This past Sunday, Pope Francis issued a letter motu proprio amending canon law to allow for women to enter into the instituted ministries of lector and acolyte. In an article here at CWR, Fr. Peter Stravinskas raised certain objections to this move. His analysis, however, seems to conflate or confuse key issues.
The main concern of Fr. Stravinskas is that this amounts to “clericalization” of the laypersons. In support of this thesis, he says that this action “eviscerates” Pope St. John Paul II’s teaching in Christifideles Laici, citing a passage in which the pope wrote that “a person is not a minister simply in performing a task, but through sacramental ordination” and said that the Synod fathers were concerned about a loose use of the word “ministry” and “the tendency towards a ‘clericalization’ of the lay faithful.” By expanding the persons who could enter this ministry, Fr. Stravinskas argues, Pope Francis is ignoring the warnings of past pontiffs and furthering the very clericalism he so often and so vocally opposes.
But this entire argument rests on a confusion of facts. Firstly, it was not Pope Francis who suddenly designated these functions as “ministries.” Rather, Pope St. Paul VI, in his 1973 motu proprio Ministeria quaedam, suppressed the minor orders of porter, exorcist, lector, and acolyte, as well as the major order of subdiaconate, and re-instituted lector and acolyte precisely as “ministries.” He also clarified that the “clerical state” no longer was conferred by ritual tonsure, but by sacramental ordination to the diaconate. Thus, with this reordering of things, it was made clear that the lector and acolyte are “ministries” exercised by the laity, and that only the ordained are clerics, properly speaking.
This change was salutary for the life of the Church. For centuries, the Church had a system in which there were many non-ordained “clerics,” often noblemen who would receive tonsure (but no further minor orders) in order to receive clerical privileges without needing to exercise any clerical duties. Surely this is a form of “clericalization of the laity” we would wish to avoid? The abolition of the minor orders and the institution of lector and acolyte as clearly non-clerical ministries was an aid to this end.
These ministries are well-defined as non-ordained. Nowhere is the impression given that they confer sacramental power. Nowhere is it stated that these instituted ministers are anything other than laypersons. The documents make clear even that such ministers are not due any remuneration by the Church. In what sense could such ministries be seen as “clercalizing the laity”?
Fr. Stravinskas also cites a Vatican instruction co-authored by eight curial departments which states that “the [use of “ministry” for lay efforts] 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.” (Article 1 §1) But surely this could not be referring to the Church’s own instituted ministries? In fact, Paragraph 3 says so explicitly: “Naturally, the concrete term may be applied to those to whom functions are canonically entrusted e.g. catechists, acolytes, lectors.”
Thus, in context, we can see that the texts Fr. Stravinskas brings in support of his argument could not have been referring to the instituted ministries of lector and acolyte.
Such ministries could only be perceived as potentially clericalizing if one thinks that proclaiming the readings at Mass or distributing Holy Communion are inherently connected to ordained ministry. Yet we know they are not. In the preconciliar Mass, the subdeacon (who is not ordained) would read the Epistle. And from the earliest days of the Church, laypeople would help to bring the Eucharist to the sick and elderly. (Naturally, one cannot have the Eucharist at all without priests to confect it, but that is not the point at issue—no one is talking about lectors or acolytes attempting to celebrate Mass.) These functions are not per se clerical, and thus, the one exercising them should in no way be viewed as “clericalized.”
One can debate whether such ministries are exercised beyond need, or whether the term “ministry” is applied too widely in parishes to efforts and organizations beyond those which the Church in its official documents defines as such. But to apply such concerns to this present move by Pope Francis seems to be engaging in the slippery slope fallacy. In effect, Fr. Stravinskas appears to be saying that the Church errs in referring to its own instituted ministries as “ministries.”
To address some more minor points from the essay: Fr. Stravinskas notes with seeming disapproval that Pope Francis apparently made this move without consulting the worldwide episcopate, yet the comparisons he makes are not apt. Pope Francis is not defining dogma, nor is he making adjustments to complex canonical procedures. While it is always praiseworthy for the pope to consult the bishops on issues, one is hard pressed to understand in what way it could be said that “the Church demands consultation” of the pope, who “by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.” (CCC 882)
That aside, Pope Francis states that he made this decision “after having heard the opinion of the competent Dicasteries,” and also notes in his letter to the CDF that the Synods of Bishops in 2008 and 2010 specifically requested this change to be made, so we ought not imagine he simply got up one morning and decided to modify canon law on this point.
Fr. Stravinskas states that “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.” This is puzzling. The Church has consistently said since Ministeria quaedam that the instituted ministries of lector and acolyte are inherently lay ministries and are not per se preparations for ordination. If anything, this move clarifies even further that these ministries are not clerical. Thus, there is no reason to think it would lead to the ordination of women.
The ministries of lector and acolyte were instituted specifically as lay ministries. Though candidates for ordination do participate in them, they do so precisely as laymen, and one need not be preparing for priesthood or diaconate to receive them. These ministries do not touch upon Holy Orders, and thus a change to them in no way impacts the integrity of the sacrament. In short: there is no need for concern.
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