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Do the bishops and the Pope underestimate the laity?

Do the bishops and the Pope underestimate the laity?

An immensely great cultural change is taking place, and is making its impact felt on the exercise of magisterium and on the response of the people to the teaching authority. This cultural change is in the steadily rising educational level of the Christian people, clergy and laity.

No one should say that this development is on a purely natural level, therefore it cannot affect the exercise of a supernatural office. Rarely does the episcopal college, rarely does the pope as its head, proclaim solemnly with full apostolic authority an article of faith. Most of the time, their magisterium consists in “official” teaching but with less finality, which means that there can be many human elements entering into their declarations. In such teaching situations, the educational level of the community matters a great deal. A well informed laity can direct the attention of the episcopate to current problems, they can help the bishops to formulate the questions correctly before an answer is attempted; more importantly, when the official response is given, they can evaluate it. (23)

23. To describe the task of the laity as primarily and principally secular is erroneous. Before anyone can have a lay or clerical vocation, each has a Christian vocation through the sacrament of baptism. This is a vocation to the sacred. Vatican Council II was very explicit about this: The laity are gathered together in the People of God and make up the Body of Christ under one Head. Whoever they are, they are called upon, as living members, to expend all their energy for the growth of the Church and its continuous sanctification. For this very energy is a gift of the Creator and a blessing of the Redeemer. The lay apostolate, however, is a participation in the saving mission of the Church itself. Through their baptism and confirmation, all are commissioned to that apostolate by the Lord Himself. (LG 33)

I wonder if there is not an imbalance in our theology of the sacraments. Mainly for historical reasons, too much attention has been given to the sacrament of order and not enough to the sacrament of baptism. Order is rooted in baptism, and no matter how extensively we are able to discourse on order, as long as our understanding of baptism lacks depth and breadth, our understanding of order will suffer too. A visible proof of this imbalance is that in our contemporary church there is an overabundant symbolism in clothing, titles, speech in connection with the sacrament of order, virtually nothing in connection with the sacrament of baptism. In the early church baptism held the attention (cf. the white clothing worn for weeks, its frequent mention in liturgy, its frequent illustration in paintings and mosaics, the cult of baptisteria); clerical symbols developed later. The imbalance is present in the new Code of Canon Law: it regularly speaks of “sacred pastors” but never of the “sacred laity.” Yet, there would be no sacred orders without sacred baptism!

Admittedly, not all over the world has the educational level risen, but it cannot be denied that in most places it is rising, and in some places has already reached a very high level.

If the magisterium is not aware of this radical change, and continues to speak and act as if the majority of Christian people had no higher education, and no theological training, surprisingly sharp conflicts may emerge. Reasonable and responsible proposals from the laity and clergy will be regarded as uncalled-for meddling. This in its turn may cause resentment and anger. Official declarations may be supported with arguments which do not satisfy the critically well trained mind. Then the magisterium may simply appeal to a divine authority, when it is common knowledge that the matter has not been the subject of any final definition. The result of such conflicts may be not only a loss of respect for authority but a loosening of the bond of communion and love. (24)

24. The amount of attention paid to a truth should be in proportion to the importance of that truth, cf. the admonition of Vatican Council II to Catholic theologians:

When comparing doctrines, they should remember that in . . .Catholic teaching there exists an order or “hierarchy” of truths, since they vary in their relationship to the foundation of the Christian faith. (UR 11 )

From: The Church: Learning and Teaching, by Ladislas Örsy, Michael Glazier 1987, chapter 1. Read the whole chapter here.

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Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

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