Our Little Church
The views presented in the following papers are those of the Issues Group and are not necessarily representative of the people of St. Aloysius Parish nor the Roman Catholic Church.
The Role of Clergy and Laity
Cleric and Lay in the First One Thousand Years of the Church
Volumes could be written and have been, on either the lay or cleric states in the Church. I have attempted an overview in only a few inadequate pages. What binds these two states together is the discipleship of Christ they equally share. It is in this shared discipleship that we will attempt to understand cleric and lay as we move through two thousand years of history. And all this in less than two thousand words.
Our faith is in a person. Jesus Christ. He is the source of and the model for all we are to be. In faith He has called us to be his followers, his disciples. There is not one discipleship for clerics and another for lay persons. There is only one discipleship. The New Testament is a written record of our call to follow. In our responding together to Christ we become a community, the Christ faithful, the Church. Without Christ there is no church, but without his community of faithful living out their discipleship there is also no church. It is in this sense then that we say in Christ we are the Church.
From the Resurrection to the beginning of the fourth century the Church was far different from what we know today. Not only different because it was new and evolving, but different in the very way its members related to each other as equals, depended on each other in worship and service, and sought together as a community to live out their discipleship in Christ. There was no clear distinction between a cleric and a lay person, between those appointed to service and those who brought other talents and skills to the community. Each was valued for his or her discipleship, not for their roles or functions. Young or old, Jew or Greek, man or woman, it was their living faith that defined them. If a person was chosen for a leadership or service role by the community, it was based on the merits of his or her discipleship. No one chose these roles for themselves, they were chosen by the community, for the community. And it was the community and its well being that was of the utmost concern to the earlyChristians, how to protect it in a hostile world, how to nurture its faith, how to help it grow. From these concerns evolved the communal liturgies: baptism to accept the newly faithful, the Eucharist to spiritually nourish the faithful, reconciliation to reunite those who had failed to live up to their faith, and the service/leadership liturgy to select and consecrate those thought worthy to administer to the needs of the community. These liturgies, including service and liturgies, existed for the community, not vice versa. For a leader to be imposed was inconceivable. Structure existed from the beginning of the Church, but it was communal and elective not hierarchical. It was from the bottom up, not from the top down.
But in the beginning of the fourth century a dramatic change took place in the Church that would determine its course down to our present time. A much maligned, threatened, and persecuted Church was suddenly accepted and smiled upon by the Constantine emperors and given the chance to flourish. Seizing this opportunity, the Church embraced the empire. It was a powerful marriage. The Church was now Roman and the Roman Empire was now Holy. One church, one empire. The Church became the official church, intolerant of all others. Church leaders soon broke with the past by adopting the order or hierarchical structure of the Roman world. It was henceforth a person's position, and or function that determined their status in the Church, not discipleship. As the institutional church developed its own power class by emulating the power structure of its new secular counterpart and partner, the church of discipleship, the church of community, the church of the gospels and the early Christians was replaced. The line between cleric and lay was no longer fluid, but sharply drawn. All power was assumed by the new clerical class, and the lay or nonclerical was disempowered.
As the empire was all powerful, so now was the institutional church. As the empire was Roman it was also now Christian. Secular authority as well as clerical authority touched every aspect of a person's life. The Church gave the empire unity and stability and the empire advanced the Church's doctrines and moral teachings. Each believed that as long as they were one the world had reached its ideal and salvation. This world was divided into the governed and the governing, the common Christian citizen and the often times overlapping royal and pontifical courts.
By the year 700, it was generally accepted that the positions of king and pope were divinely instituted, and these domains were frequently at odds as each sought power over the other. In this medieval period up to the year 1000, the split between the leadership and the disempowered members of the Church became even more defined. Monasteries were firmly in the hands of the clerics. All aspects of liturgy were taken over by clerics. The lay person was relegated to the role of passive observer. As Latin increased as a common language, liturgy became even more unintelligible to the largely uneducated common person. Unless a lay person was of the noble class, he or she was generally excluded from any meaningful role. The term church gradually came to mean the hierarchical institution and not the community of faithful. Wealth also played a part in the growing disparity between lay and cleric, the taxed and untaxed, the nonprivileged and the privileged. Like society, the Church had become feudal.
To conclude then, once the secular world, through a mandate of imperial power became the Christian world as happened in the fourth century, the Church began to incorporate the secular order and the structure of that world. Historically it made good sense. The Church became strong and universal. The morals and teaching of our faith were promulgated throughout Europe and Asia Minor. But the new ordering inevitably led to the disempowerment of the lay person and a break between the cleric and lay states. This did not happen by design or manipulation, the educated became disconnected from the uneducated, the untaxed from the taxed, the leaders from the led, the powerful form the powerless. We can only understand our historical church and our positions today as lay or clerical members if we understand this history. No other institution transcends these past two thousand years like the Church. Empires, kingdoms, and states have passed. The Church remains. It is the vessel of our heritage and faith. The fact that it survived at all and played the great part it did in history is a tribute to its greatness and glory and the presence of the Spirit. But if we are to define ourselves in terms of discipleship as we have done throughout this paper then by the end of the first one thousand years we would have to say that the lay voice was no longer equal to the cleric as it had been in the beginning. There was an essential wrong at the Church's core. For in the Church of the gospels all of us are called, not some of us; all of us form the community, not some of us; all of us share in the ministry of Christ, not some of us; all of us share in the service/leadership of the Christ believing, not some of us; all of us are the Church, not some of us.
In this paper we looked at the first one thousand years to see where we came from and how we grew. In the next paper we will complete this process in the second thousand years and bring history to our own doorsteps. From here perhaps we will discern the parts we must play in launching the third one thousand years.
2. Cleric and Lay in the Second One Thousand Years of the Church
From the time of the Constantine emperors to the first centuries of the new millennium most people were uneducated and powerless. For this and other reasons, the breach between cleric and lay by the year one thousand was the widest in the two thousand year history of the Church. But it was also the turning point. Form the year one thousand to the year fifteen hundred, ordinary men and women began to play a more active part in the shaping of daily events. Power and wealth increased with a growing middle class, and the primitive beginnings of representative government in small towns and national assemblies began to take root and grow throughout Europe. Scholars, writers, artists, musicians, changed the world view. This was the age of Giotto, Chaucer, Dante, Boccaccio, da Vinci - all non clerics. Architecture redefined cities, and the sciences of medicine and law opened up new horizons. Universities were increasing in enrollment. A rich merchant class emerged. Papal and royal authorities were finding themselves more frequently challenged, not yet out of anger or dissatisfaction in this time of innocence, but out of an ever increasing knowledge and research. Because of this, but ever so slowly, lay progress was made in the church. The Franciscan movement, as well as others, helped define a new laity spirituality and encouraged lay teaching and scholarship. Thanks to the Crusades, knights gained new lay status in the Church's structure. Women began to exercise roles within the Church not exercised since the fourth century, particularly in writing the renewal and reforms of western mysticism.
With these changes came an ever growing unease within the Church. On the one hand there was a sense that something was seriously wrong at the Church's very core. Why was not this new lay voice more actively incorporated and listened to? Why was not power and authority shared? Why was it that only the cleric half of the Church seemed to share in the discipleship of Christ and not the whole Church? From the years one thousand to fifteen hundred, the theme was time and again reform, reform, reform. From the reforms of the Avignon papacy to the Gregorian reforms, to the Council of Trent, the Church struggled to come to terms with the new realities of emerging lay men and women in a changing world, but in terms of structure it also resisted. This new reality was not welcomed by Church leaders. To be equal to the constant challenges by the royal courts of Europe, the papacy in its view could not allow itself to be weakened by lay influences. In the centuries to follow, the results of this irony would be cataclysmic. Because of its rigidity the Church would be ever altered by the Protestant Reformation and what is called the Counter Reformation that followed.
Although the role of the lay person was not central to any of the Protestant reform movements at the beginning of the sixteenth century there is little doubt that the role of the lay person was greatly enhanced by these movements. Luther's central issues of justification, good works, grace, as well as John Calvin's views on women in the church and in society opened to thoughtful Catholics the prospect for new possible roles in the Church. Discipleship could be seen as something broader than simply one's loyalty to the Church. It was once again seen as sharing in Christ's mission of salvation to the world. Like Paul, one could be a disciple by being a tent maker, a non-cleric. The message was by baptism into Christ and sharing in the Eucharist of Christ we are disciples of Christ. We do not become disciples by virtue of ordination.
It cannot be said either that lay persons were a central focus of the Council of Trent (1545-1573), but they were affected. The bishops of the council hoped to enhance the lay person by focusing on better trained and more deeply spiritual clergy, something of a holy trickle down theory. The results were mixed. The council was further hampered by a continually defensive leadership and the fear of Protestant taint if a gospel rather than an ecclesiastical approach to the issues of lay men and women were adopted.
Yet the world continued to turn. Locked out of ecclesiastical power, lay men and women advanced in the secular world. Through the American and French revolutions they redefined western civilization. The concepts of unalienable rights, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, government of the people, even freedom of religion, empowered every citizen. The divine right of kings had given way to the divine right of the common man. From now on it is the citizen who is the foundation of civil power, not the king or the emperor. Still the Church remained negative and defensive. This was true for many reasons. For one, there were strong anticlerical sentiments in the revolutionary movements. Also the Church was still connected to the falling nobility, not the emerging citizen. But now the old order was fading. Except for the Church, monarchical rule was by and large dead.
But even within the Church progress was made, no matter how grudgingly and indirect. By the nineteenth century Catholic lay groups and Catholic Action had become essential parts of the Church. As women advanced in the civil world they also advanced in the Church in fields of education, health, administration, and social welfare. Yes, in terms of status, the lay person was still on the bottom rung of the Church ladder. Yes, loyalty to the institution still largely defined lay discipleship. And yes, right up to today the Church is more understood as the hierarchical institution than the Christ centered faithful. For many still, Sunday Mass is the Church experience while the day-in-day-out challenges of the other six days are the real world.
Disconnected and authoritarian the Church moved into the turmoil of the twentieth century. And thanks to great lay men and women of vision who truly believed in the Church, men and women who pressed with all the perseverance of the widow before the judge, who used the education and talents and skills they had garnished from the world, the Church with time was brought to a new dawn. With their secular influences and powers, outstanding men and women guided the Church not from within the hierarchical structure but from without, yet as surely as anyone who sat upon the seat of Peter. Great lay and clerical voices spoke throughout the century, Jacques Maritain, Danielou, Teilhard de Chardin, Francois Mauriac, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Carol Houselander, Dorothy Day, Yves Congar, Leon Joseph Suenens, Karl Rahner, and so on. Their message was one and the same. We all share in the one discipleship, we are all the one Church. There is no within and without. There is no order of worth or status higher than the living faith of the Christian. And they were heard. John XXIII threw open the windows and launched the greatest reform in the history of the Catholic Church.
But thirty years after this council we may sadly ask for what? With all our advancements, with all our supposed education, both cleric and lay, we still for the greater part remain stuck in old precepts. We have dropped the ball. Those on the right with their dire warnings and those on the left with their ire and wounds both drink from the same muddy well. It is not enough for us to be defined by the past, we have been called to define the future. The Church is not a finished structure handed on from generation to generation, it is an unfinished structure that needs it artists and artisans. We owe our love and awe and respect to this often failed and imperfect institution, and owe to its future an awful responsibility.
In terms of opportunity and education no generation has received more than we. Future generations will rightly judge if we were wanting, and neither our fears nor our complaints nor whimpering will amount to much, I am sure, in their assessments. Where then are the great voices? Where are the heirs of the Mauriacs and Greenes and Rahners, those who shepherded the Church with Peter to the greatest of all councils and did so without fear of the future or resentment of the past? Where are the visionaries? The new millennium needs its prophets. If we today cannot accept the great gift given to us by the council and claim the Church as its true disciples, then it will not have been a council that failed us but we who failed a council. Without Christ there is no Church. Without discipleship fully shared, lay and cleric, there is also no Church. But striving together for the sheer glory of it in Christ, we can, after two thousand years of trying, finally be what the early Christians always knew themselves to be: together in Christ, the Church.
We have done our best to credit our sources. Please forgive us if we have overlooked any.