Beyond the Clergy-Laity Divide

Kurien Kunnumpuram, SJ
Beyond the Clergy-Laity Divide
(22 May 2000)

In his article, the former rector of JDV, Kurien Kunnumpuram, SJ, makes a strong plea for eliminating the clergy-laity divide as a way of expressing the newness of Christian praxis in the new millennium. Through a review of the historical process that led to the divide as well as the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar magisterium, he shows how there has to be a change on the part of the hierarchy, leading to a participatory church.


Standing on the threshold of the third millennium many Christians are engaged in an earnest quest for the new. Some of them talk about a new way of being the Church.1  Others manifest a felt need for repentance and reconciliation so that the followers of Christ may be able to show forth the newness of life to which they are called.2  It is in this context that I make a strong plea for the overcoming of the clergy-laity divide which has plagued the Church for many centuries.

It seems to me that the clergy-laity divide and the consequent lack of power-sharing in the Church are largely responsible for the apathy and inertia that one notices in the bulk of the laity today. There is, to be sure, a small but growing member of lay people who are clamouring for a say in the decision-making pro-cess in the Church. But they are not really representative of the lay people of our country who are mostly passive. This is in striking contrast to what is happening in secular society. A large number of Catholics are making significant contributions in the professions, the media, the civil services, the police and the armed forces. The sad state of affairs in the Church, I believe, is the result of the concentration of all power and initiative in the hands of the clergy. In spite of all the inspiring things that Vatican II said about lay people and their share in the life and mission of the Church, no real empowering of the laity has taken place. Hence, it is necessary for us to examine the causes of the clergy-laity divide and find ways and means of overcoming it.

This paper begins with a brief survey of the historical process that led to the clergy-laity divide. It goes on to discuss the positive contributions of Vatican II and the post-conciliar documents of the magisterium. It then attempts to develop some theological perspectives on the question. By way of conclusion the paper points out some practical consequences of the views proposed here.

1. Historical Background

1.1. During the New Testament times, the Church was understood as the people of God, a community characterized by radical freedom, radical equality, radical sharing and radical service.3  According to St Paul, it was a fellowship in which all racial, social and sexual differences were eliminated (cf. Gal 3:26-28). What Paul asserts here is that in the Church there is no place for the oppositions that prevail in the rest of society.4  Besides, the Christian community does not tolerate “domination and structures of domination which are customary in society. In the community of brothers, no fathers are permitted. The rule of God does not imply the rule of humans”.5  Jesus is absolutely forthright in the rejection of domination (cf. Mk 10:42-45).

In this egalitarian Church there are varieties of charisms which blossom into diverse ministries. The Pauline and Deutero-Pauline letters deal with them at some length.6  Gradually, the ministry of leadership emerges. But it is clearly understood that the leadership ministry, like all other ministries, is for the building up of persons and communities. Paul speaks of the authority “which the Lord gave for building you up and not tearing you down” (2 Cor 10:8; see also 1 Cor 13:10).

The early Christian leaders thought of themselves as ministers of Christ in the service of the people (see 2 Cor 4:5; 1 Cor 9:19). There was no question of their lording it over the community (see 1 Pt 5:1-5; 2 Cor 1:24). Jesus, the servant, was the model for all Christian ministers (Mt 23:25-27; Mk 10:42-45; Jn 13:13-17). As E. Schillebeeckx has remarked:

According to Paul and the whole of the New Testament, at least within the Christian communities of believers, relationships involving subjection are no longer to prevail. We find this principle throughout the New Testament, and it was also to determine strongly the New Testament view of ministry. This early Christian egalitarian ecclesiology in no way excludes leadership and authority; but in that case, authority must be filled with the Spirit, from which no Christian, man or woman, is excluded, in principle, on the basis of the baptism of the Spirit.7 

1. 2. As Yves Congar has pointed out, “there is no distinction between ‘lay people’ and ‘clerics’ in the vocabulary of the New Testament”.8  But such a distinction began to be made already at the end of the first century. In his Letter to the Corinthians, written probably in the year 96, Clement of Rome spoke of ‘Laikos’ who are distinguished from the high priest, the priests and the Levites.9  For Clement the distinction between the clergy and the laity was a functional one and in no way went against the koinonia, the communion, that existed among the members of the Corinthian Church.

In spite of the use of this new terminology, there really was no clergy-laity divide during the patristic period. It was during the Middle Ages that some significant changes took place which had far-reaching consequences for the life of the Church.

First, there developed a view that the clergy are spiritual and that the laity are carnal, worldly.10  In the early Church, baptism was the dividing line between the ‘spirit of Christ’ and the ‘spirit of the world’. For at baptism a person freely renounced the spirit of the world and embraced the spirit of Christ. This was expressed in the baptismal vows. But at the beginning of the Middle Ages mass conversions and a large-scale expansion of the Church took place in England, Germany, etc. A king would decide that his kingdom was to become Christian, and all the people of the kingdom would be baptized. There was no proper instruction in the Christian faith and, as a result, no real personal decision on the part of the people to accept Christianity. They could not, then, be said to have renounced the spirit of the world and embraced the spirit of Christ. Hence, the opinion came to prevail that the boundary between the spirit of Christ and the spirit of the world was the ‘second baptism’. At first religious profession was looked upon as the second baptism. Hence, the monks were regarded as spiritual persons. Gradually this view changed, and ordination to the priesthood came to be thought of as the second baptism. This paved the way for considering the clergy to be spiritual and the laity to be carnal, worldly. Towards end of the 13th century, Stephen of Tournai declared:

In one city and under one king there are two peoples whose difference corresponds to two sorts of life…. The city is the Church; her king is Christ; the two peoples are the two orders of clergy and laity; the two sorts of life are the spiritual and the fleshly….11 

1. 3. Another important change was the gradual acceptance of the idea that the clergy had Christ-given power to fulfil certain functions. Till the 12th century, the Church held a sacramental, iconological view of ministry.12  But then this view was changed. And the change can be seen in the subtle transformation that took place in the understanding of the title “Vicar of Christ”, which at that time was given to the pope, the bishops and even the priests. Originally it meant that Christ was present and active in his minister. This view was based on the idea that God and the celestial powers were actively involved in the earthly sphere. But gradually a ‘possession-of-power theory’ came to prevail. According to this theory, Christ at the beginning gave power to his vicar, that is, to “a representative who takes his place and who hands on to those who came after him, in an historical sequence of transmission and succession, the power thus received”.13  In other words, Jesus Christ bestowed his power on the Apostles who transmitted it to the bishops, who in their turn share it with the priests and the deacons. Speaking of this new understanding of the ministry in the Church Joseph Neuner says:

Thus leadership in the Church is seen no longer as a participation in Christ’s mission for the realization of God’s reign, but as a power and competence given to a group of people, the hierarchy, to rule the community of the faithful in analogy to a secular government…. Luther’s revolt is not primarily a theological challenge of traditional doctrines but a revolution against the domination of the Christian people through the clergy in a spirit totally alien to Jesus Christ.14 

1.4. At the dawn of the modern period, Josse Clichtove (1472-1543) developed a theology and spirituality of the priesthood. The image of the priest he helped to shape was that of a man who by virtue of his state of life was “detached from the world, even from the world of the Christian laity”.15  This is how E. Schillebeeckx sums up Clichtove’s views:

The idea of ‘being taken out of the world’, i.e., escape from the world, completely determines this image of the priest…. Priesthood is essentially defined by its relation with the cult (and not with the community), though this is the cult of the community. A priest, even a pastor, may have as little contact as possible even with his own parishioners, except for the necessary administration of the sacraments. To be a priest is to be a ‘cultic priest’. Precisely on the basis of this relation to the cult, the priest is the one who is set apart from the people, and priestly celibacy is the only adequate expression of this essential separation.16 

1. 5. The Council of Trent was greatly influenced by the theology of ministry prevalent at the time. While in its reform decrees, the council dealt with such priestly tasks as preaching the word and pastoral care of the people, its doctrinal decrees define priesthood almost entirely in terms of presiding at the eucharist (power of consecration) and administering the other sacraments.17  This is understandable since Trent had set itself the limited task of refuting the errors of the Reformers. As Schillebeeckx observes:

Finally, the eight canons concerning the sacrament of ordination are a reaction against a view which reduces the priest to a preacher, spokesman and proclaimer (with the result that at least in defining the functions of the priest the canons only stress his cultic activity and so do not say anything about the tasks of preaching and teaching, which were stressed so strongly by Scripture and the early church as the task of ministers of the church).18 

Trent laid great stress on the hierarchical structure of the Church, while totally ignoring the universal priesthood of the believers.19  This council in many ways contributed to the widening of the gap between the clergy and the laity. As J. Neuner has remarked:

The Council of Trent has determined not only the theology but also the social image of the priest for the past centuries: priests form a secluded group with a social status of their own with their life and work centred round the altar.20 

1. 6. During the 19th century it became quite clear how the idea that priests possessed sacred power aggravated the clergy-laity divide. In a schema on the Church prepared for Vatican I we find this statement:

But the Church of Christ is not a community of equals in which all the faithful have the same rights. It is a society of unequals, not only because among the faithful some are clerics and some are laymen, but particularly because there is in the Church the power from God whereby to some it is given to sanctify, teach, and govern, and to others not.21 

This draft was probably never discussed at the council. Its only value lies in this, that it expresses the theology prevalent at that time.

In the first half of the 20th century there was a lot of talk about “Catholic action”. Both Pius XI and Pius XII spoke enthusiastically about it. And Catholic action was described as the collaboration of the laity in the apostolate of hierarchy.22  The implication was that the laity had no apostolate of their own. All this, of course, would change with Vatican II.

2. Vatican II and After

There are many elements in the teaching of Vatican II that can help us to overcome the clergy-laity divide in the Church. I shall highlight some of them here.

2. 1. For the Council the favoured image of the Church was the People of God. And the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church devoted a whole chapter to it.23 The People of God includes all the believers — the pope, the bishops, the priests and the ordinary faithful. “The state of this people is that of the dignity and freedom of the children of God, in whose hearts the Holy Spirit dwells as in a temple” (Lumen gentium, n. 9).  The entire people of God participates in the priestly, prophetic and kingly/pastoral office of Christ (cf. ibid., nn. 10-12).24  The Church is not primarily an institution but a people — a people who are makers of history and masters of their destiny. There is also a hint in Lumen gentium that the pilgrim people of God may at times be the ‘wandering people’ of God.25 

Vatican II is quite sure that in the Church all are equal. In unmistakable terms it declares:

And if by the will of Christ some are made teachers, dispensers of the mysteries, and shepherds on behalf of others, yet all share a true equality with regard to the dignity and to the activity which is common to all the faithful for the building up of the Body of Christ (ibid., n. 32).

The faithful may belong to different states of life. They may be called upon to fulfil diverse functions. And yet, all are equal with regard to the dignity and the mission which are common to all the faithful.

It is significant that the Council looks upon the priestly ministry as a function within the community of salvation. The words of St Augustine cited here go to confirm this: “To you I am a bishop; with you I am a Christian”.26  Precisely because of this, the functional differences among the members of the Church need not stand in the way of a close collaboration of all for the common good. Vatican II points out:

For the distinction which the Lord made between sacred ministers and the rest of the People of God involves union, for pastors and the other faithful are joined together by a close relationship…. Thus in their diversity all bear witness to the admirable unity of the Body of Christ (ibid., n. 32).

2. 2. Both the clergy and the laity participate in the mission of Christ. The Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity emphatically declares:

The pilgrim Church is missionary by her very nature. For it is from the mission of the Son and the mission of the Holy Spirit that she takes her origin, in accordance with the decree of God the Father (Ad gentes, n. 2).

And the lay people have their own share in this mission. The Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People states:

But the laity, too, share in the priestly, prophetic, and royal office of Christ and therefore have their own role to play in the mission of the whole People of God in the Church and in the world (Apostolicam actuositatem, n. 2).

The Council stresses the fact that the lay people have their own vocation and mission (see LG, n. 31). It also makes it clear that it is Jesus Christ who authorizes them to engage in their mission. As the Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People asserts:

The laity derive the right and duty with respect to the apostolate from their union with Christ their Head. Incorporated into Christ’s Mystical Body through baptism and strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit through confirmation, they are assigned to the apostolate by the Lord himself (AA, n. 3).

Besides, the lay people receive charismatic gifts which are to be used “for the good of humankind and for the building up of the Church” (ibid., n. 3).

Vatican II understands priestly ministry as a participation in the mission and ministry of Christ (see LG, n. 28). Speaking on behalf of the Commission that worked on the draft of the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Presbyters, Bishop Francois Marty said:

The nature and mission of presbyters must be derived from the nature and mission of bishops; the nature and mission of bishops must be gathered from the nature and mission of the Apostles; the nature and mission of the Apostles must be seen in the light of the nature and the mission of Christ.27

Participating as they do in the mission and ministry of Christ, Priest, Prophet and King, presbyters have the triple function of proclaiming the Gospel, administering the sacraments and pastorally caring for the people (see Presbyterorum ordinis, nn. 4-6). Among the different pastoral activities the Council lays stress on “the formation of a genuine Christian community” (ibid., n. 6). Priests are said to be “set apart” in the midst of people in order to bring home to them the need for real insertion into the life of people today. Otherwise they would be total strangers to this world which would make their ministry ineffective (ibid., n. 3).

2. 3. Vatican II tried to restore the earlier understanding of the priesthood as the sacramental, iconological representation of Jesus Christ. He is present and active in his minister. Already The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy had taught: “Christ is always present in his Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the person of his minister” (Sacrosanctum concilium, n. 7). But a more elaborate statement was made in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. Speaking of the bishops it declared:

In the bishops, therefore, for whom priests are assistants, our Lord Jesus Christ, the supreme High Priest, is present in the midst of those who believe. For sitting at the right hand of God the Father, he is not absent from the gathering of his high priests, but above all through their excellent service he is preaching the Word of God to all nations, and constantly administering the sacraments of faith to those who believe (LG, n. 21).

It must, however, be admitted that the Council was not very consistent in upholding this sacramental view of the ministry. It also spoke of “ministers who are endowed with sacred power” (ibid., n. 18).

There is one statement of the Council which seems to reinforce the clergy-laity divide. While dealing with the participation of the People of God in the priestly office of Christ, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church maintains that the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood “differ essentially from one another and not only in degree” (ibid., n. 10). On the face of it, this statement of the Council is rather strange. Why does it use such an apparently metaphysical language to distinguish what is really a functional difference in the community of salvation? As Aloys Grillmerier, who was a resource person (peritus) at Vatican II, has pointed out, what the Council meant to insist on was “the difference between the common and the special, hierarchical priesthood”.28 Various suggestions were made to help to clarify this difference. One suggestion was to regard the common priesthood as an improper or initial (inchoativum) priesthood. Another suggestion was to name the common priesthood as “spiritual priesthood” to distinguish it from the official priesthood. Against this it was argued that the quality of being “spiritual” was common to both. Yet another suggestion was to look upon the special priesthood as ‘sacramental’ and representative. But then, the priesthood of the faithful, too, has a sacramental basis. Finally, it was decided to state that “they differ essentially from one another and not only in degree” (LG, n. 10). This is what Grillmeier has to say about this statement:

The Constitution does not claim to have found the definitive distinction. Its concern is to make a positive statement about the priesthood of the faithful while still keeping it apart from the consecrated priesthood…. The consecrated priesthood is not to be understood merely as an intensification and heightening of the dignity and mission of the common priesthood, but represents a new type of priestly dignity and power, even though it is based on the common priesthood.29 

2. 4. The Third Synod of Bishops held in Rome in 1971 dealt with the ministerial priesthood and tried to clarify how it is distinguished from the common priesthood of the faithful. This is the way it expresses its mind:

Among the various charisms and services, the priestly ministry of the New Testament, which continues Christ’s function as mediator, and which differs from the common priesthood of all the faithful in essence and not only in degree, alone perpetuates the essential work of the Apostles: by effectively proclaiming the Gospel, by gathering together and leading the community, by remitting sins, and especially by celebrating the Eucharist, it makes Christ, the Head of the community, present in the exercise of his work of redeeming mankind and glorifying God perfectly.30 

Almost 20 years after this, another Synod of Bishops (1990), while dealing with priestly formation, spelt out its understanding of the priesthood. The fruit of this Synod was incorporated into the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis, published in 1992. In it John Paul II declared:

In the Church and on behalf of the Church, priests are a sacramental representation of Jesus Christ, the Head and Shepherd, authoritatively proclaiming his Word, repeating his acts of forgiveness and his offer of salvation, particularly in Baptism, Penance and the Eucharist, showing his loving concern to the point of a total gift of self for the flock, which they gather into unity and lead to the Father through Christ and in the Spirit. In a word, priests exist and act in order to proclaim the Gospel to the world and to build up the Church in the name and person of Christ the Head and Shepherd (n. 15).

The Pope quotes with approval proposition 7 approved by the Synod Fathers:

Inasmuch as he represents Christ the Head, Shepherd and Spouse of the Church, the priest is placed not only in the Church but also in the forefront of the Church. The priesthood, along with the word of God and the sacramental signs which it serves, belongs to the constitutive elements of the Church (n. 16).

From what has been said so far, it is clear that according to the current teaching of the magisterium the specific nature of the ministerial priesthood consists in this, that it represents Christ the Head to the ecclesial community. We shall have to reflect on this.

3. Looking to the Future

If the Church is really serious about overcoming the clergy-laity divide then it must be prepared to undergo a three-fold change: a cognitive change — the development of a new vision of life and reality; an attitudinalchange — the acquisition of a new set of values; and a behavioural change — the adoption of a new way of acting. Vision, commitment and action are essential ingredients of real change. The reflections, comments and suggestions offered here are meant to facilitate such a change.

3. 1 Christ the Head:

It is in the captivity letters, Colossians and Ephesians, which are most probably Deutero-Pauline, that Jesus Christ is depicted as the head of a Body which is the Church. What does the term head mean? One meaning of “head” is “beginning, origin or source”.31 This is probably the meaning “head” has in Col 1:18-19. Referring to Col 1:15-20, E. Ferguson says:

Christ is the head of the Church, as he is the head of creation, in the sense of being its “source”. He is the vital principle from whom the Church derives its existence and meaning, and this is so by reason of his resurrection. This interpretation of the head gains support from the other reference to the Church as a body in Colossians: “…not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God” (Col 2:19). Growth of the body derives from its head, the source here of sustenance as well as of life.32

The other use of the word head is in Col 2:10, and here it probably means preeminence or authority.33 This is the meaning of head in Ephesians. As Ferguson explains:

The statements about the headship of Christ point to his superiority, his authority in relation to the Church. “Christ is the head of the Church” (Eph 5:23), and his treatment of the Church is the model of leadership for husbands in relation to wives (Eph 5:23-30). As head of the Church, he is the standard toward which the body grows (Eph 4:15-16).34

This interpretation is confirmed by a distinctive passage in Ephesians about Christ as the head of the Body:

God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (Eph 1:20-23).

Of these two uses of the word head, the first one found in Colossians is very valuable. The Church really has its origin in Christ. He is the source of the Church. “The saving act of Christ constituted the Church and continues to be constitutive of the nature of the Church”.35  So, when the recent documents of the Church teach that priests represent Christ the head of the Church to the ecclesial community, it means that in and through them Jesus Christ is present and active in the community. This is a sacramental understanding of priestly ministry and does not imply that priests have power and authority over the ecclesial community.

But the way the word head is used in Ephesians creates problems. According to the Gospels, Jesus in his life wanted only to be a servant. Now we make him Lord endowed with power and authority over people and things. And then, go on to assert that the ministers of the Church as representatives of Christ the head of the Church have power and authority over the people. This certainly is how the “ruling” function of the bishops and priests is practically understood today. As Avery Dulles observes:

Whereas in teaching and sanctifying, the hierarchy have a merely ministerial function, transmitting the doctrine and grace of Christ himself, ruling is something that they do in their own name. They govern the flock with pastoral authority, and as Christ’s vicegerents impose new laws and precepts under pain of sin.36 

Such an understanding and exercise of priestly ministry does not seem to correspond to the Gospel ideal.

3. 2. Gospel Leadership

Priests are called to be leaders after the example of Jesus who washed the feet of his disciples and exhorted them to do the same (see Jn 13:13-15). Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the welfare of those entrusted to his care. His whole concern is that “they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). A Christian leader is called to render selfless, self-sacrificing service to his brothers and sisters. He/she is meant to be a life-giving and growth-promoting person. There is no place for power and domination over others in the life of a Christian leader. As the First Letter of Peter exhorts the elders:

Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it — not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock (1 Pet 5:1-3).

As Vatican II reminds us, ministries in the Church are for “the nurturing and constant growth of the People of God” (LG, n. 18). Ministers are servants of their brothers and sisters. Their service consists in coordinating the activities of all toward a common goal while respecting the God-given dignity and freedom of each one (see ibid.). Speaking of the ministry of the Pope John Paul II wrote a few years back:

This service of unity, rooted in the action of divine mercy, is entrusted within the college of bishops to one among those who have received from the Spirit the task, not of exercising power over the people — as the rulers of the gentiles and their great men do (cf. Mt 20: 20-25; Mk 10:42) — but of leading them toward peaceful pastures.37 

One hopes that all those who are entrusted with the ministry of leadership in the Church will take to heart these words of the Pope.

3.3. A Participatory Church

An increasing number of lay people are asking for a more active role in the thinking, planning and decision-making process in the Church. They are longing for a truly participatory Church. It is, however, surprising that whenever there is a plea for “democratic rule” in the Church, the invariable answer is that the Church is not a democracy. This is quite true. All the same it is noteworthy that Vatican II is quite keen that the structures of the Church should be in tune with the spirit of the times. While describing what the Church has received from the world, the Council states:

Since “the Church has a visible and social structure, which is a sign of her unity in Christ: as such she can be enriched … by the evolution of social life. The reason is not that the constitution given her by Christ is defective, but so that she may understand it more penetratingly, express it better, and adjust it more successfully to our times (cf. Gaudium et spes, n. 44).

Now two of the human aspirations which are quite characteristic of our time are the aspirations to equality and to participation. And they promote a “democratic type of society”.38  In fact, Rudolf Pesch believes that the New Testament Church was a community which led a democratic form of life, “that is, a life of liberty, equality and fraternity”.39 

In any case, participative decision-making was quite common in the Church from the earliest times. Referring to what Luke has described in Acts 6:1-6 and 15:1-12, Raymond Brown suggests that major decisions in the Jerusalem community were made collectively and that the Twelve Apostles functioned as a presiding council facilitating the process of decision-making. And he finds a parallel to this in the Qumran community. He says:

The group of Jewish sectarians at Qumran responsible for the scrolls had a form of community government remarkably like what Luke describes in Acts 6 and 15. At Qumran the Assembly of all the mature members of the community, called “the Session of the Many” (rabbim), was called together to exercise judicial and executive authority over the sectarians. In addition, there was a permanent Community Council, consisting of twelve men and three priests, which served as a higher and authoritative body within the general assembly. The parallel between ‘the many’ of Qumran and ‘the multitude’ of the Jerusalem Christians is obvious, as is the similarity of the Council of twelve men in each group (probably patterned on the same idealism of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve patriarchal progenitors — with Qumran having additional representatives of the three clans of Levi). Thus, the Christian sect of Jews in Jerusalem may well have structured its government in imitation of other Jewish sectarians. If this comparison has any truth, then there is plausibility in the basic Lucan picture that in the primitive Church the Twelve constituted a type of council, convoking sessions to deal with major problems.40 

The practice of participative decision-making continued in the Church after the New Testament times. Yves Congar has reported:

When in 1950-52 I was preparing my book on the laity, I examined not only the texts but the facts of the early history of the Church. I discovered everywhere in each generation and in the four spheres of faith, worship, the apostolate, and the Church’s social life, a union between the hierarchical structure and the communal exercise of all Church activities.41

In the third century St Cyprian declared: “I have made it a rule, ever since the beginning of my episcopate, to make no decision merely on the strength of my own personal opinion without consulting you (the presbyters and the deacons), without the approbation of the people”.42  And in the course of the 13th century, Innocent III and Boniface VIII, two of the most authoritarian popes in the Church’s history, appealed to this principle of Roman Law: “Whatever affects everybody ought to be corporately approved by everybody”.43 

It is encouraging to note that the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India is committed to the ushering-in of a participatory Church. At its General Body Meeting, held at Thiruvananthapuram in February, 1996, it declared:

We reiterate our sincere desire to improve and perfect the movements towards a truly participatory Church where all sections of the People of God, revitalizing their baptismal grace, fulfil their vocation and mission. The CBCI will then be a Body that gives witness to unity in mission, achieved with a diversity of roles. In this context we emphasize the importance of involving all sections of the Church, especially the Laity, and reposing greater confidence in them, in order to bring about a mature, participatory Church.44 

The CBCI goes on to point out that the spirit of coresponsibility and sharing is “neither a matter of condescension nor of rights grudgingly conceded. Rather it belongs to the very nature of the Church as communion”.45

A participatory Church calls for the practice of non-dominating leadership (Jn 13: 14-15), “which is most effective in bringing out the best in others”.  It also demands an attitudinal change on the part of the leaders. They need to adopt “an attitude of trust in our people, appreciating their reliability and competence”.46  The CBCI is strongly in favour of establishing Parish Pastoral Councils and Diocesan Pastoral Councils wherever they do not yet exist.47 It also intends to restructure and revitalize the Catholic Council of India (CCI), which “will be a Body that represents all sections of the Catholic community”.48 

If effective steps are taken to implement the decisions and suggestions of the CBCI on a time-bound basis, then the emergence of a truly participatory Church in India will not be far-off.

3.4. Unity in Diversity

It is well known that Vatican II had a positive attitude to the world. It readily recognized the autonomy of the world (see GS, n. 36) and acknowledged the benefits that the Church had received from it. But in its efforts to relate to the world, the Council reinforced the clergy-laity divide in the Church. As Francine Cardman has observed:

Yet, despite its positive — some might even say naïve — appreciation of the world, the council could not conceive of church and world as integrally related. Instead, it had to resort to the laity as the link between world and church, so that the laity “consecrate” the world and “infuse it with a Christian spirit”, while the clergy tend to the church, governing, teaching and sanctifying the faithful. That the pattern of distinguishing church and world proposed at Vatican II should reflect and reinforce the contrast between clergy and laity is, therefore, not surprising.49

In a sense Vatican II stands for “Churchly” clergy and “worldly” laity!

It is significant that according to the Council the distinguishing mark of the lay faithful is their relationship to the world. As the Dogmatic constitution on the Church asserts:

A secular quality is proper and special to laymen. It is true that those in holy orders can at times engage in secular activities, and even have a secular profession. But by reason of their particular vocation they are chiefly and professedly ordained to the sacred ministry…. But the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations (LG, n. 31).

It is such an understanding of the clergy and the laity that makes the present pope affirm that priests should not be involved in politics since their proper ministry is the spiritual care of the faithful. Politics is the sphere of activity of the laity.

In order to overcome this dichotomy we need to clarify the meaning of the term “spiritual” as applied to priestly ministry as well as spell out the Church’s relationship to the world. Speaking of the spiritual character of the priestly ministry, Josef Neuner states:

The distinctive feature of the priestly apostolate is expressed with the term ‘spiritual’. This is biblical language. Spirit stands in contrast to ‘flesh’, i.e., to the merely natural sphere of man. The entire Christian life is guided by the Spirit, and so the pastoral care of the priest for the faithful, for people at large, is aptly called spiritual…. For the same reason the priestly apostolate should not be called ‘spiritual’ in contrast to the apostolate of the laity…. During the middle ages the term ‘spiritual’ was used for hierarchy and monks whereas the laity was considered as belonging to the profane realm. This dividing line is not biblical.50 

Hence, the life and the apostolate of the laity are just as spiritual as the life and the apostolate of the clergy, since both of them are as Christian believers led by the Holy Spirit.

Besides, if the Church has a mission to the world, both the clergy and the laity participate in it. Speaking of the role of the Church in the modern world, Vatican II states:

Pursuing the saving purpose which is proper to her, the Church not only communicates divine life to humanity, but in some way casts the reflected light of that life over the entire earth. This she does most of all by her healing and elevating impact on the dignity of the person, by the way in which she strengthens the seams of human society and endows people’s daily activity with a deeper meaning and importance. Thus, through her individual members and her whole community, the Church believes she can contribute greatly toward making the human family and its history more human (GS, n. 40).

Hence, mission to the world and relationship with it cannot and should not be a cause of division in the Church between the clergy and the laity.

Positively we need to foster union between the clergy and the laity. It has been pointed out that Vatican II has advocated an ecclesiology of communion.51  For the Council, the Church is a “community of faith, hope and charity” (LG, n. 8) and “a communion of life, love and truth” (LG, n. 9). The Triune God is the source and the pattern of ecclesial communion. Vatican II quotes with approval the words of St Cyprian that the Church is “a people brought into unity from the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (LG, n. 4). In a pregnant passage, the Council states:

As the firstborn of many brethren and the gift of his Spirit, he established after his death and resurrection, a new communion of kinship composed of all those who receive him in faith and love; this he did through his Body, which is the Church. There everyone, as members one of the other, would render mutual service according to the different gifts bestowed on each (cf. GS, n. 32).

Like the Triune God, the Church is and will always be a unity in diversity.


1 See P. Puthanangady, A New Way of Being the Church, Bangalore: Kristu Jyothi College, 1998.

2 See John Paul II, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, nn. 32-36.

3 See G. M. Soares-Prabhu, “Radical Beginnings: The Jesus Community as the Archetype of the Church”, in Jeevadhara 88 (1985), pp. 307-325.

4 See G. Lohfink, Jesus and Community, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984, pp. 92-93.

Ibid., p. 115.

6 See Rom 12:4-6; 1 Cor 12:27-29; Eph 4:11-13.

7 E. Schillebeeckx, The Church with a Human Face, London: SCM Press, 1985, p. 39.

8 Y. Congar, Lay People in the Church, London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1965, p. 4.

9 Clement of Rome, The Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 40.

10 See E. Schillebeeckx, Ministry, London: SCM Press, 1980, p. 56.

11 Prologue to the Summa super Decreta, in Mirbt, Quellen Zur Geschichte des Paptsums, n. 318, as quoted by Congar, op.cit., p. 13.

12 See Y. Congar, Power and Poverty, London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1964, p. 62.

13 Ibid.

14 J. Neuner, “Exploring Global Dimensions of Jesuit Priestly Apostolate”, in Ignis Studies 2 (1983), pp. 12-13.

15 See E. Schillebeeckx, The Church with a Human Face, pp. 195-7.

16 Ibid., p. 196.

17 See J. Neuner-Dupuis, The Christian Faith, 6th ed. Bangalore: TPI 1996, n. 1714.

18 E. Schillebeeckx, The Church with a Human Face, p. 200.

19 Cf. J. Neuner-Dupuis, n. 1719.

20 J. Neuner, “Exploring Global Dimensions…”, pp. 13-14.

21 As quoted by A. Dulles, Models of the Church, Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co., 1974, p. 35.

22 See ibid., p. 40; also Vatican II, AA, n. 20.

23 See LG Chapter II.

24 See also LG, nn. 21,31; PO, nn. 4-6.

25 See LG, n. 9.

26 See LG, n. 32.

27 As quoted by B. Kloppenburg, Ecclesiology of Vatican II, Chicago: Franciscan Press, 1974, p. 269.

28 See A. Grillmeier, “Commentray on Chapter II,” in H. Vorgrimler, ed., Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, Vol. I, New York: Herder and Herder, 1967, pp. 156-9.

29 Ibid., p. 158.

30 Neuner-Dupuis, n. 1746.

31 E. Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today, Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1996, p. 96.

32 Ibid., p. 97.

33 Ibid.

34 Ibid., p. 98.

35 Ibid., p. 97.

36 A. Dulles, Models of the Church, p. 35.

37 John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint, 1995, n. 94.

38 Paul VI, Octogesima Adveniens, 1971, n. 24.

39 R. Pesch, “The New Testament Foundation of a Democratic Form of Life in the Church”, in Concilium 3 (1971/7), pp. 48-49.

40 R.E. Brown, Priest and Bishop, London: Chapman, 1971, pp. 58-59.

41 Y. Congar, Lay People…, p. 43.

42 As quoted by Congar, Lay People…, p. 43.

43 As quoted by Congar, Lay People…, p. 35.

44 CBCI, “Response of the General Body to CBCI Evaluation Report”, in Catholic India, 1996, p. 24.

45 Ibid.

46 Ibid.

47 Ibid., p. 25.

48 Ibid., p. 24.

49 F. Cardman, “The Church Would Look Foolish Without Them: Women and Laity Since Vatican II”, in G.M. Fagin (ed.) Vatican II: Open Questions and New Horizons, Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1984, p. 110.

50 J. Neuner, “Exploring Global Dimensions…”, pp. 24-25.

51 See J. Thornhill, Sign and Promise: A Theology of the Church for a Changing World, London: Collins Liturgical Publications, 1988, pp. 206-9.

Ref.: Vidyajyoti, Vol. 63, n. 11, November 1999.

One comment on “Beyond the Clergy-Laity Divide

    In the Catholic seminaries in India the catholic clergy were not given any training on what they should do to improve the health wealth housing of the poor catholic parishioners……..the catholic missionaries in India are instructed by foreign donors to utilize the foreign donations for serving poor non-catholics and not poor catholics…………the various catholic unions forums sabhas in India are more interested in defending the conversion activities of the catholic missionaries and are not interested in ensuring the catholic clergy utilize the vacant church properties for the housing needs of poor catholics in ensuring catholic schools reserve 50% seats for poor catholics in ensuring catholic missionaries utilize 50% of their foreign funds for the benefit of poor catholics in ensuring the Indian govt. & State govts. reserve quota in govt. jobs & housing for poor catholics.

    The Marathi migrants in Bombay because of their brute majority were able to change the British given names for the city, landmarks railwaystations airports museums roads streets etc to marathi names………the marathi migrants abolished the English language from bmc collectorsoffice rationoffice etc etc and ensured the marathi language was used so that only marathi people got jobs………the marathi migrants working in bmc, collectorsoffice, police, rationoffice, citysurveyoffice took bribes from mafia backed builders & slumlords and allowed slums & illegal constructions to flourish all over bombay……….the marathi migrants accumulated the bribe money to purchase lands or renovate their old houses or purchase new houses in their natives places in other parts of Maharashtra………….because of lack of infrastructure industries office/factory jobs in rural maharashtra the marathi people will always depend on bombay…………50% of Maharashtra govts. revenue (stampduty, sale of land, sales tax, profession tax, etc etc etc) comes from Bombay and with the Maharashtra govt. allocating more land in the Bombay Metropolitan Region to builders corporates SEZ lobbies the revenue will most probably increase to 75%……… would be foolish for anyone to expect the Maharashtra govt. will protect the environment ecology openspaces mangroves saltpanlands forestlands agriculturallands waterresources in the bombay metropolitan region………..for the Maharashtra govt. & Marathi Manoos the bombay region is a hen that lays golden eggs for them.

    The BombayVillagers ( www bombayland.blogspot com ) alias EastIndians ( www east-indians com ) are suffering because all their ancestral agricultural lands surrounding their gaothans (villages) in bombay was grabbed by the Indian govt., Maharashtra govt., BMC, MMRDA, MHADA, Slumlords, landmafia, Buildersmaifa……..AND…..Alcoholism Infighting Jealousy……AND…..daily consumption of the unhealthy & unhygienic bakery maida pavs……AND…..lack of interest in education……….AND……due to poverty & unemployment finding it difficult in maintaining their old and dilapidated houses………AND…..lack of interest in agitating for 5% quota in govt. jobs & housing in bombay………AND……. lack of interest in reading the Word of God i.e. The Bible.

    The Bible does not say that if you don’t attend next weeks Sunday mass or church service or revival meeting you have denied the Christian faith and you are worse than an infidel in Gods eyes……….The Bible says if you do not take care of your household financially you have denied the Christian faith and you are worse than an infidel in God’s eyes.

    Jorge Monteiro

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