The Church as (Un)equal Society

MEETING DURING SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL FILE PHOTOYesterday 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?

Photo: Stock
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10 Responses to “The Church as (Un)equal Society”

  1. Sacerdotus Says:

    I think we could start with a society in which certain types of people are not considered less than others. Also, a definition of “The Sense of the Faithful” that actually has meaning.

  2. Some things Popes have written, and I thinks especially of Boniface VIII and Leo XIII, but others in the later Middle ages and early reformation periods–some things are just plain wrong–sometimes because they had a wrong view, others times because they were responding to a particular situation that got wrongly broadened, and sometimes because they were, well, wrong.

  3. Dan,
    A good topic of discussion. From my vantage point it seems as if those in charge of the Vatican, including the Pope, are operating from the words of Pius X. I see this especially in the way the LCWR and Sister Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ were treated in the past year.
    Peace,
    Bill

  4. Sounds wonderful. In my preaching around the country, a big discussion is what has happened to the children.

  5. I think Pius X’s comments should be framed within the context of 1908. Italy’s king has been assassinated a few years before, air flight is beginning, worldwide communication is improving, just to name a few events – the world is becoming smaller before their eyes. Lines blur. I can see why there would be a reaction, a pulling back, to attempt to provide stability – ‘lead the ‘flock’ – in an unstable time.

  6. What is so decisive or virtuous about equality in the Church? Why must we grasp it? And who has the insight to muster out the old{1906} and replace it with their subjective construct of equal? I thought Jesus was willing to sacrifice for our sins and uphold justice at every turn in his life not play the part of a 21st century social democrat in our eternal Church.

    • I believe that many of us consider what Pope Pius X wrote was a deviation from the Letter to the Hebrews and the community as implied in Acts–and much of the church before Constantine. Evidence suggests (read Absolute Monarchs) that there was NO “pope” before Constantine in our sense of the word, and that the earliest church found little distinction (of sex or age) among the “charisms” to a variety of people. My conclusion tends to be that “power corrupts,” and that the once valid sense of the community as “equal” was eroded by the corruption of (human) power, rather than through the gift of the (divine) spirit. The view of Piux X was not old but new.

  7. Great post, Fr. Dan. Would have liked to be there to listen to you and to the discussion that followed your presentation.

    The burst of “fresh air” that followed Vatican II engendered much hope and enthusiasm in our church. I was 33 at the time and remember it well. Especially important to the laity was that they were now called “the people of God.” Many people were on fire, awaiting the fulfillment of the promises made there and were anxious to become involved in parish and diocesan ministries.
    Sadly, the fire has been all but extinguished by succeeding popes and by others in leadership positions. And yes, old ideas DO continue to prevail. In reality, it has become “back to business as usual.”

    The clergy sexual abuse scandals (some of which pre-dated Vatican II but came to light only in recent years); the Vatican financial (possibly criminal) situation; and the clamping down on women religious’ orders and refusal to allow women deacons have further dimmed the hopes of the “people of God.”

    You are very astute and ‘with it,’ Fr. Dan, so you must be aware of the increasing laity demand that we now have direct involvement in the selection of bishops and in the appointment of parish pastors and, increasingly in very recent times, of parish administrators.
    The old adage, “pray, pay, and obey,” is no longer acceptable.

    The governance and membership in the Catholic church will change from what now exists. The handwriting is on the wall. Unfortunately, the Vatican leadership seems to be circling the wagons and, instead of engaging in a dialogue, rather issues harsh proclamations and press releases.

    Change IS coming. It will come through the action of the Holy Spirit.
    I believe this unequivocally. Jesus assured his followers (and by implication, us) that “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you
    (Jn 14:18 NAB) and “…I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20b NAB).

  8. Great post! I entered the Church in 1998 and I find it interesting that much of the modern understanding of many things, including equality, seem to come from enlightenment philosophy. It is these understandings and definitions that we constantly seem to debate over. What I would like to see is a Christian understanding of subjects that take into account revelation and the mission of the Church in saving souls- our ultimate purpose while here. It is also interesting to imagine how the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) would have addressed the life of the laity within the Church since it was on the agenda but never finished and with the council being formally closed in 1960.

  9. Matthew M. Says:

    No apologies, but the last time I checked, it is Saint Pope Pius X.

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