Cletus Wessels, O.P.: A Restructured Church: The Demise of Clergy and Laity
A Restructured Church: The Demise of Clergy and Laity
Cletus Wessels, O.P.
The American Catholic, January/February 2003

In the midst of the scandal of clerical sexual abuse, people are beginning to call for a restructuring of the Church. The current hierarchical structure is being challenged as it becomes clear that major decisions have been made by a relatively small group of higher clergy without adequate input from the broader community. Such a limited decision-making body results in a system that is closed, secret and self-protecting. Rather, the vibrant life of the Church demands visible representation from its entire body, from women and men, parents and children, people of all lifestyles, colors and ages.

The clerical culture is being called into question by lay people and priests alike. In an article in America (May 13, 2002) entitled "Farewell to `the Club,"' Michael Papesh says, "It is time to consider the possibility that the residue of a repressive clerical culture is near the heart of our problems.... The time has come to bid farewell to 'the club.'"

A re-examination of the viability of the distinction between clergy and laity in the Church is essential for its future renewal. Such a renewal is possible only if we begin with the fundamental questions: How did an egalitarian Jesus community end up as a church divided into two separate groups, the clergy and the laity? What were the dynamics which brought about this transformation?

Any attempt to portray the structure of the Church in the early centuries of its life is complicated by the variety and diversity of the written sources and by the difficulty of interpreting these sources out of each person's own experiences and biases. We can, however, discover a general consensus on the broad outline of the way in which the distinction between clergy and laity developed in the first six centuries.

In the New Testament and during the early apostolic times there is no mention of clergy or laity.

The priestly function -- the true priesthood -- is peculiar to Christ, who has enabled all Christians to share in it. In the Christian communities of the first century, there was no independent priestly function that was exercised by a special caste or minister. The laity as such was not recognized in the New Testament, which speaks only of people, a holy people, a chosen people, a people set apart, a kleros entirely responsible for carrying out a royal priesthood and calling on each one of its members to give to God true worship in spirit. (Alexandre Faivre, The Emergence of the Laity in the Early Church, Paulist Press).
Edward Schillebeeckx describes the situation as the Church moved into the second century. "At the beginning of this transitional period, the Church's ministry was in no way detached from the community or, so to speak, set above it; ministry is clearly incorporated into the totality of all kinds of services which are necessary for the community" (Ministry: Leadership in the Community of Jesus Christ, Crossroad). In the ongoing life of the Church during the biblical and early apostolic time, there is no evidence for a distinction between clergy and laity either linguistically or in reality.

The turning point in the history of the community came at the beginning of the third century. The term "lay," a word barely encountered in the first century in the epistle of Clement of Rome, suddenly came into use again. The idea of "clergy," at the same time, was formed and became used more extensively. With Cyprian, an influential African bishop of the third century, the new position of the clergy precisely as clergy, a closed group within, and in some sense above, the community, was solidified.

What has happened? How and why, over a period of two centuries, did the clear distinction between clergy and laity become an integral part of the life of the Christian community? The reasons are many and they are complex, but we can point out briefly some of the factors that were involved.

Whatever the historical reasons, an important transformation took place in the Church over the first six centuries. The clear distinction between clergy and laity continued almost undisturbed as a part of the structure of the Church. It became a more important dimension of the life of the community as well when, over the centuries, the Church's institutional character became more clearly articulated. At the beginning of the 20th century, the relationship between clergy and laity was clearly articulated by Pius X, and it was seen by the pope as part of the essence Church.
It follows that the Church is by essence an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of persons, 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 it members. toward that end; the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors (Vehementer Nos).
In what way can the relationship between the clergy and laity be essential to the structure of the Church? It cannot be essential to the very life of the Church in such a way that the Church cannot exist without it, because the Church in fact existed for centuries without such a structure. Perhaps it was essential to the life of the Church as the Church found itself surrounded by a patriarchal and monarchical society. Without the rise of a strong clerical leadership, the Church probably would not have survived in such a society. Now in a radically different social and cultural setting, the distinction between clergy and laity may no longer be a viable structure of the Church.

The first hints of this possible change in the structure of the Church appeared in the discussions during the Second Vatican Council and in the documents that were subsequently promulgated. The Dogmatic Constitution Church (Lumen Gentium), with its focus on the Mystery of the Church and the People of God, hinted at the fact that the basic reality of the Church is the mystery of God's presence within the entire community of the people of God. The code word in Vatican II was "collegiality," and in the post-conciliar times, there were great hopes for an international synod of bishops, episcopal conferences, and pastoral councils as a means of embodying the people of God as the basic structure of the Church. According to Richard Gaillardetz, Vatican II presented us with a new vision.

The vision of the Church developed at Vatican II represented a decisive move away from an excessively institutional view of the Church and toward an ecclesiology grounded in the concept of communion, which ... has its roots in the biblical notion of koinonia. . . . It suggests that the Church is constituted by a set of relationships that possess a particular character. . . . This means that, as with the Trinitarian relations, all ecclesial relations will be 1) egalitarian yet differentiated and 2) mutual and reciprocal. This has significant implications, needless to say, for the exercise of power and authority in the Church (Teaching with Authority, Liturgical Press).
This future vision of ecclesial relations as egalitarian yet differentiated, mutual and reciprocal has not been realized despite the honest efforts of many people in every sector of the Church's life. What, then, is the impediment to addressing the deeply felt need within the Church for a change in the overall structure of the Church resulting in ecclesial relations that are egalitarian yet differentiated, mutual and reciprocal? The solution to this problem is not found in simply improving clergy/laity relations or calling for more collegiality among the clergy and more docility among the laity. Something more radical is needed; something that gets at the very roots of the problem.

Perhaps the root of the problem is that relationships in a society comprising two categories of person in which one group has all the rights and authority and the other group allows itself to be led simply cannot be egalitarian yet differentiated, mutual and reciprocal. The relationship between clergy and laity is like a Gordian knot which, in Greek legend, could be undone only by the future master of Asia. Alexander the Great, failing to untie it, cut the knot with his sword. Vatican II tried but could not untie the knot because it did not deal directly with the clergy/laity relationship. I agree with Remi Parent that the only way to cut the Gordian knot is to do away entirely with the distinction between clergy and laity as it is now understood in the Church. "To put it crudely, I think that the future of the clergy and of the laity requires that the clerics cease being clerics and that lay people cease being lay people" (A Church of the Baptized: Overcoming the Tension between the Clergy and the Laity, Paulist Press).

This is not only a very difficult task, as has become clear with the more modest attempts of Vatican II to modify the ecclesial relationships within the Church, but it is a task that can be accomplished only by seeing the current clergy/laity relationship as part of a complex authoritative hierarchy of relations that constitute our whole religious mentality. If people think of God as a commanding autocrat, they will likely create an ecclesial autocracy, and justify it by reference to God's authority.

This network of relations can be seen graphically in the diagram below.

Each element is a passive object in relationship to what is above it and an active subject in relationship to what is below it, and it is clear that in this religious universe, the movement indicated by the arrows only goes from top to bottom. The clergy/laity relationship is deeply embedded in this larger religious mentality. The image of God portrayed in this schema is a transcendent God whose transcendence is the external cause of all that exists. God in relationship to all other things is the only active subject and all other creatures are passive objects. Jesus Christ can be an active subject only insofar as he is seen in his divinity as God, while in his humanity, Jesus is seen as the passive object. Clergy are passive in relationship to Christ and are active only as they participate in a special way in the divine power of Christ, and the downward flow of this power of the clerical state goes from the pope to bishops to priests to deacons. The laity are passive in the internal workings of the Church, but the laity, empowered by the clergy, can be active in the world. The world is entirely a passive object waiting to be sanctified by presence and preaching of the Church.

Thus the Gordian knot is a much larger and a much broader religious universe than it seemed at first, and this knot cannot be untied within the current paradigm of the Church. In my opinion, the only way to cut the almost universal Gordian knot is by using the sword of a new paradigm which is found in the holarchical Church.

The basis of a new paradigm is a radically new story of the universe and a new Cosmology calling for concepts, images and structures unknown to previous generations. It is a vision of God as the internal cause of creation who is immediately present within the whole of creation unfolding in the 15 billion year story of the universe. This is a vision that does not see God's presence as mediated from top to bottom through Jesus Christ to the clergy to the laity to the world. Rather the presence of God is the center of a web of relationships, with the power and presence of God expanding in all directions from within. The new paradigm is a vision of the Church as a community of disciples with the greatest possible diversity in which all are treated as subjects filled with a deep sense of communion in the one body of Christ, a Church that is not a pyramid but a web of relationships.

It is not possible to describe in any detail a holarchical Church in which clerics cease being clerics and lay people cease being lay people because, in the new paradigm, the Church as a self-organizing system unfolds and emerges out of the presence of God within it. We also know that, as we see in the universe, God emerges in many strange and unanticipated ways. Moreover, it is important to recall that, in terms of liberation, the only true freedom is the freedom that comes from within when the oppressed choose to be free. Thus, wherever there is oppression in the Church, freedom will come when the laity themselves choose to cease being laity and the clergy, who can also be the object of oppression, choose to cease being clergy. To live out such a new paradigm will require a deep and strong faith in the presence and power of God.

If the Church is truly the Body of Christ, it will be open to all and will foster relationships that are egalitarian yet differentiated, mutual and reciprocal. As the scandal spreads and the bishops struggle with damage control, the people of God will meet this challenge only by looking more deeply into the structure of the Church. What is called for is an inner change of heart, an entirely new way of thinking, and a new vision of the Church. Cosmetic changes are no longer adequate. We need cosmic changes!

Cletus Wessels is a Dominican priest who served for 18 years as a professor of theology at Aquinas Institute. He is the author of The Holy Web: Church and the New Universe Story (2000) (Orbis Books) and Jesus in the New Universe Story (2003).