Who Represents the Laity?

Looking Beyond the New Ecclesial Movements
(CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

One of the most important moments in the pontificate of Francis could be the publication, probably sometime in the next few months, of the apostolic constitution Praedicate evangelium, about the reform of the Roman Curia. It will be interesting to see what Francis’s reform will keep of the old Roman Curia created by Pope Sixtus V in 1588, which is still very similar to the one we have today. It will also be very interesting to see what place is accorded to new institutions, especially the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, established by Francis in March 2014. The relationship of that commission to the other congregations and dicasteries of the Vatican has, until now, been unclear and precarious.

Francis’s use of the Roman Curia—and his way of governing the church mostly without it—says a lot about his vision for the future of Catholicism. What is most remarkable is that this pontificate has caused so much opposition even though there has been so little institutional change in the five-and-a-half years since Francis became pope. The Bishops’ Synod is an exception. Otherwise, Francis has been remarkably reluctant to make changes in the curial status quo. We can see this from the kind of lay people he has appointed in the curia. On October 6 the Vatican announced new appointments to the Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life. These included bishops and clergy, but also new lay members. Many of the new members come from the so-called new ecclesial movements: International Ecclesial Team of “Worldwide Marriage Encounter,” Schoenstatt, Communion and Liberation, the Catholic community Shalom (Brazil), Community of Sant’Egidio, and the Focolare movement.

These appointments raise an important question about the kind of laity that is represented in the Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life. The problem is not that these new lay members are particularly liberal or conservative; the problem is that the ecclesial movements they represent are hardly representative of the Catholic laity overall. These movements are very good at promoting themselves—witness their success in securing recognition from church authorities. But the vast majority of the Catholic laity are not affiliated with any of these movements and are represented by no one in the Vatican, unless we count the nonordained members of this dicastery who were appointed for their professional expertise.

The post–Vatican II definition of “lay movement” or “ecclesial movement” no longer seems adequate to current developments.

Of course, it would be hard to represent the laity in all its diversity and complexity. Perhaps the decision to invite members from several new ecclesial movements was intended as a convenient way to get a snapshot of the Catholic laity in all—or at least some—of its variety. It’s also worth pointing out that, compared to John Paul II and Benedict, Francis has acknowledged a broader range of Catholic movements. Some of the most characteristic events of Francis’s whole pontificate have been his audiences to the world meetings of the popular movements.

Nevertheless, there is still a lack of representation of the Catholic laity as such—including those who do not belong to an ecclesial movement like the ones now represented in the Dicastery for the Laity, Family, and Life, many of which have been part of the institutional church for decades. Their leaders are by now Vatican insiders, and some of them are more powerful than most bishops and cardinals. Also, at the recent Bishops’ Synod, it was clear that the activism of some of the representatives of Catholic youth in Rome was an expression of the theological culture of their ecclesial movements.

Then, too, there is the problem of how we define “laity.” The operative definition still depends too much on canon law—in which “lay” just means “lacking ordination”—and not enough on a phenomenology of the lay person’s role in the church today. The post–Vatican II definition of “lay movement” or “ecclesial movement” no longer seems adequate to current developments. An example: Bishop Robert Barron’s “Word on Fire” has recently announced that it is evolving from “from a ministry into a movement.” What exactly does that mean in ecclesiological terms? No one seems to know.

These changes in how we understand the laity and organized movements within the church are a problem for a Roman Curia that wants to be—in Pope Francis’s words—“an antenna” to receive and not just send messages to the global church. But it is also a problem for the rest of the church. The abuse crisis has underscored a general lack of representation of lower clergy, lay people, women, and the young, both at the central level (the Roman Curia) and at the local level (the diocese). In a few countries, such as Germany, the laity has its own national committee, but in most countries it does not.

The angry reaction of many Catholics to the sex-abuse crisis—to both the abuse itself and the coverup—has tended to follow an anti-authoritarian script, according to which the institutional church has become a separated class or élite whose members are busy dividing among themselves the remains of a declining authority. The church’s leaders face a problem similar to the one afflicting the political establishment of the West’s liberal democracies; they have to stop giving the impression that they are sitting in front of a flattering mirror that shows them only what they want to see.

The problem of representation is everywhere in the church and in the curia: the representation of the religious orders in the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, the representation of Catholic theology in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith…the list could go on. But if it is true that clericalism is the problem and that the future of the church depends on the laity, then the church has to come up with better systems of representation for members of the laity who do not belong to already well-represented ecclesial movements. The ones who do are, as it were, unrepresentative. And there is little point in replacing the old clericalism of the ordained with a new clericalism of lay men and women who have proven themselves as extra Catholic only by belonging to some favored group within the church.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is Catholicism and Citizenship: Political Cultures of the Church in the Twenty-First Century (Liturgical Press, 2017). He is a contributing writer for Commonweal. Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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