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Moments in Time

Lively lay activism


At was the turn of the millennium, and the church was in the midst of a scandal. Programs for reform were rife, but church leaders were far too heavily invested in the status quo. Many were appalled by what seemed to be ever-growing sexual scandals among the priesthood, and a complete overhaul of the ministry seemed to many to be the only solution. Sound like a description of the start of the second millennium of Christianity? It’s not, although it might be. This is what Christianity looked like to many people at the start of the first millennium.

The episcopacy was almost completely under the control of European nobility who blithely appointed whomever they wished as bishop, abbot, abbess or priest. Most priests were married, a state that some found unacceptable as marriage more deeply mired the clergy in the feudal system. From the vantage of a thousand years, many now may feel differently, but in the 1170s celibacy looked like a way to free the church from lay control. Then as now, the pope addressed the issues of the day. The way in which Pope Gregory VII spoke to the laity of his millennium was radically different, however, from that of the present pontiff. Listen to Gregory’s advice:

“Those who have been advanced to any grade of holy orders or to any office through simony, that is, by the payment of money, shall hereafter have no right to officiate in the holy church. Those also who have secured churches by giving money shall certainly be deprived of them. … It shall be illegal for anyone to buy or to sell [any ecclesiastical office, position, etc.]. Nor shall clergymen who are married say Mass or serve the altar in any way. We decree also that if they refuse to obey our orders, or rather those of the holy fathers, the people shall refuse to receive their ministrations, in order that those who disregard the love of God and the dignity of their office may be brought to their senses through feeling the shame of the world and the reproof of the people.”

In the words of the historian Joseph Lynch, “in an 11th-century context this was a very radical idea: that the ordinary laity should judge the worthiness of the clergy.” If the people decided their priests or bishops are not living a proper Christian life, the pope insisted, they should boycott them until they come to their senses.

By the way, it worked. Lynch summarized the astonishing efficacy of lay action, “Not since late antiquity, more than 700 hundred years earlier, had so many Christians debated publicly about such significant religious issues. The lively debates of the reform period unleashed ideas that influenced religious life for centuries. Even the lower classes, who could not follow the learned arguments based on scriptural, canonical or patristic texts, were stirred by the new ideas. A new lay activism in religion emerged.” Perhaps it is time the laity heeded the words of this pope of the new millennium and took responsibility for their own church once again.

Gary Macy is a theology professor at the University of San Diego. He may be reached at macy@pwa.acusd.edu

National Catholic Reporter, April 19, 2002