The Editors

To the extent of their knowledge, competence or authority the laity are entitled, and indeed sometimes duty-bound, to express their opinions on matters concerning the good of the church.” It might surprise many Catholics that this bold statement on the responsibilities of laypersons in the church comes not from some radical fringe Catholic group, or from a “dissident” theologian, or from an angry former Catholic, but instead from one of the Second Vatican Council’s most important documents, “The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.” And perhaps at no time in the history of the church in this country have these words been more appropriate. As American Catholics reflect on the revelations of the past year concerning sexual abuse in the priesthood, many are feeling moved to “express their opinions.”

 

One result of the scandals has been, on the part of many laypersons, not only a general distrust of the American bishops but a concomitant desire for a greater role in the decision-making structures of the church. Many believe that the involvement of laypersons would have prevented the reassignment of abusive priests. (One frequently hears it said that a parent would not have been so quick to reassign such a priest.) Others are simply so disheartened with the results of these decisions that they seek arenas where they can express their justified anger and their feelings of powerlessness. Still others see the church as a beloved institution that is deeply troubled and therefore in need of their assistance—in other words, they feel “duty-bound” to help.

Whatever the reasons it is clear that many laypersons increasingly feel called to seek a greater voice in the church. It is also obvious that the church needs to hear this voice in a new way.

Sadly, some bishops have taken a dim view of the lay organizations that have sprung up in response to the scandals. For many months, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston refused to meet with officials of the national organization Voice of the Faithful. (He finally met with three of their leaders last month.) Some bishops have banned such groups from meeting in churches. Some have hinted darkly at a “hidden agenda.” Others have declared them to be “anti-church.”

Such responses fly in the face of the teaching of the quotation cited above. First, laypersons certainly have the right to organize into groups. There is assuredly nothing “anti-church” about organizations of laypersons, particularly those who have faithfully participated in their local parishes as deacons, Eucharistic ministers, lectors and teachers—are not they too the church?

Second, while in canon law the bishop clearly has the ultimate responsibility for church buildings, these buildings are for the community and its members—after all, they paid for their construction and upkeep.

Third, regarding accusations of “hidden agendas,” it is wrong immediately to ascribe negative motives to groups whose stated goals seem in line not only with church teaching but also common sense. Undoubtedly some members espouse positions at odds with the hierarchy, but this is true of any gathering of Catholics—even at Sunday liturgies. In these times, it is helpful for all—laity and hierarchy—to remember St. Ignatius Loyola’s dictum that one should always be willing to understand a person’s words in the most positive light. Bishops who now ask for trust in the wake of the scandals should model this virtue by trusting the laity.

Finding ways for effective lay involvement in church decision-making is not easy. The structures developed after the council have had mixed results. Parish councils are sometimes effective, but at other times are simply ignored. Both pastors and people are often uncertain how to make them work, and a change of leadership can throw them into confusion. “Town hall meetings” can disintegrate into shouting matches between the disaffected and the pastor’s supporters, while mainstream parishioners stay home. Who actually speaks for the laity is a difficult question with no clear answer. Diocesan pastoral councils face similar difficulties with wider and less focused agendas. How many of them have discussed the sexual abuse crisis? All of these structures need to be revitalized and taken more seriously by both bishops and laity.

The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin called for more open and honest dialogue in the church through his Common Ground initiative. Sadly most of the hierarchy ignored or attacked this proposal, for which they are now paying the price. Today the laity feel “duty-bound” to express their opinions. If the hierarchy fails to listen, the U.S. church could suffer from the plague of anticlericalism that has afflicted the European church for more than a century. No harm is ever done by listening.

Comments

Rev. Mr. Michael Mobley | 12/28/2002 - 8:34am
I am sure you will get some response on the statement about deacon with small d as a lay person. Even our church call's, classifys and treats Deacon's that way for employment purpose's. Code Of Cannon Law however (266) say's that a person becomes a cleric through the reception of diaconate. Deacon's are part of the hierarchical structure of the church,from the beginning there were Bishop's and Deacon's. A deacon was the first to carry the gospel and baptism to the gentiles,(see the story about Steven and Phillip Acts chapter 6-9).

Lorenzo Palafox, S.J. | 12/17/2002 - 12:25pm
It should be noted that deacons are clergy not part of the laity.

Timothy Germann | 12/17/2002 - 12:05pm
Dear Father Jon Fuller,

Here is a link that reflects on your words!

http://www.illinoistimes.com/f_calling.html

If the Dominicans want him, why not the Jesuits. I'm sure that his marriage can be easily annulled. Think of the great sharing he can accomplish from the pulpit!

Deacon Charles Roche | 12/13/2002 - 12:21am
I have subscribed to America for many years and have found your publication an impetus to rethink so many issues that challenge us to become Church. How disappointing it was to open your issue dated December 16, 2002 , (The Laity's Response ), and read that such a learned group of Jesuits still believe that deacons are Laity. Perhaps, a future article in America, "Deacons, the forgotten Clergy" could help others recognize that in the Roman Catholic Church, all who have received the Sacrament of Holy Orders are members of the Clergy. Bishop, Priest and Deacon, each responding to the Call to service with their own charisms. Each saying, "Here I am Lord."

There are 13,000 deacons in the U.S. The majority of whom are financially self sufficient through secular employment. We give our time. We give our talents. We give our financial support. We paid for our formation. We pay for additional training. We pay for our vestments. We pay for any material we use for evangelization. All stipends offered for funerals, baptisms, and weddings belong to the parish. Most major corporations would jump for joy if they had 13,000 workers who truly believe in their corporate 'mission' and freely dedicate their lives and their assets to that mission.

In the ten years since I was ordained to be a Herald of the Gospel , I have met many clergy from many different faith traditions. Most, were very open, honest, and welcoming. I have also met some faith filled bishops, priests and deacons in our own Church who helped fill my heart with hope. Yet, there are those among us, who feel threatened by the very presence of a deacon.

There was a time when their rejection of my Call to Orders upset me deeply. It took some time to readjust my vision. With the help of God, I have learned to focus on, living the promises I made on Ordination Day. I pray daily, "Here I am Lord, use me as You will." I now focus on the lost, the lonely, the forgotten. Activities around the "Church Structures", the political infighting, the pecking order and the place of honor have lost their appeal.

I assist at Mass most weekends, preach on a regular basis, baptize infants, witness marriages, preside at wake services, visit the home bound and nursing homes. I also facilitate a "Welcome Home" for inactive Catholics once a year. However, I have always believed that it is most important to carry the Gospel out of the Church into everyday life and Live it! I find myself ministering more and more to people I meet at work, while I'm shopping or if I just stop to get a hair cut. I listen to people's cares and concerns. I remind them of God's love for all of His children and we pray together. As we celebrate the Eucharist, I lay all of the troubles I've encountered during the week , at the foot of the Altar. I turn to the One who loves us all, and ask for guidance on how best to address these concerns..........then it's back to living with the grace of God.

I pray always, that God will soften the stony hearts of those who reject deacons as brothers in Ministry. I pray, that my brother deacons who experience rejection will not lose faith, but look within, and hear the reaffirming whisper of the One who has Called us all to service. I pray that our bishops recognize their call to be Shepherd of all God's people, and that they recognize the gift God has given the Church in the diaconate. Someday, perhaps in the New Jerusalem, I will see bishops, priests, deacons, religious and lay disciples finally recognize that we who are one in the Lord, have been Called to utilize our God given gifts to built the Kingdom.

Deacon Paul Rooney | 12/12/2002 - 11:03am
In your December 16 editorial, "The Laity's Response," you made a serious error and show a lack of knowledge - or perhaps just a rusty memory.

I quote: "There is assuredly nothing 'anti-church' about organizations of laypersons, particularly those who have faithfully participated in their local parishes as deacons, Eucharistic ministers, lectors and teachers - are not they too the church?"

Please review your canon law. Deacons are CLERGY, not laypersons.

Rev. Mr. Michael Mobley | 12/28/2002 - 8:34am
I am sure you will get some response on the statement about deacon with small d as a lay person. Even our church call's, classifys and treats Deacon's that way for employment purpose's. Code Of Cannon Law however (266) say's that a person becomes a cleric through the reception of diaconate. Deacon's are part of the hierarchical structure of the church,from the beginning there were Bishop's and Deacon's. A deacon was the first to carry the gospel and baptism to the gentiles,(see the story about Steven and Phillip Acts chapter 6-9).

Lorenzo Palafox, S.J. | 12/17/2002 - 12:25pm
It should be noted that deacons are clergy not part of the laity.

Timothy Germann | 12/17/2002 - 12:05pm
Dear Father Jon Fuller,

Here is a link that reflects on your words!

http://www.illinoistimes.com/f_calling.html

If the Dominicans want him, why not the Jesuits. I'm sure that his marriage can be easily annulled. Think of the great sharing he can accomplish from the pulpit!

Deacon Charles Roche | 12/13/2002 - 12:21am
I have subscribed to America for many years and have found your publication an impetus to rethink so many issues that challenge us to become Church. How disappointing it was to open your issue dated December 16, 2002 , (The Laity's Response ), and read that such a learned group of Jesuits still believe that deacons are Laity. Perhaps, a future article in America, "Deacons, the forgotten Clergy" could help others recognize that in the Roman Catholic Church, all who have received the Sacrament of Holy Orders are members of the Clergy. Bishop, Priest and Deacon, each responding to the Call to service with their own charisms. Each saying, "Here I am Lord."

There are 13,000 deacons in the U.S. The majority of whom are financially self sufficient through secular employment. We give our time. We give our talents. We give our financial support. We paid for our formation. We pay for additional training. We pay for our vestments. We pay for any material we use for evangelization. All stipends offered for funerals, baptisms, and weddings belong to the parish. Most major corporations would jump for joy if they had 13,000 workers who truly believe in their corporate 'mission' and freely dedicate their lives and their assets to that mission.

In the ten years since I was ordained to be a Herald of the Gospel , I have met many clergy from many different faith traditions. Most, were very open, honest, and welcoming. I have also met some faith filled bishops, priests and deacons in our own Church who helped fill my heart with hope. Yet, there are those among us, who feel threatened by the very presence of a deacon.

There was a time when their rejection of my Call to Orders upset me deeply. It took some time to readjust my vision. With the help of God, I have learned to focus on, living the promises I made on Ordination Day. I pray daily, "Here I am Lord, use me as You will." I now focus on the lost, the lonely, the forgotten. Activities around the "Church Structures", the political infighting, the pecking order and the place of honor have lost their appeal.

I assist at Mass most weekends, preach on a regular basis, baptize infants, witness marriages, preside at wake services, visit the home bound and nursing homes. I also facilitate a "Welcome Home" for inactive Catholics once a year. However, I have always believed that it is most important to carry the Gospel out of the Church into everyday life and Live it! I find myself ministering more and more to people I meet at work, while I'm shopping or if I just stop to get a hair cut. I listen to people's cares and concerns. I remind them of God's love for all of His children and we pray together. As we celebrate the Eucharist, I lay all of the troubles I've encountered during the week , at the foot of the Altar. I turn to the One who loves us all, and ask for guidance on how best to address these concerns..........then it's back to living with the grace of God.

I pray always, that God will soften the stony hearts of those who reject deacons as brothers in Ministry. I pray, that my brother deacons who experience rejection will not lose faith, but look within, and hear the reaffirming whisper of the One who has Called us all to service. I pray that our bishops recognize their call to be Shepherd of all God's people, and that they recognize the gift God has given the Church in the diaconate. Someday, perhaps in the New Jerusalem, I will see bishops, priests, deacons, religious and lay disciples finally recognize that we who are one in the Lord, have been Called to utilize our God given gifts to built the Kingdom.

Deacon Paul Rooney | 12/12/2002 - 11:03am
In your December 16 editorial, "The Laity's Response," you made a serious error and show a lack of knowledge - or perhaps just a rusty memory.

I quote: "There is assuredly nothing 'anti-church' about organizations of laypersons, particularly those who have faithfully participated in their local parishes as deacons, Eucharistic ministers, lectors and teachers - are not they too the church?"

Please review your canon law. Deacons are CLERGY, not laypersons.

Martin E. Wolf | 1/31/2007 - 9:42am
I have subscribed to America for the past six months or so, and I read every issue from cover to cover. Your presentation on the various topics covered is always very fair and well supported. I enjoy the magazine very much.

There was one small error in the editorial on Dec. 16, 2002, to which I wish to call your attention. In support of the position that the laity should have a voice in church affairs, you list a number of ministry positions as examples of the laity’s involvement in church functions. In that list you include deacons. I am sure this was an oversight, as deacons receive the sacrament of holy orders and are members of the clergy.

Ordinarily, I would not mention the error, but my experience is that the diaconate is misunderstood by most Catholics I meet. Recently I was asked by a friend who learned that I was in formation: “Why do we need deacons? They just stand around on the altar and take up space.” Given the current crises facing the church regarding the clergy (abuse scandal, perceived shortage of priests and religious, celibacy, among others), might I suggest an article on the permanent diaconate and its role in light of these crises?

Thank you for publishing a wonderful magazine. I look forward to reading it for many more years.

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