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Pope Francis and expanding lay ministries: A response to Fr. Stravinskas

Some remarks on Spiritus Domini and the nature of “ministry”.

A lector delivers a reading during Mass at a church in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., Aug. 20, 2014. Pope Francis ordered a change to the Code of Canon Law so that women may be formally instituted as lectors and acolytes. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

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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About Nicholas Senz 21 Articles
Nicholas Senz is is Director of Children's and Adult Faith Formation at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Arlington, TX. He holds Master's degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. Nicholas lives with his wife and three children. Visit him online at www.nicholassenz.com.

41 Comments

  1. The author might be accurate as far as the history of the Church is concerned. He might also be accurate as far as the theology of non-ordained ministries is concerned.

    What Francis seems to miss, however, is the current mind of the Church. Is the ‘sensus fidelium’ crying out for these “ministries?” Absolutely not! In fact, for a year now, our churches are emptied and it’s highly unlikely that the faithful will be returning in the same numbers as there were 12 months ago. So why now, Francis?

    Francis has a knack for giving the Church exactly what it does not need. No, what the Church needs is clarity in its essential teachings. Instead, Francis continues to muddy the waters and further confuse the faithful. The last gift Francis gave the Church before this one was signaling his support for a pro-abortion candidate as President. Before that, Francis gave the Church false idols to worship. Francis, on my part I am glad you got the vaccine but next time keep your gifts to yourself. The Church is in a sorry state and we don’t need you to make matters worse at this time.

  2. Formalizing the participation of women in these ministries, with all that entails in terms of ceremony and pomp, is just another step in the feminization of the patriarchate of Rome and its worship. That is a problem, but Roman Catholic bishops don’t care enough about the loss of men to return to a more strict demarcation of sex roles in worship. And so your churches will continue to die off while men look elsewhere.

    • Sol, I’m afraid you’re correct. The Catholic Church has no place for men – at least men who are men. Look around at our churches even now. The first thing you notice is the absence of men. This does not bode well for the future.

      • A good point. For this reason the Orthodox Church will continue to see an influx of formerly Catholic men, eventually bringing their families with them.

      • Deacon,
        What you say may be (is) true at the diocesan parishes where the Masses are primarily NO, where the priests have received training by modernist theologians well versed in VCII ambiguity.

        This is not true of my anecdotal experience within a parish staffed by FSSP. Indeed, more men than women attend Mass. More men than women staff the confessional lines each week, and the lines are long.

        I tend to think that orders like ICKSP and FSSP will lead the remnant Church of the future in the U.S. (if the U.S. survives the future). These orders are small but fervent. Their members are genial pillars of faithfulness, enhanced by strong and steady growth in their numbers of seminarians and parishioners. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are in evidence.

      • I find it confusing. For some time now we have been warned about the perils of clericalism. And now, so it seems, we have a quasi-clericalization of a whole new subset of “extra special” Catholics. Mark my word we will now have a new army of both men and women who get to wear the extra special “badge”. I suppose they will even be wearing an Alb when they read so people can identify them as extra special and not a “plain old reader”. It seems like a better move would have been to abrogate the institution of lector and acolyte altogether instead of feeding clericalism.

    • When a Catholic woman reads the Bible at the lectern she’s not
      giving you a lecture, but simply and reverently reading out loud the Word of God as a participant in worship.
      I respect that of any member of the Church.

      • Patrica, I agree wholeheartedly. I don’t need to be impressed with a badge of honor to respect the person reading. We are dabbling in the direction of clericalism now including the laity.

  3. Fabulous article! I don’t think Fr. Stravinskas’ article should have been published. The hint of condescension and sarcasm in it (and in many of his other articles) is very unbecoming of a priest–exhibits a certain lack of self-control and cynicism. The preoccupation with the word “ministry”–that it should be reserved for those ordained, that it contributes to obscuring the difference between the ministerial priesthood and the royal priesthood of the faithful, etc.,–makes me wonder whether some priests/bishops have too much time on their hands. Of all the things to be concerned about in this world, this is what some people are concerned about? What the lay faithful today need is not to be told and continually reminded that they are NOT like us “ontologically special” priests set apart from you ordinary lay people, etc. Rather, the lay faithful need to be reminded continually that they have been anointed priest, prophet, and king (in the rite of baptism) and that they have an identity that is supernatural, one that cannot be appreciated enough, one they need to grow into. I find the mentality of priests like Fr. Stravinskas just moves in the wrong direction.

    • Where is sarcasm and condescension which you claim Fr. Stravinskas uses. Where is self control when a priest’s words are calumniated? Are you Catholic? Please show examples.

      I see contradiction. You actually agree with Fr. Stravinskas’s article. He says the recent ‘ordering’ of female ministers is not necessary since we are all called to minister through virtue of Baptism. Your post says the same. If this mentality moves in the wrong direction, you are moving with Fr. Stravinskas.

  4. Please just eliminate the distraction of laypeople on the altar and in the pulpit. It doesn’t matter if they’re male or female, it’s a constant source of distracting traffic. Both visually and audibly.

    And it’s completely unnecessary if you’re talking about lectors. A priest or deacon can easily read a few passages of scripture at Mass without over exerting themselves. And they know how to pronounce the words correctly.
    Laypeople have a host of needs that should be addressed by Rome but throwing a token bone like this to women isn’t one. At least in my thoughts.

    • “Please just eliminate the distraction of laypeople on the altar and in the pulpit. It doesn’t matter if they’re male or female, it’s a constant source of distracting traffic. Both visually and audibly.”

      I wholeheartedly agree.

  5. I like my small parish and like the way we do things-and yes, we do have two ladies who read.
    .
    But honestly, the Pope made a mistake formalizing this. Altar girls need to go certainly. We should probably grandfather in the ladies who currently read, and make every effort to recruit older teen boys and young men into these roles and give them preference going forward.
    .
    We need to re-masculinize the Church.

    • That’s an interesting remark: re-masculinize the Church. Forbidding female altar servers and female readers might not be the best way to achieve that, however. The problem is that the clerics themselves (priests and bishops) need to be re-musculinized. The priesthood is not drawing real “men”, and that has nothing to do with women on the sanctuary. Boys and men are not drawn to Church. The preaching is often irrelevant, lacking zeal and guts. Real men are not preoccupied with vestments, Church decor, liturgics, nice meals, and their holidays. They are preoccupied with saving souls, getting out there, outside the comfortable walls of the rectory, into the world to strike up conversation with ordinary people and meet them where they are at, and bring them the good news that they are loved by God and that eternal life is theirs for the asking. The clerics we have, for the most part, like to stay “inside”, except when they are on stage (the sanctuary), delighting in the attention. Yes, our clerics are far too feminine in that regard.

      • You are not going to attrack boys who will grow into the “manly men” who will be “manly priests” if the women are running the sanctuary, which they usually do.
        .
        Women running the show is not the only problem, but it is an easily solved one. Parishes simply do not have women in those roles.

    • Faith is caught.
      The problem of more females at Mass won’t be solved by getting boys as altar boys.
      This just shows they are have a more spiritual aspect to their nature than men in general.
      The kerygma is preaching with the fire of the Spirit.
      When you unlock the Gospel. that will attract men, young and old.
      This is not just up to priests, but all of us.
      When was the last time any of us preached God’s word outside of the church?
      (And I don’t mean with our actions such as helping old ladies cross the street)
      Apologetics would help.

  6. Problem solved, switch to a Extraordinary Form of the Latin mass, let the ladies have the Novus Ordo mass, they have already taken over my church here in the Ft Lauderdale area of Florida.
    And indeed, where are the men? Where are new priests? their ranks are falling and will keep going down. Get ready for one priest parishes.
    Teenage boys, the 2020 New Years day mass had about 200 parishioners plus one teenage boy, lots of young girls a and a all girl choir.
    Thank you Lord for the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter. Only males need to apply to serve at the altar with a priests. Ladies cover your head, sit and enjoy the Latin. Mass.
    Do the Eastern Orthodox Churches have the same problems as the Catholic Church, if so please let us know.
    Excellent article by the author, truth is truth, just don’t turn it around, the fact is WHERE ARE THE MEN!!!

  7. “In the preconciliar Mass, the subdeacon (who is not ordained)” this is incorrect. Pope Paul VI did not include sub-deacon in the cited document, because he had just abolished the “order” of subdeacon.
    I wonder if this improvement of the status of lectors and acolytes might not contribute to their education. A serious problem with lectors is that they do not know how to read scripture; reading of the lessons is given to amatekurs; it is even justified as furthering the “participation of the laity in the liturgy,”.with little regard to their qualification. They cannot correctly pronounce Old-Testament names, and they do not understand the texts well. As a ministry, being a lector has a professional aspect–it requires comprehension and skill. A fundamental problem is that too many believe that the principal function of the lessons is information. While this is important, it is not the principal purpose of the lessons. They form a part of the celebration of the history of salvation, and their manner of reading should convey that.

    • My concern is whether one will have to “ministerized” before one can read the scriptures at Mass? If so, will this apply to both men and women or just women? Francis did not say anything about lay men being given the ministry of Lector or Acolyte. Another concern is using young school children as lectors at Mass. The kids at our parish school often read when their class attends Mass. They generaly do an awful job, reading too fast, not projecting, reading with their face stuck in the Lectionary, mumbling, and such. If we are going to make a formal ministry, there needs to be formal training in how to do the job correctly. And finally, why was this new ministry series confined to Acolyte and Lector? Why not include catechists? And I second the suggestion above that we stop using altar girls. Pre-Vatican II, women were not even allowed in the sanctuary unless perfoming some non-Mass related duty like the Altar Society cleaning and replacing the altar linens.

  8. “In the preconciliar Mass, the subdeacon (who is not ordained)” The subdeacon was ordained in the pre-conciliar liturgy; Pope Pau VI did not include it in his post-conciliar list, because he had just abolished the order of subdeacon.

  9. You either want more priests or you don’t. The sanctuary filled with females drives men away, just like altar girls drive boys away.
    I was a lector and a good one. But no more. I want priests.

  10. But this entire argument rests on a confusion of facts. Firstly, it was not Pope Francis who suddenly designated these functions as “ministries.”

    Nickolas, the confusion of facts is yours. First confusion of facts, Father did not say Francis was the origin of this designation, rather that he was formalizing it, and incorrectly in addition; second confusion of facts, you have confused the facts, id est, it is not a question of the fact of origin, but the fact that ministry is being misunderstood and applied…etcetera et al…blessings.

  11. Being feminine is not a sin. Being effeminate is. That is the male effeminate who mimics women. We can’t diminish God’s creation as if to be a woman is a necessary but atrocious reality that must be restricted to obeisance. Paul the Apostle said women must be absolutely silent in Church, and should not in any circumstance have authority over men, or ever granted privilege to teach men. Meanwhile it was religious sisters who taught the faith for centuries, who ruled Christian kingdoms, who in ancient days ruled Israel – the judges Deborah and Judith, who counselled pontiffs and fought vigorously for Church reformation, Catherine of Siena, Birgitta of Sweden, and who assented to bring the Messiah into the world.

  12. I thought this was to be the year of St. Joseph. In case anyone hasn’t noticed, we have a crisis of men and fatherhood in society, including the Church. It seems St. Joseph is being put on the back burner again, ceding priority to Amoris Laeticia and who knows what all else.

    • I agree, Gilberta.

      Mary has long been the Church’s dominant saint role model. Lay people, often women, often organize parish organizations around devotion to Mary: Legion of Mary and Altar and Rosary societies are examples.

      That doesn’t mean Joseph needs to be ignored. As Gilberta pointed out, now during the year of St Joseph would be a good time to pray and to act.

      My husband and I read Consecration to St. Joseph by Fr. Donald H. Calloway, MIC, and bought a beautiful picture from his orders website. (This isn’t a book recommendation. We skipped several lengthy paragraphs that lacked substance. Overall, though, we’re glad we read it.)

      St. Joseph, Mirror of Patience, pray for us.

  13. Here is why I gratefully agree with Archbishop Vigano on placing Vatican ll aside and questioning what exactly happened at the Council? What went wrong? Who at the Council went wrong?

    No more changes for me, the Modernists can keep their changes. The day of changes being shoved down our throats are over. Why don’t you modernist heretics just exit the Church that you are not and never will be satisfied with. We Traditionalists shall hold to all Truth and to our Catholic Traditions. Please abandon our Churches and give them back to Catholics who love the Church. Modernists, do you understand what GET OUT!!! means.

  14. While very few of us lay people are called to “ministry”, all of us are called to “apostolates.” Yet when was the last time you even heard that word used? Personally, I am tired of getting marinated by so many clergy and other laity with a clericalism that fails to properly revere marriage and family.

    • Don, I ask the same question. I was led to believe that St. Paul’s words no longer apply. Now I know that what St. Paul said is to be obeyed, the Holy Ghost was speaking through him. The same goes for St. Pius V’s “Quo Primum”. Did not Ven. Pius Xll, St. John XXlll and St. Pope Paul Vl and Vatican ll not take into serious consideration Quo Primum, especially the words, “If anyone change any part of this Missal, they shall incur the WRATH of St.s Peter and Paul”. St. Pius V also assures that his Missal was to last until the end of the world.

  15. The real men left because God opened their eyes to the hypocrites in the church leadership as well as centuries of adding or subtracting from God’s word. Because of a different gospel preached by Catholics, Christian churches are being filled up with God-fearing men and raising Christian families like Christ instructed them.

    • Barb,
      Good morning!.
      I’m glad to see you here again.
      Truthfully, which denominations ended up with women preachers? It’s not the Catholic Church.
      I don’t know which real men left behind the Catholic faith established by Christ but any number of their descendants now attend Protestant churches headed by women. If they attend church at all, because women clergy are one of the markers of shrinking denominations.
      “Real men” may be in short supply these days but you’re describing a situation outside the Catholic Church. And to be fair, perhaps outside your own church community also. I know many non Catholic Christians who also reject women preachers.
      God bless!

  16. “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.”

    In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas explains how the various functions mentioned here, and proper to the various minor orders, ARE connected to ordained ministry. And a a subdeacon most certainly is “ordained”.

  17. Pope Francis has a problem. Church history tells us that there have been many such Popes. In the Church women and man have there roles and they are all given by God. It is like husband and wise: their roles supplement each other and make a family. In the Church women have their motherly role that cannot be fulfilled by men. A man at the altar represents Jesus who was a man. This has been followed since the beginning of the Church. God decided to come on earth as a man and was produced by a women full of grace. He only commissioned men, his apostles. Women or feminists should understand that church is not politics. Let the Catholic Church not be led by Protestant ideology; they have no authority. Women can do a lot of administration BUT THE ALTAR is for man. My appeal is to pray for Pope Francis, especially before the Eucharist. Many Protestants left their churches because of ordaining women and now they meet the same thing in Catholic Church!Christians will be confused and even quit Christianity because it make no sense any more. TRUTH never changes. You cannot modernize Christianity.

  18. Both the article and many of the comments are both enlightening and thoughtful. I have no problem with PF regularizing what was already common practice. I do have regret at the downgrading of the minor orders as they were a visible affirmation of the duties of clerics and the authority of the Church. What we now have in ordination is something like a university graduation ceremony with a religious bent. The attraction of the FSSP is well known and it is regrettable that it is not more fully integrated with the Church in the manner of the Eastern Rites so that all could profit by its example. Main line Protestant churches are fading fast because the have put aside their raison d’ etre, however erroneous it may have been. It would appear that we will simply modernize ourselves into irrelevancy and then sit back and wonder what happened.

    • I guess the question is what if I, a reader, (a darn good one too) do not want to be ceremonially instituted as a lector? I really think it’s silly and since it is not a sacrament I don’t get any special graces from it other than I would from a simple blessing. Will still be able to read at Mass? If I am then what is the difference between me and an instituted lector? I will either quit reading if I have to or continue if allowed. To me, it seems a bit of a matter of pride and attention-seeking to become “instituted” I’d rather practice in quiet humble service without the “badge”.

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