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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