Continuing with our special Countdown to Synod of the Baptized 2010 series . . .
Priest shortage? Lay ministers? Vocation crisis?
Amid all the confusion over the meaning of the word “ministry,” Paul Lakeland first frames the question as he says it should be asked: “What can we do to serve the people of God better and to engage them all in the work of the Church without breaking definitively with some fundamentals of our religious tradition?
Tradition is in service of mission.
Tradition is essential; particular traditions are not. (p. 69)
If we cling firmly to the belief that Church tradition is the way we remain faithful to the Gospel through the changing fortunes of history, then traditions within the tradition can never be set in stone. They must certainly not be changed lightly, but they must equally certainly be changed when the proclamation of the Gospel—the very mission of the Church—is in danger of being compromised. (p. 70)
Paul recommends thinking of ministry on two axes, one of leadership for mission and one of service to mission, rather than in hierarchies or split between clergy and laity. “A bishop’s work is at the intersection of both axes but his position is unique.” There is equality among the ministries on each axis, one is not above another. Some leaders are ordained, some are not. “Holy Orders” is a ministry of service, as is director of faith formation which does not require ordination.
Another way of thinking about ministries is to focus on the talents of individuals and each brings his/her gifts to leadership for mission or service to mission.
Is the Church’s mission being compromised by insistence on a celibate male clergy or is it a fundamental of our religious tradition?
The official position of the Church is that the linking of priesthood and celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church, while neither absolute nor strictly essential, is so long-standing a tradition that to make a change would be a mistake. It would be inadvisable, so the magisterial teaching concludes, to break with long-standing tradition. (p. 69)
We have now reached the deplorable point in most of the worldwide Church when the Eucharist is not as readily available to the community of faith as it should be, and may before long become even scarcer. …In much of North America the shortage of priest s is only beginning to hit a Church that had abundant ministers for at least the last century. (p. 71)
The shortage today is a shortage of a commodity called “ordained ministers” or “priests.” In the distant past this could not happen because there was no such commodity. Today there is a pool of clergy ordained to serve wherever the bishops choose to send them. In the past a community chose someone to be its leader, usually for life. On the older model it would be impossible to have a “shortage of clergy” because each community had its leader. (p.71)
In recent centuries the Catholic Church has distinguished between a call to priesthood by Christ, based on Jesus calling the apostles, and a call by the community to other forms of ministry. This distinction confers a qualitative difference on the call to ordained priesthood. Paul says:
The distinction between calling by Christ and commissioning by the community of faith is an artificial one that does not stand up to any good test. Once we ask the question of how Christ calls the minister to serve the community we can immediately see the problem. The calling is either by some bolt from the blue or somehow by the Church’s ratification of the candidate’s sense of vocation. In the Church of the present day that validation is entirely in the hands of the institutional Church, represented by seminary rectors, teachers, and spiritual directors, and eventually the bishop. But there is absolutely no reason to see this as calling by Christ rather than calling by the community, anymore than for the local community to put a candidate forward would be clearly a calling by the community rather than a calling by Christ. Both approaches are simultaneously a calling by Christ and by the community, because there is no other way than the consent of the community to indicate that Christ has genuinely called this person to ministry. (p.74)
NEXT: The Third Challenge: The Roles of Women in the Church.
To read about and discuss the first challenge, Identity and Commitment, click here.
Theologian and author Paul Lakeland will be the keynote speaker at the Catholic Coalition for Church reform's September 18 Synod of the Baptized: "Claiming Our Place at the Table." For more information about this event and to register, click here.