Trust the Laity

It is a teaching moment that happens in every seminary. The professor has finished presenting some difficult point in theology, Scripture, or history. Perhaps the issue is that human language is inadequate to describe God, or that there are contradictions in the New Testament, or that marriage took a long time to become a sacrament. Some seminarian invariably asks, “How can we preach this?” Or, “How can I ever tell my people this?”

The question reveals two assumptions, both false. The first is that seminarians are highly intelligent people who have been initiated into a caste-specific lore inaccessible to ordinary people. The second assumption is that the laity are less intelligent and more easily shocked by the arcana of higher theological learning than are these new initiates.

When the question occurs in my classes, I point out the error in both assumptions. First, people studying for the ministry these days (in all denominations) are not for the most part exceptionally bright; the talent pool for ministers is distressingly shallow. More important, for the most part, the laity (in all denominations) are as bright, and often better educated, than the clergy. In many Catholic parishes, the people in the pews are smarter and more knowledgeable than the priest in the pulpit.

This is something new. The so-called immigrant church did not count many scholars among its laity. And in those days, the clergy was, by comparison, truly learned: having some philosophy and theology and a bit of Latin distinguished the local pastor from laborers and traders. Some priests, like my boyhood pastor in Jackson, Mississippi, Josiah Chatham, were genuine intellectuals. But the tradition of a learned clergy is now everywhere in decline. In the 1950s, as many graduates of Ivy League schools went into ministry as into the other professions. Today it is difficult to find graduates of even decent liberal arts colleges among seminarians.

The good news for Catholics, though, is that the laity are more than capable of assuming a greater leadership role. A group as vocal and organized as Voice of the Faithful makes us aware of the firepower that has lain dormant within the nonordained. In nearly every parish doctors, lawyers, architects, and professors serve as lectors and eucharistic ministers, and as members of the parish council. Scientists, technicians, engineers, and executives organize and run parish ministries. More Catholics have gone to college than have not, receiving an education at least equal and often superior to that of the clergy. In their ordinary lives, moreover, the Catholic laity thrive in the highly demanding world of twenty-first-century capitalism, which is based squarely on brains and the ability to manipulate information quickly and accurately. And they read: they clog the aisles of Borders and Barnes & Noble, seeking fare for the mind more substantial than that offered by the popular media or even from the pulpit.

Such intelligence and learning, wedded to a good heart and a willing spirit, is an obvious gift to the church. How wonderful it is to have a CPA manage the parish books rather than someone who is less than fully numerate. How excellent to have trips to Haiti led by doctors and nurses. How splendid to have adult-education classes led by college professors. How good to have intelligence and understanding direct the myriad activities of the church at every level. How exciting it ought to be to preach or teach a congregation that likes to think and is eager for learning in the faith.

Of course, an involved, well-educated laity present challenges too, especially to the status clerics once enjoyed. Another source of conflict is the problem of lay dissatisfaction with poorly argued official clerical declarations, with the poor quality of preaching, and with the meager intellectual diet offered in most parishes.

Maybe educated Catholics can’t do much about magisterial pronouncements. But I suspect that the same kind of energy that has gone into Voice of the Faithful’s response to the sexual-abuse crisis might be applied to conditions that are more chronic but no less severe. Why can’t positive and creative pressure be applied at the local and diocesan levels to find ways to make preaching more informed and better formed, more learned and also more pious? As for adult education, Catholics could take a page from (some of) their Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Episcopalian neighbors. They could think about finding financial and institutional support for a serious, full-time theologian to serve a parish or consortium of parishes. Short of that, lay leaders in parishes can and should work to endow lectures and workshops that can energize a congregation and keep it talking-and thinking-for months.

Published in the 2006-03-24 issue: 

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor. His many books include Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).

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