Ordinary Catholics Talking Back to Bishops — Just Like the Church Tells Them To

We are witnessing a rising tide of lay leadership in the Catholic Church.

By Deacon Keith Fournier Published on February 18, 2017

Prior to the Second Vatican Council in the Catholic Church, an old adage was used in reference to the role of the laity in the Catholic Church. It was said that they were to “pray, pay and obey.” Like many overstatements, it was not entirely accurate. But it did have a smidgen of truth to it. The Church had become quite clericalized in the second millennium of Christianity. People began to forget that laymen, married or single, were every bit as fully Christian as bishops, priests, deacons, monks and nuns — and even the pope.

Even the movement called “Catholic Action,” a term which referred to lay men and women infusing the “temporal order” (the political, economic and social sphere) with Christian values, was done under the careful oversight of the bishops, as if mere laymen could not be trusted.

The Second Vatican Council changed that, not in the sense of a rupture with the past, but rather a proper continuity. Like much of what that Council brought, at least when properly understood, it returned to the vision of the first centuries of the Church. It again recognized the vital role all Christians play in the leadership of the Church, whether they were ordained or not. That role proceeds from their baptism and participation in the ongoing mission of the Lord through His Body, the Church.

Recent Examples

The Catholic Church is facing a major shaking within and growing opposition from without. Lay voices are being raised in matters within the Church as well as matters concerning the proper role of the teaching of the Church in serving the common good of society.

Lay men and women are increasingly concerned with the way in which principles derived from the social teaching of the Church are being applied in the political arena. For example, lay men and women are raising concerns that some members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops took personal political positions on matters involving prudential judgment, from economics to immigration, only to have their positions interpreted as the only possible Catholic position on the subject. 

A recent article by John Zmirak, the insightful, witty and sometimes acerbic Catholic commentator, provides an example. After soundly debunking the narrative being pushed by leftists both within the Catholic Church and without, Zmirak opined, “The election of Donald Trump has laid bare a gaping chasm in Catholicism. Its activist left wing is fundamentally indistinguishable from a theologically watered-down Mainline Protestantism, while conservative Catholics have far more in common with ‘low-church’ evangelical Christians.”

Lay Catholics are raising concern about the way in which principles derived from the social teaching of the Church are being applied in the political arena. They’re also asking tough questions about doctrine, like Pope Francis’s marriage document Amoris Laetitia.

James Todd, a Catholic Layman who founded the popular Catholic aggregator web site Pewsitter.com, recently published an Open Letter to the USCCB on Immigration which bears serious consideration. It raised questions about statements concerning immigration made by some members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It did so in a respectful, informed, but critical manner. Todd also asked the Bishops to explain those positions in light of Church teaching which could lead a Catholic to a different position.

I hope the U.S. bishops respond to his questions and do not dismiss them. Todd sets forth sources from authoritative Church teaching such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church and St. Thomas Aquinas.   

Lay Catholics are asking tough questions not just about politics but also doctrine, especially Pope Francis’s marriage document Amoris Laetitia. Lay leadership voices are properly asking whether this document attempts to change the longstanding teaching of the Church concerning marriage.

Though press coverage has focused on questions raised by clergy, it was a layman, Canon Lawyer Ed Peters, who cut right to this important point, “The Church’s arguably two highest-ranking cardinals in the areas of canonical interpretation and the protection of doctrine and morals are in public, plain, and diametric opposition with each other concerning a crucial canonico-sacramental practice.This division cannot stand.”

Lay Catholics do not want this infighting between cardinals and bishops to continue. They want the bishops, as the teachers of the Church, to be clear on vital teachings such as the indissolubility of marriage and the inviolable dignity of every human life. That need for clarity includes the voice of the Bishop of Rome, the successor of Peter. 

Rising Tide of Lay Leadership

These are examples of a rising tide of lay leadership in the Catholic Church. This is crucial: Unlike the liberal laity of the past decades, these voices fully accept the teaching of their Church. They are not calling for the Church to “get with the times” and become politically progressive and theologically liberal. Without apology, they are asking for doctrinal and moral fidelity and clarity from the Catholic clergy. They are also exercising their canonical right to ask questions, in charity, and receive responses in the same way from Church leadership.They demonstrate a healthy emergence of the lay faithful in keeping with the instruction of the Church to be co-responsible.

They are asking to take their proper role within the leadership of the Catholic Church, especially in the political, social, economic and cultural arena. They want the Church to be an agent of positive change and messenger of true liberation. That’s a very big reason for hope.

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  • Paul Burgett

    Well said, Deacon. There are real believers in both Catholicism and Protestantism, and many who are not true followers of Jesus. May we love all, preach truth, uphold mercy and justice, and not consider ourselves more highly than we ought. God builds His church using lay and ordained alike, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Love you in Jesus my friend.

  • qbitman

    And at what point will the faithful know if their bishop and/or priest decides to bind themselves to an heretical understanding of AL? As laypersons, we have an obligation to receive a validly Consecrated Host at Sunday Mass. I’m not a cannon lawyer, but it would make sense that if we have an obligation to receive Communion, then we also have a accompanying right to know if a priest has valid faculties, no?

    • Phil Steinacker

      Not withstanding the tiny group of rad trads who insist there are no longer any priests validly ordained, valid faculties are not the issue.

      Even a priest in a state of mortal sin cannot render the Eucharist is invalid. The determining factor is whether the priest celebrant intends to confect the bread and wine to become the Body and Blood as the Church proscribes, you are on firm ground. Even if he does not have faith but keeps with the Church’s intention in properly saying the Words of Institution and following the rites of the Mass, the confected Eucharist is valid.

      I’m not as sure about this next part, but I believe I’ve read that in the event the priest does not conform to the Church’s intention as stated above, provided the faithful have good reason to sincerely believe he does, then the Church supplies what is spiritually necessary for it to be so for them in the eyes of Heaven.

  • standtall909

    Excellent article!! Yes indeed there are many ‘lay faithful’ who are speaking out, asking questions and DEFENDING THE FAITH as we were called to do! After all, are we not called ‘The Church Militant’? The days of ‘pray, pay and obey’ are gone as Catholic Christians are finally taking the teaching of the true faith into their own hands and not relying so much on the clerics. Thank the dear Lord we have become a tad more sophisticated than the prior generation and can see through all the fluff and errors that our prelates have been feeding us since Vat.11. The birth of the internet has definitely been a help in obtaining information that our parents lacked, in spite of some of the pitfalls.

  • Carolyn C

    “not in the sense of a rupture with the past, but rather a proper continuity.” Today is nothing like the past. It is a complete rupture. The organizational church today is radically different from pre-Vatican II.

    • Phil Steinacker

      You are certainly correct but I can’t tell if you are celebrating that or bemoaning it.

      • Carolyn C

        Luke 19:41-44 And when He drew near, seeing the city, He wept over it, saying: [42] If thou also hadst known, and that in this thy day, the things that are to thy peace; but now they are hidden from thy eyes. [43] For the days shall come upon thee, and thy enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and straiten thee on every side, [44] And beat thee flat to the ground, and thy children who are in thee: and they shall not leave in thee a stone upon a stone: because thou hast not known the time of thy visitation.

        Jesus wept when he saw the city of Jerusalem as He knew the blind did not know the time of visitation. 45 And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, 46 saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.”

  • rodlarocque1931

    If only we could go back to the days of “Pray Pay and Obey” because that means that we can trust our clergy and our Pope to not go with the times but to give us pure and unchanged doctrine and a beautiful traditional liturgy, as is every Catholic’s birthright. Indeed at baptism what do we ask of the Church is to be given the faith, not some concoction meant to appease the world so that bishops can be invited to all the important events in polite society.

  • america111

    Excellent article!!The USCCB is getting away from his mission to evangelize … to give their opinions in political matters, same with Pope Francis.

  • jsexton9

    Vatican II closed in 1965. I was there. People have been speaking up for over fifty years, but now we have a Pope and even some bishops who actually listen. Maybe we’ll finally get some mileage out of the sensus fidelium.

    • Richard Malcolm

      Or rather, who listen to certain voices, while steadfastly ignoring others.

  • Dcn. Joseph B. Gorini

    This, in part, speaks to me of the all too often occurrences of episcopal overreach. It is my understanding that the proper role of the clergy is to point out moral issues and teach the principles to be applied by persons with relevant competence and placement – which in most cases involving public policy means lay persons. And, it is among the laity where we may find the numbers, competencies, and placement to oppose most effectively what are the moral issues of our place and time – especially with regard to that which calls itself “progressive” but in reality is “regressive” and evil.

  • katiedidrn

    For, far too long the leaders of the Church have been too silent. I also believe that the USBishops took a very liberal stand after Vatican II. They also bought into the PC culture. My children of the ’70s and 80’s did not get a strong foundation in Catholic Doctrine. When I questioned the liberal views I was told I was too old fashioned. We now have generations of young Catholics who believe they can pick and choose what they believe. We also have a Pope , Bishops and Cardinals who have bought into many aspects of Liberation Theology which had been rejected prior to Vatican II. The bishops have been too silent when it comes to politicians who blatantly ” preach and vote” against Catholic teaching and our Clergy remain silent. It is no wonder that our young are leaving the Church because our hierarchy have taken /little /no stance against liberal laws and ideas. Milk toast does not teach right and wrong. Supporting masses who break our laws and assist them in ways to steal and benefit from a society in which they have no right is also teaching that stealing and coveting are perfectly acceptable. Is it any wonder that our youth are confused me as to why certain classes of people can break laws but it is sinful if they object to that breaking of laws but they are bound by those same laws that others are breaking. We do need for our Church leaders to get back to basics.

  • Judith Kimmerling

    I respect the office of the Pope as head of Christ’s Church. However, I am increasingly concerned about his weighing-in on subjects other than “faith and morals”. Does Pope Francis have a background in “liberation theology”? He lectures Americans about illegal immigration and our country’s borders as though from the Chair of St Peter. I respectfully suggest the Holy Father open Vatican City to everyone who wants to come, disband the Swiss Guard, and sell some of our patrimony of art and precious metals to pay for their food, shelter, and medical care. And speaking of “faith and morals,” why is he skating on the edge of long-held Catholic teaching about the Sacrament of marriage as between one man and one woman, homosexual unions, adultery and the reception of the Eucharist, to name of few. This is beginning to cause scandal to the Faithful and encourage others to continue in sinful ways. I pray for the Holy Father every day that he do Jesus’ Will and not his own.

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