Beliefs Opinion

COMMENTARY: Even committed laity are no substitutes for priests

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and a sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. Check out his home page at or contact him via e-mail at agreel(at)

UNDATED _ Even though it has moved to the right in recent years, it is rare to find the independent, lay-edited Roman Catholic magazine Commonweal and the Vatican on the same page.

Nonetheless, both the magazine and the Holy See, each in their own way, have recently raised warnings about an emergent lay elite who work full time in parishes.

An article in Commonweal describes these laity as uneducated, jargon-spouting ideologues who have brought no more freedom and no more wisdom to parishes than the oft-maligned clergy did.

The Vatican, meanwhile, has warned against breaking down the distinction between the laity and the priesthood, saying, for example, the laity should not be allowed to preach at Mass.

After reading the Commonweal article and subsequent letters of agreement and disagreement, I wished for a moment I was a social critic who could generalize from my own experience and my own parish to the whole of American Catholicism as these writers did. It would be a lot easier than plugging away with systematic data.

And, after reading the Vatican document, I wasn’t sure the clerics who wrote it were living in the same world in which I lived.

Thus, in the absence of systematic data, I will not generalize about the full time lay workers in the Roman Catholic Church except to say they are not substitutes for priests.

At the same time, I am concerned about the endless horror stories detailing how some of these quasi-clerical gatekeepers oppress parishioners by denying them access to the sacraments _ an access to which they have the right according to the code of canon law.

I do not know how typical these horror stories are and do not generalize from them. But even one case of denial of the sacraments because of extra-canonical rules is one case too many.

One of the worst of the stories I have heard would persuade the authors of the Vatican warning that the situation in the United States is worse than they fear. I don’t name the participants in the story to protect those involved, especially since the situation has already been corrected.

A newly ordained priest was assigned to a parish. Filled with zeal, the priest searches the parish for work to do. He runs into barriers at every turn.

The lay director of formation for adult converts refuses to let him talk to his charges. The marriage preparation team will not let him talk to couples about to be married until the night of the rehearsal. The youth minister threatens to resign if he does not stay way from the local teens. The baptism team will not permit him to visit the families who have applied for baptism to determine whether they’re worthy to have their children baptized. That, they say, is their job.

The priest is, however, permitted to say Mass and to preach.

It might be argued the lay people who are excluding the priest from the work of the parish rightly feel he is a threat to their jobs and hard won power. If they do not cling fiercely to what they’ve won, they may lose it all. It is their parish, their programs, their work. What right does the priest have to interfere with what they’re doing, much less threaten their jobs.

But it needs to be said, in season and out: the full-time lay workers in a parish are not substitutes for priests. If we had twice as many priests ordained every year as we do now, we would still need all the lay workers we have. Their contribution to the work of the church is indispensable but we are not hiring them because of a temporary shortage of priests.

The ministry of the priest in the Catholic tradition is qualitatively different from that of the lay worker, even the full time lay worker.

But, some of these lay workers argue, remembering an era of autocratic priests, it is not right that a man should have more power than they do merely because his hands have been annointed with the oils of ordination.

But the priest does not have more power than the lay staff; he has a different power, one that has always been indispensable in the church and always will be, no matter how stupid or inept of unprofessional some of us may be.

In practice, the various responsibilities of the lay and clerical staff members of a parish must be worked out with delicacy and diligence. But no one should deny a priest the right to exercise his ministry nor deny to the people of the parish their right to receive the sacraments. Such hunger for power disgraces the church.