Cardinal Marcello Semeraro speaks at a news conference to present ‘Praedicate Evangelium’ at the Vatican, March 21, 2022 (CNS photo/Paul Haring).

There is great rejoicing in heaven today, or at least in that little corner where Yves Congar is still toiling away. No other twentieth-century Catholic theologian was so insistent on the close connection between baptism and mission. Now that Pope Francis has made clear in his motu proprio, Praedicate evangelium, that because “the Pope, bishops and other ordained ministers are not the only evangelizers in the church,” and “any member of the faithful can preside over a dicastery,” Congar’s great work, Lay People in the Church, comes to full fruition. Jesuit Fr. Gianfranco Ghirlando made this striking change even clearer at a March 21 press conference, saying that “the power of governance in the Church does not come from orders, but from one’s mission.” Governance becomes linked to canonical mission, which one is eligible for through baptism—not from the power of orders, as John Paul II had said in the previous curial reform. Now, in principle, all levels of Church governance are open to any Catholic, male or female. But there are two questions to be asked about the implications of the change for the role of ordained ministry. First, what is left for ordained ministry if governance is removed from the job description? And second, how, if at all, can we reconnect ministry and governance for the good of the Church?

Pope Francis has long wanted the ordained to give more attention to pastoral concerns and spend less time managing a complex institution like a parish or diocese. Given the growing shortage of ordained ministers, this surely makes good sense—except, of course, that just as the pope has now made clear that there is no essential connection between ordination and governance, so it is also evident that there is no essential connection between ordination and pastoral activities. Lay ecclesial ministers in the Church have been doing tasks of both governance and pastoral care quite successfully for several decades. It might indeed be a better Church if all the ordained spent their time on preaching and teaching, on exercising pastoral care and presiding at the Eucharist, while the managerial and governance functions are attended to by suitably qualified laypersons. This is evidently not what the pope wants for two reasons: first, if he did, he would have required Vatican dicasteries to be run by lay professionals and would have disqualified the ordained; and second, he would have expanded his new understanding of the relationship between governance and baptism to the realm of parishes and dioceses. In reforming the Vatican he is disconnecting the power of orders from bureaucracy, which is only common sense. But in the parish or diocesan context, governance remains closely tied to the power of orders and is unlikely to be changed in a fashion parallel to that envisaged for the Curia.

In reforming the Vatican he is disconnecting the power of orders from bureaucracy, which is only common sense.

In the last few decades, the increase in lay participation in parish and diocesan leadership positions in much of the global Catholic Church has anticipated what the pope is now implementing in the Vatican, but the American parochial and diocesan scene suggests the need for a little greater clarity about the papal reforms. In particular, it requires more thought about the relationship between governance and leadership. While Francis has decoupled governance of Vatican dicasteries from the power of orders, clearly this does not imply that papal authority over these dicasteries has been dissolved. Does this mean that governance at the level of the supreme pontiff is still coupled with the power of orders? Or is “Supreme Governor” to be added to the list of papal titles? We also might need to ask if Francis’s choice of the term “governance” connotes leadership, or if it is really meant to indicate the lesser role of management. If he means the former—that governance connotes leadership and it is now linked to baptismal rather than ministerial priesthood—does this constitute a diminishment of the roles of the ordained, or their redirection to more narrowly pastoral activities? I argue that another intention is more likely. The entire reform makes two important changes: first, to professionalize the Curia and thus to make it the servant of the world Church, and second, to insist on the bishop’s autonomy in his own diocese, free of the many frustrations that can occur because of curial “oversight.” Both of these moves reflect the ecclesial vision of Vatican II.

If this assessment is correct, then the papal reforms, while sweeping, are pragmatic moves with no theological or ecclesiological consequences. The common-sense clarification that any baptized Catholic can in principle lead a Vatican dicastery has a sting in its tail in the additional comment that no one, ordained or lay, should hold such a position if they are not qualified to assume it. There is little danger that a lay Catholic would ever be so placed, but there is plenty of evidence that the curial cardinals who have ruled the Vatican roost for so long have not always been selected for either competence or spectacular holiness. It might then be that we should look at the reform differently. Is it anything more than the practical follow-up to the annual excoriation of the Curia that Pope Francis has regularly handed out every Christmastime? If it is more, then how he assigns laypeople to the heads of one or another dicastery will be telling. If a layperson is placed in charge of the Dicastery for Laity, that will be no great surprise. But isn’t it possible (actually, way more than possible) that the best choice to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith might very well be a lay theologian? After all, most theologians these days are laypeople, and most bishops are not very good theologians. I suppose it is reasonable to assume that the competent individual to lead the Dicastery for Bishops will be a bishop, and an ordained person will most likely lead the Dicastery for the Clergy. But if Praedicate evangelium makes it so clear that evangelization is licensed by baptism, who is to say that the supreme dicastery in the papal vision, that of Evangelization, might not even be led by a layperson?

Who is to say that the supreme dicastery in the papal vision, that of Evangelization, might not even be led by a layperson?

If we assume that the idea of governance is connected to leadership, and not just to management, then this brings up the second question: the relationship between governance and ordination at the local church level. Let’s imagine for a moment the consequences of continuing Francis’s curial reform in the context of an American diocese. Evidently, governing or presiding over the various offices in diocesan administration would now be declared open to any baptized Catholic, not be tied to the power of orders. Of course, to some extent this has already been true for several decades, particularly in a role like the chancellor of the diocese, held not infrequently by a lay woman. A glance at my own diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, shows lay governance of the majority of diocesan offices, excluding that for “clergy and religious” and the diocesan tribunal, which adjudicates all requests for marriage annulments. While it is not surprising or controversial that the office for clergy and religious is presided over by a priest, why every single officer on the tribunal is either a priest or a deacon is less easy to justify. Wisdom and a knowledge of canon law would seem to be the requirements for office, not ordination. The clerical monopoly in Bridgeport may be serendipitous, but if it is a pattern across American dioceses, it would need to change to fall into line with the papal reform­—if, that is, the reform is intended to be anything more than cleaning up the Roman Curia. Nor is there any particular reason why the head of the tribunal should not be a layperson, male or female. A quick glance beyond Bridgeport reveals a wide variety of organizational models. Compare, for example, the overwhelmingly clerical composition of the tribunal in the Archdiocese of New York with the overwhelmingly lay membership of the tribunal in the diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina.

If we look a little further at the structure of leadership in the parish, things become even more interesting. As is well-known, canon law stipulates that a parish pastoral council must be presided over by the pastor and has only an advisory or consultative role. In other words, while it might take a vote on this or that matter, the vote never binds the pastor. Of course, the parish council would do well to defer to the priest over matters to do with liturgy, ritual and—maybe—theological discernment, but there are many matters often considered by parish councils that are far more mundane. In these cases it is hard to see why the pastor should always have the last say. It is not hard to imagine that lay roles might expand to more than consultative status as awareness increases of the new wind blowing through the Vatican.

This in its turn brings us to the one theological hypothetical that emerges from papal reform of the Curia. If it is correct that the papal reforms are intended to refocus priestly life on more narrowly sacramental roles, and if there could be and maybe also is already a carry-over to the structures of parochial life, shall we end up with the pastor as a mere Massing-priest, someone brought out to celebrate the Eucharist and deliver a homily on the scriptural texts of the day? This seems unsatisfactory. Isn’t the priest meant to be the leader of the local community, the symbol of its unity in faith? But the more governance at the parochial level is held in lay hands, the more restricted becomes the role of the clergy. We may not yet be ready for the full implications of this line of thought, though seventy years or so ago Yves Congar offered the prescient observation that “now we have to ask not what is the role of the laity in relationship to the clergy, but rather what is the role of the clergy in relationship to the laity.” When we conclude that the role of the clergy is being reduced to saying Mass and preaching, then we may have reached a moment at which we turn the ecclesiological question around and ask whether a rethinking of the categories of laity and clergy might lead to a different Church—in which, perhaps, the one at the altar is there because he or she is acceptable to the community as their leader, the symbol of their unity in faith.

So what might the future of ministry look like? Allow me to pirate from my book of twenty years ago, The Liberation of the Laity, and suggest that we might see a team ministry of several individuals ordained in each parish, each of them ordained because he or she has the gift of leadership in faith. Probably people with “day jobs,” they would be ordained into what is sometimes called “relational ontology.” That is, their ordination to leadership and presidency at the Eucharist would place them in a different relation to the community of faith than they would previously have had, and perhaps one that they might also relinquish after a time. Such a vision would obviously move us away from the so-called “character theology” which imagines an indelible ontological change occurring at the moment of ordination. This theology is not helpful and lies at the heart of the ills of clericalism. As Pope Francis prioritizes the ontological change of baptism as the license to govern, we might want to ask just how many ontological changes anyone needs, just how many times they can become a new creation. If and when we approach the clergy/laity relationship like this, acknowledging that the baptismal priesthood is the default and ministerial priesthood is distinguished by the charism of leadership more than by the power of orders, most of the difficulties considered above would evaporate.

Paul Lakeland is emeritus professor of religious studies at Fairfield University.

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