Brent Society Discusses Role of the Laity

By Mary Frances McCarthy
Catholic Herald [Arlington VA]
October 9, 2003

About 40 people gathered at St. Agnes Church parish hall in Arlington last week to discuss the recent sex abuse scandal in the Church and how the laity should react. The Brent Society invited Sim Johnston, freelance writer and frequent contributor to CRISIS magazine to be the guest speaker. Johnston made suggestions on what caused the scandal and what the role of the laity should be in the Church.

Concerning the sexual abuse scandals, Johnston began by saying the crisis was misrepresented in the media. According to the media, Johnston said, the root of the problem causing the sex abuse crisis was Church teaching itself. "The scandals have naturally provoked a great deal of discussion of what is wrong with the Catholic Church," Johnston said. "The chief target, priestly celibacy."

Johnston indicated the three main problems with ordaining married men to the priesthood. First and most importantly, he mentioned, priests are called to devote their lives and all their energies to God. Married men are called to be devoted to their wives and children. Obviously, there is some conflict there.

Also, Johnston said, if priests are married and have families, they are going to want to live in good neighborhoods and send their children to good schools. They will not be as willing or able as unmarried priests to move from parish to parish or reside in lower-class neighborhoods or third-world missions.

Third, Johnston raised the "What if?" question of divorce. What would happen if the marriage of a priest went sour?

In Johnston’s view, it is Catholics on the extreme left who feel that allowing married men to be ordained would help prevent future sex abuse crises and would help solve the priest shortage.

Many conservative Catholics on the extreme right, he said, might blame the Second Vatican Council. But, Johnston said, it was not the council, but the way in which it was implemented in this country that has caused problems.

To refute claims that Vatican II was unnecessary, Johnston remarked on seven reasons for the council.

— The Church’s attitude toward modernity. Before the council, the Catholic Church was perceived as gloomy and pessimistic. Vatican II was necessary for the Church to learn how to speak and relate to the modern world.

— Institutional rigidity. One goal of Vatican II was to define the role of the laity in the world. Many felt that if a person was truly serious about being holy, they would enter the religious life. Before Vatican II, Johnston said, "the laity were left off in the bleachers."

— Liturgy. Along with defining the role of the laity in the world, there was a need to increase the participation of lay people at Mass.

— Religious orders. Within the religious orders, there was too much rigidity. Johnston described nuns in the time before Vatican II as "worker bees." Life in convents and seminaries was too routine, he said, and there was not enough formation.

— Moral theology. A Jewish friend of Johnston’s once described the Catholic Faith to him as being "all about rules." Johnston said, "Being a Catholic should be an adventure in grace."

— Religious Freedom. The Church needed to "make peace with democracy," Johnston said. It needed to "no longer impose but propose the Truth."

— Anthropological. Previous Church councils focused on truth as objective reality. The Second Vatican Council explored the question of "How does man experience God and how do we communicate him to the modern world?"

According to Johnston, Vatican II achieved these reforms, but they were never fully, or in some cases correctly, implemented in this country. He said many council teachings were "misrepresented and hijacked" by the left-wing Catholics, "a very determined minority on pushing through what they didn’t quite get at the council."

So what can the laity do about it now?

A major issue in the Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council, and still today, is clericalism, he said.

"Christ founded a hierarchical Church, for better or for worse," Johnson said. While the laity is more involved now, they are still called to fill other roles.

"The laity are not called to do work inside the Church," Johnston said. "They are called to be a leaven out in the world."

Johnston said the first concern of all lay people should be their own sanctity. "The first thing the laity ought to do is reform themselves," he said. "The laity is 98 percent of the Church. Our problem is ourselves. One of the great enemies among Catholicism is affluence, a so-called bourgeois Catholicism."

While lay people now assist at Mass as Eucharistic ministers and serve in many more functions in the "Church than they have in the past, Johnston said, "Your vocation is not to be quasi-clerics."

It was made quite evident by the questions asked after Johnston’s talk that the people in attendance were not willing to sit on the sidelines when faced with adversity and situations in the Church with which they did not agree. Several people expressed dissatisfaction with particular incidences, and questioned if Johnston was suggesting that they do nothing but pray about it.

Johnston recapped his speech, and said that "Who gets to control what is the preoccupation of many groups." He emphasized that the role of the laity is not to run a parish or a diocese, but to work out in the world.

"The institutional Church is the institutional Church," he said. "Part of our struggle for sanctity is how we resolve this."

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