The Current Crisis and the Order of the Laity

Bishop Scharfenberger’s call for “an independent commission led by well-respected, faithful lay leaders” is far superior to Cardinal Wuerl’s proposal and reflects a much better understanding of the laity and the nature of the Church.

Left to right: Orthodox theologian Nikolay Nikolayevich Afanasiev in undated photo (; Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of Albany, N.Y., is pictured in a 2015 photo in Washington. (CNS photo/Bob Roller); Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl at the USCCB's annual spring assembly in July in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

One of the most important works of ecclesiology to be published this century was the English translation of Fr. Nicholas Afanasiev’s The Church of the Holy Spirit, which appeared in 2007. It is a book that all Catholics, in this supreme moment of crisis, need to read. None need to read it more than the bishops, starting with Cardinal Wuerl, who recently floated an unacceptable, vague plan for bishops to hold each other accountable.

Afanasiev died in late 1966, not long after the end of the Second Vatican Council, at which he was an official Eastern Orthodox observer. He was so widely respected that he enjoyed the extremely rare privilege of being cited in the draft documents of the Council. His work played a part in helping shape the vision of the Church that emerged in the conciliar documents.

But the Council’s reading of him—and far too much subsequent Catholic theology—was very selective, and largely and conveniently ignored what I take to be the most important part of his work: his strong theology of what he calls the laics. That was the term he used to designate the fact that the people are not just non-clergy, but constitute a distinct and co-equal order within the Church alongside priests and bishops, all of us participating in the one royal priesthood of Christ. Clergy, of course, exercise that priesthood in particular sacramental ways. But the laics—who are not, he says, “lay” people in the conventional sense of those having no special training, service, or official designation and office—have their own proper ministry within the Church, too, and this is marked by what Afanasiev called their “ordination,” which takes place at their baptism-chrismation.

As I have recently argued here at CWR, other churches—e.g., the Anglican and the Armenian—do a much better job of giving concrete expression to the order of laity within their ecclesial structures and life. The Catholic Church, especially the Latin Church, is arguably the weakest of all Christian bodies on this front, and it shows. Never has the need for dramatic change been as acute as it is now, when the entire order of bishops has sabotaged its own claims to authority and credibility, and no plan such as Wuerl’s is anything other than self-serving and even cowardly.

Of what is Wuerl afraid? In a word, power. Or loss of power. Nobody, in any time or place throughout history, willingly cedes power if one does not have to, especially when that power may be used to expose one’s misdeeds. Far too many bishops today have very good reason to be afraid not only of their own misdeeds being exposed, but perhaps more damningly their lack of interest in doing anything about the malfeasance of McCarrick and others.

But what I want to argue here is that many bishops afraid of the laics—afraid of the power of an independent lay-led commission investigating episcopal sins of omission and commission and afraid of a theology of the order of the laity—misunderstand everything if they think of this solely, or even primarily, in terms of power understood in a retributive sense. Nobody should think of proposals for structural reform in the Church as being simple power grabs. If such proposals are indeed little more than expressions of what St Augustine memorably called libido dominandi, then they will ultimately fail, and the Church will merely have swapped one sort of tyranny for another.

If proposals for reform are not about power, what are they about? Here we must understand the importance of a theology of communion, which the Church has struggled since Vatican II to understand and live. A theology of communion fears nothing if all people are seeking to deepen, purify, and extend that communion so that it becomes ultimately the communion of saints we profess weekly in the Creed. Holiness, then, is the goal, and it, being a fruit of the Holy Spirit, can be given equally to those orders of laity, clergy, and bishops.

The bishops, right now in this time and place, give scant evidence of having received that fruit in anything like abundance. As a whole they have, for now and a very long time to come, seriously damaged and even destroyed their credibility and trustworthiness.

What, then, is to be done? A significantly better proposal than Wuerl’s came from the bishop of Albany, Edward Scharfenberger, whose ideas are very much in accord with those of Afanasiev. His statement began with commendable candor, stating that “we have reached a point where bishops alone investigating bishops is not the answer.” Instead, he argued the following:

It is time for us, I believe, to call forth the talents and charisms of our lay faithful, by virtue of their baptismal priesthood. Our lay people are not only willing to take on this much-needed role, but they are…essential to the solution we seek. What is needed now is an independent commission led by well-respected, faithful lay leaders who are beyond reproach.

I have not seen any similar statement from any other bishop to date. Nor have I seen his brothers in the episcopate doing the only sensible thing, which is to endorse this statement.

Why not?

Again, fear is the answer, but again there is no room for fear here, no need or cause to be afraid that the office of bishop will somehow be abolished by, say, a revolutionary Comité de salut public about to unleash a Reign of Terror by lobbing off every head to ever wear a mitre. The laics today who care about exercising their God-given responsibility for purifying and renewing the Church will never do anything intentional to destroy her God-given apostolic constitution.

Those laics who still have life can raise it from the dead through the power of the “Lord and giver of life.” For this reason, Scharfenberger is right to say that the task of investigation and purification is to be “put… in the hands of the Holy Spirit, and to entrust our very capable lay people, who have stood with us through very difficult times, to help us do the right thing.”

What would that entail? It seems to me that one of the benefits of the current pontificate, especially one so volubly given to talk of synodality, is that Pope Francis can do what Pope John Paul did more than twenty years ago now: have specially convoked synods in Rome on a regional basis, as he did in preparation for the Great Jubilee. Earlier in the 1980s, when the synod of my own Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church was badly divided and dysfunctional, the pope called special synods in Rome on his personal authority and brought all the UGCC bishops together to hammer out their problems.

Pope Francis, then, could call such synods or gatherings right now, especially for Australia, Honduras, and the United States, all in the forefront of this crisis. These would be chaired by the pope, and, unlike most other things labeled “synod,” filled not with bishops but laics: two each from every diocese in a given country, selected according to their knowledge, expertise, and love for the Church. The bishops and other clergy would be invited but without voting power. They would be required to appear before the synod to answer questions and give testimony under oath before the pope and people, who together would have the right to depose all those bishops they felt deserving of such a penalty, the people voting to depose but the pope ultimately undertaking the act. The synod would also have the right to decide on other penalties and penances to be imposed by the pope.

At the end, when a plan of further action was agreed upon, the pope could put it into action directly via a motu proprio, which normally has legislative and canonical power beyond the usual post-synodal apostolic exhortations.  The synod members could depart to supervise the work back in their home country, with reports due to the pope twice a year, and further sessions of the synod in Rome meeting as and when either the pope or a majority of members felt it necessary to do so. Part of their homework would, as I argued on here a few weeks ago, consist in local restructuring of the diocesan church so that its life would now be lived on a permanent synodal basis, allowing for permanent and ongoing accountability between bishop, clergy, and laics.

This all, I grant, seems very far-fetched. A synod, but composed of lay people—with power to summon bishops to appear, and to recommend their deposition? And synods in every diocese, with real powers? Has the Church been turned upside down? Yes, in fact, it has. But extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 108 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).


  1. This pope is utterly compromised…he needs to resign…we need a Holy Father…and then we can do it. Francis has no more credibility than Wuerl… he owes his election to notorious sex abusers and coverup artists.

  2. I think Bishop Scharfenberger’s proposal is dangerous and a slippery slope. This proposal gives the laity a quasi authority over the bishops, making it a perversion of the Church’s divine nature. Furthermore, due to man’s fallen nature, this sort of thing often deteriorates into a witch hunt, as we’ve seen in the Mueller investigation of Trump.

    I don’t know what the answer is (beyond trusting the Holy Spirit to take care of His Church), but I know this isn’t it.

    • You don’t understand that the pope is compromised, the bishops don’t police themselves and the lower clergy and laity have a right to speak out. This nonsense that only the bishops have a right to correct themselves is false and flies in the face of Holy Tradition. What would your solution be? And let’s keep American confused and corrupt politics out of it.

    • So the laity are a subject to man’s fallen nature but the bishops are not? No the bishops and Pope Francis need to answer to is and this is a good proposal. The good old boys club has got to end. All we heard when this started years ago is how the Bishops would fix this. They have proven they are not trust worthy enough to fix this themselves. That is not to say this is true of all priest, bishops, deacons. I feel we as the laity need to do this for the church and for all the innocent priest, bishops and deacons and more importantly the victims. Also in answer to Pope Francis statement that he is not answering to charges as Jesus refused to answer, I don’t know what is more appauling this statement or what he is being accused of. He needs to resign.

    • Are you seriously comparing this to ANYTHING with Trump? You know all about “man’s fallen nature”. Go back to Fox News & your armchair quarterbacking of.the world’s problem bc I’m a 100% sure your living room is the only place your opinion makes any sense. Clergy being responsible for clergy is exactly why history repeats its self but no, let’s get a regurgitation on what Fox News has to say. Being they treat their neighbors as they would like to be treated, lend a helping hand to the weakest among us and oh, you know don’t LIE to the public& exploit fear and all. So glad that my church congregation sees right through that evil.🙏

    • I’m reminded of the German initiative going on now under the reform umbrella. Laity is important of course but in that case it appears to leading to a break from the Holy Church. Not a good outcome.

  3. What makes you think the freemasons can’t stack the lay members of such a commission just like they Stacked the priesthood?

  4. Dr DeVille’s article makes sense. Laity involvement is the way forward.
    I worked for many years as a member of a Diocesan board and as a lawyer was fascinated by the relationship between Canon law and the civil law of the state. In contrast to civil law structures and rules which exist to deal with all sorts of criminal and civil matters, the canon law has very little resources to respond to the current crisis, especially investigators who are independent of priests and bishops. Such independence is essential.

    Lay people qualified and experienced in criminal and civil law are required to process either general commission type investigations of the broader problem and also to handle individual cases.
    Some of your commentators expressed doubts that the laity would thereby be given a role not compatible with the nature of the Church. My experience is that it would not be hard to find experienced, committed Catholics of the highest integrity – if a genuine effort was made to find them. The fear of hostile appointees is misplaced.
    In passing, I also suggest that those with doubts about the role of the laity and the nature of the Church might consider reading “Introduction to the Mystery of the Church” by de La Soujeole OP which deals at length and in great depth with ecclesiology. It is long and sophisticated and heavy going but worth while considering, given that the nature and survival of the Church is at issue.

  5. I’d like to see Ed Peters write an article on the canonical procedures for deposing a bishop.

    The problem with the proposal is the problem of the Patriarchate of Rome in general — it’s a problem of scale. Only two laymen to represent a whole diocese?

  6. Lets think out loud. Who might we like to see on the commission?
    George Weigel, Carl Anderson, who else? I’m just wondering.

  7. I disagree with those who keep on blaming Pope Francis for this mess. I am convinced that His holiness would have radically cleaned the floor with the most potent bleach, at least a few years ago. However, -the Curia,- dear o dear, “the old and powerful Roman Curia, opposes Francis’ vision and dislikes his ‘Argentinian/rustic/unpolished’ impulses.” This words are not mine, I recently heard them from an old trusted friend, a missionary priest from Spain who has worked in Argentina, including the capital city of Buenos Aires, for the last 28 years. The question remains “et radix est;” What prompted our beloved Benedict XVI to resign?

  8. Shall the church of jesus christ become the ward of the state, a stupid perverted child that can’t be left to it’s own devices?
    I think at that point there is no church at all.

  9. DeVille’s article is simply appalling. It carries the old evils of laicism and lay trusteeism to the ultimate level. Noone may arrogate to himself the bishops’ prerogative and responsibility to teach, govern and sanctify. It is unbelievable that the author would cite the Anglicans as a superior model to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
    CWR should be ashamed of itself for publishing such garbage.

  10. Larry, in Holy Tradition, long before bishops were “little princes” as opposed to “fathers in God” the laity had a role in electing bishops and ignoring them when they were heretics. Bishops were often run out of town by laity. The layfolk need to rise up and demand Rome clean up the messes it continues to make. Bishops who are preditors and those who were enablers need to removed. While the laity cannot act canonically against bishops they sure can and should speak out both with denunciations and wallets. Speaking of the divine nature of the Church these pervs sully it and bring shame to it. The divine nature of the Church includes the lay members as well, the Church is not solely the hierarchy. And, can we please leave the evils of “civil” government out of the conversation? The Church was founded by Christ and is guided by Him. America was founded by deists and others who had little to do with Christ God in many ways it is no different with politicians today.

    • This is not Francis’ doing. These are tied to the JP II pontificate. Those who played the orthodox Catholic card became the chosen ones. Not well people now sit in the chairs of authority and there is unhappiness. Time to grow up and remove the blindfolds about church leaders who sing nonsense. JPII made mistakes regarding loyal Catholics. The way out is by limiting power. Human beings are not able to obey without a system of checks and balances. And that is the way it is.

    • Father Khouri, I believe the true Prelates and Clerics need the help of the laity, especially those who are survivors. As a survivor of clerical abuse, I do nor feel that I am in the position of authority over the true Bishops: those clergy who have stood up to the Clerics who practiced the Fallen Rite of Lucifer are the ones who need to continue to lead the church. The Pope needs to consecrate Russia, and listen to Our Lady in order to fulfill her requests at Fatima. and cast out the devils that befell the Vatican many years ago. The Pope is the only one who possess the authority to do this – not the laity.

  11. Idolatry is at the heart of the contemporary demise of Catholicism. We have, by our silence and complacency, rendered unto Caesar authority over innocent human life that belongs to God alone, and done this to the extent that 2 billion innocent human beings — innocent children in the womb — have been “legally” murdered world-wide in the last 45 years.

    Idolatry destroys Christianity. Had the Church wholeheartedly got into the fight to end “legal” murder when it began, and taken the beating it would have received for that, it would now be bruised and battered, but holy and Christ-like, with bishops who had made clear to the flock that their primary allegiance was to Christ, not to Caesar. As it is they give the Eucharist to flaming advocates of “legal” baby murder, and then have their hedonistic lifestyles exposed.

  12. Not a very godly synod ‘paradigm’…. you cannot put the Head, Christ, as the feet, and the feet as the Head…all upside-down is all-down-side up…only the adversary wants to invert the Lord’s Omniscience… Better to lead the way in prayer, fasting and penance and let no one surpass you, so that the Holy Spirit reveals and renews His Church, on how the Father’s Will will be done here now on earth as it is Heaven…

4 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. The Current Crisis and the Order of the Laity -
  2. McCarrick Watch: VVednesday Edition – Big Pulpit
  3. Will Canadian seminaries also be investigated? #catholic – CIA Blog
  4. The Paralyzed Church – Catholic World Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.