Are laymen ever ministers? It seems so. Today, every activity performed as a service within the Church, from distributing Communion to organizing the parish four-ball golf tournament, is considered a “ministry” executed by “lay ministers.” The very mission of the Church to the secular world is also considered “ministry.” At a leadership education conference in Washington, D.C. last January, Bishop Matthew Clark of Rochester affirmed that “Communion [in the Church] has an inexorable orientation to mission, or if you prefer, ministry.”
There is seemingly good reason to call lay people “ministers,” since the Motu Proprio Ministeria Quaedam of Paul VI replaced the former minor orders of porter, reader, exorcist, and acolyte with the “ministries” of reader and acolyte. The document declared that “it is fitting to preserve and adapt these [the minor orders] in such a way, that from this time on there will be two offices: that of reader and that of acolyte, which will include the functions of the subdiaconate.” Then, seemingly opening up the possibility of the multiplication of ministries among laity, the document continues:
Besides the offices common to the Latin Church, there is nothing to prevent episcopal conferences from requesting others of the Apostolic See, if they judge the establishment of such offices in their region to be necessary or very useful because of special reason…. It is in accordance with the reality itself and with the contemporary outlook that the above-mentioned ministries should no longer be called minor orders; their conferring will not be called ‘ordination,’ but ‘institution.’
Although Ministeria Quaedam makes clear reference to Lumen Gentium , paragraph 10, concerning the essential difference between laity and clergy, the tenor of the document is the transformation of what was once a clerical ministry (subdiaconate) into a ministry of the laity . And since doing follows on being, if one acts like a minister, it seems that one is a minister. The meaning of the word “ministry,” which until now was reserved for Orders, seems to have changed. Officially, “what up to now were called minor orders are henceforth called ‘ministries.’”
Significantly, John Paul II has shown a resistance to the tendency of Ministeria Quaedam. Indeed, Christifideles Laici (1988), raises a red flag concerning the earlier document. The pope suggests that the document “be reconsidered, bearing in mind the present practice of local churches and above all indicating criteria which ought to be used in choosing those destined for each ministry.” In what follows, I want to probe for the noetic, ontological, and theological roots of John Paul II’ s reticence. Along the way, I hope to show that insistence on the difference in essence between the lay faithful and the ordained on the level of sacramental office , far from reinstating a new clericalism, actually goes hand in hand with a new valorization of the existential priesthood that the laity are called in a special way to exercise in the middle of the world.
The Magisterium of John Paul II
In an address entitled “The Diversity of Charisms” to participants at a symposium on “The Participation of the Lay Faithful in the Priestly Ministry,” organized by the Congregation for the Clergy in 1994, John Paul II raised a note of warning concerning the present state of ambiguity in the use (and therefore meaning) of the word “ministry,” inasmuch as this use blurs the difference, which the pope insists is “ontological” and not merely “functional,” between laity and ordained priests. In this context, the pope makes a significant remark: “We cannot increase the communion and unity of the Church by clericalizing the lay faithful or by laicizing the priests.”
The meaning of the term “ministry” is an issue of significant concern in Christifideles Laici. Consider the following key text:
[T]o speak of the participation of the lay faithful in the pastoral ministry of priests it is first of all necessary to reflect carefully on the term “ministry” and on the various meanings it can have in theological and canonical language.
For some time now it has been customary to use the word “ministries” not only for the officia and munera exercised by pastors in virtue of the Sacrament of Orders, but also for those exercised by the lay faithful in virtue of the baptismal priesthood. The terminological question becomes even more complex and delicate when all the faithful are recognized as having the possibility of supplying—by official deputation given by pastors—certain functions more proper to clerics, which, nevertheless, do not require the character of Orders.
It must be admitted that the language becomes doubtful, confused and hence not helpful for expressing the doctrine of the faith whenever the difference “of essence and not merely of degree” between the baptismal priesthood and the ordained priesthood is in any way obscured.
The pope specifies that the failure to make the ontological distinction between ordained priests and laity “runs the risk of underrating the theological proprium of the laity,” that is, secularity, and “the specific ontological bond, which unites the priesthood to Christ the High Priest and Good Shepherd.” Concerning the latter, John Paul II clarifies that the laity do not share “in an ontological participation (either temporary or partial) in the ordained ministry proper to pastors.” Rather, their “every ecclesial action or function—including those for which the pastors ask them to stand in, where possible—is rooted ontologically in their common participation in Christ’s priesthood.”
The pontiff insists in Christifideles Laici that the laity can, indeed, exercise ministries, and this “with constant reference to the one source, the ‘ministry of Christ’—the ‘holy diakonia’ he lived for the good of his Body the Church and, through the Church, for that of the whole world.” But he issues a caveat: “There is an urgent pastoral need to clarify and purify terminology, because behind it there can lurk dangers far more treacherous than one may think. It is a short step from current language to conceptualization.” Finally, at the end of the document, the pope revisits the 1987 synod’ s call to revise Ministeria Quaedam: “a great variety of consequences follow from these reflections and should find expression in the revision of the Motu Proprio Ministeria Quaedam, as explicitly requested by the Fathers attending the 1987 synod.” He then enjoins the Congregation for the Clergy to continue in this work of revision.
The danger that the pope sees, we would argue, is the destruction of the Church as a communion of irreducible personal services—services that originate in and from different ontological configurations of the person that are nonetheless identical with Christ’s self-gift. What the Pope is resisting, then, is the “dumbing down” of the Church into a political-democratic society of univocal performances. We will explore the reasons for this resistance in greater detail in the next section.
The Note to the Instruction
Regarding Collaboration of Nonordained Faithful in Priests’ Sacred Ministry
In 1997, an Instruction appeared under the ungainly moniker of Certain Questions Regarding Collaboration of Nonordained Faithful in Priests’ Sacred Ministry; it was published, unprecedently, over the signatures of all eight Dicasteries of the Roman Curia. A French-language report, entitled Note, which was sent by the Vatican to bishops’ conferences regarding the document’s presentation, opened with the following words:
It ought to be made clear that this document contains nothing new: it simply repeats the norms laid down by the council, by canon law (which is simply the same thing expressed in juridical terms), etc., and above all it builds on all that the magisterium of the Church already had to say in a positive way about the role of the laity, and especially that of women, in the mission of the Church and evangelization (emphasis mine).
It is important to understand the Note as the interpreter of the Instruction; the Note is not an authoritative document, but it is significant because it was issued from the Vatican precisely as an explanatory statement along with others related to the Instruction. What is most conspicuous is the Note’s ontological and epistemological incisiveness. The Note points the reader, not toward a discussion of ministry as activity, but toward the theological principles concerning ministry. These theological principles reflect the bi-millennial faith-experience of the at once radical identity, and yet essential difference, between the ministerial priesthood and the common priesthood of the laity.
The Note points first to the fact that “the church lives the sacrament of Orders as a freely given gift” whereby “ministers … are ontologically configured to him (Christ).” It insists that “it is only on the basis of the relevant theological principles (i.e. about being) that it can be understood why certain abuses against the church’s discipline are dangerous. This is why it is the first part of the instruction, which presents these principles in a positive way that should be stressed.” The Note is then equally incisive and strong in asserting that “the laity, by virtue of the holiness of their baptism, have an urgent duty toward the material and spiritual world.…” Further on it adds, “may this document lead the laity to become fully aware of what is specific to them and prepare them for the task that is truly theirs in the world and in the church, rather than encourage them to view as a promotion the fact that they fulfill other tasks that they exercise as substitutes.”
The implication of the statements cited above is that, as gift, the ministerial priesthood is an ontological reality freely given to the Church that is not already present simply because of being a Christian. Baptism gives all a share in the priesthood of Christ, which is self-giving, but it does not give all the power to act as ordained ministers in the office of representing the Bridegroom vis-à-vis the Bride. John Paul II had said as much in Pastores Dabo Vobis 13:
the priest shares in Christ’s consecration and mission in a specific and authoritative way, through the sacrament of holy orders, by virtue of which he is configured in his being to Jesus Christ, head and shepherd, and shares in the mission of ‘preaching the good news to the poor’ in the name and person of Christ himself” (emphasis mine).
The Note not only affirms the ontological configuration of the priest to Christ to act in his Person, it also affirms the unique and different ontological configuration of the laity to Christ the priest, enabling them to perform “an urgent duty toward the material and spiritual world.” This, the Note says, is something distinctively “lay—that is, the consecration of the world,” which is different essentially, and not only in degree, from ministeriality. The laity do something radically different because they are priests in a radically different way.
The Note confronts and rejects the advocacy of ministries for the sake of “functionality and good organization.” Its criterion is, as we have seen, the “ontological configuration” of the minister as “freely given gift.” The document reads: “The ordained ministry of bishops, priests and deacons belongs to the very structure of the Church.” This structure entails, moreover, a differentiation in modes of participating in Christ’s priesthood. As John Paul II says, the layman, while a priest, is not so because of an “ontological participation (either temporary or partial) in the ordained ministry proper to pastors,” but because “the laity’s every ecclesial action or function—including those for which the pastors ask them to stand in, where possible—is rooted ontologically in their common participation in Christ’s priesthood.”
St. Paul affirms that the fundamental structure of the Church is defined by Christ, the Bridegroom, in his relation to his “Thou,” the ecclesial Bride. The “laity” participate in the priesthood of Christ primarily through the bridal “fiat” of the Church. In this sense, all Christians are and remain lay people. So much so that the pope can turn a still quite clericalized account of priesthood on its head with the startling affirmation that the “Church of Mary” exercises and enjoys a priority over the “Church of Peter”:
This Marian profile is also—even perhaps more so—fundamental and characteristic for the Church as is the apostolic and Petrine profile to which it is profoundly united…. The Marian dimension of the Church is antecedent to that of the Petrine, without being in any way divided from it or being less complementary. Mary Immaculate precedes all others, including obviously Peter himself and the Apostles. This is so, not only because Peter and the Apostles, being born of the human race under the burden of sin, form part of the Church which is ‘holy from out of sinners,’ but also because their triple function has no other purpose except to form the Church in line with the ideal of sanctity already programmed and prefigured in Mary” (italics mine).
The real ontological structure of the Church—its true hierarchical structure—is not a clericalized pyramid of power in which “advancement” means “raising the laity ‘upwards’ into the structural level of the hierarchy, promoting them into the ranks or at least into the function of the clergy.” “The ‘ontology’ of Church structure indicates the substantial priority of the ‘Christian condition’ (the common priesthood). ‘With you I am a Christian; for you I am the bishop,’ said Augustine of Hippo. With respect to the common priesthood, the ‘priestly ministry’ element has a relative character, theologically subordinate: ‘Christ instituted the hierarchical priesthood for the benefit of the common priesthood.”
The common priesthood belongs to every member of the Church as such. It is a specific existential participation in the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Its pattern is Mary. The crucial point is that this is the basic condition of all christifideles—from the Pope down—and is in a sense the love of the Church. Consequently, “layman” no longer means merely one who is not an ordained priest. Rather it means, positively, one who embodies the reality of the Church in a specific sharing in Christ’s priesthood. This takes away nothing of the fact that the ordained priesthood is an office, requiring a distinct ontological configuration, representing Christ vis-à-vis his Bridegroom.
What is at stake here, then, are not functions of power in an objectified structure, but an “organic convergence” of service performed by subjects oriented in distinct ways toward the common mission of evangelization. The Note rejects the notion that priests and laypeople fall under a sort of general rubric called “ministry,” differing only in their function. Rather, “layman” and “minister” are irreducible ontological configurations of the human person as Christifidelis. Consequently, laity and ordained priests simultaneously share a common experience of the one priesthood of Christ, even as this common experience is intrinsically differentiated in terms of the irreducibly distinct dimensions of the self-gift that this one priesthood implies.
“Ontological Configuration” of Laymen and Priests
The positivism that has us all enthralled deflates ontology to function and inflates “ministry” to a “mission” that reduces the Church to a clericalized structure apart from the world. The mission that is the proprium of the laity then becomes “ministry,” while the world is emptied of the presence of Christ. The Church becomes clericalized, while the world becomes “secularized” in the pejorative sense. By calling us to transcend the “level of our categories,” the Note encourages us to cease replacing the layman’s experience of being within the horizon of the existential priesthood with an abstract and objectivized category of “ministry” as a functional performance. The Note touches the epistemological root of the problem when it says, “our modern frame of mind leads us to understand far more easily the concept of function and far less easily to understand what is meant by ontological configuration.” Let us then in what follows use this notion of ontological configuration to explore more deeply the unity and distinctness of laity and ordained priests as christifideles.
1. Identical in Christ and therefore equal as priests… In order to deal adequately with the ministry problem, we need an ontology of the “I” that recognizes both its freedom—understood itself as a matter of ontology—and its continuity with cosmic being. Otherwise, we lose the identity of the person and the distinction of priesthoods. Now, meaning comes from the experience of being. The correct strategy for disengaging the respective ontological underpinnings of both layman and priest will, therefore, consist in going to the millenary faith-experience of the Church progressively disclosed through the consciousness and voice of the Magisterium, which has accelerated into a notable development of doctrine during the Second Vatican Council. There we find at least two hard distinctions begging for ontological profiling: 1) ordained ministers and laity share in the one priesthood of Christ but in essentially different ways, not just by degree, and 2) secularity is the unique characteristic of the laity.
The grounding Magisterial text for the simultaneous equality and dissimilarity of priests and laymen is found in Lumen Gentium 10: “Though they differ essentially and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are none the less ordered one to another; each in its own proper way shares in the one priesthood of Christ.” This sharing “in the one priesthood of Christ” highlights the radical equality of all the baptized, baptism being the sacrament of faith. The reason for this equality lies in the fact that sharing in the priesthood of Christ and Christian faith are one and the same.
We must understand this unity of faith and priesthood against the backdrop of the development in consciousness, and therefore doctrine, in the Second Vatican Council’s epistemological integration of the subject into the meaning of Christian faith. The Fathers of the Council were particularly concerned to retrieve what it means to be a believing subject. Specifically, they sought to highlight the anthropological profile of faith as a person in fact exercises it. Once the noetic horizon came to include the believing subject, what emerged was a specific “attitude”: “the obedience of faith.” This “obedience” enfolds the response of the mind to propositional truth within a more fundamental act of total abandonment to God: self-gift. This understanding of faith as radical gift of self moved the Council out of the intellectualist-rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment into the experiential phenomenon of priesthood in ontological conformity to Christ.
Against the backdrop of this development, we propose the following thesis, which we will then develop in the rest of this section: to be a fully realized human being, a christifidelis, and to be a priest in Jesus Christ, are one and the same thing as self-gift. Christological anthropology—which understands that “man, the only earthly being God has willed for itself, finds himself by the sincere gift of himself” —consists in a unity of Christian faith and Christian priesthood grounded in the same christological forma essendi : self-gift.
The Church has understood the priesthood of Jesus Christ to be a unique kind of mediation. Unlike pagan priesthood, in which something is given by a mediator, or even the Old Testament priesthood, in which the victim is still a “thing,” or another, offered by a priest, the priesthood of Christ uniquely brings together the giver and the given in the same “I” of a divine Person. In dynamic terms, the divine “I” of the Logos makes his own the human will of the man Jesus of Nazareth (who he is) and speaks with it as his very self: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (Jn 6:38). “In the Son’s obedience, where both wills become one single Yes to the will of the Father, communion takes place between human and divine being. The ‘wondrous exchange,’ the ‘alchemy of being,’ is realized here as a liberating and reconciling communication, which becomes a communion between Creator and creature.” Christ is mediator, then, insofar as the “I” of the Logos makes the humanity of the man Jesus his own by an act of self-determination in order to take—and subdue—the sin of all human history by the gift of self to death in obedience to the Father. In this way, Jesus Christ is priest of his own existence in a manner paradigmatic for the believer who is called to walk “the way” of Christ.
Jesus Christ is priest insofar as he is the Son made man. Moreover, for Christ to be man and to be priest is for him to be self-gift. Consequently, if every baptized person is empowered by the sacrament of Baptism to make and become the gift of self, then to become a person, to become a priest, and to become Christ are all one and the same thing for every christifidelis. As the Vatican Instruction insists: “The essential difference between the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood is not found in the priesthood of Christ, which remains forever one and indivisible, nor in the sanctity to which all of the faithful are called.” Priest and layman are equal in their sharing in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ as self-gift. This does not mean that they are no longer irreducibly different, but only that the differentiating factor presupposes the self-gift of the existential priesthood of Jesus.
2. …But differently. Self-Gift as an Ontologic of Dis-similarity: The Magisterium asserts that layman and priest equally share in the one priesthood of Christ, but in essentially different ways. As we saw above, “each in its own proper way shares in the one priesthood of Christ.” The task is to see how laymen and ordained priests are radically equal as priests of Jesus Christ, yet different in essence and not merely in degree. It is most challenging to try to grasp ontologically how two things can be equal to a third thing, but not equal to each other.
The answer lies in the fact that the relationality of the person is constitutive, and not merely accidental, to his character as substance-in-self. But relation is always a specific orientation differing from person to person. For example, Father and Son are relations in the Trinity, but they are opposite, as engendering and as generated obedience, respectively. Thus, analogously to the way in which the trinitarian Persons are equal as God, but different as Persons, the self-gift of priest and layman can be equal, even as ministerial priesthood and common priesthood differ (essentially). In other words, they are equal as self-gift, yet they are different in the orientation of the gift.
As with the difference of Father, Son and Spirit in the Trinity, or between Christ as Bridegroom and the Church as Bride (Eph 5:25) (which is the prototype of the relation between the two priesthoods), we are dealing here with an opposition/complementarity structuring the relation of persons as gift. As we saw above, John Paul II has offered his version of this “vectorial” difference through a distinction between the “Church of Mary” and “Church of Peter” (which, of course, interpenetrate circumincessively). He plays on the image of the Church as body and bride of Christ in the tension of being one with Christ and yet at the same time being in relation to him. In other words, layman and ordained priest are equal as priests of Christ, yet dis-similar as complementary (opposing) relations.
The Church is indeed the body in which Christ the head is present and active, but she is also the bride who proceeds like a new Eve from the open side of the redeemer on the cross. Hence Christ stands before the Church and nourishes and cherishes her (Eph 5:29), giving his life for her. The priest is called to be the living image of Jesus Christ, the spouse of the Church.
The pope reaffirms the equality of ordained priest and laymen when he says, “of course, he will always remain a member of the community as a believer alongside his other brothers and sisters who have been called by the Spirit,” but he then goes on to assign a difference based on differing modes of ontological configuration to Christ: “but in virtue of his configuration to Christ, the head and shepherd, the priest stands in this spousal relationship with regard to the community.”
George Weigel, summarizing the pope’s thought on this score, points out that sanctity occurs in the exercise of self-giving that is the sharing in the priesthood of Christ via the sacrament of Baptism, while the participation in Christ’s priesthood through the sacrament of Orders implants the power to act in persona Christi, but in no way guarantees personal holiness in the ordained priest. “The message was unmistakable. Discipleship came before authority in the Church, and sanctity came before power, even the apostolically transmitted priestly power to ‘bind and loose’ sins.” The upshot of this is the rarely heard, but critically important “substantial priority” of the priesthood of the laity over the ministerial priesthood.
A helpful way to illuminate this “substantial priority” theologically is to see that, in the one priesthood of Christ, office and self-gift are one, with a certain priority of self-gift. The Church, as Church, shares in Christ’s priesthood primarily under the profile of self-gift. Hence the priority of the Marian dimension of the Church. All the baptized as such share in Christ’s priesthood in this ecclesial way. Thus, rather than defining the laity negatively as those who are not ordained priests, we can define them positively as the basis of an ontological configuration to Christ’s priesthood in this Marian mode. At the same time, this leaves room for another complementary ontological configuration to Christ’s priesthood in the mode of sacramental office as representation of the Bridegroom vis-à-vis the Church; Hence the Petrine dimension of the Church. Of course, the two priesthoods are inseparable, and interpenetrate circumincessively—even as they never lose their ontological distinctiveness.
3. Beyond Functionalities of Power. As equal, yet essentially different, the priesthood of the laity and the ministerial priesthood enjoy an “organic convergence” in a “spirituality of communion” whereby their irreducible differences become a mutual support in the common apostolic mission of the Church.
We are far from the homogeneity-in-functionality of ministries here. It is imperative to understand that the relevant epistemological horizon is indeed that of the communio personarum. Persons are not first persons and then relate to one another in some accidental fashion; persons achieve personhood precisely by being in communion with others, and more exactly, by being loved by others and serving them. If persons were not self-gift, if they were not relations, they would not be who they are.
The prototype of this relational personhood is the Trinity. The Father is not Father except as engendering the Son. He is not first Father and then engenders the Son. He is Father insofar as He is the act of engendering the Son. Something analogous obtains in the Church. We do not enter the Church as individuals but as faithful; the act of faith is a death event of self-giving adherence to the Person of Jesus Christ. We are members of the Church, not as object-like individuals, but as subjective selves, i.e., self-giving faithful, who have passed three times through the water of Baptism, the symbol of death-to-self, and been inserted into the new “I” of Christ himself. Ratzinger, speaking of the event of becoming a Christian, says:
In other words, it is an exchange of the old subject for another. The ‘I’ ceases to be an autonomous subject standing in itself. It is snatched away from itself and fitted into a new subject. The ‘I’ is not simply submerged, but it must really release its grip on itself in order then to receive itself anew in and together with a greater ‘I.’ The Church is in no wise a separate subject endowed with its own subsistence. The new subject is much rather ‘Christ’ himself, and the Church is nothing but the space of this new unitary subject, which is, therefore, much more than mere social interaction. It is an application of the same Christological singular found in the Letter to the Galatians.
It is only when we understand the Church primarily in the dimension of self-gift in act that we can understand the radical equality of priests and laity as such self-gift, while realizing that equal gifts can be oriented in essentially different ways. We also understand that where the gift is reduced to the external performance of certain functions, we have a “dumbing down” of “ministries,” to the lowest common denominator—and, as a result, a conception of the layman as a mere helper of the priest, rather than as one who is in an organic convergence with him on the basis of a proper and positive relational identity.
The major point to keep in mind is the irreducibly different ontological configuration of layman and priest. The layman has an indispensable positive role in the Church. But the layman is never a minister. To be a lay minister would be an oxymoron. One becomes a minister only through the sacrament of Orders (LG, 10), whose “vector” points towards service of the laity, just as the “I” (Logos) of Christ points as gift to death for the Bride (Church). If the layman exercises ministry, it is always by deputation, for a period of time and never in an activity that demands the unique empowerment of Orders.
Yet this is not to put the layman in a second-class status, but to highlight the “substantial priority” of the existential priesthood of all the christifideles as the Marian sharing in the priesthood of Jesus Christ that pertains to the Church as such. Once again, the irreducibly distinct ontological configurations of laymen and ordained have to do, not with functionalities of power, but with Christ’s self-gift—which laymen already share in a unique (Marian) way by virtue of Baptism.
After sketching out the conventional model of the “power pyramid” with God on top, followed by Pope, Bishops, clergy, and finally, at the bottom, lay people, Cormac Burke was asked by one of his students: “But, where is the world?” He remarked “Where indeed is the world?” “The theory that clergy and laity are competing for ‘power’ takes energies—the salt and light and leaven of Christianity—that are meant to be directed towards the world, for its transformation, and turns them inwards, to be consumed in sterile and at times acrimonious debates about church organization and structures and functions.”
Until we disentangle the proprium of the layman from “ministries,” we will fail to see how secularity organically flows from the positivity of the layman’s baptismal priesthood. This is not to say that laypeople have no role in the Church. Both clergy and laity have responsibilities for both the world and the Church— differently. What we must challenge is precisely the dualism between the world and the Church conceived as a clerical power structure—of which the attribution of “ministries” to laypeople would only make them a part. But this would only keep laypeople from being the (Marian) heart of the Church in the middle of the world. And it is precisely the clericalization of the laity that has progressively dried up the presence of Christ at the center of society for a millennium and a half—and is now making this absence even worse.
Secularity is a term that is hardly ever used in the contemporary Church. And when it is, it is improperly confused with secularism, which connotes, pejoratively, a separation of the world from God. The starting point for evaluating the meaning of secularity as found in the documents of Vatican II is the address of Paul VI on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Apostolic Constitution Provida Mater Ecclesia. Addressing members of secular institutes, he said—and John Paul II builds the core of Paul VI’s remarks into Christifideles Laici —that
secularity is not simply your condition as people living in the world, an external condition. It is rather an attitude, the attitude of people who are aware that they have a responsibility, being in the world, to serve the world, to make it as God would have it, more just, more human, to sanctify it from within.
Paul VI goes on to say that
This attitude is primarily one of respect for the world’s rightful autonomy, its values, its laws (cf. Gaudium et Spes 36) though of course this does not imply that the world is independent of God, Creator and final end of all. One of the important dimensions of this characteristic quality of your secularity is that you take the natural order seriously, working to bring it to perfection and to holiness so that things which are necessarily a part of life in the world may be integrated into the spirituality, the training, the ascetics, the structure, the external forms, the activities, of your Institute. Thus is will be possible to fulfill what Primo Feliciter expresses in these words: “(that) your own special character, the secular, may be reflected in everything” (emphasis mine).
The key word in these passages is “attitude.” Attitude denotes something personal and interior. Paul VI is thus affirming that secularity is not something “out there” that so to say rubs off on one or to which one conforms in order to become “secular.” As an attitude that is interior to the person, secularity, with all that it implies (work, occupations, outlook, lifestyle, ways of acting and behaving), is not added on to the Christian vocation from outside but flows from its very core as a sharing in Christ’s priesthood.
As we have seen above, Jesus Christ is priest par excellence as mediator between men and the Father through his unique gift of self. The baptized person shares in this priesthood by making the same gift in the context of work in the world. The laity fulfill their calling to be persons through the creation of secularity by living out their unique way of sharing in Christ’s priesthood. It is the world, and work in it, as the proprium of the layman, not ministries, that delivers to the layman the radical call to priestly existence. And it is in this vein that we are called to love the world passionately.
The laity have what might be called an existential priesthood, rooted in baptism. The locus of this priesthood is the act of self-gift. This self-gift, we have seen, is to be performed in the world, which thus becomes intrinsic to the priesthood of the laity. But it may strange in this context that the Magisterium refers to secularity in terms of autonomy. How, indeed, can self-gift and autonomy stand together?
Autonomy, of course, has the connotation of self-determination. I want to propose that this self-determination is the locus of the self-gift that is the core of the existential priesthood of the laity. Conversely, the existential priesthood of the laity is personal self-determination seen in its fullest, most paradigmatic form. But if this is the case, it must be true that self-gift and, indeed, obedience, is not extrinsic to what we mean by self-determination. Obviously, it exceeds the scope of the present reflection to explain in detail why and how this is so. One could certainly make a compelling philosophical case for this claim. But there is also a Christological dimension to this claim that inwardly completes the philosophical one. Christ, the Second Vatican Council teaches us, reveals man to himself. In Christ, we see the unity of freedom as self-determination and obedience; Christ is perfectly free precisely to the extent that, in love, he obeys the Father, a prior relation to whom shapes his freedom from the outset. The prototype of self-determination, then, is the free human obedience in love of Jesus Christ.
That self-gift in loving obedience and autonomy are two sides of the same coin brings us back to the assertion the laity have an existential priesthood, expressed in self-gift in the world. We now see why this connection between existential priesthood and the world is so fundamental to the proprium of the laity: the existential priesthood of the laity, exercised as self-gift in free obedience, is the fullest meaning of autonomous worldly activity. Note, however, that we can say this precisely because the paradigm of freedom is Christological. The laity’s existential priesthood, with its self-gift in loving obedience, is a participation in Christ’ s own priestly self-offering in a free obedience, a free obedience that we see in the priestly gesture of submitting to the Father, rendering the cumulative sinfulness of all men concentrated in that will. In other words, the existential priesthood of the laity is the full paradigm of man’s autonomous worldly activity precisely because it is a specific mode of sharing in Christ’s priesthood. If, in fact, Christ reveals the primordial figure of freedom and of autonomy, he is also the paradigm of secularity.
Secularity, then, is a fundamental dimension of the human person enlightened by the revelation of Jesus Christ. It is “respect for the world’s rightful autonomy.” But what is thus respected is not some “thing” out there that has “autonomy.” The only autonomy that we are privy to experientially, and therefore know in the biblical sense, is in fact our own as persons when we experience the freedom, the joy, and the agony of self-determination. The import of Gaudium et Spes 24 underscores that the human person, “man,” is “the only earthly creature God has willed for itself.” This means that only the self—the “I”—has autonomy. The truly autonomous self, however, is not the Cartesian cogito. It is rather the self of the human person who “fully discovers his true self only in a sincere giving of himself,” i.e., in action. However, precisely because what is in play is not the Cartesian cogito, this action of self-gift can only occur in an encounter with another who awakens, sustains, and brings to light the full meaning of self-determination as a response to love in free obedience. This other is, ultimately, Christ, the “I” who is the Revealer of the Godhead and of humanity. By the same token, the true “I” of man is the believing self as gift from and back to this Christological “I.” The paradigmatic act of autonomy is the act of divinized human freedom as seen archetypically in Christ’s self-gift in obedience-to-death to the Father and, from our side, in Mary’s unconditional fiat. Secularity, in this perspective, is an attitude of respect for the autonomy of the person, and his world—as autonomy is illumined in its fundamental meaning by Jesus Christ.
The true autonomy of created being is discovered only in the historical encounter with Jesus Christ wherein the “I” says Yes, in free obedience, to his giving me to myself as gift. This historical encounter, in fact, is “the privileged locus of the encounter with the act of existence, and with metaphysical inquiry.” It is only when the whole of reality lights up in this encounter that it becomes a world---a secularity with an “autonomy” of its own. And so secularity is essentially Christian. Secularity is a priestly way of being and living because it flows from Christ’s own freedom of self-determination as self-sacrifice before the Father. It is lived out in an attitude of respect for the freedom of others—which finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ’s Paschal mystery. Secularity, then, must be interpreted primarily in terms of Christian faith and morality, and not by a given state of affairs that is taken as an a priori that is exterior, and perhaps contrary, to the meaning of the person as revealed in Jesus Christ. In other words, secularity should be judged and valued—or rather, discovered— from the starting-point of a lived Christian faith, and of what Christian faith reveals to us about man, about the world, and about our destiny. What we mean by self-determination and the autonomy of worldly activity must take its basic shape within Christ’s revelation of man to himself.
Thus, secularity—not ministerial functions within the Church as institution—is the proper context, “the theological proprium,” in which the laity “seek the Kingdom of God.” As such, secularity is “not only an anthropological and sociological reality, but in a specific way, a theological and ecclesiological reality as well.” It is not merely a “dimension” of the layman; it is considered his “characteristic.” Secularity characterizes the laity because the world is intrinsic to their exercising the priesthood of mediation. It is what uniquely and specifically characterizes them as being other Christs and constituting the Body of Christ, the Church. They become Christ, and therefore Church, in the profound sense of a mystical identity, precisely by living an ordinary life in the world: they study, they work, they form relationships as friends, professionals, members of society, cultures, and so forth. The world is a specific vocation for laypeople as the place of their self-gift. It is the place in which they “are charged with carrying out an apostolic mission.” John Paul observes:
Their specific competence in various human activities is, in the first place, a God-given instrument to ‘enable the proclamation of Christ to reach people, mold communities, and have a deep and incisive influence in bringing Gospel values to bear in society and culture.’ They are thereby spurred on to place their own skills effectively at the service of the ‘new frontiers,’ which are seen as challenges to the Church’s saving presence in the world. The priests for their part have a primary and irreplaceable role: to help souls, one by one, through the sacraments, preaching and spiritual direction, to open themselves to the gift of grace. A spirituality of communion will best strengthen the role of each ecclesial element.
Summary and Conclusion
Are laymen ever ministers? It seems not. The layman is a priest without being a minister. The priest is a minister because of the Sacrament of Orders that empowers him to act in persona Christi in a specific way. The priesthood of the ministerial priest is in one sense functionally higher than that of the laity, because the laity cannot exercise their priesthood without the service (ministry) of the minister. Mary engenders Peter, but Mary cannot function without Peter. The priesthood of laity is substantially superior to the ministerial priesthood, because it is the presence in the layman of the very anthropology of Christ himself as relation to the Father, and, therefore, of holiness and divinization. The ministerial priesthood is substantially lower because it may be possessed and exercised without achieving the divinization of the self-gift. This is why John Paul II describes the Church of Peter as in service to the Church of Mary. Both ministerial priest and laity are radically equal, but irreducibly different as “opposite” forms of relational identity. The paradigm suggested is the equality but dissimilarity of Bridegroom to Bride inter-relating within a spirituality of communion. Together, layman and priest converge, not in the univocity of “ministries,” but organically with different orientations in the re-evangelization of a truly secular world that, by walking the way of Christ Jesus in act, becomes ever more secular. Once again, the model is the one priesthood of Christ, shared in two distinct but circumincessive ways.
Because the Church has been progressively clericalized since the conversion of Constantine, the time is now ripe, and the blueprint clear, for the great work of universal holiness within society and for the creation of a truly human culture that is genuinely secular and autonomous precisely because it is formed from the heart of the Church. Since the conscience of the believer is the same conscience of the citizen, the dignity of being another Christ is ultimately one with the dignity of the human person. This is not a “dumbing down” of a radically supernatural Christianity to a cheap humanism. It is an awakening to the presence of transcendent triune divinity, calling man to his supernatural destiny from within the immanent and the ordinary. The task before us does not consist in “imposing on non-believers a vision based on faith, but of interpreting and defending the values rooted in the very nature of the human person. In this way charity will necessarily become service to culture, politics, the economy and the family, so that the fundamental principles upon which depend the destiny of human beings and the future of civilization will be everywhere respected.” The proprium of the layman is to be at work in the heart of the secular world where both the Church and society grow at the rhythm of his transformation into Christ. “We cannot increase the communion and unity of the Church”—or we might add, society— “by clericalizing the lay faithful or by laicizing priests.”
Bishop Matthew Clark, “The Relationship of the Bishop and Lay Ecclesial Minister,” Origins (April 5, 2001, vol. 30, no. 42): 677.
Promulgated on August 15, 1972 and ordered into force on January 1, 1973.
Paul VI, Motu Proprio Ministeria Quaedam (15 August 1972). English translation: Documents on the Liturgy 1963-1979 (Liturgical Press, Minnesota, 1982) 908-911.
Christifideles Laici 23.
“The Diversity of Charisms” (April 22, 1994), in The Pope Speaks (April 1994), 308-312.
Instruction on Certain Questions 1
Cf. the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis 11.
“The Diversity of Charisms,” 311.
“On the other hand, it must always be remembered that the Church ‘by its specific nature is a reality diverse from the simple human society,’ and therefore ‘it is necessary to affirm that the mentality and current practice in cultural and sociopolitical trends of our times cannot be transferred automatically to the Church” (“The Diversity of Charisms,” 309-310).
Origins, November 27, 1997 (vol. 27, no. 24): 399-411 (including the Note).
Ibid., Note 1 (409).
Ibid., Note 2 (409).
Ibid., Note 3 (409).
Ibid., Note 2 (409).
Ibid., Note 2 (409).
Ibid., Note 7 (409).
Pastores dabo vobis 18.
“The Diversity of Charisms,” 311.
George Weigel, Witness to Hope (Harper Collins, 1999), 577: “The Curia and the hierarchy, expressions of the Petrine Church, existed because of the Marian Church of disciples. The Marian Church receding and making possible the Petrine Church—this was not the way many curial officials, not to mention millions of Catholic laity and clergy, were accustomed to thinking about Catholicism. But it was how John Paul proposed that they should.”
“Address to the Cardinal and Prelates of the Roman Curia” (December 22, 1987) in L’Osservatore Romano, December 23, 1987.
“‘Authority means power.’ In the Church too this concept of authority has been and still is widespread. If we start from the principle that all authority comes from God (cf. Rom 13:1; Jn 19:11), it is easy to form a mental picture of how authority and power descend from God through the different ranks of the hierarchy and finally reach the people. This could be depicted graphically in the form of a ‘structure-pyramid’ or a ‘power-pyramid:’ God is at the top of the pyramid. Under him, we are presented with the visible authorities (the ‘power-structure’) of the Church: the hierarchy, the clergy; and under them—in the lowest place, as the ultimate subjects— the Christian laity…. For those who conceive the Church in terms of the pyramid just drawn, advancement of the laity can appear as a straightforward matter, a goal whose pursuit takes an obvious direction. It simply means raising the laity ‘upwards’ into the structural level of the hierarchy, promoting them into the ranks or at least into the functions of the clergy” (Cormac Burke, Authority and Freedom in the Church [Scepter, 1988], 109-110).
Pedro Rodriguez, “The Place of Opus Dei in the Church,” in Opus Dei in the Church (Scepter, 1994), 29.
“The organic convergence of priests and laity is one of the privileged areas which will give life and pastoral solidity to that ‘new energy’ whereby we all feel invigorated after the Great Jubilee” (Address during an audience for participants at a seminar on Novo millennio ineunte” March 17, 2001).
It is important to grasp that the most profound meaning of evangelization is not only imparting concepts, but also sharing and helping share in the experience of the Person of Jesus Christ, and thus fostering knowledge of him by that experience. Of course, to know him, is already to possess eternal life (cf. Jn 17:3): “To evangelize means to reveal this path—to teach the art of complete living. At the beginning of his public life Jesus says: ‘I have come to evangelize the poor’ (Lk 4:18). This means, ‘ I have come to respond to the fundamental question of your existence. I am here to show you the path of life, the path to happiness, I am, in fact, that path” (Joseph Ratzinger, “The Way to True Happiness,” Inside the Vatican [August-September 2000]: 20).
“Similarly, by not making a clear distinction, including in pastoral practice, between the baptismal and hierarchical priesthood, one also runs the risk of underrating the theological proprium of the laity and of forgetting the specific ontological bond which unites the priesthood to Christ the High Priest and Good Shepherd” (Pastores dabo vobis 11).
“It is also a feature of our culture to have the honesty, the frankness, the ability to tell things as they are and in this case to say that truth demands that we admit that we are here confronted by a revealed mystery that is not on the same level as our categories and that the way we use reason must preserve its nature as mystery, and not replace it with our church structures” Note. 5.
Without the experience of the self as being, there is no context for the experience of reality outside the self by the senses, and hence purely empirical knowledge ends up as mere facts without “meaning.” There is no reference to an experience of being; hence the turn to skepticism and nihilism. “The turn towards practical knowledge was accomplished precisely by no longer contemplating being in itself but only how it functioned with regard to our own work. This means that in the separation of the question of truth from being and in its shifting to the fact and the faciendum the very concept of truth was itself fundamentally altered. The notion of the truth of being in itself has been replaced by that of the utility of things for us… understanding means seizing and grasping as meaning the meaning that man has received as ground. I think this is the precise significance of what we mean by understanding: that we learn to grasp the ground on which we have taken our stand as meaning and truth; that we learn to perceive that ground represents meaning” (Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990], 45-46.
Dei Verbum 5 reads: “‘The obedience of faith’ (Rom 16:26; cf. Rom 1:5; 2 Cor 10:5-6) must be given to God as he reveals himself. By faith man freely commits his entire self to God, making ‘the full submission of his intellect and will to God who reveals.” Karol Wojtyla comments: “Faith, as these words show, is not merely the response of the mind to an abstract truth. Even the statement, true though it is, that this response is dependent on the will does not tell us everything about the nature of faith. ‘ The obedience of faith’ is not bound to any particular human faculty but relates to man’s whole personal structure and spiritual dynamism. Man’s proper response to God’s self-revelation consists in self-abandonment to God. This is the true dimension of faith, in which man does not simply accept a particular set of propositions, but accepts his own vocation and the sense of his existence” (Karol Wojtyla, Sources of Renewal [Knopf, 1979]), 20.
Gaudium et spes 24.
Joseph Ratzinger, Behold the Pierced One (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 92-93.
Pastores dabo vobis 22.
George Weigel, Witness to Hope, 577.
“Thus, to say that ordination, the orientation of the priest to the faithful, is essentially diakonia or service is equivalent to saying that the ‘ontology’ of Church structure indicates the substantial priority of the ‘Christian condition’ (the common priesthood). ‘With you I am a Christian; for you I am the bishop,’ said Augustine of Hippo. With respect to the common priesthood, the ‘priestly ministry’ element has a relative character, theologically subordinate: ‘Christ instituted the hierarchical priesthood for the benefit of the common priesthood’ (Karol Wojtyla, Sources of Renewal)” (Pedro Rodriguez, “The Place of Opus Dei in the Church,” in Opus Dei in the Church [Scepter, 1994], 29).
“The organic convergence of priests and laity is one of the privileged areas which will give life and pastoral solidity to that ‘new energy,’ (Novo millennio ineunte 15) whereby we all feel invigorated after the Great Jubilee. In this context I wish to draw attention to the importance of that ‘spirituality of communion’ emphasized in the Apostolic Letter (NMI 42-43)” (John Paul II, “Address,” [March 17, 2001], 1).
Joseph Ratzinger, “The Spiritual Basis and Ecclesial Identity of Theology,” in The Nature and Mission of Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 54.
To be sure, as John Paul II has insisted, there is an intra-ecclesial mission of the laity: “a good number of lay people in America legitimately aspire to contribute their talents and charisms ‘to the building of the ecclesial community.…’” (Ecclesia in America 44). But precisely in this context, the pope makes reference to Christifideles Laici 23, which warns of confusing lay and ordained priesthoods “by a too-indiscriminate use of the word ‘ministry,’ the confusion and the equating of the common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood … the arbitrary interpretation of the concept of ‘supply’ [supplere], the tendency towards a ‘clericalization’ of the lay faithful and the risk of creating, in reality, an ecclesial structure of parallel service to that founded on the sacrament of Orders” (Christifideles Laici 23, par. 6).
The Instruction: An Explanatory Note 5.
To consider, as Russell Shaw does, that “there is a problem if ‘deputation’ is understood as a necessary condition for the very existence of a call to lay ministry, since this seems difficult to reconcile with the idea that lay ministries arise immediately from baptism and confirmation” is to miss the depth of the irreducibly different ontological configurations introduced by the sacraments of Baptism and Orders.
Burke, Authority and Freedom in the Church, 121.
“In fact the Council, in describing the lay faithful’ s situation in the secular world, points to it above all, as the place in which they receive their call from God: ‘There they are called by God.’ This ‘place’ is treated and presented in dynamic terms: the lay faithful ‘ live in the world, that is, in every one of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very fabric of their existence is woven.’ They are persons who live an ordinary life in the world: they study, they work, they form relationships as friends, professionals, members of society, cultures, etc. However, the Council considers their condition not simply an external and environmental framework, but as a reality destined to find in Jesus Christ the fullness of its meaning…. The ‘world’ thus becomes the place and the means for the lay faithful to fulfill their Christian vocation because the world itself is destined to glorify God the Father in Christ” (Christifideles laici, 15).
Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger told an international Congress of Catholic Laity that in the years preceding the Second Vatican Council, there was a lively debate among Western theologians, who were heirs to an ancient historical situation. This situation… was characterized by “the confrontation between the spiritual power, represented by the Church, especially the popes, and the temporal power, represented by princes and emperors.” This situation gave origin to the doctrine of the “two swords,” two powers, each of whom tried to prevail over the other. When this political-ecclesial balance disappeared, these notions were transferred “to the internal balance of the church, with a division of competence between the laity on one hand, and priests on the other. Some said the laity should manage the temporal, and the priests have authority and manage religious realities. The laity should handle politics; and priests, worship and the apostolate. Vatican II no longer took as a starting point the exercise of power in the interior of the Christian sphere, but rather the vocation and mission of the Church in the world, and the way in which her different members participate in her. Since then, it is the concrete and historical reality of the sacraments of baptism and holy orders, which permits the analysis of ecclesial society, and not political and sociological concepts” (Zenit.org, Nov. 28, 2000).
LG 31; GS 32, 36, 41, 48; Apostolicam actuositatem 5.
Christifideles Laici 15.
Paul VI, “A Presence and an Action which will Transform the World From Within,” February 2, 1972; AAS 64 (1972), 208.
“Passionately Loving the World,” the title of a homily preached on the campus of the University of Navarre, October 8, 1967 by Blessed Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer; it forms the last section of Conversations (Scepter, 1974), 113-123 in which the author professes: “I am a secular priest, a priest of Jesus Christ, who is passionately in love with the world.”
“In reality it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear. For Adam, the first man, was a type of him who was to come, Christ the Lord, Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling” (Gaudium et Spes 22).
“For our sakes he made him to be sin who knew nothing of sin, so that in him we might become the justice of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
“The Crucified Christ reveals the authentic meaning of freedom; he lives it fully in the total gift of himself and calls his disciples to share in his freedom” (Veritatis Splendor 85).
“Man’s genuine moral autonomy in no way means the rejection but rather the acceptance of the moral law, of God’s command… Others speak, and rightly so, of theonomy, or participated theonomy, since man’s free obedience to God’ s law effectively implies that human reason and human will participate in God’s wisdom and providence” (Veritatis Splendor 41).
Christifideles Laici says as much quoting Paul VI: “the Church ‘has an authentic secular dimension, inherent to her inner nature and mission, which is deeply rooted in the mystery of the Word Incarnate, and which is realized in different forms through her members.’”
Fides et Ratio 83.
“The Diversity of Charisms,” 310.
Lumen Gentium 31.
Christifideles Laici 15.
The distinction between secularity as “dimension” and secularity as “characteristic” bears on the distinction of layman and priest. Secularity of “dimension” is a note of the entire Church inasmuch as Christ himself can be considered the paradigm of secularity. As Christ is Head, the Church is Body, both being one and same thing. Secularity as “characteristic,” however, refers to the laity’s engagement in the world of work as “the place, the environment, the means, or if you prefer, the tools and language of our response to the caring love of God” (L’Osservatore Romano (no. 17, April 26, 1995), 3). The point is: “what makes us holy is not work, but the action of grace within us.” That grace moves us to make work a self-gift. In that sense, work and the secular world are intrinsic to holiness, and therefore the “characteristic” of, the layman.
John Paul II, Address during an audience for participants at a seminar on Novo millennio ineunte organized by the Opus Dei Prelature, March 17, 2001, #2.
“Professor Stefan Swiezawski, the distinguished Polish historian of philosophy who was instrumental in bringing young Father Karol Wojtyla to the faculty of the Catholic University of Lublin, once said that the post-Conciliar Church was ‘living in a new epoch.’ ‘ Vatican II was not just one Council; it marked the end of the Constantinian epoch, thank God. Now the Church has no army, no state. It is a quite different situation.’ Working out the implications of this post-Constantinian ecclesiology with an eye toward the third millennium of Christian history has been one of the principal leitmotifs of the pontificate of John Paul II” (George Weigel, “John Paul II and the Priority of Culture,” First Things (February 1998): 24).
Novo Millennio Ineunte 51.
“The Diversity of Charisms,” 310.