Role of laity a quandary for a shrinking church

    It was the kind of pep talk for the Catholic laity that would have been impossible to imagine a half century ago, especially in a setting like Philadelphia.

    Three solid-citizen Catholics, two of them priests, the other a prominent lay woman, told a recent gathering at St. Joseph’s University that it was up to laity to take charge of their church because recent scandals and loss of members have left bishops frightened, and the thinning ranks of priests can’t adequately cover the territory.

    The stark fact is that nearly 20 percent of parishes have no resident priest. Since in the Catholic Church priests alone qualify to administer communion, confession and other sacraments that, in effect, define Catholicism, many parishes exist on the fringe, left to the laity to do what they can with occasional visits from a priest.

    The specter of “priestless parishes” has increasingly haunted the church as bishops strive to plug the gaps and lay ministers do more of the work. A parish without a priest is still unthinkable in official Catholic circles, but would bishops prefer shuttering parishes without clergy to finding methods to deputize others to perform ministries?

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    “If you don’t have clergy,” said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, “maybe the job is yours.”

    He added: “We are becoming a do-it-yourself church for the laity.”

    His comments were part of the panel sponsored by St. Joseph’s University, as reported by Jerry Filteau in the National Catholic Reporter.

    The panel amplified Reese’s clarion call. The shocks of sexual abuse of children by priests and the hierarchy’s turning away from the openness of the Second Vatican Council have caused alienation and drift.  A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that one third of those Americans raised Catholic have dropped out.

    The panelists suggested it is time for the remaining laity to fill the vacuum of leadership.

    Archdiocese a tight ship

    The fact that a call for greater assertiveness among lay people was being sounded in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was noteworthy itself. For many decades, the archdiocese epitomized the top-down, exclusively clerical authority that was modeled after the monarchical designs of the First Vatican Council (1870-71). Philadelphia had the reputation of being an especially tight ship, which brooked no questioning of clerical superiors and where the laity knew its subordinate place.

    Dr. Dolores R. Leckey, head of lay programs for the U. S. Bishops’ Conference for many years, evoked that earlier era by referring to one of its exemplars, Pope Pius X. Pius X believed that the laity’s only duty, in Leckey’s words, was “to be led like a docile flock, to follow their pastors.”

    The Philadelphia “fortress,” as it was commonly called, is crumbling. In the turmoil the status of laity has fluctuated, starting with a burst of enthusiasm for change in the 1960s.

    Vatican II (1962-65) inspired a climate of “shared responsibility” that fostered cooperation while leaving final decisions to the clerics. That promising start has been sidetracked, Leckey said, as bishops’ trust of laity has eroded. The various crises have left bishops “scared,” she said: “You don’t act defensively like that unless you’re scared to death. Their defenses are high. They weren’t high in the days right after the [Second Vatican] Council.”

    Defections by women

    Reese, who was forced out as editor of the Jesuit publication, America, by Vatican prelates who objected to the periodical’s views on gay marriage and stem cell research, urged the laity to “take responsibility for where the church goes.” Nearly three quarters of those in the Pew study who have dropped out say they did so because their spiritual needs weren’t being met. The exit by women was especially significant, Reese said, because women as mothers are chiefly responsible for passing on the faith.

    Church officials who place the blame for the striking defection rate on the personal behavior of the dropouts might be compared to a failing business that blames its customers for its problems, Reese said.

    Much of what was spoken at St. Joseph’s would undoubtedly be stoutly rejected by many in the archdiocese and elsewhere as an affront to church teaching and practice. But the scandals and clerical scarcity have converged into a crisis of immense proportions that dents confidences, lessens the grip of certainties. and permits, even demands, discussion of alternatives that were once impermissible.

    A lay-directed church may sound radical, antithetical to the foundation of Catholic authority, but, then again, a statistic cited by Leckey makes it seem less far-fetched. Eighty five percent of parish ministries are now done by lay people, she said, and 80 percent of those are women.



    Kenneth Briggs is an adjunct professor at Lafayette College. He is a former religion writer for the New York Times. He has written several books about the Catholic Church.

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal