Confusion twice confounded: On the motu proprio Spiritus Domini

The underlying problem with this document is that it eviscerates the clear teaching of St. John Paul II in the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici.

Pope Francis arrives in procession to celebrate Mass on the feast of the Epiphany in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Jan. 6, 2021. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis’s latest motu proprio, Spiritus Domini, opens up the minor ministries of lector and acolyte to women. On the surface, this can look like much-ado-about nothing since females have been functioning as lectors and acolytes for decades now. Lord knows just about everyone has a grandmother who has been distributing Holy Communion for years on end.1

However, there is much more that requires consideration here beyond persons performing “functions.”2

The underlying problem with this document is that it eviscerates the clear teaching of St. John Paul II in the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici (1988), where we read:

When necessity and expediency in the Church require it, the Pastors, according to established norms from universal law, can entrust to the lay faithful certain offices and roles that are connected to their pastoral ministry but do not require the character of Orders. The Code of Canon Law states: “When the necessity of the Church warrants it and when ministers are lacking, lay persons, even if they are not lectors or acolytes, can also supply for certain of their offices, namely, to exercise the ministry of the word, to preside over liturgical prayers, to confer Baptism, and to distribute Holy Communion in accord with the prescriptions of the law.” However, the exercise of such tasks does not make Pastors of the lay faithful: in fact, a person is not a minister simply in performing a task, but through sacramental ordination. Only the Sacrament of Orders gives the ordained minister a particular participation in the office of Christ, the Shepherd and Head, and in his Eternal Priesthood. The task exercised in virtue of supply takes its legitimacy formally and immediately from the official deputation given by the Pastors, as well as from its concrete exercise under the guidance of ecclesiastical authority. (n. 23)

John Paul continues:

In the same Synod Assembly, however, a critical judgment was voiced along with these positive elements, about a too-indiscriminate use of the word “ministry,” the confusion and the equating of the common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood, the lack of observance of ecclesiastical laws and norms, the arbitrary interpretation of the concept of “supply,” the tendency towards a “clericalization” of the lay faithful and the risk of creating, in reality, an ecclesial structure of parallel service to that founded on the Sacrament of Orders. (n. 23)

It should be stated at the outset that John Paul was not inventing theological categories. Indeed, one cannot point to a single line in the sixteen documents of Vatican II where the word “ministry” or “minister” was applied to the non-ordained. So, let’s see what the careful John Paul is saying and how that squares with what Francis is saying.

First: “in fact, a person is not a minister simply in performing a task, but through sacramental ordination.” Sloppy language has aided and abetted the confusion over the years, so that everyone and his uncle is a minister of something or other (e.g., “music minister,” “minister of hospitality,” “bereavement minister”). Which is why John Paul reminds everyone that in the Synod spawning Christifideles Laici, “a critical judgment was voiced. . . about a too-indiscriminate use of the word ‘ministry.’”

Second: Why is this so? Because it leads to “confusion,” he says, and runs “the risk of creating, in reality, an ecclesial structure of parallel service to that founded on the Sacrament of Orders.” Ten years after Christifideles Laici, eight dicasteries of the Roman Curia took the unprecedented action of co-promulgating a document dealing with these very serious questions: Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of the Priest. In other words, this problem has been festering for a long time. The prelates responsible for that Instruction remind all of the inter-connectedness of issues:

Amongst other things, it [the facile equation of lay activity with the ministerial priesthood] can encourage a reduction in vocations to the (ministerial) priesthood and obscure the specific purpose of seminaries as places of formation for the ordained ministry. These are closely related phenomena. Their interdependence calls for careful reflection so as to arrive at well considered conclusions in their regard.

The current document and its accompanying motu proprio do not seem to take seriously the cautions uttered by Pope John Paul or by the dicasterial heads in 1997 – as though those dangers do not persist to the present day?

Admittedly, females have been performing these functions; however, it is one thing to allow someone to perform a role by delegation and to institutionalize the performance of that role in a person. For example, if I have a fire in my kitchen, it makes perfect sense for me to reach for the fire extinguisher and put out the blaze. However, that does not make me a fireman!

As usual with Francis, there are curiosities behind this document.

Where is the consultative process in all this? I thought this was the Pope of collegiality and synodality. There is not a shred of evidence that anyone was consulted. This is reminiscent of Francis’ behavior in the framing of Mitis Iudex in 2015, reforming certain procedures for pursuing a decree of nullity in a marital case. No one was brought into the discussion prior to the decree’s promulgation, as a result of which numerous situations unforeseen by the Pope and his inner circle surfaced only later, so that the document is relatively useless. The Church demands consultation for a reason.

Even Pope Pius IX, in the lead-up to his definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, sought the input of the worldwide episcopate (as did Pius XII with the dogma of the Assumption). All wisdom does not reside in one man, and that is particularly true of Francis, who has a shallow theological background and who actually has expressed his near-disdain for theology on numerous occasions.3

Another oddity: The Pope writes a letter to the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, instructing him on the rationale for this decision. I thought it was supposed to be the other way around! Was this done because the prefect refused to sign onto this document?

Further, why was Francis seemingly compelled to call on a professor from the Lateran University to provide the “explanatory note” for the document? Is it because, once more, he could find no one within his own Curia to endorse his decision?

Several times, Francis is at pains to distance this move from giving any quarter to female access to the episcopate, presbyterate or diaconate. Of course, this move does, in fact, give grounds for the false hope that access to the formal ministries of lector and acolyte is indeed a stepping stone to eventual ordination. That is pastorally insensitive and harmful to the souls of those being misled. Or, is this document a sop to those fixated on the female diaconate, giving them a soft landing for a final negative judgment on the female diaconate?

What is equally odd is that Francis, arguably the most anti-clerical Pope in history, has now engaged in that very clericalization that he has so often condemned and that was foreseen by John Paul over thirty years ago.

If Francis thought that this action would placate those pressing the cause of female ordination, he is grossly mistaken. The only effect of this document will be a further alienation of those he has alienated for years.


1The near-universal practice in the United States of having recourse to “extraordinary” ministers of Holy Communion is particularly egregious, in violation of Immensae Caritatis, the Code of Canon Law, Inaestimabile Donum, and Redemptionis Sacramentum. “Extraordinary” is, in fact, “ordinary”; sad to say, far more American Catholics receive Holy Communion from a lay person than from a priest or deacon. Why have the bishops not reined in this abuse?

2I have a particular interest (and competence) in this area since my thesis for the licentiate in sacred theology at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington was precisely on the ministries below diaconate, from Trent to Vatican II.

3In point of fact, Francis is not in any way a man of collegiality and synodality. He doesn’t even consult his own College of Cardinals. His immediate predecessors held meetings of the College in advance of a consistory to create new cardinals, thereby soliciting and receiving their counsel. Francis has done this only the first time around, presumably because either he does not value the insights of the cardinals or he knows that their views might challenge his.

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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 277 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization, which serves as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.


  1. Also having direct and decisive bearing is St. Pope John Paul II’s Orinatio Sacerdotalis (1994), issued within weeks of when the Anglican ecclesial community (not church) invented female bishoprics. Within the Church, female altar girls were a flashpoint, approved by termite clerics while John Paul II was in the hospital recovering from a broken femur. Not only are female ordinations disapproved, the Church has no authority to cross this threshold:

    “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful” (n. 4, final paragraph).

    • All of which counts for nothing. Like most progressives, Francis will do whatever he wants to do, all strenuous huffing and puffing about established tradition, the pronouncements of his predecessors, or practical pastoral to the contrary notwithstanding. Paul VI did something similar when he overrode the objections of many bishops at the 1967 Synod in Rome and simply force-fed the new order of Mass in 1969.

    • Which JPII – in typical post-conciliar fashion – immediately undermined by legalizing female altar servers, the illicit use of whom had been going on for years, thereby giving the “reformers” every reason to believe that disobedience remains the key to revolutionary destruction of the priesthood and the Church.

      • Yes. That, and receiving Communion in the hand, standing. I’ve never heard such bizarre reasoning as, “You are not allowed to do that. However, since you have disobeyed and are doing it, now you’re allowed to do that.”

        It’s the same trick they’re trying with divorce-and-remarriage, with sodomy, with all kinds of things.

        • Did have to chuckle at Fathers analogy of the woman putting out the Kitchen fire, and that it did not make her a FIREMAN/ Being an ERMA BOMBACK Follower, and a Mother of 7 children, my Ironing board was a permanent fixture in my formal dining room Irma said that hers came down only at Holidays — when the occasion came for formal dining. Having placed my Board in my NEW DINING AREA, I then went to turn on the Lighting — and BEHOLD, it went up in FLAMES. I then grabbed a small extinguisher from closet, and aimed at that Monster, and Puff the Magic Dragon put out that fire — Like Magic!! (Did not make me a FIRE-WOMAN, but the Holy Spirit was with me at this time in History.Once agaiin, reading this article was a great reflection on what has happened in our church in the past years. We seemed to have Trivialized the Sacred, and as Frank;in Graham just commented upon: Our President Trump when He needed us most had 10 Judas members — Many of us Pro-Life members (My NURSE FRIENDS) believe that He was our Pro-Life President, and the CROWDS are saying: “GIVE US BARABAS”

  2. With good reason, the word “Bingo” escaped my lips at every paragraph of Fr. Stravinskas’ analysis. The squarely solid sense of the analysis is in line with everything known about this pope.

    The latest motu proprio squares quite well with other news out of this pope’s office today: UNITY!~ I suppose this does not mean we put all the letters of all his writings into one big vat. Mix well. Let the communion last for eternity.

  3. Let’s not fool ourselves. We all know where this is leading (i.e. women’s ordination). They did this in the Anglican Communion as well. Baby steps..

  4. I have a question regarding the communion service presided by other than laity or ordained clergy when ordained clergy are not available. Exception frequently occurred during my service in mission settings such as Africa, when a sister consecrated to the religious life was the only person available to offer such a service. In TITLE I: NORMS COMMON TO ALL INSTITUTES OF CONSECRATED LIFE (Cann. 573 – 606) there is frequent reference to ministry. Does such an exception for a religious sister constitute ministry, or must the term ministry remain as defined by John Paul II specific to the ordained person? It seems that we may say in agreement with John Paul that ministry nevertheless belongs by definition to the ordained person.

    • Father, we are at the Cross roads of being able to Practice our Faith, and this Lock Down is giving us time to Reflect upon our Freedom to Worship. At 87 years of age, I have lived through much of this turmoil , and was taught by the Great Franciscans to ask when reading the SECULAR Papers — IS THIS TRUE Survey shows that our Present Catholic population does not even believe in the True Presence, and back in the 80’s the Clerics and the modern age would not accept the Dogma of Humanae Vitae — Pope Paul VI told us about the Slippery SLOPe( I did read somewhere that this Dogma was promoted by our most beloved Saint John Paul ii — We love you! Pro-Life March on the 29th?– Where did they take our Lady’s IMAGE? “SHE IS COMING”

  5. The format of this Moto Proprio is quite obviously a passive aggressive tongue lashing of the CDF who probably tried to roadblock this latest abomination. How much longer will we have to suffer catastrophe of a Pope Lord?

  6. Please God, let this trainwreck of a Pontificate come to an end. We are tired of Bergoglio’s “developments” in doctrine and liturgy, and want our Church back the way it was.

  7. This Pontiff Francis orchestrated idolatry in Rome in 2019.

    He is a complete counterfeit, not merely content to defraud men, but brazenly defrauds The Only God.

  8. Please someone stop Pope Francis…
    Every day we hear another drastic move under his hand… we shudder when we hear yet ‘Pope Francis is going to make another statement….’ .. we shudder truly in our soul, because we know that this Pope has already caused much division in our Church, much confusion. He does not seem to listen to anyone.. and as noted for a Pope who says he is all about unity and collegiality – where? I beg that this Pope decides to retire and soon… So much suffering brought about – does he realize this? Someone should tell him. So many wondering and asking if they should leave the Church..!!!!!
    His involvement with secular globalists many of whom are anti life and supporters of all things we know are contrary to Church Teaching —- and China! Who cannot suffer to know he caved to Red China… and now they are destroying our Churches and seeking out Catholics and Christians even more as Cardinal Zen has continued to point out.
    How long can this last? We are exhausted trying to save the faithful also in our own families …This cannot go on….

  9. Pardon the ignorance , if such is what is being shared , from my limited knowledge of these matters . This , from seeing another side in the good hearted move of the Holy Father , to help mitigate the simmering fires of subtle or more overt rebellion in demands for ordination of women . ? Could such have its roots ,even partially , from the ‘tradition’ and its wording and effects of seeing the roles of lectors and acolytes as leading steps towards priesthood .. yet , roles widely done by women , for one reason or another …the clarity and blessing of the Holy Father in the above document thus helps to make the roles to be just what they are , not pointing to any thing else , thus freeing all involved ..such roles , esp. also in the role of bringing the Eucharist to the home ridden , more of a necessity as well in our times .

    Grateful that the caring heart of the Holy Father did hear the voice of The Spirit to help remove any confusion , which , in turn could have the potential to help foster priestly vocations , with the needed clarity helping to foster the oneness in blessing each other for doing His Will , without fear of the self will being in act and producing its unwanted fruits !

  10. I understand that when Lectors were first introduced. It was during the sci-fi era of the Modernist Church of madmen changing everything, for the mere sake of change. The era when God was evicted from His Church. Only men were allowed to be Lectors. But Feminists threw in their lamentations of men persecuting them. So woman were allowed to be Lectors. Today in my parish only woman are Lectors, men need not apply. Everything needs to be restored to its rightful place. Only and I mean Only males in the Sanctuary, Just as God has ordained in both the Old and the New Testaments. The commands of St. Paul, Apostle and Ambassador of Jesus Christ are being deliberately ignored. When did this disobedience to God begin? When will this reproachable defiance end?

  11. It is my considered opinion, that the article pushed to its limit, the author’s disdain for the missionary Pope. Theological finesse and recourse to tradition, is of little help to evangelism and actual conversion, unfortunately, but mostly beneficial to critics and commentators who evince inclination to obfuscation. Catholicism is a universal religion and therefore, must address evangelical issues as it affects various adherents worldwide. This is better understood and experienced by missionary priests to which the present Pope belongs. This explains the inability of people who are used to orthodoxy in its traditional sense, to mentally process and appreciate the message of the Pope. Evangelism, in itself is a difficult task that requires the Holy Spirit, and grace to succeed. The reason missionary priesthood is tough and dangerous. Sitting in parishes, institutions and pontificating, could be intellectually rewarding but evangelically not fruitful.

    • It is certainly the case that with Pope Francis, the gap between preaching and practice is generally a chasm.

      This was first evidenced for me by a welcome early injunction to priests re-sermons along the lines of “make it snappy.” Yet Pope Francis himself has taken to writing veritable tomes as encyclicals. Or very obviously commissioning others to provide him with material for these tomes.

      The points in the article about his failure to consult appear to this lay Catholic to be well made. Very well made indeed.

      Whilst it is the case that Francis is perhaps the first pope of the internet age whose every sniffle and cough is observed and commented about on line, his haughty disdain for those who dare to question him, leading on multiple occasions to downright snubs as in the cases of the Dubia Cardinals, of Zen and of Asia Bibby seems self evident.

      Yet still he is praised unstintingly in almost all the secular press and a considerable body of the Catholic press as a “democratic pope par excellence.”

      A suitable warning that media perceptions without necessarily being malevolent can, no matter how widely shared, be based on the emotional predisposition of the journalist rather than her/ his observation of facts?

    • “This is better understood and experienced by missionary priests to which the present Pope belongs.”

      You know not of what you speak.

    • “…the author’s disdain for the missionary Pope…. This is better understood and experienced by missionary priests to which the present Pope belongs.”

      I am perplexed by these comments.

      Pope Francis is not by any stretch of the imagination “a missionary Pope” in any sense normally understood within Catholicism. The possible interpretation that the very fact of having been a Jesuit makes him a priori a (foreign) missionary is not sustainable.

      Perhaps the meaning is that Pope Francis considers it his rôle to be a missionary in the sense of spreading the Gospel; indeed doing so in a way particularly suited to current times.

      Most certainly in the first case and most probably in the second since WW2 at least what Pope would not make the same claim?

      Then again, perhaps it is to do with Francis’s apparently having touched the hearts of so many people? But this is surely, despite his fairly obvious religious affiliation, in many ways a non-religious phenomenon. On a kin in many cases with the reaction to a plethora other media darlings from Lady Di to Greta via Bruce Springsteen.

      His “religious” success as a missionary in a conventional sense is easily quantified. Zero. “At best,” at that. Since his pontificate as well as failing to attract new converts has also failed to stem the steady outflow from Catholicism which has been in evidence for decades past.

      In this context his abject failure to confront sex abusers within the clergy, as evidenced by his stubborn support for Bishop Borras in Chile and even more scandalously by his decision to give old friend Bishop Borras from Argentina who is currently arraigned on charges of abusing seminarians [!] in Argentina both employment in the Vatican Bank as well as bed and board in the Santa Marta residence where he himself lives is for me at least beyond comprehension.

      Worse still, if that is possible, Pope Francis has on many occasions gone out of his way to express his hostility to proselytism. Whilst the modern sense of that word may well include a sense of “missionary work overlain with coercion” this is not the historical Catholic sense of the word. For Catholicism, proselytism in the historic sense is central. But Pope Francis seems far from convinced.

      To summarise the above, I am greatly perplexed by the assertions I have quoted above.


  12. Praying for discernment — Great Book to Read is : What St Paul really thought about Women (Written by a Lutheran Scripture Scholar) — Was a Minister in Seattle, WA. Was an Informative reading as this Scholar helped one see that Scripture was taken out of Context. What St Paul REALLY was telling Women must be interpreted by the times that St Paul was living — Much Prostitution, and St Paul was telling them that They were beautiful without all the Jewelry and following the ways of the World immorality. St Paul was telling these women to “DEFER” — not == BE SUBJECT (Logotherapy) — according to Doc Frankl

  13. Fr. Stravinskas writes: “It should be stated at the outset that John Paul was not inventing theological categories. Indeed, one cannot point to a single line in the sixteen documents of Vatican II where the word ‘ministry’ or ‘minister’ was applied to the non-ordained.”

    Dear Father, please, re-read Vatican II:

    Lumen Gentium specifically refers to the “MINISTRIES and charisms” of the Laity (LG, no. 33; cf. also no. 7). Apostolicam Actuositatem says there is “a diversity of ministry,” which the Laity share with the ordained (no. 2). Perfectae Caritatis accepts that lay religious, male and female, perform “ministries” in the Church’s mission (no. 10) and their communities, male or female, are said to have “ministries proper to them” (no. 20).

    So, . . .

4 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. A step on the way to women priests? - California Catholic Daily
  2. Far from the Spirit of the Lord: On the Pope’s New Motu Proprio - Crisis Magazine
  3. Far from the Spirit of the Lord: On the Pope Francis’ New Motu Proprio – Spiritus Domini |
  4. Far from the Spirit of the Lord: On the Pope’s New Motu Proprio – In Civitate Dei Nostri

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