Saturday, February 20, 2010

An Inadequate Understanding of Lay Mission in the Catholic Church

"One thing is clear: if the Action [Catholic Action] were truly to become something that engaged the specifically lay forces of the Church, then a purely external 'delegation' by the hierarchy could not ensure it any sufficient foundation. This is why there was further reflection and then the discovery of the inner foundations — rooted first of all in baptism and confirmation, but also in the entire reality of the Mystical Body of Christ — for the laity's primary share in responsibility within the Church. 
The idea of a 'participation in the hierarchical priesthood' was sometimes almost wholly overshadowed by the idea of the 'universal priesthood' of all the believers. Only thus did it seem possible to cut off at the roots the danger of clericalism, which Catholic Action was designed to abolish but which had not been genuinely overcome by the mere delegation to the laity.
The one who went farthest in this direction was no doubt Ernst Michel, the spokesperson for an ecclesiastical mission of the laity totally independent of the hierarchy. In his provocative book Von der Kirchlichen Sendund der Laien (On the ecclesial mission of the laity), he ironically describes the lay groups of the 'Catholic Action' created by the clergy as a hybrid structure of modern clericalism, which sought in this way to break out of its ghetto but instead basically succeeded in drawing the laity into the ghetto as well. As an alternative, he sketches out the sphere of the layman, cleanly separated from the sphere where clergy work but equally essential: the autonomous and mature layman carries out the 'secular office of the Church.' The Church in her 'pure form' (represented by the clergy), with no point of contact with the world, and the world in its pure form, with no point of contact with the Church, intersect in the layman, whose own responsibility it is, through moment-by moment decisions, to create the synthesis. This means that he in fact stands at the most vibrant point of the Church, at the place wherein the lost world is transformed into the kingdom of God.
The advantage of Michel's one-sided program is that it exposes very clearly the inherent dialectic of 'Catholic Action,' which aims at the same time to overcome and to strengthen the clerical position in the Church and in the world: to overcome, by announcing the 'maturity of the layman' and entrusting him with matters that apparently hitherto reserved to the hierarchical ministry; and to strengthen, in that this maturity remains subordinate to the authority of the office both directly and indirectly, to such an extent that the laity are only 'the executive organ' of the clerical program of pope, bishop, and parish priest." (Balthasar, The Laity and the Life of the Counsels: 50-52. Line breaks inserted for readability).

One thing that is clear in the above passage is that Michel's position is an intensification of Catholic Action which does not transcend the foundational limitations of Catholic Action: the dualism between clergy and laity, between Church and world. Indeed most of what is written today (conservative, traditional, progressive, liberal, etc.) about the mission of the laity still relies heavily on these categories.

What's missing from this approach? To begin with, the division into priest and lay does not reflect the diversity of Christian life: it treats members of religious orders, whether ordained or not, as clergy: a popular conception in the Catholic Church is that brothers, sisters, monks & nuns are all a kind of clergy (in fact, ordination is not an essential part of male religious life but something that became widespread in the men's orders for historical reasons). Secondly, it reduces the lay life to one of action, activism, activity: instead, all Christian action must be deeply rooted in contemplation. In addition, these categories fall apart when the whole history of the Church is explored. Reading the above, it also strikes me as painfully individualistic. The synthesis is a personal one, an individual accomplishment. Belonging to Christian community (beyond the formal and hierarchical structures of parish or diocese) - is perceived to have a clerical taint: a retreat into the ecclesiastical ghetto.
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