The lay and ordained roles in the Church

Rev. Michael B. Sweeney, O.P., Director

Father Michael explains the difference between the lay and ordained roles in light of the recent Vatican instruction.

On August 15, 1997, the Holy See issued the Instruction on certain questions regarding the collaboration of the non-ordained faithful in the sacred ministry of priest. The Instruction was written "to outline specific directives to ensure the effective collaboration of the non-ordained faithful [in the pastoral office of the Church] while safeguarding the integrity of the pastoral ministry of priests" (Instruction, Conclusion). Collaboration in ministry between the laity and the ordained is one of the purposes for which the Catherine of Siena Institute was founded. How does the Instruction relate to what we teach and promote?

While the role of the laity is essential to the life of the Church and her mission, the Instruction expresses concern that there may be a confusion between the ministry that properly belongs to the laity and the ministry that properly belongs to the ordained. What is the difference between the lay and ordained roles in the Church? The Instruction first quotes the Second Vatican Council: there exists "a true equality between all with regard to the dignity and to the activity which is common to all the faithful in the building up of the Body of Christ" (Lumen Gentium, 10). Whatever the distinction between lay and ordained ministries, such a distinction cannot override the equality between lay and ordained which is prior to any difference between them. Yet, the distinction between the laity and the ordained, is not just a difference in degree, it is an essential difference: "they differ essentially, and not only in degree" (Instruction, Introduction). We are therefore directed to an essential difference that does not compromise an equality in dignity: two offices, equal in dignity, yet essentially different. Where is this difference between lay and ordained to be found?

The "essential difference between the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood is not found in the priesthood of Christ, which remains forever one and indivisible, nor in the sanctity to which all of the faithful are called." The Instruction iterates the teaching of the Church that there is one priesthood, so that all of the faithful – lay and ordained – participate equally in the one priesthood of Christ. It is the one priesthood of Christ which guarantees our equality in dignity.

And, because all of us share in the one priesthood of Christ, all of us are called in the same way to holiness of life.

The essential difference between lay and ordained is that "the ministerial priesthood [the priesthood of the ordained] is at the service of the common priesthood [the priesthood that is common to the laity and to the ordained]" (Instruction, 2). While the common priesthood is directed to evangelizing the whole world, the priesthood of the ordained – the ministerial priesthood – is directed "at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians" (ibid.). In a sense, the ministerial priesthood is conducted within the Christian community, for the sake of the Christian community.

The ordained possess a triple office: to teach, to sanctify and to govern the Christian community. The Instruction insists that these are not three separate offices or jobs, but one only: "the functions of the ordained minister, taken as a whole, constitute a single indivisible unity in virtue of their singular foundation in Christ" and "the diverse functions proper to ordained ministers form an indivisible unity and cannot be understood if separated, one from the other" (Instruction, 2). In other words, to teach, to sanctify and to govern are merely three aspects or functions of one role. That role is to present Christ the pastor, caring for his people, the Church.

The ministerial priest teaches when he sanctifies and governs, sanctifies when he teaches and governs, and governs when he teaches and sanctifies; no one function can be understood in separation from the others. This is because he takes the place of Christ the shepherd for the sake of the community. Others may assist him in his work for the sake of the community, but they do so by his delegation, so that Christ remains present as shepherd.

It is Christ alone who teaches, sanctifies and governs. The ordained take the place of Christ in the community and for the sake of the community. When, for example, Our Lord multiplied the loaves and fishes, his disciples assisted him to distribute the food to the crowds. He delegated them to assist him, but he alone was the source of their food. Moreover, by means of his miracle he simultaneously taught the crowds, drew them close to the Father (sanctified them) and gathered them together ("governed" them). When the ministerial priest presides the sacrament in Christ’s place, he may delegate members of the laity to assist him to distribute the Eucharist, but he alone acts in the person of Christ, who alone is the source of the Eucharist. Without the ministerial priesthood, Christ would not be sacramentally present as shepherd: "Indeed, were a community to lack a priest, it would be deprived of the exercise and sacramental action of Christ, the head and pastor, which are essential for the very life of every ecclesial community" (Instruction, 3).

What, then, is the role of the laity? What do the laity contribute to one priesthood of Christ that the ordained do not? If the Instruction has a weakness, it is because it is, in a sense, incomplete. In its defense, we should point out that it is not the purpose of the document to give an exhaustive treatment of the one priesthood of Christ, but only to clarify the role of the ordained. We should also remember that the Instruction presupposes everything that has already been said on the subject. In other words, to understand the Instruction, we cannot read it in isolation; it must be read in the light of all of the magisterial statements concerning the laity and the ordained.

We should, therefore, remember that the laity are in the forefront of the Church’s mission. The lay office is secular in character: it is primarily directed to presenting the risen Christ beyond the Christian community to the world. What the ordained will never accomplish alone is that Christ be brought into all of the families, businesses and societies that comprise the world. The essential difference between the lay and the ordained pertains only within the Christian community when Christ, the shepherd and high priest, gathers his people to teach and to sanctify them. When Christ sends us forth to announce the Good News, there is no essential difference between the laity and the ordained. Moreover, when we are sent forth the laity can accomplish things for Christ and his Church that are impossible for the ordained. This is because the laity have access to the neighborhoods of the world that the ordained do not.

We might add one more consideration for our reflection. When a lay man or woman assists the ministerial priest in teaching, sanctifying, or governing within the community, he or she does so as a lay person. Something is signified that is different from the office of the ordained: the lay person brings the world to the assistance of Christ the shepherd. Just as the ministerial priest never ceases to represent Christ the Shepherd, the lay man or woman never ceases to represent Christ the carpenter, Christ at work in the neighborhoods of the world. When the community gathers, both dimensions of the one priesthood of Christ are represented: Christ the high priest, and Christ the layman. The Church insists that these two facets of the one priesthood of Christ must never be lost: the essential distinction between lay and ordained guarantees that Christ the layman will not be overlooked in favor of Christ the shepherd and high priest.