Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, February 15, 2010

John Allen and Expanding Lay Roles

This post continues our discussion of John Allen’s top ten trends revolutionizing the Church.  (See these links for the first, second, third, and fourth trends.)  The fifth trend that he identifies is one in which most of us MOJ bloggers and readers are participating – the expanding role of the laity in the Church.  Allen starts by justifying labeling lay activism as a “trend”, given that lay activism has always been a part of the Church’s history, from its earliest days of the house churches of Rome.  The Second Vatican Council’s challenge to the clericalism that increasingly marked the Church in the intervening centuries has led to what Allen identifies as the current “trend”:  “That the laity are emerging as protagonists both inside and outside the Church.  Internally, laypeople are occupying ministerial and administrative positions once held almost exclusively by priests.  Externally, laypeople are taking it upon themselves to evangelize culture and to act on Catholic social teaching.  It’s the one-two punch, lay ministers inside the Church and lay activists on the outside, that constitutes the trend.”

Allen attributes the expansion of lay activism as being so ubiquitous as to be almost unremarkable,  encompassing everything from organized movements such as Focolare and Sant’Edigio, to the informal,  grassroots leadership being provided by ‘lay pundits’ and ‘bloggers’ – that’s us!  Among the forces driving this expansion are practical forces, such as priest shortages creating gaps in pastoral care that have been filled by laity, and theological developments, namely, contemporary theological understandings of the role of the lay apostolate articulated at the Second Vatican Council in documents like Aposticam Actuositatem (“The lay apostolate is a share in the Church’s mission of salvation.”).

The most visible sign of the expanding lay roles is the explosion of organized lay movements.  Allen describes three of them as representative of the wide range of outlooks and activities represented by these movements:  L’Arche, consisting of small communities of friendship between people with disabilities and people without, creating “little places . . . where love is possible”; Focolare, (about which Amy  can – and I hope will – say much more than either Allen or me) focusing on ecumenism and interreligious dialogue and sponsoring a network of businesses adhering to the “Economy of Communion”, with 4.5 million adherents over 182 countries living different levels of affiliation to the movement ; and the Community of Sant’Egidio, the “UN of Trastevere”, focusing on international conflict resolution.

Equally dramatic is the growth in lay ecclesial ministry.  Allen documents the growing imbalance between lay ministers and priests in the U.S.  Between 1990 and today, the number ecclesial lay ministers working in Catholic parishes grew by 9,000; the number of Catholic priests, diocesan and religious, decreased by almost 6,000.  There are currently more than 20,000 people in the U.S. in programs of formation to become lay ecclesial ministers, roughly six times the number of graduate-level seminarians.  The same trend can be documented in Europe.  While it’s more difficult to document the growth of lay ministry in the rest of the world, Allen suggests the same imbalance is present, and growing, globally.  

I found one of the most interesting things about this increase in lay ministry to be the fact that these new lay professional roles are disproportionately held by women.  In the United States, Allen notes, 48.4 % of all positions in diocesan-level administration are held by women.  At the most senior levels, 26.8% of executive positions are held by women.  Allen suggests that if you adjust this figure to account for the fact that the diocesan “CEO” (the bishop) and Vicar General are positions restricted to men, you could speculate that women hold as many as 30% of the executive positions actually open to them.  This compares favorably to studies of Fortune 500 companies (where 16.4% of corporate officers are women) and top law firms (16% of management committees and 5% of managing partners are women).  In contrast, at the Vatican, women make up to 21% of Vatican personnel, but rarely occupy the most senior levels.  Though there are signs (Mary Ann Glendon’s appointment as president of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences being one) of a slow evolution of Vatican culture in this regard.  (Interestingly, Allen notes that the Focolare constitution requires that its president be a woman.)

Allen identifies the following as likely consequences of the expansion of lay roles:

·         increasing conflicts over control of these burgeoning lay initiatives, such as independent media outlets like EWTN in the U.S. and Radio Maryja in Poland;

·         increasing concern about the feminization of the Church, as more women take on more of the work of parish ministry.  As Allen puts it:  “if the tone in most parishes is being set by female ministers, what will that do to the comfort level of men, since women are already overrepresented?”  Allen notes that encouraging more men to enter into lay ministry is not a likely response, since that might cut further into the pool of potential priests.

·         increased concern with defending the distinctiveness of ordained priesthood, leading to efforts to circumscribe the boundaries of lay ministry through means such as term limits and “carefully circumscribed ‘commissioning ceremonies’”

·         freeing priests to focus more on their sacramental roles than their administrative, personnel, and financial roles, thus perhaps making possible a more sacramental model of the priesthood.

Of those likely consequences, I’d be interested in readers’ reactions to the second (though I can’t really figure out how it’s related to Catholic legal theory or law schools).  Is the feminization of parish ministry affecting your comfort level with the Church – whether you are a man or a woman?

With respect to Catholic legal theory or education, it strikes me that most of us involved in the Catholic legal theory project or Catholic legal education who are lay persons have internalized the more contemporary theological understanding of the role of the lay apostolate that Allen describes.  We’re not consciously setting out to challenge the Church hierarchy on any of the issues we raise in our writing or blogging.  Rather, we feel we have a responsibility as Catholic lay people to use our talents, gifts, and training “to evangelize the culture and act on Catholic social teaching.”  As law professors, we do that through our teaching, writing, and blogging.    As Allen suggests, “Ultimately, the purpose of promoting lay activism is not to remedy ecclesiastical imbalances or to reshape public perceptions of the Church, but rather to extend the Church’s mission of sanctifying the world.”  Does this sound right to you?

In doing so, however, we are participating in the “democratization of Catholic conversation” that Allen notes.  It used to be easier to tell “who speaks for the Church” – the Pope and the bishops.  Beginning with the invention of the printing press, though, any Catholic who could attract an audience was able to present the world with a different face of “the Church”.  As Allen puts it “Content, rather than credentials, came to be most decisive in terms of who commands public attention.”  From the brilliant writing of G.K.Chesteron to the scintillating debates on MOJ:  “a growing number of the laity, representing a wide variety of theological and political perspectives, are effectively competing with the bishops as the public face and voice of the Catholic Church.”

It’s a rather awesome thought.  Are we being responsible in how we do this?  I’ve opened the comments on this topic.




Schiltz, Elizabeth | Permalink

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In articulating what the "feminization" of the Church might mean, I think it will be tricky to separate out what cultural assumptions might be about "feminine" versus "masculine" from the real differences that might emerge over time. And of course, it might be misleading to count the costs of the "feminization" unless we count the costs of the "masculinization" that may operate as the default in some areas. E.g., MoJers have speculated in the past about how women in Church leadership positions might have responded different to the priest sex abuse crisis.

Posted by: rob vischer | Feb 15, 2010 4:52:25 PM