Opinion - Vatican instruction on parish life buries dream of lay-clerical co-responsibility

Opinion: Vatican instruction on parish life buries dream of lay-clerical co-responsibility

Is the dream of authentic and effective lay-clerical co-responsibility in the Church over? That’s the question many Catholics must be asking themselves after the publication Monday of a document – approved by Pope Francis – from the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy, which for all its talk of “new experiences”, “creativity” and “reform” in parish life ends up shoring up clericalism as the Church’s modus operandi.

The document – “The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelising mission of the Church” – begins promisingly enough.

The “missionary conversion” the text calls for “naturally leads to a reform of structures” which “concerns the Parish in particular” (6). “The Parish is called upon to read the signs of the times, while adapting both to the needs of the faithful and to historical changes… [A] renewed vitality is required that favours the rediscovery of the vocation of the baptised” (11).

“Beginning with a consideration of the signs of the times, it is necessary, in listening to the Spirit, to produce new signs” – “new forms of accompaniment and closeness” – in our contemporary situation “with the Parish no longer being the primary gathering and social centre, as in former days” (14).

And perhaps the most promising observation of all: “the current Parish model no longer adequately corresponds to the many expectations of the faithful” (16).

“Any pastoral action that is limited to the territory of the Parish is outdated, which is something the parishioners themselves observe when their Parish appears to be more interested in preserving a nostalgia of former times as opposed to looking to the future with courage” (16).

“Moreover, mere repetitive action that fails to have an impact upon people’s concrete lives remains a sterile attempt at survival, which is usually welcomed by general indifference. If the Parish does not exude that spiritual dynamic of evangelisation, it runs the risk of becoming self-referential and fossilised, offering experiences that are devoid of evangelical flavour and missionary drive, of interest only to small groups” (17).

What answers, then, does the Vatican document provide to its own call “to identify perspectives that allow for the renewal of ‘traditional’ Parish structures in terms of mission” (20)? For the parish “to avoid the risk of falling into an excessive and bureaucratic organisation of events and an offering of services that do not express the dynamic of evangelisation, but rather the criterion of self-preservation” (34)?

The reassertion of the authority of the parish priest, and a slap in the face to all those laypeople, religious, priests and bishops who have worked tirelessly to come up with new models of clerical-lay leadership in the face of the plunge in vocations.

“The Parish Priest and the other priests, in communion with the Bishop, are a fundamental reference point for the Parish community, for the role of shepherds that corresponds to them” (62).

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In the life of the local Church, “appellations such as ‘team leader’, ‘équipe leader’, or the like, which convey a sense of collegial government of the Parish, are to be avoided” (66), the Vatican says.

Even deacons in a parish can only be entrusted with tasks “that do not involve the full care of souls”, which is the province of the parish pastor (81). The contribution of religious men and women to parish life is limited to their “being” and “witness”, and only secondarily extended to their “doing” and their works (84). The laity, meanwhile, are called to make a commitment to mission and evangelisation primarily “through the general witness of their daily lives”, and only secondarily in the parish community (86).

Saddest of all, though, in the instruction the Congregation for the Clergy closes the window bishops have often used and continue to use to involve non-priests in parish leadership: canon 517 §2 of the Code of Canon Law, which says that non-priests can “be entrusted with a share in the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish”.

Despite all the talk of new models and innovation earlier in the document, the Vatican reiterates that this provision is to be used “only with strict adherence to conditions contained in it”: a shortage of priests “and not for reasons of convenience or ambiguous ‘advancement of the laity'”; laypeople having a share in pastoral ministry and “not directing, coordinating, moderating or governing the Parish”: competencies which the Vatican says “are the competencies of a priest alone” (89).

Non-priests at the head of a parish are only “an extraordinary and temporary pastoral solution” at best and at worst, a last resort. “It would be preferable to appoint one or more deacons over consecrated men and women or laypersons for directing this kind of pastoral care” (90).

Even when deacons, religious and laity are not in charge of a parish, but have ordinary roles of responsibility in it, the Vatican insists priests crack down on inappropriate terminology that does not maintain “the essential difference that exists between the common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood”.

In that respect, labels for non-priests such as “pastor”, “co-pastor”, “chaplain”, “moderator”, “coordinator” or “Parish manager”, etc. are to be strictly avoided, since they are “reserved by law to priests”, the Congregation warns.

Yes, the document goes on to say that laypeople can lead Liturgies of the Word, administer baptisms, celebrate funerals, preach in extraordinary cases (provided that it is not in the main sermon at the Eucharistic celebration) and even celebrate marriages.

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They can also participate in parish financial and pastoral councils, so long as they remember “that the Parish Priest is not counted among the members of the Finance Council, but he presides over it” (102). And that “the Parish Pastoral Council ‘possesses a consultative vote only’, in the sense that its proposals must be accepted favourably by the Parish Priest to become operative” (113).

But is that the best the Vatican can do to promote the dignity of laypeople – who, as even Pope Francis himself has recalled, are not “‘second class’ members” of the Church after priests and religious but “participate, in their own way, in the priestly, prophetic, and royal function of Christ himself”?

It is difficult to see how Monday’s document – with its shoring up of the power of the priest – helps parishes with its stated aim of helping the local Catholic community “not remain a prisoner of immobility or of a worrisome pastoral repetition” to instead “put into action that ‘outgoing dynamism’ that, through collaboration among different Parish communities and a reinforced communion among clergy and laity, will orient it effectively toward an evangelising mission” (123).

More worrying, though, it is well-nigh impossible to not read the instruction cementing clericalism, which Pope Francis, in his August 2018 Letter to the People of God on the clerical pedophilia crisis, explicitly links to sexual abuse and the abuse of power and conscience.

Where do we go from here with the instruction, then? Perhaps we take up the document’s invitation to “read the signs of the times” and “to produce new signs”, and leave the rest.

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For the old signs the Congregation for the Clergy is pointing the Church to only lead to one place: right back to that “mere repetitive action” on the part of the Church “that fails to have an impact upon people’s concrete lives” and remains a “sterile attempt at survival” and is “usually welcomed by general indifference”. Or worse: the parish as “a useless structure out of touch with people or a self-absorbed group made up of a chosen few”, as Pope Francis warned in Evangelii Gaudium (28).

Read more about the new Vatican document, on Novena:

Vatican strengthens role of priests in local church governance, says only they should lead parishes, not laypeople

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Cameron Doody

Director and editor at Novena
PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. Lecturer in ethics at Loyola University Maryland, Alcalá de Henares (Spain) campus. Religion journalist with 4 years experience.