Decrees Give Layman More Status In Church
By WILLIAM H. MARSHNER
SEPTEMBER 28, 1972
Like a lot of things Rome does, the two decrees released last week on the reform of “minor orders” (henceforth to be called “ministries”) made nobody very happy, at least in America. The so-called liberals were furious over the exclusion of women, while the conservatives were angered by yet another series of “changes.” Some were genuinely terrified that the Church might be depriving herself of exorcists, and one knows with moral certainty that somewhere, probably in California, a nut-group is already proclaiming that suppression of the sub-diaconate means extinction of the priesthood.
But let the non-nuts take heart, for this time the changes are real reforms, and brilliant ones to boot. As everyone knows, a great storm has been gathering over the identity of the priest. In particular, certain radical movements have been downgrading the Sacrament of Orders, claiming, in effect, that the difference between the priesthood of all the baptized and the priesthood of the ordained clergy is not one of kind but only one of degree. More precisely, the claim has been made that hierarchical priesthood involves no special “power” and no sacramental “character.” It is said to be only a function for a office. The effect of this theory, identified with several postconciliar periti, is to abolish the distinction between “major orders” and “minor orders,” and thus to make every layman a “latent priest” and every priest an “installed layman.” The great merit of the new documents is to eliminate every ambiguity by which this subversive theory could insinuate itself. The line between laity and clergy is sharpened. Offices like porter, lector, exorcist, and acolyte, which do not involve sacramental character and hence are not degrees of priesthood, are no longer even to be be called “orders.” For once, the term “ministry” is in its rightful place.
Moreover, there is no truth to the idea that the office of exorcist has been abolished or downgraded. Bishops are free to install exorcists any time they want. It was a mere formality, in any case, to make every seminarian an exorcist since these young men were not allowed to practice that office. Usually a diocese would have as exorcist a very mature man, known for sanctity and practiced in discretion. That is still the way things will be done.
But what makes these two new documents especially welcome and especially brilliant is the impact which the renewed offices of lector and acolyte will have on the liturgy. Before, when these offices were given only to candidates for the priesthood, and when priests were leaving and seminaries empty, and when, finally, there was not only a demand but also a need for more lay participation in the liturgy, Rome allowed the use of lay lectors and “extraordinary ministers” of Communion. These temporary and extraordinary functions being open to all, there was a mad rush of women to fill them. Radicals applauded this development as a step which would eventually open the permanent diaconate and the priesthood to females. The combination of episcopal softness, laic pretensions, and feminist pushiness rapidly made the proliferation of “extraordinary minister” an epidemic that bore no relation whatsoever to the shortage of priests or to any other genuine need. Now comes the master stroke. The extraordinary permissions are not revoked, but something is created to take their place in the long run. The ancient minor orders, long an empty formality for seminarians, are suddenly revitalized, pruned, renewed, and thrown open to laymen who will hold them permanently. Laymen. Wherever Rome is obeyed, that is, Bishops will be training and formally installing in each parish permanent, official lectors and acolytes. Obviously, these men will deprive the present “temporary” lectors and “extraordinary” ministers of all raison d’etre.
To make this point as clear as possible, one of the new documents “Ministeria Quaedam” in paragraph VI says that the acolyte is to be the extraordinary minister of Communion, whenever the need is real. And when is that? Whenever the priest or deacon is unavailable for distributing Communion or is prevented by sickness or old age, or when the number of communicants is so great that Mass would be unduly prolonged. And common sense suggests that “unduly” does not mean five minutes! In other words: (a) there has to be a real need, and (b) even then, the need is to be met by the formally installed acolyte, who (c) “in accordance with the venerable teaching of the Church” has to be a man — and a man carefully selected by the Bishop. Would someone please tell the ladies that their days are numbered.
Granted, the above scenario is a prophecy. But it is not the sort of prophecy that requires supernatural illumination. Prominent “liberals” throughout the American church, especially in the women’s organizations, saw the drift of things and clamored at the USCC’s door for a “clarification.” Within a few hours, the office of Bishop Bernardin, general secretary of the USCC, replied with a statement that is both accurate and irrelevant. The statement says that women can still perform the functions of (temporary) lector, and extraordinary minister of Communion “when authorized to do so.” True enough. The new Roman documents do not touch the older extraordinary permissions that were granted in the general instruction of the Roman Missal and elsewhere — no indeed, they just set up a new system which must inevitably make the former rigmarole a fifth wheel.
Bishop Bernardin was asked by the Wanderer to comment on this prophecy. “I couldn’t speculate on that,” he said. In other words, he could not honestly rule it out.
And by the way, if you run into any nuts who claim that everything hinges on the subdiaconate, ask them if the Eastern Catholic Churches have valid Orders. If they say yes, then explain to them that subdeacons have never existed in all of Eastern Christendom.
(Editor’s Note: The two motu proprios issued by Pope Paul VI concerning the reform of minor orders will be published soon in The Wanderer)