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Bishops need to transcend fear of the laity

The most recent session of the U.S. bishops’ conference was a rocky one as far as the Catholic laity is concerned.

Understandably, the vote over norms for the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae captured most of the interest from the media. Outside this spotlight, however, several other conversations collectively suggest a retreat from the idea of laity as full and equal collaborators.

First, the bishops are restructuring their conference. Membership on the administrative committee -- which makes many of the most important decisions -- will be reconfigured. The 13 regions of the conference will have two voting members instead of one, while the standing committees of the conference will lose seats.

The effect is to shift the balance of power away from committees, such as those on liturgy or education, and toward bishops from the regions.

This may seem an arcane matter, but Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., who led the discussion, called it “one of the most neuralgic and difficult the conference has dealt with.” Behind the shift lies a belief that the conference has become too dominated by its committees, especially their lay advisers.

By beefing up the number of regional representatives, this argument runs, the bishops will in effect “take back” the conference. The same logic was at work in new rules adopted to make it more difficult for committees to issue statements.

Second, the bishops also heard a long-awaited report from a subcommittee of the Committee on the Laity, dealing with lay ministry in the church -- the thousands of lay professionals serving the church as catechists, liturgists, pastoral associates and in scores of other capacities. Today there are 29,142 lay ministers in the United States, as compared to 27,155 priests.

The subcommittee has been groping toward ways to support these “ecclesial lay ministers,” perhaps including a commissioning ceremony or funds to support ongoing formation.

The reception from some bishops was decidedly tepid. Auxiliary Bishop Joseph F. Martino of Philadelphia said that promoting lay ministry in this way would “foment confusion.” Bishop Thomas Connolly of Baker, Ore., warned of “clericalizing the laity.” Bishop Daniel DiNardo of Sioux City, Iowa, said that ratifying the spread of lay ministry could be dangerous, that there is a need for a more “top-down” approach beginning with more clarity about the distinction between ordained ministers and laity.

There was no vote, so it is difficult to tell how widespread such sentiments are. Other bishops seemed more supportive. The above reactions suggest, however, that a core of bishops believe growth in lay ministry imperils the uniqueness of the priesthood. It is a concern for clerical status that, while perhaps understandable, should be subordinate to supporting lay activity in all appropriate areas of church life.

Third, the bishops conducted a debate over a proposed provision that would allow a bishop to permit a layperson to preach. The debate pivoted around whether a lay person could preach after the gospel; doing so, many bishops insisted, would amount to delivering a homily, and that must be the prerogative of the ordained minister. As Cardinal Francis George put it, “The one who breaks the bread should also break open the bread of the word.”

This, too, strikes an oddly defensive note, as if expounding the gospel is a charism that must be protected lest it fall into lay hands.

Each of these issues presents its own complexities, and no doubt the bishops are picking their way through them as best they can. Yet a layperson watching the discussions could not help but feel the stirrings of an “us vs. them” dynamic that is both curious and counter-productive.

One is reminded of Cardinal John Henry Newman’s line when someone asked him what he thought about the laity. “We’d look pretty silly without them,” the cardinal replied.

National Catholic Reporter, December 17, 1999