Have we blurred the boundaries between the ordained and the laity?

Originally embraced as a way to offset priest shortages, pastoral associate programs can sometimes be used to push other agendas.

Celebrating Mass on January 17 and commissioning seven new pastoral associates for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Archbishop José Gomez thanked the three women and four men for their “generous response to the spirit.” The newly installed pastoral associates join others in the archdiocese in serving alongside ordained clergy—heading up RCIA classes, planning Sunday liturgies, and leading communal prayers, Communion services, wakes, Scripture studies, faith formation programs, and more. Designed to respond to the call of Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, which is described on the Los Angeles archdiocesan website as “reminding us of the ancient understanding of the priesthood of all the baptized,” the pastoral associates program was created to provide lay Catholics an opportunity to share in the salvific mission of Christ in the world.

It is a laudable goal. But in some dioceses throughout the country, pastoral associates programs have caused confusion about both the purpose of such programs and the role of the laity. A “broadened” interpretation of the “priesthood of all the baptized” has created a sense of ambiguity about the appropriate limits of the laity as well as a blurring of the boundaries between the laity and the ordained. In Los Angeles, the role of the pastoral associate has expanded to include the ministry of pastoral care with couples “with regard to marriage or annulment procedures,” and “developing social consciousness among the staff and parishioners and respond[ing] to the needs of the poor and victimized.” The archdiocesan website also states: “At the Archbishop’s discretion and in dialogue with the parish community, a pastoral associate may function as the primary pastoral minister.” 

Sometimes the confusion about the goals of the pastoral associates program can be exacerbated by those entrusted with leading the programs. For example: responding to the pastoral associates commissioning celebration on January 17, Katherine Enright, director of the archdiocesan Office of Parish Life, told a reporter for The Angelus, the online version of the official weekly archdiocesan newspaper, that the pastoral associates program in Los Angeles is a “wonderful way to bring women into the heart of the Church.”  

Enright’s well-intentioned statement of support for the newly commissioned female pastoral associates points to some of the ambiguity that surrounds these programs. When the pastoral associate program in Los Angeles was created in 1999, its original purpose was offsetting a shortage of priests in the archdiocese. This is made clear in a statement from Cardinal Roger Mahony, Archbishop Gomez’s predecessor: “We have come to a time when we do not always have a priest available to serve the needs of the people of God. Simultaneously we have witnessed the growing phenomenon of lay men and women discerning a call to serve the Church in a professional capacity…” 

The shortage of priests to meet a growing population of Catholics in the Los Angeles archdiocese continues to drive the pastoral associates program there. Yet in some dioceses throughout the country, Church leaders have used the pastoral associates program as a way to demonstrate publicly their commitment to women’s empowerment in the Church. Rather than merely compensating for a lack of priests, in some cases pastoral associates’ programs may have been designed as a way to meet the growing demand from women to gain pastoral leadership roles in the Church. 

In the Diocese of Rochester, New York, under the leadership of Bishop Matthew Clark, it appears that a major goal of the pastoral associates program and the lay ecclesial ministers program was to empower women. Indeed, from the earliest days of his installation as Rochester’s bishop in 1979 until his retirement in 2012, Bishop Clark made it a priority to enhance women’s roles in parish and diocesan leadership. In 1982, Bishop Clark published Fire in the Thornbush: A Pastoral Letter on Women in the Church, presenting his vision for a more “affirming” role for women in the Church. While much of the document emphasizes the importance of women to the Church by reminding readers of the exalted role that Mary the Mother of God has always played,  Bishop Clark also suggests that “the painful experiences” of women in the Church “has led them to perceive the Church as generating and reinforcing circumstances oppressive to them… In their view, men have all the power in the Church; women are excluded by them from any significant action; they are considered to be inferior and incapable of a contribution of any consequence. In spite of the pain of these women, however, there is evident among them a love for the Church and a desire to serve God and his people in her name.”   

Bishop Clark’s pastoral letter also had a message for men in the Church—cautioning them to “learn and understand…to recognize sexism where it exists…to collaborate with women”—and he promised the “inclusion of women in liturgical functions, in those roles now open to them or in new roles that may be legitimately created.” The letter concludes with the assurance that it is a “priority of the Diocese of Rochester” to encourage and invite women to participate in “full measure” within the diocese. 

It is clear that Bishop Clark succeeded in creating roles for women that few Catholics could ever have imagined. By the time he retired, Bishop Clark oversaw 23 churches led by women in Rochester—all of them without a resident priest-pastor. Of those 23, 12 were led by six lay women, and an additional 11 churches were led by five women religious. Of the 13 lay parish-administrators in the Rochester diocese, only two were men.  

Bishop Clark took pride in recalling that Rochester was the first diocese in the nation to employ a female pastoral assistant. Only a few years later, the Rochester women moved from pastoral-assistant roles to assume leadership of parishes as lay ecclesial ministers (LEMs)—employing priests as “priest assistants.” This model was replicated first in the Diocese of Albany and later in dioceses throughout the country led by progressive bishops who shared Bishop Clark’s commitment to elevating women, sometimes, it was argued, at the expense of the priests.

In his 2009 book Forward in Hope: Saying Amen to Lay Ecclesial Ministry, Bishop Clark includes short chapters by a few of the women leading parishes in his diocese. Their narratives reveal the confusion that continues to haunt some pastoral associates programs. One of the female lay ecclesial ministers wrote that it is difficult for her when “people assume that the sacramental minister (the priest) is the decision maker for the community.” Another complained that after she had “prepared someone for marriage,” she was distraught to see that the “service is presided over by someone who does not have a relationship with the couple.”

Writing in The Wanderer, Paul Likoudis noted that LEMs in Rochester have had extensive liturgical functions that include leading prayer and worship services, leading penance services, and sometimes delivering homilies at Masses. Likoudis notes that in the past, the homilies delivered by LEMs in Rochester were called “Dialogue Homilies” to differentiate them from those delivered by ordained priests and deacons. Likoudis has also identified several female LEMs from Rochester who have become leaders in the women’s ordination movement through membership in the Women’s Ordination Conference. He also identifies some women who have left lay ministry in Rochester to become “ordained” in alternative “Catholic” communities.

Today, in some dioceses, female pastoral associates and lay ecclesial ministers have assumed the role of the pastors—relegating priests to what Rochester calls “sacramental ministers” or “priest assistants,” called on to celebrate the Mass, consecrate the Eucharist, and administer the sacraments. All other pastoral duties, including the day-to-day parish administration and financial decision-making, are done by the LEMs—even when there are priests available within the very same parish the lay administrator is leading. 

It is not surprising that the rates of priestly ordination in the Rochester diocese have been among the lowest in the country. Data we collected for our book, Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops is Revitalizing the Church (written with Christopher White) points out that from 2003 until 2011, the Rochester diocese ordained a total of eight priests. By contrast, the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut ordained 30 priests in that same period. Some dioceses ordained even more. This does not show causality, but research on ordination rates reveals that when large numbers of female lay leaders assume control over parishes in a given diocese, there are fewer vocations to the priesthood in that diocese. And while we cannot claim that the lay leadership itself caused the lack of ordinations in a specific diocese like Rochester, we can say that the presence of large numbers of pastoral associates, parish life coordinators, or lay ecclesial ministers in a diocese is correlated to a lack of ordinations to the priesthood in that diocese.

Occasionally, stories about these lay empowerment programs reach the media, as happened a few years ago in San Jose when Bishop Patrick McGrath appointed a female lay ecclesial minister for parish life to lead a large Santa Clara parish instead of naming a new pastor. According to California Catholic Daily, Bishop McGrath made this decision despite the fact that there are three priests listed in the parish’s online staff directory. California Catholic Daily reported that Dorothy Carlson is now leading St. Justin parish even as two priests are listed as “parochial vicars” and one priest is listed as “in residence.” The rationale for the decision was presented by the diocese as follows: “Some priests may choose not to be pastors. There are increasing numbers of highly educated, experienced and motivated lay Catholics who view ministry as a profession.” 

The Changing Face of Parishes, a 2009 study conducted by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, revealed continued growth in the presence of lay ecclesial ministers throughout the country—and the dominance of female leaders in the programs. The study reported: “In 2009, the number of LEMs had grown to 37,929. Of this, 14 percent were vowed religious, and 86 percent other lay persons. Overall 80 percent were female and 20 percent male. The trend over time since 1992 indicates that, on average, about 790 new LEMs are added to US parish ministry staffs per year in the last two decades.” And, each year, at least 80 percent have been female. In terms of other demographic characteristics at the time of the 2009 study, 88 percent of the LEMs were non-Hispanic white, 9 percent were Hispanic or Latino, and less than 2 percent black. In 2009, 7 percent of LEMs were under the age of 30, 11 percent were in their 30s, and 22 percent in their 40s. Thirty percent were between the ages of 50 and 59 and 22 percent were in their 60s, while 7 percent are age 70 or older.      

While LEM programs have been growing for decades, there are now signs that the growth may be leveling off and even declining in some dioceses. The Official Catholic Directory reveals some decreases in the total number of parishes without a resident priest-pastor employing these lay leaders. After decades of steady increases in the number of lay persons heading parishes without resident pastors, the number of pastoral administrators or parish life coordinators has actually declined. This decline may be viewed as a positive sign that the decade-long trends in increased numbers of ordinations throughout the country may in fact eventually make the lay ecclesial ministry program or the pastoral administrator or parish life coordinator roles unnecessary.  

In 1994, Pope John Paul II gave an address “On the Participation of the Laity in the Priestly Ministry.” He spoke explicitly about the dangers of blurring distinctions between ordained ministry and the priesthood of the faithful, referencing Lumen Gentium: “It must be admitted that the language becomes doubtful, confused and hence not helpful for expressing the doctrine of the faith whenever the difference ‘of essence and not merely of degree’ between the baptismal priesthood and the ordained priesthood is in any way obscured (cf. Lumen Gentium, 10).”

In The Next Generation of Pastoral Leaders: What the Church Needs to Know, Dean Hoge and Marti R. Jewell surveyed young adults from across the country who are involved in either college campus ministry programs or diocesan young adult groups. They also interviewed program administrators of lay training programs who noted a “more conservative ecclesiology” among the younger generation of Catholic lay leaders than the Vatican II generation. This new generation has a greater appreciation for the unique role of the priest—a role that can never be supplanted by the laity. Likewise, the trend toward a more faithful servant-leadership model for lay ministry was noted in Living the Call: An Introduction to the Lay Vocation, a 2011 book by Michael Novak and William E. Simon, which introduces readers to faithful lay persons now serving in various ministry capacities within the Church. Novak and Simon demonstrate the ways in which a parish can indeed benefit from the presence of the pastoral life administrator—as long as the lay minister understands her or his role, and the priest is not viewed as a visitor. Parishioners want to know that a priest—even a visiting priest who cannot devote full time to a parish—is present to the people and interested in the life of the parish. 

Faithful Catholics know that the lay parish coordinator and the lay ecclesial minister cannot do what a priest can do. Lay ministers cannot restore us to full communion with the Church through the sacrament of reconciliation, and they cannot allow us to taste and see Christ made present for us in a physical, real way through the Eucharist. Christ has promised us priests because he knew that we cannot be without them. 


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About Anne Hendershott 95 Articles
Anne Hendershott is professor of sociology and director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is the co-author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops are Revitalizing the Church (Encounter Books).