Monday, December 14, 2009

A Sharper Divide Between Priests And Laity? The Rock Star Phenomenon

On the very day that Cardinal Brady and Archbishop Martin met with Pope Benedict about the Murphy Report and it's damning indictment of the clerical notion of accountability to the laity, we have this from Britain's conservative Catholic Herald.

We need a sharper divide between priests and laity
Dominic Scarborough, The Catholic Herald, 11 December 2009

One of the most popular themes for Hollywood films over the years has been the so-called “body swap” film where parent and child exchange bodies and live the other’s life for a while, invariably “with hilarious consequences”. In the end both find that although each has learned a great deal about the other’s life, ultimately each is happier and more fulfilled as they were. A similar phenomenon can be found on our television screens with the familiar “life swap” genre.

Something similar seems to have been happening in the Catholic Church over the past few decades as many priests have started mimicking or even idolising the lay lifestyle while in many parishes it is the laity which increasingly populate the sanctuary. I know of one priest who decided he had to commission more Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion to do his weekly sick calls because his time was being so taken up with the parish accounts (needless to say, one of these new Extraordinary Ministers was an accountant). The tragic element to all this (which outstrips even the comic element) is that there is more than an element of “role-play” escapism or flight from reality in this behaviour. The time may have come for the Church to realise that a clearer delineation of roles might be timely and that the Church needs to be rooted in reality and not indulging the secular fantasies of its clergy. (At least the author isn't blaming this mixing of roles on feminism.)

As is so often the case, the Holy Father is only too aware of this situation. In a recent speech to the bishops of Brazil during their ad limina visit to Rome he made the following remarks: “Do not secularise the clergy and clericalise the laity The truth is that the greater the faithful’s awareness of their own responsibilities within the Church, the clearer becomes the specific identity and inimitable role of the priest as pastor of the entire community.” (This is true only if one accepts all of Benedict's unstated assumptions about the ontological spiritual ascendancy of male priests.)

Of course Vatican II sent out a rallying cry to the laity to recognise that they are the “People of God” and to be co-workers with the clergy and religious and not mere consumers of religion. The laity were called to discover a new sense of their sharing in the Priesthood of Christ by virtue of their baptism. But the primary task of the laity in sharing in the sacrifice of Christ was to be their emphasis on making a sacrifice of their own lives in how they lived them out in the world as a living witness and as a means of evangelisation. How frequently, though, have these sentiments been interpreted by those with a very narrow and clerical view of the Church who seem to consider that one is not really doing something important in the life of the Church if it is not liturgical? This ideology, more than any decline in priest numbers, has led to the legions of Extraordinary Ministers and superfluous servers we now see crowding our sanctuaries. (Maybe this is because we were all taught that participating in the liturgy is the summit of Catholic religious experience.)

One step towards sorting all this out might helpfully come from Rome. An important document, the significance of which even to this day is not fully understood in the wider Church, was Pope Paul VI’s Motu Proprio Ministeria Quaedam of 1972. This document abolished the clerical minor orders of porter and exorcist and re-designated the hitherto clerical orders of lector and acolyte as “instituted lay ministries”. It also abolished the tonsure and delayed the entry of the seminarian into the clerical state until diaconate (the sub-diaconate having already been suppressed). Sadly, the passage of time and the benefit of hindsight could both question the effectiveness of this previously untried system. While no seminarians are likely to feel particularly deprived at not being made a porter, many seminiarians are required by their seminary staff (quite properly, according to the document) to continue to consider themselves laymen even after the reception of the lay ministries of lector and acolyte which they receive at the seminary, until the day of their diaconate when suddenly the clerical state hits them like a train. The old staged progress through tonsure, the reception of the cassock and collar, the saying of the Office and the milestones of the minor orders has given way to literally waking up the morning after diaconate as a celibate cleric.

Similarly, the appetite among the laity for these new “instituted lay ministries” has been entirely absent from the post-conciliar Church. As a policy initiative they have completely failed to take off in the western Church and I would be surprised if the total number of instituted lectors and acolytes in the entire Catholic Church (excluding the seminarians transiting through these lay ministries) would be enough to fill a village hall. Lay people happily fulfil the roles of lector and acolyte as lay people just as they sing or take up the collection but do not feel the need to be “clericalised” to do so. (Maybe these roles have not been 'formally' instituted because no one sees the need to 'formally' institute them.)

Indeed, according to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal 2002, where an instituted lector and acolyte are present at Mass they should always take precedence in that role. The paradox of this is that if it were followed to the letter it would mean no lay person would ever read or serve at Mass again, given that the priest is likely to be the only person present who has been “instituted” in both of these lay ministries. Where the test of time has preserved these roles is in their proper place, in the seminaries, as steps to priesthood.

In my view it is high time that the Church looked at this purely disciplinary issue again with the benefit of hindsight. Where the laity can and should participate in the liturgy they should be proud to do so as lay people and in roles which respect the dignity of that state. Those aspects of the liturgy which pertain to the sanctuary and in a particular way to the ministerial priesthood should be reserved to clerics or to those lawfully deputising for clerics out of real necessity.

These “instituted lay ministries” should be quietly dropped, again, motu proprio and, at least in the case of acolyte, should be restored as an instituted role pertaining to the clerical state to which only clerics can be admitted. It would help to re-emphasise the different but complementary roles which clergy and laity have in the life of the Church and might result in more priests taking Communion to the sick and more laity helping with the accounts. (Here we go with the complimentary roles thing again.)

Dominic Scarborough is a lay Catholic from the south of England. A qualified barrister and former Civil Service Principal, he has a degree in Modern History from Magdalen College, Oxford. He is a regular commentator in the press and on the internet on Catholic affairs.


Yes, this is exactly what the Church needs, and even bigger gulf between the lay and clerical caste which completely kicks laity out of the sanctuary. Except for child altar servers--preferably boys.

I'll give Mr. Scarborough this much credit, he's taken the novel route of blaming the 'blurring' of lay and clerical roles on the lazy dilettante priesthood. Why is it that I think the reality of all those non 'instituted' lay ministers has more to do with the shortage of priests than laziness in the priesthood? It's fairly common knowledge that many parishes could not offer Eucharistic ministry to shut ins and hospitals without lay Eucharistic ministers. They have taken on the role of all those assistant pastors who no longer exist. It's also fairly common knowledge that many small rural parishes don't even have full time priests. Lay ministers are crucial to maintaining the existence of these priestless parishes. Maybe this is not common knowledge in the South of England.

I find it interesting that I'm reading more articles from conservative journals and bloggers who discuss this concept of the 'complementarity' of the roles between the lay and clerical caste. Apparently this is the new buzz word for 'pay, pray, and obey'. Kind of like the word complementarity in marriage seems to mean 'children, kitchen, and church for women. Taken to it's logical extension complementarity between the clergy and laity would mean: clerical = male, laity = female. No wonder there are so few males in the pews anymore.

It seems to me this emphasis on concretizing 'complementary' differences is why the Church seems to be mired in an immature spirituality. All people who have been truly advanced by their spirituality are focused on the similarities between people, not their differences. They are focused on seeing the Christ in all people, not just those who have been defined as having more of "Christ" than others. Complementarity is about equally adding to the diversity of the soup, it is not a cover word for 'instituting' roles fundamentally based on a power differential.

I think Benedict has come to the conclusion that there is no hope for his kind of Catholicism in the West. He seems to have accepted that Western Catholicism will continue to physically shrink until it reflects only those people who need to believe differences are more important than similarities. Recent statistics seem to indicate this is about 20-25% of the current baptised Catholic population. A figure which is also pretty representative of the number of future priests as compared to their numbers from the post World War II church.

Benedict is only carrying on the legacy of John Paul II who seems to have made a very conscious decision to write off most Western Catholics above the age of thirty, and with them, most of their children. That trend is most clearly seen in JPII's preference for Catholic lay apostalates who emphasize lay obedience with an extreme focus on their founders-- founders whose own extreme focus, not coincidentally, was on John Paul II and his definition of the Papacy. It can also be seen in the extravaganzas called World Youth Days. I tend to see this phenomenon as a Rock Star who surrounds himself with other but lesser Rock Stars, with WYD one big Rock Star concert.

The thing is, most kids grow up and get past their fixation with Rock Stars. At least 75-80% will.
The truth is that other 20-25% can keep the Rock Star's coffers and egos full. I guess this is why so many of those Rock Stars hang around well past their prime and add nothing more to their repertoire than more of the same because that sameness is what their die hard fans pay to hear.

The difference is real Rock Stars do not presume to control the creative output of the music industry. They do not literally call themselves the voice of God for contemporary music listeners, even though some of them have been elevated to almost that status. (OK John Lennon came close.) They do not attempt to legislate their music as the law of the land for every other listener.

A phenomenon which is basically harmless in music can be devastating for society when that 20-25% is motivated to extend their taste in religion to canonical and then secular law. It works the same way in politics as Stalin's Communist Russia and Hitler's Nazi Germany demonstrated in the last century.

A dedicated group of Rock Star followers can dictate all kinds of things when the other 75-80% waste their time trying to find a common Rock Star. Humanity doesn't need any more Rock Stars to look up to. It needs individuals looking in their own mirrors and deciding process is more important than a given individuals definition. This means the process of Democracy is more important than Obama or any given political party; the process of Spiritual growth is more important than any Pope or liturgical system, education is more important than grades, Human rights are more important than any cultural mores, children are more important than assigned gender roles for their parenting, and on and on and on.

Even the game of golf is more important than Tiger Woods, which the golf industry will now have to painfully relearn. It's the same lesson Catholicism has to learn about the priesthood. Jesus never taught us to give the total care of our souls over to a particular human savior or institution. He taught it's exact opposite. Our salvation is ultimately found with in ourselves where the Trinity resides. (Kind of like how our golf swing is found inside, where our balance lies--not ultimately on the pages of Golf Digest or following everything Tiger Woods does.)


  1. Colleen, interesting that the Catholic Herald, did not herald the news about the meeting of the Pope with Cardinal Brady and AB Martin about the Murphy Report and entirely focuses its energy on "a sharper divide between priests and laity."

    The Herald appears to be projecting its own view of the complete denial of the Murphy Report and somehow shows its own "element of "role-play" escapism or flight from reality in this behavior" of desiring a "sharper divide." The Herald has completely escaped reality with this article, which reflects a total denial of the sexual abuse by priests and the systemic cover-up, the shortage of priests, and no desire to think about it within the context of the Gospels and faith in Jesus Christ. Again, no mention of Jesus Christ in their article.

    The Catholic Herald says "The time may have come for the Church to realise that a clearer delineation of roles might be timely and that the Church needs to be rooted in reality and not indulging the secular fantasies of its clergy."

    I agree the Church should be rooted in reality, but the article is in denial of reality. Their stance is a fantasy in light of the sex scandals. What mother is going to let her child alone in the sacristy with the priests? Where are the safeguards? The Catholic Herald says there should be none at all, as their article says so with pushing for a "a sharper divide."

    There is very little sense coming from other "Catholic" publications or blogs, just the desire like The Catholic Herald to push the laity away into "roles" and give rock star status to priests, more power to a hierarchy that does not want to take accountability for their acts. Lets just forget about the scandal and beat the laity into submission to a lowly status and role.

    Colleen, thank you for your words of wisdom here. "Jesus never taught us to give the total care of our souls over to a particular human savior or institution. He taught it's exact opposite. Our salvation is ultimately found with in ourselves where the Trinity resides."

    The Church seems to like to make their own rock stars. Rock stars pull in a lot of money even after the show with sales of CDs, t-shirts and other paraphernalia. In Inside the Vatican December issue there is a calendar with PB's picture in various poses for ten bucks. You can even buy The Pope's Cologne, a private formula of Pius IX "...classic, aristocratic, Old World cologne with surprising freshness and notes of citrus and violet." Go to

    The Church, like advertisers of any secular products, focus on youth. If you can "get" this group hooked on their "product" you will have a "successful" business for a long time. Its all about money to get people hooked and buy their products.

    John Allen recently wrote an article at NCR and essentially is pushing the idea of turning NY's AB Tim Dolan into a rock star, cash cow, for the Church. Allen, a few months ago loved the huge concert idea down in Brazil and I can't remember the rock star priest's name. Allen is so caught up in this culture that he has lost sense of reality, has become an enabler of the very system that is destroying Catholicism.

    "Grin and bear it" might be a good slogan for a T-shirt with a picture of Dolan on it. We should just grin and bear the escapism and flight from reality that Allen has in having no desire to change the direction of the Church from the ugly reality of the sexual abuse of children, the creation of a laity who are educated to bash gays and deny women as deacons and priests.

  2. I spent some time in the UK and the Herald's politics and theology are slightly right of Atilla the Hun. Their approach doesn't surprise me on whit.

    Jim McCrea

  3. I agree with Jim McRea here. Here in London, I generally try my darndest to avoid coming near the Herald,or the dreadful blog by its editor, Damien Thompson, in the Daily Telegraph.

    Very occasionaly, when pressed for time, I may have apee to see what they think on a new issue about which I know nothing: then assume the opposite view is probably reliable.

    But I do not need guidance from the Herlad to tell me we (do not) need more rock stars: the last one should have taught us a salutary lesson.

  4. The Daily Telegraph is known for good reason as the "Torygraph," and it sounds as if the Catholic Herald is right in line with the Telegraph's editorial stances. One of the more dubious legacies of JPII was the extent to which he supported and encouraged the growth of what are in fact secretive cults in the church, like Opus Dei, Focolare, Communion & Liberation, and the Legionaries of Christ. All of them had a tendency to put their respective founders at the center of their movements, especially Opus Dei and Josemaria Escrivá (I don't regard him as a saint, and I think OD bought themselves his canonization) and the Legionaries of Christ and the even more dubious Marcial Maciel. Sadly, I fear we're going to live with the havoc wreaked by these groups for some time to come. I think Chaput will whitewash the Legion because they bring in so much money, and because of their professed and unquestioning support of a clericalist system that has done so much harm. Dominic Scarborough appears to be oblivious of the extent to which the solution he recommends has contributed to the problems of sexual abuse in the church.

    Also, John Allen may write well, but he has a tendency to be overawed about the people he writes about, and he whitewashed the very real problems with Opus Dei in his book about them. Dolan isn't very welcoming to people who tell it like it is with the institutional church, as he made it very clear with his attack on Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times for telling the truth in her story about Fr. Henry Willenborg and the son he fathered, Nathan Halbach.

  5. khughes1963 I was not familiar with the priest who fathered a son and the NY Times article. Thanks for the info. This really gets to me when I read about this sort of thing and Dolan is attacking the the writer? He's a nut job! So is the priest that fathered this child, a nut job!

    Some Father the father was to this son. And then the added insult to not reimburse for expenses related to cancer treatment.

    "The Franciscans gave Mr. Halbach’s mother child support in an agreement that required her to keep silent. She and Mr. Halbach decided to break the confidentiality after the Franciscans declined to reimburse them for some expenses for a trip to New York City for cancer treatment." Good!! I am glad they did and wish more would report it to the NY Times!!!

    "The Franciscans have said they covered more than they were required to by law." How charitable of the Franciscans towards this child and his mother to do what is basic and secular and required by secular law. Dopes. They call it "charitable" for a father to abandon his son, enable the father to abandon his son, after all the talk about family values?

    That's some family values!! And then they attack someone for telling the truth. Dopes.