In the 19th century, the American Catholic hierarchy rejected various tenets of “lay trusteeism,” which sought to dismantle canonical models of parochial governance. Akin to their neighboring Protestant communities, some lay Catholics began personally assuming governance of parishes, even to the point of removing pastors from office through majority vote. The American bishops suppressed these abuses at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore. While recognizing the immense contribution lay persons bring to parish life, the bishops did not grant them widespread latitude in administrative affairs. Governance belongs to the hierarchy by divine institution.
Students of church history will observe that the tension between clerical and lay authority does not arise in 19th century America. Emperors and popes have long battled over the role of the administration of the Church’s spiritual and temporal affairs since Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 AD. In the best of times, small disagreements did little harm to the unity of the Body of Christ. In other epochs, however, bellicose conflicts arose. The controversy reached its zenith in the 11th century when the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV began investing bishops with pontifical authority against the rights of Pope Gregory VII. Ultimately, the emperor lost, showcased by his penitential walk in the snow to the castle of Canossa begging the mercy of God (and God’s Vicar).
Notwithstanding the meddling of medieval lords, the Church’s inner life continues to grapple with the question of ecclesial governance and its relationship to the Sacrament of Holy Orders. For instance, after Pope Francis’s recent changes to the Roman Curia, where lay persons can now exercise the office of Prefect, some commentators have reignited the debate about lay administration of ecclesial affairs, even on the diocesan level. Interestingly, the Second Vatican Council takes a restrictive view. The Church’s hierarchy – specifically those who share in the priesthood; viz., bishops and presbyters – receive sacred power directly from the Lord himself (LG 10, 27). The laity are invited to cooperate according to their own vocations (LG 30). The Church in this country has benefited immensely from the charisms and gifts of the lay faithful, who build up the Body of Christ. Yet the same Church would be wise not to wade into the tempest of lay trusteeism, which would contradict the teaching on sacred power and hierarchy as expressed by the Second Vatican Council.
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