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Mirror of Justice
The editors of America magazine would like to "create a new body, an international council of laypersons to share functions with the College of Cardinals. After attrition among the cardinals, each of the two bodies eventually could have 100 members." They also mull a less radical step: "[C]hange canon law to admit laypeople to the College of Cardinals. The church could thereby continue its all-male priesthood, yet transform the 'men’s club' into a church with a face that more resembles the people of God described in the documents of the Second Vatican Council."
Setting aside the meaningless posturing of that last sentence, let's take the latter idea first.
Cardinals are a human invention, a part of the Church's functional hierarchy rather than her ministerial priesthood.1 And the de iure requirement that they be bishops is a recent human invention, originating in the 1917 code's requirement that cardinals be at least priests and flowering fully in John XXIII's 1962 moto proprio Cum gravissima. Before that, lay cardinals were neither common nor unheard of.2 What's the take-away? Well, cardinals are only bishops as a requirement of law, whereas priests must be men as a requirement of the deposit of faith,3 and since there have been lay cardinals before, I infer that while Holy Orders is useful to the cardinalate, it is not necessarily essential. In principle, then, we can't exclude ex ante the the possibility of making laymen—and even laywomen—cardinals.
This makes the proposal intriguing, and the call for female cardinals in particular has surfaced before. Its primary appeal is its potential to stymie proponents of ordaining women, eliminating in one fell swoop the argument that the male priesthood reflects nothing more than a desire to exclude women from positions of authority. Nevertheless, saying that an idea shouldn't be dismissed at the outset is a far cry from saying that it shouldn't be dismissed, still less that it's a good idea. It merely means that it's not as silly as it is counterintuitive. This proposal is beset with difficulties, not the least of which is practical: Among the more obvious, since the usual selection pool would not apply, to whom would the Pope look in making appointments? Even if episcopal consecration is not essential, is it beneficial, and if so, does the loss entailed outweigh the gain? Moreover, quite aside from the practical difficulties, my question is whether such a move would mollify those who continue to press for ordaining women or encourage them?
Ultimately, I think the proposal fails because of a point made in a document the editors cite later in their piece. They quote ven. John Paul II's Ut unum sint for the proposition that "the authority of the church 'is exercised in the service of truth and charity'"; later in the same encyclical, however, John Paul warns "against the risk of separating power (and in particular the primacy) from ministry. Such a separation would contradict the very meaning of power according to the Gospel: 'I am among you as one who serves.'" (No. 88 (quoting Lk 22:27)). While it's true that we can distinguish between the ecclesiastical and ministerial hierarchies,4 the two have always been united. To depart from this is to venture into a minefield.
What can be said about the editors' other proposal? Well, it is enough to observe that in the end, the editors let the mask drop. Having fleshed out their premise of injecting the laity into the upper echelons of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, in a paragraph that rewards close scrutiny, they suggest that
[t]hese laypeople would offer much-needed perspective on the impact of the teachings and practices of the church, including such divisive subjects as contraception, the role of women in the church, the treatment of homosexuals and the failure of authorities to respond quickly and forcefully to the scandal of sexual abuse by members of the clergy. They would understand other pastoral failings, like the denial of the Eucharist to public persons because of their political positions, a too modest peace and justice agenda, lackluster liturgies with unprepared sermons and insensitive celebrants.
In other words, when the editors say they want the influence of lay people, they mean dissidents and liberals. They say they want "much-needed perspective," but it is abundantly clear that they have in mind nothing more than amplifying the voice of their modernist campaign against certain doctrines and practices.
It is simple to explain why. The editors' claim that greater lay involvement will produce movement toward their preferred outcomes makes no sense without two predicates: the clergy is united against America's editors on these points, and the laity is united behind America's editors. Both are false. It is true that some members of the laity disagree with the Church's teaching on contraception, homosexuality, "the role of women in the church" (a coy euphemism for ordaining women), and so on—the laundry list of liberal dissent. (Not a redundancy: there is plenty of dissent on the right.) For sake of argument, we might even stipulate that they're right. But it is utterly false for the editors to imply (as they must for their argument to cohere) that these issues divide the clergy from the laity. Indeed, at least five of America's editors are priests, and if they sided with the Church rather than this editorial, they kept silent. (Much, much more could be said about this, but is unnecessary for the point.) Nor does it make any sense to suppose that the mere inclusion of the laity at the top of the Church hierachy would have changed much about the abuse crisis. If one thing has been clear in the sexual abuse crisis, it is that to the extent there was cover-up, the laity had as much to do with it as the clergy. If the editors mean simply that a more astute PR team would have handled things better, I agree, but their point still fails: PR skills are not the exclusive province of the laity.
Finally, if you had any doubt left in mind that the voices America really means to amplify are those of liberals not laity, it evaporates when they suggest that greater lay involvement would preclude "pastoral failings[ ] like the denial of the Eucharist to public persons because of their political positions." Whatever the merits of such a position, it is certainly not a point which divides between laity and clergy.
What is sad is that America's editor's know all this, and yet have chosen to advance their failed political agenda by sowing dissent and discord, by advancing a fictitious and divisive "us vs. them" narrative which paints the clergy as a problem and the laity as a solution. Martin Luther might apoprove, but I do not. As you sow, gentlemen—as you sow.
MP: Straight talk on altar girls (Oct. 19, 2011)