Laity Near the Top?

While the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI has certainly enjoyed major successes, like the pope’s visit last fall to England to beatify Cardinal Newman, the crises that have led to empty pews in the Catholic parishes of England, Europe and the United States persist.

The fundamental criticism of the institutional church is that its clerical, all-male establishment has not made room for other voices. There is no need to list the number of recent policy decisions, from Rome to home, which would have been more prudent if only a variety of laypersons had been consulted.


Jesus told his disciples that they were servants, that they were to feed the hungry and share their wealth with the poor and that they should demonstrate their love for one another by offering their lives in service. Some in church leadership have done the opposite, creating a culture of clericalism that too often values loyalty over accountability. In these circumstances, a project of reform is essential to rejuvenate church leadership and give greater voice to the whole church. As Pope John Paul II wrote in “Novo Millennio Ineunte,” quoting St. Paulinus of Nola: “Let us listen to what all the faithful say, because in every one of them the Spirit of God breathes” (No. 45).

How to begin? No one should anticipate changes in the existing discipline on celibacy or in the teaching on women’s ordination, but there are other ways to reform church structures to allow women and married men to participate in church governance. One proposal is simply to change canon law to admit laypeople to the College of Cardinals. The church could thereby continue its all-male priesthood, yet transform the “men’s club” into a church with a face that more resembles the people of God described in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

A more realistic proposal, however, would entail two steps: First, reorganize diocesan offices so that laypeople constitute at least half of the bishop’s principal advisers. (Increasing numbers of laity have already been hired as staff in many U.S. dioceses.) Second, create a new body, an international council of laypersons to share functions with the College of Cardinals. After attrition among the cardinals, each of the two bodies eventually could have 100 members. The lay members would be Catholics who love the church and are recognized for sound Christian judgment. They would come from a variety of occupations—education, health, religious life, law, the arts, business, science, government and labor. Church leadership would not be limited to elderly men but would be expanded to include men and women, married and unmarried, of different ages. Wisdom, after all, can be found from a multitude of sources, something that St. Benedict acknowledged when he urged an abbot at a monastery to solicit the opinion of even the youngest member of the community: “By the Lord’s inspiration, it is often a younger person who knows what is best.”

Some members of the council would direct Vatican offices; others would come to Rome for regular consultation. Membership could be proportionate to the Catholic populations throughout the world, chosen for a specified term on the recommendation of grass-roots representative caucuses of clergy and laity. The combined college and council would share three functions: administer the Vatican offices, advise the pope and select his successor.

These laypeople would offer much-needed perspective on the impact of the teachings and practices of the church, including such divisive subjects as contraception, the role of women in the church, the treatment of homosexuals and the failure of authorities to respond quickly and forcefully to the scandal of sexual abuse by members of the clergy. They would understand other pastoral failings, like the denial of the Eucharist to public persons because of their political positions, a too modest peace and justice agenda, lackluster liturgies with unprepared sermons and insensitive celebrants.

One may object that this initiative is a “pie in the sky” idea that the clerical establishment would never accept. Perhaps. Yet the implementation of specific alternatives like a lay council need not threaten the current leadership. For the authority of the church “is exercised in the service of truth and charity” (“Ut Unum Sint,” No. 3). Nor would a council undermine the pope’s authority. As Pope John Paul II wrote of the papacy: “The authority proper to this ministry is completely at the service of God’s merciful plan and it must always be seen in this perspective” (No. 92). Discerning that plan is a task that Catholics should take on together.

Following Pope John Paul’s example, we encourage our readers, clergy and lay, to evaluate this proposal and suggest other reforms that would achieve the same goals. The church has survived these 2,000 years because at key moments it chose the path of renewal. It may be that another such moment has arrived.

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6 years 9 months ago

The suggestion voiced before Pope John Paul II at the October 1994 Synod of Bishops in Rome by African bishop Ernest Kombo of Owando that women might some day be named “lay cardinals,” offers some timely grist for thought.

Some years ago Msgr. Joseph N. Moody was in San Francisco to be installed by Archbishop John R. Quinn as the newly elected president of the American Catholic Historical Association. Here is his terse comment to a letter I had shared with him when he visited my office here I San Francisco:

I received the copy I requested of the first draft of your letter to Americaon the intriguing subject, ‘Can women be cardinals if they cannot be priests?’

At first glance one might expect here an extremist piece, pressing for some outrageous demand.

On the contrary, I found it sober, solidly based on an understanding of history, and interesting as a potential escape from the apparent indifference of the Church to the strength of the woman’s movement.

 The suggestion certainly should be taken seriously. It should stimulate thought in the direction of filling the aspirations of women for a role in the Church without changing traditional attitudes toward the priesthood.

                                                         Msgr. Joseph N. Moody

I had reminded Msgr. Moody that, historically, the last cardinal who was not a priest was Giacomo Card. Antonelli (1806-1876), secretary of state to Pius IX, and that in 1489 Giovanni de’ Medici (the future Pope Leo X) was made a cardinal at the age of 13 by Pope Innocent VIII.  The Church can make of the cardinalate whatever she wishes. And she has.

The requirement (since John XXIII) that every cardinal be a bishop need not be a hindrance: the same Church that makes the rule can make the exception, as it did, for instance, with Card. Pavan (1983),  with Card. deLubac (1985) and, more recently, with Card. Avery Dulles (2001). Because he was a cardinal but not a bishop, Dulles became an honorary, non-voting member, of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops..

In his May 30, 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis Pope John Paul II reaffirmed the position that the Church does not have the authority to confer priestly ordination on women. The obvious implication being that, if we had the authority, we would not hesitate to ordain them.

 Since we will never see an apostolic letter claiming that the church does not consider herself authorized to confer the cardinalate on women, and since “the Church needs the gifts and talents of women, also as consultants at all levels,” (John Paul II, July 13, 1994), why is not a serious official effort being exerted toward redressing what many consider an obviously sexist ecclesiastical “tradition,” the all-male College of Cardinals? Clicking “Women presidents or prime ministers” on my web browser, I get a list of 49 women either presidents or prime ministers of a country. Wouldn’t a woman be also capable to serve our church as a cardinal? Is it unreasonable to dream that some day there might be women to represent over half of humankind in the pope’s council, even to help elect the pope of all?

In his May 30, 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis Pope John Paul II reaffirmed the position that the Church does not have the authority to confer priestly ordination on women. The obvious implication is that, if we had the authority, we would not hesitate to ordain them. It does not appear likely that some future apostolic letter will ever claim that the church does not consider herself authorized to confer the cardinalate on women.

Perhaps our ecclesiology is stronger than our Christology. In the Latin Creed we say of God’s Son “et homo factus est(and He became a human being), and not “et vir factus est” (and He became a male).

 Women cardinals? I smile when I recall what has been proposed as the Conservative Manifesto: “Nothing must ever be done for the first time.”

6 years 8 months ago
Victor Hugo had to right: "No army can withstand the strength of an idea whose time has come."  More recently a commenator on the intenational scene quoted an Egyptian poem that,  making the necesasarty modifications, has application here: "The Nile twists and turns but never dries up."  So it is with the role of the laity in the Church.  It is a colossal failure to read the signs of the times not to recognize that the laity are not going to be kept in a posiition of subjection by authority that show itself about as movable as a cliff.   Not when the Bishop of Rome addressing his laity in 2009 exhorts them to consider themselves not simply as collaborators but as co-responsible for the Church!  The elephant in the kitchen or wherever is that first man (deliberately sexist) posses power, then power posses man.  Verifiable in the political oder and in the church order as well.  God have mercy on us all!   
Veronica Harrison
6 years 8 months ago
The ideas are excellent.  Coincidentally, they are remarkably similar to ideas that I have proposed to my Catholic friends/acquaintances.  I had no idea that the editors of America would also consider such as feasible, let alone desirable.  The difference is, I go further.  I insist (as at least Tom in post #4 also agrees) that clericalism will not end with just a 50% composition of laypeople in dioceses, but that an end to mandatory celibacy must be part of a new Reformation, or a Vatican III.   The current mandatory celibacy is tied into some of the rigidity - not so much on moral theology, although some do complain of that - but especially in the approach, the language, the understanding of things like marriage, sexuality, parenthood, and certainly the evils of institutional sexual abuse.  I think it is necessary to break down the entrenched fear of women and of female sexuality that the celibate hierarchy communicates. 

And no matter how dramatically lay people are invited into the various strata of influence, we still need, will always need, ordained priests, and the Church will thrive much better with a greater number of priests.  There is no getting around this.  Lots of our currently practicing priests are beyond retirement age, yet feel pressured to remain.  They are lovely people, but they are dying and are not being replaced quickly enough in the American Church to sustain a healthy priesthood.  Lay people cannot confect the Eucharist and hear Confessions.  One has to make the active priesthood attractive to young men for their number to increase.  When a young man sees that the priesthood is both a place where he could bring a family and be an institution which functions in a way that he recognizes as a healthy modern institution (recommended by the editors of America), it is much more likely he will hear a call, first of all, and answer it, second of all.  The male clergy has got to stop regarding marriage as terrifying, and sexuality as terrifying.

But as far as it does go, congratulations to the editors of America.  I wish us all good luck and God Speed with our efforts at reform.
C Walter Mattingly
6 years 8 months ago
I have just read this article and all the comments thereunder, and have had reconfirmed my sense that the great strength of the church is its resistance to change, and that the great weakness of the church is its resistance to change.
Sean Keller
6 years 8 months ago
Are you serious?
C Walter Mattingly
6 years 8 months ago
Sean, if your question is directed to me, yes.


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