Beyond Personal Piety

Beyond Personal Piety March 1, 2019

Here is an interesting piece by one of my favorite priests in the world, Fr. Michael Sweeney. He was my pastor for years during the 90s at Blessed Sacrament in Seattle and then went on to be the President of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology at Oakland, CA. He is also one of the people who helped Sherry Weddell at the Catherine of Siena Institute. The closest I will ever get to meeting St. Thomas Aquinas and a dear man. He writes:

G.K. Chesterton once commented that every modern conversation begins one step too late. His assertion pertains, unfortunately, when we think of the church. Immediately we tend to think of its structure: there are the ordained, the religious, and the laity. According to this reckoning, the laity are defined in a negative manner: they are the ones who are neither ordained nor members of religious orders. If one is a Catholic, and neither ordained nor a religious, then one is lay; it cannot be helped.

There is, as a result, a paradigmatic clericalism within the church. It is not ill-intended. I would argue that it is not intended at all, but it is present nonetheless. There is a widespread assumption in the Catholic community that, to have any real agency in the church, it is necessary that one be ordained. We are all familiar with the model: there is the priest-pastor and his flock. Or, perhaps truer to experience, the priest-pastor and his critics.

That the laity have no agency in the church is not magisterial teaching; it is not, in fact, true. Yet it is the paradigm through which we relate to each other and through which we tend to filter our understanding of magisterial teaching. This apprehension is founded on, and fostered by, the common conception that the purpose of the church is predominantly, or even exclusively, the care of souls. We read in the Second Vatican Council’s decree Christus dominus that “the parish exists solely for the care of souls.” The purpose of the care of souls is personal holiness, our salvation in Christ, which translates in our communal imagination as an invitation to personal piety.

Now, if the whole business of the church is the care of souls, then it is indeed difficult to see that the laity as such have any real agency in the church. I am not referring to the ministries that lay people can undertake by delegation, when they assist in the pastoral care of the community at the discretion of their pastors. Such ministries, though important, are not proper to the laity, but are ministries that are proper to the ordained. When the laity undertake such ministries, they are therefore called “extraordinary” ministers in the church. But what, then, is proper to the laity? The common conception would seem to suggest that the ordinary vocation of lay men and women is a vocation to be cared for, especially through their participation in the sacraments.

That this is the paradigm that governs Catholic imagination is manifested in the fact that lay men and women tend to identify the church with the hierarchy, and therefore to disenfranchise themselves. When Catholics say “the church teaches” they really mean “the hierarchy teaches,” or when Catholics say “the church believes” they tend to mean “bishops and priests believe.” They count themselves out. The church therefore comes to be identified with the bishops and the ordained. What follows from this improper identification is that, when a bishop is immoral, the whole church is held to be corrupt. Whence this identification? And why this paradigm?

The early-medieval church was marked, especially in the West, by the monastic movement. The monk was early on regarded, not in terms of his function or role, as clerics were, but in terms of a way of holiness, a “state of life.” The monk seeks a life of holiness, of personal consecration to God, a life of penance and the seeking of “perfection.” In this seeking, the monk is precisely not a lay person; the monk leaves the world behind. In the light of the monastic movement, the laity came to be regarded in terms of a “state in life” that contrasts with that of monastic men and women. The lay state tends to be regarded as a less perfect way of following Christ than that of the monks. Lay men and women are embroiled in the care of temporal things, whereas the monks seek perfection in the eternal. This provides an easy step toward the distinction that we find assumed in the Decretals of Gratian (writing in the middle of the twelfth century) between perfect and imperfect Christians. The lay condition comes to be regarded as a concession to human weakness. Yves Congar, the great Dominican theologian of the Second Vatican Council, cites Pope Honorius II (1124–1130): “from the beginning the Church has offered two kinds of life to her children: one to help the insufficiency of the weak, another to perfect the goodness of the strong.” It was the place of the clergy, the “strong,” to afford care to the laity, the “weak.”

A second movement also contributed to the negative definition of the lay state. From at least the reign of Charlemagne (crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 A.D.) onward, there is a movement to organize all temporal life under the supreme regulation of the church. Apart from the anointed secular ruler (emperor, king, prince), the laity tend to be defined negatively, in terms of what they are not. The laity, concerned with temporal affairs, are considered to have little or no part in the sphere of sacred things. Hence the definition of the lay person: one who has no part in the power of jurisdiction and, especially, of the holy order. Lay persons have the right and responsibility to receive spiritual goods from the clergy, especially aids for their salvation, but no responsibility in the governance or sacred ministry of the church.

We can distill the paradigm that has so much controlled our imagination of the laity into three propositions: (1) With respect to their state of life, lay people do not live exclusively for heavenly things, like monks. (2) The lay state of life is a concession to human weakness, and a less perfect commitment to following Christ. (3) With respect to their function in the church, lay persons have no participation in the power of ecclesial jurisdiction.

Small wonder, then, that the paradigm governing the lay imagination becomes more and more focused on personal piety in the face of a life embroiled in temporal affairs; little else remains to them. Congar liked to reference a nineteenth-century German dictionary of the church, which under the entry laity, said, “See clergy.” Clearly, there are problems with this paradigm. First, personal piety is an insufficient basis for witnessing the faith to others, or even for imparting it to one’s children. There is therefore a widespread presumption in the Catholic community that conversation about the faith and instruction in the faith must be left to experts. Of course, there is little call for conversation among the laity; one does not tend to discuss one’s personal piety—or lack of it—with others.

Second, this paradigm tends to infantilize one’s relationship with Jesus. The relation is one in which the layperson never acts with Jesus, never stands in his place—a function reserved to the clergy—but merely receives the grace that he affords for the sake of personal holiness. Adult in all other aspects of their lives and secular responsibilities, many Catholics still conceive of themselves as dependent children in their relationship to Christ and the church.

A half-century ago, at the Second Vatican Council, the role of the laity was taken up for the first time in the church’s history at an ecumenical council. Congar had remarked that, for the ecclesial role proper to the laity to come fully into view, the hierarchy had to come to two realizations: first, there is a world out there; and, second, it is not the church. The council, as we well know, added to the care of souls a more fundamental duty of the church: to incarnate the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world.

So it is that we read in the first encyclical of St. John Paul II:

The Church wishes to serve this single end: that each person may be able to find Christ, in order that Christ may walk with each person the path of life, with the power of the truth about man and the world that is contained in the mystery of the Incarnation and the Redemption and with the power of the love that is radiated by that truth. (Redemptor hominis, 13)

Given that this is, in truth, the single purpose of the church, then the ecclesial role proper to the laity comes into focus. It is to proclaim the Gospel in every area of secular engagement by transforming the very structures of society according to the plan of God.

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