Spiritus Domini, papal authority, minor orders, and ministry

Further and final responses to Fr. Peter Stravinskas.

Pope Francis leads the Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 6. (CNS photo/Ettore Ferrari, EPA)

I am grateful to Fr. Stravinskas for his response to my critique of his CWR essay on Spiritus Domini. While not wanting to extend the conversation ad infinitum, I would offer the following thoughts in response to his bullet points in a similar fashion:

  • While I appreciate that many priests, bishops, and theologians might well share his perspective, I’d also note many clerics and theologians have also applauded this move—and indeed, as I pointed out in my original essay, this change was requested by two Synods of Bishops.
  • While consultation is praiseworthy, it is never necessary for the legitimate exercise of the pope’s office, especially in matters of discipline. That aside, we could very well see the requests of the Synods of Bishops as a form of consultation. At the very least, it is clear that this change did not spring ex nihilo from the mind of Pope Francis, but was a response to a desire expressed by representatives of the world’s episcopate.
  • One can disagree on the wisdom or prudence of abolishing the minor orders and subdiaconate (I tend to agree with the changes made by Ministeria quaedam), but one cannot disagree with the fact that, as ministries instituted by the Church, the Church, and the Holy Father in particular, have jurisdiction over them. The pope can establish or abolish ministries as he sees fit.
  • The accusation of nominalism is an odd one to make in this instance, since subdiaconate, being an artifact of human designation as opposed to something with substance or reality to it, is precisely whatever one wishes to call it. I cannot call anyone a bishop except he who has received episcopal consecration, because such consecration confers an ontological status on the recipient. But the subdiaconate has no such reality to it. It is an artifact, and artifacts are called according to their function and the will of their creator. So, if the Church wishes to designate as “subdeacon” for certain liturgical purposes lectors or acolytes who carry out functions formerly performed by the subdeacon, so they are.
  • I say that the simplification of the minor orders was salutary for the life of the Church because they had become vestigial organs, “ministries” that were often all given on the same day and no longer meaningfully exercised, and because it placed the distinguishing line between clerics and non-clerics where it properly belonged—at ordination. Fr. Stravinskas employs an ad hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy when he connects the supposedly “empty” seminaries with the suppression of the minor orders. (The current status of seminaries in the US, though underperforming the postwar period, is much more in line with historical norms; and seminaries in the booming churches of Africa and Asia are similarly booming.)
  • I noted that the request for women to be admitted to these ministries came not only from the Amazon Synod, but also from the Synods of 2008 and 2010, both of which took place before Pope Francis’s pontificate. Surely these were not “rigged”?
  • While it is true that most dioceses have not availed themselves of these instituted ministries for laymen (I’ll note that my own Diocese of Fort Worth has as well), we could see Pope Francis’s move here as an invitation to bishops to avail themselves of them.
  • The purpose of these instituted ministries is to provide stability in the ministries, to have people who are trained and committed to serving these ministries in the lives of their parishes, rather than an ad hoc dragooning of people to fulfill a need. (One notes that indeed, attire does change, as liturgical norms allow for instituted lectors and acolytes to wear the alb.) To call this “a seeming movement closer to the Sacrament of Order” only perpetuates the mistaken notion that all liturgical ministry is inherently clerical. The existence of these instituted ministries precisely as lay ministries indicates that it decidedly is not.
  • Whether this placates anyone, or whom it placates, is beside the point, and is nothing other than a hidden form of the genetic fallacy. (“This person likes it, so it must be bad!”)
  • You will find no greater defender of and advocate for the use of proper words, as well as the proper use of words, than myself. I, too, would criticize a too-wide use of “ministry” to describe just any action of a Christian or group of Christians. But the principle at stake here is that “ministry” is not co-terminous with “clerisy.” As I noted, the very Vatican document which Fr. Stravinskas used as an example of ecclesial warnings against calling lay activity “ministry” acknowledged lectors, acolytes, and catechists as proper lay ministers.

To conclude: The Church has long had non-ordained persons on the altar. For many centuries, it called them clergy. Recognizing that they are truly laity, and extending that ministry to other lay persons, does no harm, and can do great good, for the Church.

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About Nicholas Senz 29 Articles
Nicholas Senz is Pastoral Associate at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Fishers, IN. 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.


  1. stop playing the Holy Spirit, please Nicholas. The Holy Spirit given to lead us into all Truth has done so in the documents Fr S witnessed to…which make “M”inistry by the Beloved’s Triune design His Actions in the Ordained….others collaborate in Their “M”inistry without being in His “M”inisters….they have “m”inistration if you will but not “M”inistration as they are not ontologically changed and entered into the Triune Lamb “M”inistry or Munera – they do not have Ministry or Ministries as they are not Ontologically changed and established into Alter Christus….stop confusing matters, the Triune Beloved is Lord of the Sabbath and He alone…eyes to see and ears to hear and souls to exalt in exultation that this is His Word, Work, Way of Truth that is Life….blessings!

    • Padre Pietro, it might be worth adding here that tonsure, the four Minor Orders and subdiaconate did not bring about an ontological change in the recipient. These were derivatives from the Sacrament of Orders, and only that–specifically the diaconate–themselves sacramentals created by the Church.

      Still, Minor Orders (and as such, part of the clerical state) have been part of church’s fabric of since well before the seventh century, and universally, East and West. (All Eastern Churches to this day have tonsure and Minor Orders.) Yet, what was really accomplished in their abolition and replacement, practically speaking? Pope Paul intended the newly LAY/non-clerical “instituted” canonical ministries of lector and acolyte to flourish in parish and institutional communities, as has been the case with the (“permanent”) diaconate. Yet, with some very rare exceptions, this never happened. Why should it have? “Lay readers” at Mass have been in place of ordained lectors even before the end of Vatican II and young lay men acted in place of ordained acolytes for centuries. Add to this the ubiquitous (and sadly, generally excessive) presence of Extraordinary Ministers since the mid-1970s. In all reality, instituted lectors and acolytes remained pretty much the preserve of seminarians preparing for the priesthood, offices canonically reserved to males and only temporarily exercised–all just like the old Minor Orders (although this last was an accident of history). Indeed, they were even still referred to as Minor Orders among seminarians for decades. So what difference did it really make? Did we need “porters” and “exorcists” in the liturgy by the 20th/21st centuries; obviously not. (And there was really nothing wrong with the great liturgical symbolism behind tonsure, for those inducted into the “household” of the Lord’s service.) Given all of this, Spiritus Domini may now well trigger the Law of Unintended Consequences by further and more deeply “clericalizing” lector and acolyte (now having gone co-ed), which undoubtedly would have been the LAST thing Pope Paul VI wanted to do. (In fact, at least one US bishop remarked back-when that he would never institute lectors or acolytes outside of those in seminary formation specifically because these offices were closed to women. Well, looks like he would have gotten his wish this month–the next best thing to ordination!) So given the history, why not just let these orders be what they were since the early Medieval period–CLERICAL offices and ministries. If we can have married and celibate clerics in the diaconate who live and work in the world (and who are canonically excluded from a right to financial remuneration–which was a big deal in antiquity), why not have “permanent” lectors and acolytes who enjoy the clerical state? Is being a (real) cleric actually all that bad?

  2. “I noted that the request for women to be admitted to these ministries came not only from the Amazon Synod, but also from the Synods of 2008 and 2010,”

    Speaking as a woman: *I* didn’t ask for it, and I am sick of having the loud and pushy women who are probably the same ones demanding priestesses and abortion be catered to by this kind of thing.

    • I didn’t ask for it either Leslie.
      Women have genuine, pressing needs but parading about on the altar isn’t one.
      But I suppose that’s easier to offer than doing anything practical about plummeting marriage and birthrates, abuse of Chinese Catholic women’s human rights, weakening of feticide laws in Latin America, Catholic school closings, etc.
      So they throw us a liturgical bone.

  3. this might be of help:

    Therefore, since the exercise of the munus docendi, sanctificandi et regendi by the sacred minister constitute the essence of pastoral ministry, the diverse functions proper to ordained ministers form an indivisible unity and cannot be understood if separated, one from the other. Rather they must be viewed in terms of mutual correspondence and complementarity. Only in some of these functions, and to a limited degree, may the non-ordained faithful cooperate with their pastors should they be called to do so by lawful Authority and in accordance with the prescribed manner. “He (Jesus Christ) continually provides in his body, that is, in the Church, for gifts of ministries through which, by his power, we serve each other unto salvation…”.(38) “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 in his Eternal Priesthood. The task exercised in virtue of supply takes its legitimacy formally and immediately from the official deputation given by Pastors, as well as from its concrete exercise under the guidance of ecclesiastical authority”.(39)

    This doctrine needs to be reaffirmed especially in the light of certain practices which seek to compensate for numerical shortages of ordained ministers arising in some communities. In some instances, such have given rise to an idea of the common priesthood of the faithful which mistakes its nature and specific meaning. Amongst other things, it 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.

    3. The Indispensability of the Ordained Ministry

    4. The Collaboration of the Non-ordained Faithful in Pastoral Ministry

    Among the various aspects of the participation of the non-ordained faithful in the Church’s mission considered by the conciliar documents, that of their direct collaboration with the ministry of the Church’s pastors is considered.(44) Indeed, “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”.(45) In this way, it is not one merely of assistance but of mutual enrichment of the common Christian vocation. This collaboration was regulated by successive post-conciliar legislation and particularly by the Codex Iuris Canonici.

    The Code, having referred to the rights and duties of all the faithful,(46) in the subsequent title devoted to the rights and duties of the lay faithful, treats not only of those which are theirs in virtue of their secular condition,(47) but also of those tasks and functions which are not exclusively theirs. Some of these latter refer to any member of the faithful, whether ordained or not,(48) while others are considered along the lines of collaboration with the sacred ministry of cleric.(49) With regard to these last mentioned areas or functions, the non-ordained faithful do not enjoy a right to such tasks and functions. Rather, they are “capable of being admitted by the sacred Pastors… to those functions which, in accordance with the provisions of law, they can discharge” (50) or where “ministers (THAT IS THE ORDAINED) are not available… they can supply certain of their functions… in accordance with the provisions of law”.(51)


    Article 1

    Need for an Appropriate Terminology

    In his address to participants at the Symposium on “Collaboration of the Lay Faithful with the Priestly Ministry”, the Holy Father emphasised the need to clarify and distinguish the various meanings which have accrued to the term “ministry” in theological and canonical language.(53)

    § 1. “For some time now, it has been customary to use the word ministries not only for the officia (officies) and non-ordained (functions) munera exercised by Pastors in virtue of the sacrament of Orders, but also for those exercised by the lay faithful in virtue of their baptismal priesthood. The terminological question becomes even more complex and delicate when all the faithful are recognized as having the possibility of supplying-by official deputation given by the Pastors-certain FUNCTIONS more proper to clerics, which, nevertheless, do not require the character of Orders. IT MUST BE ADMITTED that the language 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”.(54)

    § 2. “In some cases, the extension of the term “ministry” to the munera belonging to the lay faithful has been permitted by the fact that the latter, to their own degree, are a participation in the one priesthood of Christ. The officia temporarily entrusted to them, HOWEVER, are exclusively the result of a deputation by the Church. Only with constant reference to the one source, the ‘ministry of Christ’ (…) may the term ministry be applied to a certain extent and without ambiguity to the lay faithful: that is, without it being perceived and lived as an undue aspiration to the ordained ministry or as a progressive erosion of its specific nature.

    In this original sense the term ministry (servitium) expresses only the work by which the Church’s members continue the mission and ministry of Christ within her and the whole world. However, when the term is distinguished from and compared with the various munera and officia, then it should be CLEARLY NOTED THAT ONLY IN VIRTUE OF SACRED ORDINATION DOES THE WORK OBTAIN THAT FULL, UNIVOCAL MEANING THAT TRADITION HAS ATTRIBUTED TO IT.” (55)


  4. “While consultation is praiseworthy, it is never necessary for the legitimate exercise of the pope’s office, especially in matters of discipline.”

    And here lies the crux of the problem: centralization of authority within the patriarchate of Rome, appeals to fake Latin synod’s notwithstanding. (Let us be clear: the document in question is relevant only for the patriarchate of Rome.)

  5. Wow! What a brilliant response! The logic is fabulous. Great work. You are a tremendous role model, Nick. Keep up the good work.

  6. I am delighted that Carl Olson has declared this conversation closed since I have much more important things to do than to carry on a useless discussion. However, I do need to correct three imprecisions of Mr Senz:
    1. Any baptized Catholic functioning in the Sacred Liturgy may wear an alb, according to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal — and that is a regular occurrence.
    2. That “institution” into the “ministries” of lector and acolyte confers stability is meaningless because thousands of laity who have performed those functions have done so for decades. If that’s not stability in office, I don’t know what is.
    3. If these “instituted” ministries are so important, I would like to know why seminarians (instituted lectors and acolytes) in parochial settings cannot/do not replace the gentleman proclaiming the First Reading or the third-grade altar girl in serving. Talk about a morale problem.

    I said at the outset that this was a useless conversation because I suspect that “Spiritus Domini” will go the way of all of Papa Bergoglio’s documents — into oblivion. They are shallow and have had an amazingly short shelf-life, so much so that he (unlike any Pope in recent memory) has had to arrange for anniversary commemorations of his own documents, lest they be totally forgotten. I don’t want to put this one on life support by giving it any oxygen.

  7. This has been an interesting conversation for which I am grateful. I offer two observations from the pew. First, having members of the laity “instituted” and moving about dressed in an alb or other attention-attracting attire will not inherently disabuse the congregation, especially those who infrequently attend Mass or visitors of other confessions, of the “mistaken notion that all liturgical ministry is inherently clerical.” It is more likely to accomplish the opposite at worst and introduce more confusion (“mess”)at best, contrary intent notwithstanding. I think it unlikely there will be clear instruction at the parish level reminding the faithful that “instituted lay ministry” does not move the needle canonically for the individuals involved. And given the reality that it does not why add the fuss and ceremony? The overwhelming majority of Catholics will never read the document but will experience only its external effects. Second, the timing of the Holy Father’s decision is, well, curious. For anyone with a forensic background in law or law enforcement, the McCarrick Report presents as methodologically inept. More recent financial reforms, to the extent made public, are superficial and seem calculated to avoid a serious forensic audit like the one started under Cdl. Pell and quashed by other curial officials. Engaged Catholics I encounter remain eager for real substance in efforts to reform and revitalize the life of the Church. The announcement about lay ministries comes across as just another distractive flare, and a remarkably trivial investment of the Holy Father’s time given the existential threats the Church confronts. Spiritus Domini does not, so far as I can discern, make any contribution to promoting the faith, probably landed in Germany with an audible thud, and will play no part in drawing now-absent Catholics in the United States back to Mass when the pandemic subsides.

  8. Please don’t think me picayune, but inasmuch as in your last bulleted paragraph you asserted that there was no greater “defender and advocate of the use of proper words, as well as the proper use of words, than myself”, with some hesitation I think I must remind you that “myself” is not the correct pronoun here. It should be “me”, because in this sentence “than” is a conjunction and always takes the case of the implied verb which is “will find” here and the case is objective…”me”. Further up in bulleted paragraph 4 you also erred,having written “except he who has received”. Except “him” is proper here, as “except” is a preposition and always takes the objective case, It appears that in using “he” you associated it with the following word “who”, in the subjective case. But who is the subject of the dependent clause “who has received episcopal consecration…”. You’re welcome.

  9. I was a lector for nine years, and while I felt it was a great honor, I never thought of myself as a “minister” because I did not have Holy Orders

  10. Most of us who were designated as Eucharistic Ministers were given permission by our Bishop, as a LIMITED Ministry — Not to become the Norm. Liberal Lay distribution of the Eucharist, has not been a means of meaningful CELEBRATION of the Eucharistic. As an OLD RN — 87 yrs of age, I have encountered the –“SLIPPERY SLOPE” in the Sacredness of Life after Humanae Vitae was rejected. We do need to re-visit Humanae Vitae (Pope Paul VI alongside Pope John Paul were Prophetic, and now we are telling America to STONE President Trump and give us BARABBAS. Do we even believe in the True Presence, and Do we still Consider the Sabbath as a Commandment. January 29 is March for Life Celebration — We have some Stauch Pro-Life Groups — May our God, and Our Blessed Mother be with us. That Great ST JOHN Paul 2 was always late, as He was seen slipping into the CHAPELS — To Pray before our Lord — Recently read that Our Supreme Court Justice does the same — Daily.

  11. “I say that the simplification of the minor orders was salutary for the life of the Church because they had become vestigial organs, “ministries” that were often all given on the same day and no longer meaningfully exercised, and because it placed the distinguishing line between clerics and non-clerics where it properly belonged—at ordination.”

    Then let’s finally implement the Council of Trent, session XXIII, ch. 17: “That the functions of holy orders from the deacon to the porter, which have been laudably received in the Church from the times of the Apostles, and which have been for some time discontinued in many localities, may again be restored to use in accordance with the canons,[62] and may not be derided by the heretics as useless, the holy council, burning with the desire to restore the ancient usage, decrees that in the future such functions shall not be exercised except by those constituted in these orders, and it exhorts in the Lord each and all prelates of the churches and commands them that they make it their care to restore these functions, so far as it can be conveniently done, in cathedral, collegiate and parochial churches of their diocese, if the number of people and the revenues of the church are able to bear it. To those exercising these functions they shall assign salaries from a part of the revenues of some simple benefices or of the church treasury if the revenues are adequate, or from the revenues of both, and of these salaries they may, if they prove negligent, be deprived in whole or in part by the judgment of the bishop. In case there should not be at hand unmarried clerics to exercise the functions of the four minor orders, their place may be supplied by married clerics of approved life, provided they have not married a second time,[63] are competent to discharge the duties, and wear the tonsure and the clerical garb in church.”

  12. “One notes that indeed, attire does change, as liturgical norms allow for instituted lectors and acolytes to wear the alb.”

    This is part of the problem! Having women in the sanctuary wearing an alb is very confusing! The optics send a very mixed message.

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