The Continuing Confusion of Catholics

Jameson Taylor
August 2003
Copyright  2005
Reproduced with Permission

Catholics are confused. And while many Catholics in the United States have been confused about what they believe and how they should live for almost forty years now, the sex scandals of 2002 directed a spotlight on the tragic ramifications of the Church's ongoing identity crisis. With the American clergy's moral compass having gone haywire, many people are wondering whether the Church would be better off being run by the laity. The merits of this proposition are debated in a rash of new books, the chief of which is David Gibson's The Coming Catholic Church.

Gibson contends the sex scandals highlight what has become a deep fissure between the laity and the clergy. Clericalism is both "the main culprit in the scandal" as well as the primary cause of the laity's alienation from the Church. Quoting Boston College professor (and laicized priest) Thomas Groome, Gibson defines clericalism as "the pernicious ideology ... that the ordained one should enjoy preference and deference, even in the eyes of God." The predictable remedy to clericalism is "a broadening of the concept of priesthood, a true embrace of the concept of 'the priesthood of all believers.'"

Gibson's "reimagining of the Catholic priesthood" would begin by making celibacy optional-a "revolution" he believes is an "inevitable" consequence of the scandals. The ordination of women is "off-limits, at least for now." Gibson's answer to clericalism is thus to create more clerics. A married clergy would help "rehumanize the priesthood without desacralizing it" by restoring a balance between the priest's sacred status and his "workaday position as a leader of the flock." A perceptibly less holy priesthood, so the argument goes, would be a more human priesthood. The irony of Gibson's position-what one might call neo-clericalism-is that expanding the priesthood to include married men (and women) reinforces the mistaken notion that priests are holier, or less "human," than laymen.

Other contradictions abound in Gibson's work. Gibson notes, for example, that "Catholic clerics are still apparently no more prone to sexually abusing children than the rest of the population, and may in fact be slightly less so." If Catholic priests are no more inclined to pedophilia than anyone else, however, how can the Church's institutional structure be uniquely responsible for accommodating sexual deviancy? Again, the implication is that while such sins are to be expected among the laity, priests should know better.

Gibson's unstated thesis-that the holy and the human are at odds with one another-is made explicit in Paul Lakeland's The Liberation of the Laity. Lakeland derides the concept of "the metaphysical God" as "the enemy of human freedom." Not an avowed atheist, Lakeland apparently believes in God, but a god immeshed in human affairs. Indeed, the central message of the Incarnation is that the secular, material world is complete as it is. As such, the secular and the sacred are identical, and "the world is always already sacred, whether or not we know it to be so."

Armed with this ideology of secularity, what he refers to as "lay liberation theology," Lakeland urges the laity to press for radical structural changes. The most basic of these requires abandoning the terms "clergy" and "laity" for a nomenclature and institution that distinguishes only between "ministers of the church and ministers in the world." Not unlike Gibson, Lakeland's solution to clericalism is to make every Catholic a "minister."

Contrary to Gibson and Lakeland, Russell Shaw invites readers to reflect on the difference between lay apostolate and lay ministry. Lay apostolate refers to the laity's duty to carry Christ into the world; lay ministry is work done in an ecclesiastical setting. "[T]he distinctive feature of the laity is their sharing in the Church's mission through their participation in secular life; this sharing is lay apostolate," observes Shaw. "Lay ministry occupies a somewhat subordinate place." Yet, the U.S. bishops have "devoted substantial time and resources to lay ministry," but done "virtually nothing to encourage and promote lay apostolate." Concludes Shaw, "There is an immense need for formation for the apostolate-a need that today goes almost entirely unmet."

It is perhaps not surprising that the bishops have elevated lay ministry at the expense of the lay apostolate. Lay ministers augment the power of their bishop by expanding his local bureaucracy. By contrast, lay apostolates often act as a countervailing voice to the bishops. Although the Church is not a democracy or, properly speaking, a political entity, the laity does have a part to play in ecclesiastical affairs. Nevertheless, as Aurelie Hagstrom clarifies in Ordering the Baptismal Priesthood, "The laity [has] a special authority for action in the temporal sphere." Fusing the clergy and the laity, the sacred and the secular, would undermine the laity's unique authority much as consolidating the three separate branches of the U.S. government would lead to tyranny.

Inspiring the laity to be holy within their own sphere is the antidote to clericalism. Above all, the dignity of the laity should be affirmed by according greater reverence to the sacrament of marriage and, in turn, the gift of marital sexuality. Yet many priests and bishops have shelved the Church's teaching on marital sexuality as unrealistic and unpopular. The hidden message is that Catholic laymen are incapable of being faithful to their marital vows-incapable of being holy. It's about time we expected better of ourselves. The clergy and the laity have a complementary vocation to holiness. Unity in the Church cannot be attained through uniformity, but only by confirming the distinct roles God has ordained for the laity and the clergy.