The Time to Move on Is Now!

Catholicism at the Crossroadsby Paul Lakeland

Continuum. 164p $19.95

Without the laity, Cardinal Newman once remarked to his fellow clergymen, we would look quite foolish.

If the faithful and forthright theologian Paul Lakeland is to be believedand I confess that I do believe himthe clergy and hierarchy are not alone today in looking foolish. We lay Catholics also wear the dunce cap. How else to characterize the best educated and most sophisticated generational cohort of Catholics in the history of the United States, the apathetic majority of whom continue to accept religious infantilization within an ecclesial structure that privileges hierarchy at the expense of community, fosters clerical elitism and condescends to the laity in matters theological, spiritual, ethical and (even) financial and administrative?

Catholicism at the Crossroads is a less technical, more widely accessible version of Lakelands recent, incisive treatise The Liberation of the Laity. In both works, clericalism is judged to be the prevailing sin of the institutional church. The gross episcopal mishandling of priestly sexual abuse and the nearly complete failure of the U.S. bishops to proclaim doctrine in a morally persuasive way to the majority of Catholics (who blithely dissent on matters ranging from sexual morality, war and the sanctity of life to the exclusion of women from the priesthood) are best understood as presenting symptoms of our deeper ecclesial dysfunction. The underlying problem is structuralthe absolute lack of a formal voice for the laity in the teaching or the governance of the church.

The bishops, not the laity, are the official teachers of the church, of course, but the practice of consulting the faithful in matters of doctrine, as Newman put it, is the sine qua non for the effective reception of the teaching, not least for Catholics fighting distraction amid the de-centered, pluralist, materialist and secular culture of the United States. And while the bishop is also called to govern the ecclesial community, governing and administering is not the same thing, as any bureaucrat knows. The laity can and should be consulted on governance and empowered to a greater degree on personnel and financial matters.

Practices and attitudes vary from diocese to diocese and parish to parish, with strong parish councils a sign of healthier ecclesial communities. The national picture, however, is grim. With the notable exceptions of the preparation of the pastoral letters on war and peace (1983) and the U.S. economy (1986)eruptions of top-to-bottom collegiality that today seem as distant as Bishop John Englands bicameral, lay-clergy diocesan congress in antebellum South Carolinaprecious little consulting has occurred in the 39 years since the promulgation of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VIs reassertion of the ban on artificial birth control. Faced with the horror of the sexual abuse crisis, some bishops, rightly concerned that their teaching has fallen on deaf ears, made precisely the wrong decision by suggesting that those ears be cut off (pruned). The ear-restoring Lord would seem unlikely to endorse this pastoral strategy.

Lakeland, not alone in offering a diagnosis of dysfunction, finds the situation untenable and unacceptable. He is most compelling when challenging the theological and ecclesial arguments bolstering the preference of some younger clergy (a.k.a. the John Paul II priests) for a kind of preconciliar dualism that ends in elevating and thus alienating the ordained from the (merely) baptized. Marked by a mode of interaction among priests and between priests and laity that arrogates religious authority and insight exclusively to the ordained, the new clericalism is based on the erroneous assumption that ordination confers upon the recipient an ontological change that need not find expression in an ever more profound openness to the other in mutuality and dialogue.

For Lakeland, by contrast, the real change effected by the sacrament of holy orders is relational, not ontological. In ordination, he urges, the priest acquires a new ordo, a new set of relationships to the community. Thus, the distinctiveness of ordained ministry lies in the particular quality of the relation of the priest to the rest of the community, not in some inner, magical change in his very being. Any such change in being occurs when a person first becomes a Christian, that is, when she is baptized into the death of the Lord, inherits the mission of the church and eventually assumes one or more of the numerous ministries preparing the world to receive the Gospel.

In promoting a communal/horizontal ecclesiology over a hierarchical/vertical model of the church, Lakeland draws effectively on Trinitarian theology:


Just as the call to Christian discipleship should suggest to us a life lived according to the values and choices of Jesus of Nazareth, so you would think that the church of God would reflect what seems to be the divine preference for relationship. What would happen if we modeled the church on the life of God instead of on the structures of the Roman Empire or the Ford Motor Company? One would think that it would be a good thing.... When Vatican II made the hierarchical structure of the church secondary to understanding the church as the People of God, it took a giant step toward growing closer to God. Hierarchy does not reflect the divine life; mutuality does.


With its occasional invocation of contested terms such as the spirit of Vatican II and hot-button issues such as the dehumanizing effects of global capitalism, Catholicism at the Crossroads will not convert (neo-) conservatives who insist that the way forward is not first and foremost the liberation of anyone (the poor, women, the laity in general), but rather the restoration of a purified clergymen who embrace the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ into which they have been initiated as into an ancient mystery cult.

So be it. Within Lakelands Trinitarian and critical-liberationist framework, the hot-button issues take on renewed meaning. His presentation of accountability, for example, as an act of mutual stock-taking and ethical boundary-setting that prevents individuals from sliding into morally dangerous self-absorption, thickens that hackneyed term, giving it a resonance for spouses, parents and childrenthat is, for anyone who has ever been a member of a family. And far from arguing for ecclesial lay ministers to replace the ordained, Lakeland affirms the distinction between the ordained ministry to the church and the lay ministry to the world, while rejecting the dualism that often accompanies it.

Nor does he blame individuals for the dysfunction, but targets unapostolic structures, suggesting in a riveting passage that the structural oppression at work in the church oppressed even so great a soul as John Paul II.

Moreover, Lakelands audience is not readers of the periodical First Things, but rather people like the energetic new grandmother I met recently, who holds a degree in religious education, takes courses at the local Catholic university, is politically active in her community, admires her pastor and loves the churchand worries not a little that prodigious lay talent is being squandered by inadequate structures and unimaginative leadership, precisely at a moment in U.S. Catholic history when we need all the creative dynamism we can muster.

Her worry is for the loss of her granddaughter to the church she loves.


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Patricia Ernst
10 years 12 months ago
Applause! Applause! for a concise, fair and correct commentary on today's church. That "new grandmother" reflects many "old grandmothers" with the same credentials, disappointments, and critical concerns for our granddaughters and grandsons who have greater wisdom than those commissioned with church leadership. Perhaps we should listen to the little children who will lead the church beyond the crossroad.
Kevin McManus
10 years 12 months ago
Brilliant article.I agree that this is "...a moment in U.S. Catholic history when we need all the creative dynamism we can muster. " Moreover, though, this is a truly crucial time for our world. We stand on the brink of social, economic and ecological meltdown. Creation hangs in the balance. We are called to use our freedom as Children made in God's image to be co-workers in the New Creation. It's time to "blow the dynamite of the Church" [Peter Maurin?] and be a beacon out of this dark night.
Kevin McManus
10 years 12 months ago
Brilliant article.I agree that this is "...a moment in U.S. Catholic history when we need all the creative dynamism we can muster. " Moreover, though, this is a truly crucial time for our world. We stand on the brink of social, economic and ecological meltdown. Creation hangs in the balance. We are called to use our freedom as Children made in God's image to be co-workers in the New Creation. It's time to "blow the dynamite of the Church" [Peter Maurin?] and be a beacon out of this dark night.
Jeremy Radford
10 years 12 months ago
Among other things I have learned today, this article has taught me that I must be a neo-conservative, because I have not been converted. I was unaware of this fact and, as a child of guitar choir parents, and drummer for my high school liturgies, it comes as a shock to me. And as leader in the largest Catholic lay organizations in America, in solidarity with our Priests and Bishops, I was unaware of my oppression. My reflection on reading this (close but missing the mark) opinion centered on the fact that the source of all sin is selfishness. The dialogue on the oppression of the laity is a perspective shared by toddlers enamored with their own belly-buttons. Just like my advice to divorcing parents, "It's not about you, or what you want!" I don't see a crossroad. . . I see the ever present fork in the road. One path is wide and well traveled and the other is narrow and hard to submit ourselves to, but this is the road we are called to, because the journey is not about community amongst ourselves. The journey is about communion with Christ (and with each other because of our creation in His image, never should it be seen the other way around.)
Vince DiPiazza
10 years 12 months ago
I have not read Mr. Lakeland's book, but the review has confirmed my expectations: another wonderful treatise containing intelligent insights, pertinent prescriptions, and a clarion call for reform of the church. All of which amounts to what, exactly? Being a member of a local parish whose "pastor" is a thoughtful, determined, pious, and fervent reactionary, I'm afraid I have a pessimistic view of the future. I know that our parish experience may not be typical (yet), but I don't see any inkling of a movement in the official church-at-large which gives me reason for optimism. Debating "Catholicism at the Crossroads" in light of a church leadership which does not see itself at any crossroads, let alone perceiving any need for a substantive sharing of responsibility with the laity, is certainly an exercise in futility. That clericalism is the "prevailing sin of the institutional church" is, as someone once said, a blinding flash of the obvious. But what do we do about it? Many of us are loathe to accept the "religious infantilization" foisted on us by the priestly class, but they hold all of the institutional cards. In the end, we do what the laity-- those of us who prefer to stick it out rather than jump ship, anyway-- have always done in this church. We seek, and find, spiritual nourishment in large part outside the official structures and strictures of the church, though fellowship, "extra-ordinary" activity (bible studies, prayer groups, etc.), and private devotion, finding some reassurance in occasional encounters with the increasingly rare enlightened priest who understands the problem and does what he can. The official church we rely on only for the formal administration of the sacraments. A sorry state of affairs, to be sure, but it turns out to be better than continually beating one's head against "this rock."
Nicholas Clifford
10 years 11 months ago
A splendid article about what sounds like a splendid book. But why on earth was it given to Scott Appleby to review? Prof. Appleby and his like are part of the solution, not the problem. The problem lies with the ordained, all too often deaf to any voices that arise from outside their narrow little circles. Give it to one of them to review; best of all, give it to a bishop. Then you'd know that at least one of them had access to the truth, and might, just possibly might, be willing to cast off the apparently overriding fear that taking the laity seriously and listening to them honestly would threaten the whole petty structure of clerical privilege. And, it might be added, strengthen the Church enormously in its engagement with the world and its mission of evangelization. (PS Sorry if you get this twice, but your website is sending me strange error messages -- this at 7.20 AM EST)
J D'Azzo
10 years 11 months ago
'I have not read Mr. Lakeland's book, but the review has confirmed my expectations: another wonderful treatise containing intelligent insights, pertinent prescriptions, and a clarion call for reform of the church. ' Mr. Vince DiPiazza commentary re 'Catholocism at the Crossroads' Mr. Paul Lakeland. May I, a woman of Fity years of age, say 'God Bless you, Mr. Vincent DiPiazza?' As I have tried to make daily Mass a part of my lifetime experience, absent even a chance of serving, as I would choose, at the altar, in the Church that I am POSITIVE represents Jesus SACRAMENTALLY in the World today....not to malign or chastise other denominations...We NEED to DO BETTER. There can be no dispute regarding the service of men who delay retirement (how does a Priest retire???)to CONTINUE ACTIVE DEMANDING PASTORAL assignments, as there are no Priests to replace them.How is it possible to simply ignore the other half of the human race, available for duty? Contemplation in Action,Action in Contemplation...How Long will we starve ourselves spiritually, and underestimate the need for change? Perhaps this is too vitriolic a comment, BUT, WE are one Faith,the Workers are scarce as the proverbial hen's tooth, God may be tuned into another station at this time. I think that we need His Son, to recognize that 'We are lost and cannot find our way..',certainly we must consider ALL who are able to join the laborers in the vineyard.
Jerome Stack
10 years 11 months ago
As a member of the clerical caste, I continue to be dismayed by the lack of openness to dialogue and to genuine collaboration among some of my confreres. Apparently formation programs are more concerned with doctrinal and moral orthodoxy than in promoting a ministerial style that is open to working with lay people. I recently heard the story of a woman who had left the Catholic Church for a Protestant denomination. Why? In her new church she felt valued, was involved in planning, and had genuine responsibility. I wonder how many Catholics would say that about their experience of parish. Of course, most readers of America are not going to be surprised at Lakeland's analysis. The challenge is how to promote a more open and collaborative style of governance and ministry among those in leadership who continue to promote the clericalism that Lakeland decries.
10 years 11 months ago


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