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The Credibility of the Church Today

Priests and people

Ladislas Örsy

First published THE TABLET 9 June 1990 and reproduced here with the usual permissions

The Catholic Church today has a theory of sacred power, according to a Jesuit canonist at the Catholic University of America in Washington, which accounts well for the sacrament of order, but is deficient in its perception of the gifts and dignity of the laity. Father Orsy looks at how this imbalance arose and how it could be corrected.

In a letter to The Tablet (26 May) Dr Patrick O’Mahony writes that “there are two distinct powers in the Church”: order and jurisdiction. The former is conferred by ordination, the latter by appointment or by delegation. It follows that there is no reason why lay persons, men or women, “cannot take part, at the highest level, in decision-making for the whole Church”. This was indeed, before the Second Vatican Council, the commonly taught explanation of the two powers. Today, however, another theory guides and shapes the life of the Church; virtually all are touched by it but not many are aware of it.

This was indeed, before the Second Vatican Council, the commonly taught explanation of the two powers. Today, however, another theory guides and shapes the life of the Church; virtually all are touched by it but not many are aware of it.

The explanation current before Vatican II saw the origin of the power of order in the sacrament received, whereas the source of jurisdiction lay in a grant from the fullness of the apostolic power vested in Peter’s successor. The former came directly from God, the latter from the pope. No wonder that bishops tended to perceive themselves (and others perceived them) as the Pope’s vicars or delegates, shepherding the flock in his name. In truth, such a theory half-emptied the sacrament of order: the consecration did not give the bishops the power to govern their own people! A patently absurd position, contradicting ancient traditions.

Yet the theory had merits in acknowledging and explaining the historical fact that lay persons could take part in the power of jurisdiction. All they needed was an appointment or an act of delegation or, at least, some kind of tacit recognition.

Ideally, a new theory was needed that would uphold the integrity of the sacrament of order while not denying to the laity the capacity to participate in the decision making processes of the community. As it happened, even before the Council a new hypothesis had been proposed. It asserted that all the power that the bishop needs comes directly from God: it is given by the sacrament of order. This “sacred power” is one and indivisible. Bishops receive it in its fullness, presbyters and deacons in lesser degrees. Its purpose is threefold: to teach, to sanctify and to govern God’s people.

Since it is sacramental through and through, those who are not ordained cannot have it. This new theory gained rapid ascendancy during the Council, and contributed to a new understanding of the sacrament of order. After the Council it became operative in practical provisions — although it has never been raised to the rank of a “definition”.

The theory deserves credit: it has rediscovered the full meaning of episcopal ordination. It articulates the relationship between episcopate and primacy in a nuanced and balanced way. The bishops obtain their power to teach, sanctify and govern from God, not from the pope. They have a holy autonomy: they function in the name of God. Nonetheless, the primacy of the pope remains secure: he receives every single bishop into the communion of the universal Church. If he withdraws his recognition, the power of the bishop becomes ineffective and useless.

If the theory stopped there, it would have been a sound construction, well grounded in our tradition. But it went further, and therein lies its weakness. It identified “sacred power” with the sacrament of order so much that the laity could have none of it.

With one stroke, it divided the Church into two neatly distinct groups: those who are in orders, and those who are not; those who possess the sacred power, and those who do not. Once the community is so partitioned, it is logically consistent to assign a purely passive role to the laity. Further, a new impetus is given for the emergence of a Church more clerical than ever before in its history. Indeed, the new Code of Canon Law (1983) says pointedly: “Those who are in sacred orders are, in accordance with the provisions of law, capable of the power of governance, which belongs to the Church by divine institution. This power is also called the power of jurisdiction” (Canon 129 § 1). The next paragraph gives the basic rule for the status of lay persons: “Lay members of Christ’s faithful can co-operate in the exercise of the same power in accordance with the law” (§ 2). The key word is “to co-operate”, cooperari, “to work with”, which does not mean “to participate” or “to share”.

There are good theological arguments to show that the law (inspired by the theory) is unduly restrictive. It pays little attention to the sacred power residing in the whole Church. The Spirit of God ever present to his people makes every person capable of participating in her threefold task of teaching, sanctifying and governing. The theological proofs are there for all to see. As regards teaching, Vatican II stated that “the whole body of the faithful who have an anointing that comes from the Holy One . . . cannot err in matters of belief’ (Lumen Gentium, 12). This is participation in infallibility — a sacred power if ever one was. As to sanctifying, lay persons can give the sacraments of baptism and marriage: this is sharing the sanctifying office in its deepest reality. And as concerns governance and decision making, throughout the history of the Church lay persons took part in acts of governance. Dr O’Mahony mentions that bishops-elect exercised jurisdiction over their dioceses while not in sacred orders, and so did cardinals for the universal Church while not even in the order of diaconate. Other cases can be added. From early times it was a firm canonical rule that a newly elected pope, as soon as he accepted the office, “had full and absolute jurisdiction all over the earth and could exercise it” even if his ordination to the priesthood and the episcopate had to follow later. (The quotation is from the 1917 Code of Canon Law.) Also, during the first millennium in the East, all the great councils were called by the Byzantine emperors except one (Nicea II), which was convoked by the empress all lay persons. During the second millennium, in the West, several' ecumenical councils had non-ordained members who debated and voted like the others. Then there are the famous cases of the abbesses (such as Las Huelgas in Spain, Castellana in southern Italy) who governed “by the grace of the Holy See” with “quasi-episcopal jurisdiction” not only over the monasteries but also over the clergy in the parishes of their estates.

To sum it up, today we have a theory of power which appears to have some official status and is operative in the Church to a high degree. Its understanding of the sacra-ment of order is beyond exception and in harmony with ancient traditions. Its perception of the gifts and dignity of the non-ordained, however, is deficient and in dissonance with a more insightful theology and, worse still, with the facts of history. As long as its flawed perception of the laity is accepted, no woman can take part (in the full and proper sense of the word) in any legislative, judicial and administrative act; and for that matter no man can do so either if he is not in sacred orders. (This is not the place to deal with a few apparent exceptions, which in reality are the limits of the co-operation allowed.)

Clearly, a better approach is needed. I think it can be found by paying more attention to the baptismal gift of the faithful. Ever since the Middle Ages, and increasingly after the Reformation, theologians (dealing with various crises and denials) focused too much on the sacrament of order, too little on the riches that baptism brings. A renewed inquiry into the nature of the first sacrament may well reveal that those who have risen with Christ, and have his Spirit, are invested abundantly enough with a “sacred power" to take part (in the proper sense of the term) in the teaching, sanctifying and governing office of the Church. Such participation with due regard for the “hierarchical communion” (as the Council has described it) will not diminish in any way the primacy of the pope or the authority of the diocesan bishops. It will rather enrich and strengthen both.


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