The Church Needs Its Lay People to Take Charge

By Bob Keeler
February 17, 2003

The Catholic Church's ever-unfolding sexual abuse scandal demonstrates clearly that the sacrament of holy orders does not mystically supply the talents and virtues that a new priest may lack. This is the time to seek those qualities wherever they exist, especially in the laity.

Take the virtue of prudence. How prudent was it for bishops to transfer abusing priests from one parish to another, or to avoid reporting allegations of abuse to law enforcement? Would it not have been far more prudent to involve lay people from the beginning in handling abuse allegations, people who deal daily with the fragility of children?

How about the virtue of justice? Last week's grand jury report on the handling of abuse cases by the Diocese of Rockville Centre raises serious justice issues. Was it just for the diocese to allow Msgr. Alan Placa, a clever priest-lawyer, to feign interest in the plight of abuse victims, when his prime concern was in shielding abusers and protecting the diocese? Would everyday lay people have allowed that sort of approach if they had been consulted on diocesan policy?

The question of virtues and talents of priests and lay people goes far beyond the abuse issue. Take preaching. In the 1983 document, "Fulfilled in Your Hearing," the nation's Catholic bishops taught that the primary duty of the priest is to proclaim the Gospel. But every Catholic who attends Mass weekly can attest that ordination does not guarantee preaching excellence. The Rev. Andrew Greeley said in his book, "The Catholic Myth," that only 20 percent of Catholics now rate homilies as excellent, compared with 40 percent in the 1950s. In fact, Greeley wrote, improving preaching would be "the most critical single step" the church could take in this country.

Talent is randomly distributed. Some priests are great administrators, and others hopeless. Some are fiery preachers, and others below par. So it makes no sense for the church to rely so heavily on priests for so much of the administration of parishes, when lay people have many of those talents. Yet even now, when it is clear that more lay involvement could have averted this crisis, many in the hierarchy resist allowing the laity the full participation in the church's life that the Second Vatican Council urges.

A further argument for a greater lay role is the declining number of priests. Many parishes have only one full-time priest, and some neighboring parishes are forced to share a priest. That makes it increasingly difficult for priests to find time to prepare for preaching, keep the lights and heat on, repair the roof, and administer the sacraments. Now, more than ever, the church should be drawing more lay people into the day-to-day work of the parishes.

That would allow priests to focus more intently on such ministries as preaching the Gospel, counseling, administering the sacraments. It might free them to emulate Jesus by speaking prophetically, as he did in his inaugural sermon in the Nazareth synagogue, described at Luke 4:14-30. It started off well, but Jesus did not mince words. Before he was done, the people of his hometown tried to throw him from a cliff. When was the last time you heard a priest preach so powerfully that the people rose up to do him bodily harm?

How often have you heard preaching that uses the lens of Scripture to examine the burning issue of the day: the war against Iraq? Pope John Paul II and the nation's bishops have spoken against it, but parish priests often shy away from preaching peace - sometimes, sadly, because they fear the impact on the collection basket. If lay people were seen as the real money-collectors and money-spenders, that might free priests to be more prophetic.

Even better, it would be great if canon law simply required the pastor to provide excellent preaching for the Sunday homily, whatever its source. But church law says no. Canon 767 says that the homily is "reserved to a priest or to a deacon." That rules out lay people, including many with advanced theological degrees and a real gift for preaching.

Don't bet on seeing that canon changed soon. But take a look at Canon 212. It counsels obedience, but it also says lay people "have the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion . . ." So keep pushing those sacred pastors and offering your help. It's for their own good.

Bob Keeler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.  

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