of the council is being picked up by a new generation of lay leaders -- perhaps its logical bearers in any event.

It’s hard not to look with pride at the lay reformers overseas and wish the American church had more of their spunk.

On the other hand, no one wants to see more American parishes and schools torn apart by ideological conflict. If you talk to reform leaders in Germany or Austria, most say they’re sick of the fighting -- they wish their groups could act in partnership with church leaders instead of shouting at one another across barricades. In some places that has happened and remarkable results have been achieved, but it remains the exception.

The American church right now is blessed with foresight; we can see this conflict coming. Whether we are able to find common ground where our new priests and our new lay professionals -- and the vastly differing visions of church they embody -- can work out a modus vivendi remains to be seen.

It’s time to start the conversation.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR opinion editor. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, May 14, 1999