A theologian has proposed a solution to the shortage of priests: that the Church recognise the “wealth of vocations” of all the baptised.

– Paradigm of ministry in the Church today not set in stone

Thomas O’Loughlin, professor of historical theology at the University of Nottingham, sketched out some ideas in La Croix July 13 on how to solve one of the biggest problems in the Church today: the fact of its “fewer and aging presbyters” and its lack of vocations to replace them.

O’Loughlin, a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton in the UK, suggested that to remedy the vocations plunge “we need to reflect on the basics of ministry and not merely imagine that what has been the paradigm of ministry in the Roman Catholic Church since the early seventeenth-century is either set in stone or in any way ideal”.

In fact, the theologian noted that the structure of ministry that Catholics are familiar with today owes its genesis to at least two particular historical accidents.

On the one hand, the Counter-Reformation, when the “priesthood” was organised as an elite clerical corps ready to put down another “officer-led rebellion” such as the Protestant schism. And on the other, the assimilation to models of service provision in modern society, in which the priest with his pastoral expertise has come to be regarded as equivalent, for example, to doctors with their medical knowledge or accountants with their financial acument.

– In first century, baptism and Eucharist not led by members of a specially authorised group

But this Counter-Reformation and services provision model of ministry… is it a worthy successor to the ministry inaugurated and practised by Jesus?

In contrast to the Church today, Christ never entertained “highly structured notions of ministry or priesthoods” nor appointed “ritual experts”, with it taking nearly two centuries after his life and death for the early Church to systematise the different ranks of ministry we know today, O’Loughlin pointed out.

That means, for the theologian, that “there is no suggestion in the first-century documents that leadership at the two key community events, baptism and Eucharist, was restricted in any way or the preserve of those who were community leaders, much less a specially authorised group”.

– Two pillars for a “pragmatic theology of liturgical ministry”: “radical equality” of baptism and ministry in community

How then to peel back all the historical accretions to the structure of liturgical ministry and get back to that original egalitarian impulse of Jesus and the first-century Church?

O’Loughlin proposed a “pragmatic theology of liturgical ministry” resting on two pillars: the “radical equality” of baptism and the conviction that ministry is the preserve “of the whole community”.

With regard to the first pillar – the radical equality conferred by baptism – the theologian argued that all “distinctions” and “regulations” restricting which Christians can perform which ministry on the basis of their status in life (male/female, married/celibate, etc.) “are tantamount to a defective theology of baptism by which all ministry is brought into being”.

In terms of the second pillar – ministry as the preserve of the community – O’Loughlin insisted that the “binary model” of ministry in which an individual or small group preaches/speaks/teaches and a larger group attends/listens/receives isn’t actually particularly Christian, since Jesus is always present among all his followers, even when only two or three are gathered in his name.

– Foster the ministry of lay Catholics who actually make community

The implications of O’Loughlin’s “practical theology of liturgical ministry”, then, are that instead of carrying on as usual in the face of the vocations slide – or even instead of importing priests to places where there are few – the Church should recognise and foster the ministry of those lay Christians who actually make and sustain community in a place.

Evangelising and welcoming, leading in prayer and the offering of the thanksgiving sacrifice of praise, teaching, reconciling, building up the kingdom of justice and peace, management… laypeople, too, can and do carry out all of these vocations normally reserved for the priest, O’Loughlin recalled.

The UK priest and theologian’s model is pure St. Paul, who taught the early Church in Corinth that the Spirit who provide in the members of the assembly itself the gifts and talents necessary for the carrying-out of ministry (1 Cor 12:4-13).

One in the assembly will have the gift of the “utterance of wisdom”, another that of the “utterance of knowledge”, another faith, another gifts of healing, and so on, wrote St. Paul, without any of those talents being the exclusive possession of the “priest”.

For O’Loughlin, it’s theology like that that we need to hear more of in the Church today.

“If these statements were to reverberate through our discussions today we might need to talk less about ‘closing churches’ and ‘combining parishes’ and could then move on to the more fruitful task of discovering the wealth of vocations that are all around us”, the theologican concluded.

To read O’Loughlin’s full article – “Revisiting the question of ‘ministry’?” – follow this link to La Croix

More stories on Novena on the vocations of all the baptised:

Pioneering German layman takes on role of parish ‘pastor’: “This is only the beginning of new paths for the Church”

“Has no future”: Austrian priest theologian blasts clericalist Church that infantilises faithful

French Bishops’ head ‘gets it’ on rights for women, laity: “The Church cannot act as if humans were children who must be held by the hand”

“A good thing for the whole Church”: Spanish Bishops’ Conference names first laywoman subcommission secretary

New Irish bishop declares “the Church of the future is about the increased involvement of lay people”

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.