Arise, Reform

Book cover
The Liberation of the Laityby By Paul LakelandContinuum. 311p $28.95

Timing is everything. Many of the elements of a sophisticated theology of the laity and recommendations for church reform featured in Paul Lakeland’s new book originated earlier and elsewhere. But never before have they been put together in such a compelling way and, more to the point, at such an opportune time. If the church cannot muster the will for wholesale reform of structural non-essentials now, in the midst of the gravest crisis in the history of Catholicism in the United States, we are certainly doomed to continue to behave in our embarrassingly dysfunctional way until the last ounce of credibility and influence of our faith community is squandered.

To his credit, Lakeland, a theologian and professor of religious studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut, did not write an instant book to capitalize on the scandals of sexual abuse by priests and mismanagement and malfeasance by bishops. (Indeed, the author is, at best, a reluctant capitalist; he wants a renewed church to oppose the distorted view of human nature and disciplining of desire that is promoted by global capitalism.) Rather, Lakeland began the project four years ago, and his diagnosis of ecclesial malaise, like the crisis itself, is rooted in the disabling events and trends of the four postconciliar decades leading to the present moment. Like many lay leaders, Lakeland sees the sexual abuse crisis as a particularly horrible, but not altogether surprising, result of the increasing isolation of the bishops and some clergy from the laity, as the former have clung ever so tightly to clerical power and prerogatives despite the Second Vatican Council’s unqualified proclamation of the adult equality of all the baptized, as Lakeland puts it.


But the days of the infantilization of the laity are over. No longer will we settle for second-class status in a church that announced its commitment to collegiality, consultation and sustained apostolic ministry in and for the world, only to retreat ingloriously into the familiar two-tiered ecclesiology of the (counter-Reformation) Council of Trent and the (counter-modern) First Vatican Council.

Lakeland builds this case in admirably systematic fashion. The first half of the book reviews the modern history of theological reflection on the laitya short story indeed. The neo-Scholastic paradigm for theology that dominated the 19th century was based on extrinsicism, the idea that divine revelation is external to the believing subject and entrusted only to the magisterium. In such a system the leavening role of the Holy Spirit was confined to the apostolic era; the great error of the Catholic Modernists, condemned in 1907 by Pope Pius X (with specifics provided by his neo-Scholastic advisors), was their embrace of the notion of vital immanencethe vivifying, indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in the soul of each individual. The Modernists thus threatened the objectivity of revelation and, even more damning, the irreplaceable role of the pope and other bishops as the inheritors, custodians and authoritative interpreters of the revealed tradition.

To the extent that the Modernists taught that the indwelling presence of the Spirit makes every believer a mini-magisterium unto himself or herself, they were indeed in error. Lakeland’s heroes are not the Modernists, however, but the proponents of the so-called new theologyprimarily French Dominican and Jesuit theologians, including Marie-Dominique Chenu, Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélouwho, from the 1930’s onward, salvaged what was crucial in Modernism and went on to revolutionize Catholic theology. For Lakeland’s purposes, the hero of heroes was the great Dominican theologian Yves Congar, whose theological reflections on the laity were both forward-looking and enormously influential in the preparation of the documents of Vatican II, especially the chapter on the laity in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium, 1963).

The author provides a sustained critique of Congar’s thought, applauding his explication of the idea of the laity as the pleroma [fullness] of the hierarchical priesthood, development of an ecclesiology from below and emphasis on the need for lay consent in ecclesial governance, in order to make the church a living community as well as a hierarchical structure. But Lakeland also criticizes Congar’s outdated insistence that the power of decision making rests solely with the hierarchywith a hierarchy, moreover, that has come to be defined by historically conditioned and hence non-essential characteristics such as gender and celibacy. Congar is correct that democratic decision making, at least on the Western model of one person, one vote, is not the way of the church, Lakeland writes. But what we might call a democracy of access’ to the ranks of ecclesial leadership cannot be so easily brushed aside.

Vatican II, by concentrating almost exclusively on the lay apostolate and giving short shrift to the theological meaning of lay life, developed only one strand of Congar’s thought. But the questions he raised, Lakeland argues, not least the meaning of the lay state in light of the council’s re-commitment to the so-called secular world, continue to demand resolution.

In a rewarding if somewhat overstated chapter on the priority of the secular, which opens the second, theologically constructive half of the book, Lakeland adopts a creationist and incarnational perspective. He rejects any distinction between the sacred and the secular, and emphasizes the unconditionality of the secular. This world is not merely a way station on the journey to the real; it is the real. The world’s struggle toward a fuller humanity is salvation history. Nothing in the Christian story, properly understood, he writes, encourages us to think of the church as a kind of outpost of the sacred, whence the cavalry make occasional christianizing forays upon the local population. The church, that is, is not a reality apart from the secular, but a particular reality within the secular. Its mission is to bring the secular world to its own perfection through the realization of human freedom.

The ecclesiological implications for this view of mission are dramatic. Ordained ministers, overseeing the sacramental life of the church, do not provide an alternative reality to the world, or an escape from it; rather, they empower the worshippers to deepen their involvement in the world, which God created to be secular (i.e., not otherworldly) and free.

This secular theology, in turn, carries implications for the structure of the church. Might it not be the case that alongside new forms of ministry that must emerge if the ecclesial reality of a secular church is to be respected, new forms of leadership must be conceived? Lakeland asks. Structures of leadership and authority exist to serve the mission of the church.... Mission cannot be subordinated to structure.

Here Lakeland, drawing liberally upon the methods and insights of liberation theology, echoes and extends Congar’s criticisms of the subordination of lay ministry to the hierarchical ministry. The church is called to serve and transform the world through the exercise of human freedom. The laity are the primary agents of mission defined in this way; ministries within the church exist for the building up of the ministry to the world. Thus, although the mission of the church is exercised in different ways, Congar wrote, there is no particular mission differentiating the faithful and the ministerial priesthood. Indeed, he remarked, today it is necessary for the priest to be defined in relation to the layperson.

Lakeland’s criticism of the hierarchy in the postconciliar period, and of Pope John Paul II in particular, is harshbut it is shared by many faithful and responsible Catholics. No less a figure than the bishop of Innsbruck, for example, voiced strongly worded objections to the re-clericalization of ministry under John Paul II. Responding to the Vatican Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests (1997)an ungenerous list of ministerial practices forbidden to the laity, including the distribution of Communion outside cases of real necessityBishop Reinhold Stecher lamented the astonishing theological and pastoral inadequacy of current church leadership. Despite the fact that Catholics around the world are denied the Eucharist regularly because of a shortage of priests, he complained, the Vatican seems determined to preserve clerical celibacy at all costs. Office in the church, interpreted in biblical terms, Stecher warned, constitutes an office of serving and not an exercise in sacred narcissism which can be unconcerned whether millions upon millions of Christians even have the opportunity to receive the grace-giving sacraments and to nurture the center of their community which, according to Scripture and dogma, is the Eucharist in a humanly meaningful manner.

In the concluding chapter, which specifies the reforms necessary to build an accountable church, Lakeland calls for an ordained ministry whose members are called by the local church (from among the ranks of married men and women, among others) and confirmed by the bishop, the election of bishops and the elimination of the clericalized bureaucracy that currently manages the day-to-day affairs of the universal church. He distinguishes between the democratization of access to positions of authority within the church, and the actual exercise of that authority, which (especially in matters of faith and morals) is not subject to a popular vote. Along the way, Lakeland insists that nothing essential, from the papacy to religious life to the full panoply of Catholic symbols and doctrines, would be sacrificed in this restructuring, while renewal would be gained and vitality and trust restored.

Lakeland’s case has its weaknesses. Absolutely critical to the plausibility of his proposed reforms is the contention that they would restore the church to its ancient, apostolic patterns of ministry and self-understanding. Unfortunately, the author provides only a gloss on the history of pre-Constantinian ministry, rather than a substantive treatment. Likewise, more attention could have been devoted to answering reasonable objections to the unconditional secularity that legitimates Lakeland’s eradication of the conventional distinctions between lay and ordained ministry. These concerns include the possible loss or diminishment of the prophetic and transcendent dimensions of Catholic witness and the withering of the graced (and sometimes fierce) independence of the church from the structures of secularity.

Given the ominous signs of these troubled times, The Liberation of the Laity is nonetheless a most important book. Aided by a burst of courage implanted in the right hearts by the indwelling Spirit, it could become a landmark.

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