The Church as (Un)equal Society
Yesterday I had the privilege of giving a lecture on “Vatican II and the Laity” at a parish on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Those in attendance were wonderful, attentive, engaged, and lively in discussion afterward. One of the themes that came up in several different ways was the meaning of the shift from a pre-conciliar notion of the church as “unequal society” to the church as “the People of God” as presented in the constitutions and decrees of the Second Vatican Council. While the language of the conciliar texts, both theologically grounded and pastorally sensitive, was a vast improvement over the discursive approach to defining the church prior to the council, there was a specter of Pope Pius X’s “essentially unequal society” that continued to haunt the actual experience various people, especially women, had of the church today.
Everyone could more or less trace the practical differences in the understanding of the laity’s relationship to the church by virtue of baptism and as the constitutive element of the church, which is the Body of Christ, prior to and after the council. Many of the folks at the lecture and who participated in the discussion are liturgical ministers, theologians and other educators, leaders in their local communities, and so on. These sorts of opportunities were essentially unavailable or outright prohibited according to the pre-conciliar understanding of who/what constitutes “the church,” as well as according to the pre-1983 Code of Canon Law (generally, the CIC of 1917).
Yet, many people felt that what Pope Pius X says in his 1906 text Vehementer Nos continues to prevail, if not “officially” then practically, in the ordinary experience of the laity.
[The Church is an] essentially unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of person, the Pastors and the flock, those who occupy a rank in the different degrees of the hierarchy and the multitude of the faithful. So distinct are these categories that with the pastoral body only rests the necessary right and authority for promoting the end of the society and directing all its members towards that end; the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors (Pope Pius X, Vehementer Nos, no. 8).
One gentleman, while not explicitly coming to the defense of Pius X’s turn-of-the-last-century vision, suggested that in all organizations and facets of life there are necessarily those who “make the decisions” and those who, by and large, “follow.”
I suppose that is true and, as the Council documents aptly note, to talk about the church as the People of God and inclusive of all women and men by virtue of Baptism, is not to suggest that everybody should or ought to do the same thing. Just like not everybody should have the right to practice medicine or law, not everybody should have the right to every position of ministry or leadership.
But what is to be made of the seemingly accidental (in the Aristotelian sense of qualities verses substance or nature) distinctions that prohibit certain members of the People of God, the Body of Christ, from per se participation in certain forms of leadership or participation in ministry? This was a difficult discussion to have, but an honest and very good topic still in need of further discussion.
This is particularly the case when the Second Vatican Council documents discuss the “vocation of the laity,” attributing the vocational call (vocare) to Christ alone and that all the faithful have a “right and duty” to participate in the liturgy and in the life of the church.
Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people” (1 Peter 2:9), is their right and duty by reason of their Baptism (Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 14).
I made clear in my presentation that one of the most overlooked dimensions of the Council’s teaching, especially concerning the liturgy, is that the assembly is participating, is — quite literally — concelebrating with the presider. So to suggest that everybody should necessarily be the presider or lector or some other particular ministry within the assembly doesn’t really hold if one believes in the teaching of the church that the community gathered also makes Christ present (see Sacrosanctum Concilium no. 7).
Yet, the real question, and a difficult one to be sure, that continues to loom over all these great discussions is the matter of discernment.
As other conciliar texts, like the “Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity” (Apostolicam Actuositatem) and Gaudium et Spes make clear, the call or vocation of each member of the Body of Christ, which is the church, comes from Christ alone. How, then, do we understand who and how and for what Christ calls any individual person within the assembly of believers, from among the People of God?
Furthermore, how is it that we understand the shift from Pius X’s notion of “unequal society” to the renewed understanding of the church that we have today? What does it mean to talk about an “equal” society? Can we or should we talk this way? What does that look like?