0n 13 August 1997 the Holy Father approved in forma specifica and ordered published, a document entitled Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priest. This document was promulgated two days later on the Feast of the Assumption and signed by 16 Roman officials from eight curial departments, including, notably, Cardinal Ratzinger. The document was published in L'Osservatore Romano on 19 November.
The tone of the document is principally pastoral. It is designed to correct certain disciplinary abuses that the Roman congregations have identified over the last few years. In some places practices have grown up which have confused the role of the laity and that of the sacred ministry.
The origins of this confusion lie in an incorrect interpretation of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on the place of the laity. The teaching of that Council has been interpreted by some as calling for a sort of presbyterianism or congregationalism in which there is no room for distinction between pastor and people, and in which all may perform any ministerial function.
Likewise decisions are to be arrived at, not by individuals with special responsibilities for the good of the Church, but by a democratic process in which all have an equal share. There may be much to recommend such ideas, but they are not the teaching of the Second Vatican Council as manifested in its documents on the Church (Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes) and on the priesthood and episcopate (Presbyterorum Ordinis and Christus Dominus).
The new Instruction points out the many benefits that flow from a proper integration of the gifts of all Christ's faithful in the life of the Church, especially in those places where because of external persecutions or because the Church has only recently become established there is a grave shortage of suitable candidates for the sacred ministry.
The Instruction recommends the efforts of lay Catholics in these circumstances, even where they take on some functions which under normal circumstances should properly belong to the ordained ministry. What the Instruction objects to is the false appeal to an "emergency situation" where none really exists, and the motivation is rather a theology of the sacred ministry at odds with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.
The genesis of this inadequate theology is not paradoxically in the third world where one might expect the force of circumstances to overwhelm reflection, but rather in the middle class first world where liberal democratic ideas are drawn from the political arena and applied to the government of the Church.
While such ideas seem at first glance to be progressive and inclusive their implementation often reveals a different picture. In directing the energies of the laity towards the service of the sanctuary during the liturgy, as is often the case with programs of "lay involvement," attention is diverted from the real goal of lay activity, which should be the winning of the world for Christ: sanctifying the temporal order in family life, social and political involvement, the work place, education, health care, etc.
A second consequence is the de facto establishment of a rank of what used to be called minor clergy. Dioceses, parishes and educational offices have developed large bureaucracies of church professionals who wield considerable power. They have the capacity to introduce and implement significant innovations which may or may not be acceptable to the ordinary parishioner in the pew. The possibility of disenfranchising ordinary Catholics is quite real, and in fact they quite often do feel disenfranchised by the activities of lay church professionals.
The skills of public reading and speaking which are generally associated with lay involvement, moreover, are not skills which are frequently found among those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. It is the more educated and usually more prosperous sections of society which are more skilled in public reading, speaking and debate.
The extent to which people from lower socio-economic backgrounds have been disadvantaged and excluded by the Church adopting a middle-class style has not been adequately appreciated and discussed. Perhaps now is the time to bring this neglected aspect of "lay participation" to the fore.
At base, the new Instruction is a reaffirmation of the Church's teaching about its own reality. The Church is not merely a human construct that we can mould as we like, but a reality which receives its being from its Lord. Its forms and structures rely on Divine warrant, not on human invention.
We might hope that this new Instruction will assist theologians and pastors and the Church in general to come to a more sophisticated understanding of the relationship between the priesthood of all believers and the ordained priesthood, more in accordance with the Sacred Tradition and more receptive to the spiritual needs of our God-starved world.
Fr Ephraem Chifley is a Dominican priest and a member of the St Laurence’s community, North Adelaide.