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Does the Church Really Need the Laity?

The Catholic Church has many critics. Often criticisms can offer a real problem or question for the Church to answer or a legitimate concern to be addressed. Yet, just as often, the very answer sought has existed for centuries and requires only a re-presentation rather than a reinvention or progressive reformation. The hope of apologetic work is not to justify problems within the Church, but to demonstrate the true understanding which the Church holds to.

Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral, Raleigh, NC

One challenge often evoked, even by faith-filled Catholics, is the apparent lack of authority/responsibility for the lay faithful, especially women. Secular critics and faithful Church-goers together say, “The Church is run by an elite group of clergy and the laity is not treated as important.” Whether this example is understated or too simplified, this sentiment is not uncommon today.


The first topic to address here is the laity, especially in comparison to the clergy. Often, the standard considered is secular. Our modern world likes to measure diversity, representation, and equal opportunity in organizations. Between universities, medical companies, businesses, nonprofits, etc., there are frequent studies to quantify these standards. Yet, for the Church (specifically regarding the USA in this instance), applying this standard to the clergy reveals a kind of failure. The clerical leadership is all male, predominantly white, and dominated by an older age group. It may seem like an injustice from the outside perspective; so much so that when a particularly young man is named a bishop or a person of color is appointed Cardinal, it seems like a very big deal or some kind of progress. But from the long-term perspective of the Church, these values are not applicable to the kind of leadership within the Church.

First, because the laity is not considered lesser members than the clergy. Every baptized Catholic is a member of the Body of Christ, the Church. Unlike a business, company, or university, the laity is considered as members, not as clients or customers. Thus, the Church is not elitist, but grounded on the foundation of the lay faithful, who represent all people. Truly, then, She is diverse far beyond any other organization and discriminates against no one.

No one ought to be barred or inhibited from entrance to the Church, according to her own teaching. Anytime there is a failure in this way (for instance, racially segregated parishes), it is in fact not a representation of true Church teaching, but the crime of men in opposition to the Church. Unfortunately, there have been historical instances of such discrimination even by the clergy. Yet, the Church does not uphold such behavior as acceptable. On the contrary, it is individuals who demonstrated great care for minorities who are honored for their saintly work. St. Katherine Drexel and St. Isaac Jogues are two such examples local to North America; working to benefit black and Native American peoples in heroic ways.

To further expand on this point, I would reference Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman. Pointing out that Africa is the fastest growing Catholic community in the world, she chuckles at the notion that black Catholics are called a “minority.” We must recall that the Church in the USA is not the sum total or a representation of the whole Church. Rather, America is a part of the whole body which lives in union with the Church everywhere in the world. Thus, the bishops of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops are brothers to the bishops of Africa, of Asia, and everywhere else; and the lay faithful are likewise brothers and sisters to all the faithful.


A second point is on the role of the clergy. The title of the ministerial priest is as a servant. Being called “father”, the priest's relationship exceeds that of a superior to his subordinates, but represents a father who lays down his life for his children. Modeled in the sacrificial character of Jesus Christ, this is the basis of the ministerial priesthood.

In Christ, the archetypal priest, authority is measured through service, not merely power. That being said, true authority is legitimate. It does not benefit the Church to discount the real authority which clergy has responsibility for. Rather, it is paramount to understand it in its proper context. A helpful standard here is the relationship between rights and duties (authorities and responsibilities). Every right which a person may claim must coincide with a duty. Thus, the right to privacy coincides with the duty for modesty; the right to vote coincides with the duty to participate in local community, etc.

In the case of the clergy, the authority which comes with ordination coincides with the duties and responsibilities for the salvation of souls. The authority to celebrate the sacraments coincides with the duty to use them for the lay faithful. The source of this authority is the sacrament of Holy Orders. Just as the sacrament of Baptism effects an indelible mark in the soul of the baptized, Holy Orders confers a change on the man ordained. At baptism, the soul is made Christian; at ordination, the soul becomes the soul of a deacon, priest, or bishop. Therefore, because He instituted each of the sacraments, Jesus Christ is the true source of authority in the clergy.

Ordination of a transitional deacon, Diocese of Allentown

Our modern society might estimate authority as somewhat arbitrary, perhaps granted based on favor or merit. But this is not how the ministerial priesthood is ordered. Whereas some people advocate for lay people to preach during the liturgical homily, they lack the authority to do so because they lack the associated duty conferred at ordination. While a studied lay person might be well-equipped to interpret and even teach scripture, the right to preach at Mass is not merit-based. Rather, ordination having changed in the soul of a man, allows him to act In Persona Christi and grants him the responsibility to do so. Though the priest may be eloquent or dumb, studied or ignorant, the fact of his ordination- not his merit nor an arbitrary delegation- is the source of his authority.


What good is this then? Why does ordination give clergy certain rights and obligations? Ultimately, our answer is the salvation of souls. A priest is obliged to work for the salvation of every soul under his care. The lay person, concurrently, is duty-bound first to his or her own soul, then to his or her family (spouse and children). While every Christian is called to work in charity for all of his neighbors, his proper authority and duty is to himself and his household.

This leads into a third point: the capacity and real dignity of the lay faithful and lay state. We certainly should not interpret the authority of clergy as an injustice to laity. Each lay person has a real responsibility and capacity of his own in the life of the Church, an irreplaceable gift to serve her. If the priest is perhaps the hands of the Body of Christ, the lay faithful may be the arms, legs, and feet.

An example of this which I personally find helpful is in the celebration of Mass.

Saint Catharine of Siena Cathedral, Allentown, PA

Obviously, a priest is needed for a parish community to have Mass. And a priest may celebrate a private Mass when necessary. However, this should not imply that the lay community is unnecessary. Rather, the very rubrics and canon law

anticipate the ordinary celebration of Mass to be with a community of faithful. The faithful do not merely add to the Mass by being present. They don't just improve it by adding a choir or servers. Rather, the Mass is most properly the Mass when the laity is present. By active participation in the prayers and worship offered to God, led by the priest, the whole Church together offers itself to God. Thus, the celebrant beseeches the laity, “Pray, brethren, that my (priest/Jesus) sacrifice and yours (laity) may be acceptable to God, Almighty Father...”

Furthermore, the other ministries of the laity are not to be diminished or minimized. Often, I think, people breeze over the many good things which lay people do do. Perhaps there is an attitude that those things are less important or simply the leftovers of clerical authority. Yet, for example, the vast majority of teachers, religious educators, school principles, pro-life leaders, charity coordinators, music directors, financial officers, secretaries, bookkeepers, etc., etc. are lay people. All of these positions are legitimately fundamental and foundational to the life of the Church.

In fact, certain ministries are proper to the laity and should not be grappled by the clergy, even if they must work in tandem. A role of the priest as father is to empower the lay faithful to function as fully alive Catholics. The relationship between clergy and laity should not be a tug-of-war, but a body functioning as a healthy union. In this way, we may speak of the clergy and laity as complementary to one another: each necessary for the fulfillment of the other.


Finally, often the crux of the criticism is the apparent exclusion of women in the Church. Because the ministerial priesthood is all male, it is sometimes implied that men are given preference over women by the Church in a blanket sexism. One such claim came from Father James Martin, S.J. In a Twitter post in 2019, he stated:

“It is stupefying to me that women cannot preach at Mass. The faithful at Mass, as well as the presiders, are missing out on the wisdom, experience and inspired reflections of half of its members.”

At face value, this may seem like an empathetic advocacy for an undervalued group to be heard. Even if well meant, this attitude is based on an untruth. As we know, not all men are able to volunteer to preach in the liturgy at will. It is not a sexist standard which permits all men and excludes all women, as this tweet seems to imply. In fact, the standard is once again a matter of authority. Properly, the office of teaching belongs to the bishop as a result of episcopal ordination. He then delegates authority to his priests, granting them faculties. As episcopate (literally: overseer) of his diocese, the Bishop has right and responsibility to see that the Gospel truth is being preached in his churches. Those designated to preach share in that responsibility. A lay person can and ought to proclaim the Gospel by word and by deed, but he or she is not responsible for the teaching of his parish, as a priest is. While there is no crime for a layperson in leading a Bible study or giving a personal testimony, there is a disorder or imbalance in replacing a priest in the liturgical homily.

Furthermore, the priesthood is neither a reward offered to any male nor a club exclusive of women. The vocational call to the priesthood comes from God and from the Church herself. Not every male is thus called. Perhaps a perspective of priestly formation is that clergy handpick and ordain men to join their club without regard to the input of the lay faithful. This may have been historically true in some times and places, unfortunately. But truly today, this is not so. While most of the formators are clergy, the input of lay people is actively sought from lay teachers, parishioners, family and peer recommendations, and such. A major part of Seminary formation is the pastoral formation which requires a candidate for priesthood to actively engage with lay people in many different contexts (parishes, hospitals, schools, care facilities, etc.). In these ways, the laity has an active and important role in calling and supporting the priestly call, so that the whole Body of the Church is engaged.

Though a tricky subject in need of much care (not well covered in a single paragraph), there is a proper good protected by the right of the Church to deny a man holy orders. If a seminary finds a man unsuited for the priesthood or if lay peers would voice objections , then he ought to be duly denied orders (This is not to say that every estimation by a bishop, formator, or lay person is just or fair; but that the standard exceeds the sex of the candidate and is meant to be protected by the whole Church). The Church has long held a high standard for her clergy, even despite the many failures of individuals to meet it.

Saint Peter Basilica, Vatican

Are women, then, lesser than men because they are limited to lay ministry? By no means! The worth, dignity, value, or grace of a member of the Church is not determined by their function or role. A lay woman is as much a full member of the Body of Christ as is a bishop- even the Pope! Her dignity is as a chosen child of God- not as a cog in a machine, judged for its utility. As affirmed in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium (Chapters IV and V in particular), all Christian faithful share in a universal call to holiness. God not only allows, but beckons for every person to grow in grace and holiness. He does not limit the threshold of grace for those not ordained, but provides unique graces to each and every person.

How do we better recognize this truth? How can we foster or promote a greater sense of unity among laity, both male and female, with the clergy? I would urge, along with those far more learned than me, a renewed acknowledgment of the dignity of the lay state. Rather than promoting jealous division between these (a tactic of Marxist class warfare really), if we understand the functions of each member of the Body, the Church, the whole will flourish.


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