Bill Donahue, the beleaguered and indefatigable defender of Catholic truth and rights, compiled a list of fifteen renegade Catholic organizations bent on radical changes within the Catholic Church. Donahue, director of the Catholic League, included some gay rights and abortion rights organizations, but notably some women’s ordination proponents like 8th Day Center for Justice, Women’s Ordination Conference, Women Priests USA, Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual and Critical Choice, along with CORPUS, an organization of former Catholic priests, promoting, among other issues, optional celibacy for the clergy. While Pope Francis was in Washington, New York and Philadelphia meeting with bishops, politicians and families in the interest of strengthening Catholic life especially at the ground roots level, these organizations vied for the limelight as well hoping to promote their liberal Catholic agenda. Donahue’s intention was to make clear to the secular media that these organizations spoke not at all for the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis, along with his predecessors Pope Benedict and Pope Saint John Paul II, has spoken very clearly on the two issues of women’s ordination and optional celibacy for priests. Women’s ordination is completely off the table according to Pope Francis although he wisely and insightfully extolled the place of women in the Church by remarking that “Mary is more important than bishops.” While admitting that celibacy for priests is a Church discipline rather than a Church doctrine, Pope Francis did not leave the door there very much ajar. Both of these issues, women’s ordination and optional celibacy, are in vogue just now due to the perceived priestly vocation crisis in the American and European church. One priest covering two or more parishes is now a common phenomenon.
Possibly the Third World might come to the rescue of the First World by sending clergy from the lower hemisphere to the upper hemisphere. But the current challenge of pastoral and sacramental service within the Catholic Church might be well answered by another source of personnel not too far removed from the Church in America. Deacons and Laity constitute the Church just as much as priests and bishops. Their ministries differ from the usual services that have emanated from rectories and chancery offices in the past but their offices are certainly valid and clearly untapped. And, what is more important, the diaconate and the lay state have clear mandates from Vatican Council II (as well as from Scripture) to serve as integral parts of the contemporary Church’s mission.
Pope Paul VI restored the diaconate to its rightful role in Church life in 1967. Subsequently Canon Law outlined the three clerical states: “Those who are constituted in the order of the episcopate or the presbyterate receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head, whereas deacons are empowered to serve the people of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word and charity.” The deacon’s role therefore then — and his defining charism — is service. Originally established to tend to the “fabric” of the Church, that is, the practical day-to-day life of the Church, the deacon in modern times is still discerning his appropriate role in parish life. The full meaning of “liturgy, word and charity” is still being determined.
The Catholic laity was affirmed as integral participants in Church life in 1965 through the Conciliar decree “Apostolic Activity” which taught that the task of the laity is the transformation of the secular order. While lay persons are invaluable as lectors, extra-ordinary ministers, religious instruction teachers, and choir members, their chief focus is evangelizing the social, political and economic world through their Christian insights and their religious example. Christian instructors, business persons and civic leaders can have an immense influence on public life if well-grounded and often encouraged.
It has been fifty years since Vatican II. The true roles of the diaconate and the laity as re-focused by the Holy Spirit through the Council Fathers are still being implemented. The energy spent on idle hopes for novel ministries would be more rightfully and more fruitfully directed toward these ancient, if often neglected, Church offices.