EXTRAORDINARY MINISTERS OF THE EUCHARIST     
Peter A. Kwasniewski

Perhaps it is a truism to say that in an age of widespread misinformation the hardest thing is just to get oneself rightly informed, this being more than half the battle. There are many who speak as though having authority, but all too often when you look closer, you see the blind leading the blind. A case in point, and a weighty case at that, is the now quite common practice of having a veritable army of lay people distributing communion at parish Masses throughout the world. While many Catholics have an uncomfortable feeling that something is not entirely right about the way laymen regularly assume ministerial functions, few are those who know precisely what the Church herself has determined about this matter, and more than a few who would be surprised even to hear the practice called into question. And if, on top of this, many false views are put forward as self-evident truths, we are back in the soup of misinformation. It is good to extricate oneself from this soup, seeing that the Catholic faithful have a higher destiny than to be croutons floating in the often thin broth of contemporary parish life.

In this article, I will summarize the standing discipline of the Church on the subject of lay Eucharistic ministers, quoting from the relevant authoritative documents. At the end, I will talk about why this abuse first took hold and afterwards spread like a contagion.

A note before we begin to go through the texts. In some of these official documents, one will find a well-elaborated theology of ministry, a solid account of the special priesthood of the ordained, the common priesthood of the baptized, and the distinct but complementary roles of laity and clergy in the Mystical Body of Christ. Interested readers should obtain copies of the documents in order to read these meatier sections. My purpose here is more limited: to gather together the passages having to do with the specific rules governing the collaboration of lay Eucharistic ministers. For, since this matter is a disciplinary one—that is, a matter of how things should be done—it is not absolutely necessary, though undeniably a great advantage, to understand the theology behind it. What is necessary, strictly speaking, is to know and abide by the Church's discipline, down to its last detail, whether one has the lofty understanding of a theologian or the foot-ready obedience of a soldier taking commands. A priest, for example, need not know why he ought not to wear only alb and stole at Mass; the crucial thing is that he simply not do it. The attitude our Lord praises in the Roman Centurion is precisely the attitude of unquestioning faith: I know what it's like to give commands, and I believe that you have the authority to give them just as I do over my men. A good pastor disposes himself towards the commands of the Church as the Centurion did towards the word of Christ; there is no need for lengthy explanations. Nevertheless, the Church always offers satisfying explanations for those whose faith seeks understanding, and these may be found in the cited documents. Even if obedience alone would be sufficient, it is evident that pastors of souls who are animated by a keen awareness of their high calling will have a persistent desire to learn about the doctrinal principles and will explain them to their flocks as occasion permits.

Fidei custos (1969)

In the heady days of the late 1960s, when the spirit of unbridled enthusiasm generated by Sacrosanctum Concilium was leading the Holy See to consider the re-establishment of many long-dormant liturgical practices and ministries, we find what is (to my knowledge) the first general legislation on our topic. After noting that those who are charged with the pastoral care of the faithful "may for the good of their subjects ask the Congregation ... to permit suitable persons to administer communion to themselves and to the faithful" (the Congregation in question was the Congregation for Discipline of the Sacraments), Fidei custos goes on to specify the exact parameters which justify a request for the granting of this permission:

  1. whenever a minister indicated in can. 845 [1917] is unavailable1;
  2. whenever the usual minister is unable to administer communion without difficulty because of poor health, advanced age, or the demands of the pastoral ministry;
  3. whenever the number of faithful wishing to receive communion is so great that the celebration of Mass would be unduly long.

These reasons, especially the italicized phrase, are to be particularly noted, since as we shall see they are repeated almost verbatim in all the succeeding documents that address the topic, and are taken as the only possible reasons for the legitimate use of such ministers.

Immensae caritatis (1973)

As this very brief section of Fidei custos had not proved sufficient to settle all doubts and questions that were stirring in regard to the permissibility of laymen distributing Holy Communion, the same Congregation four years later issued Immensae caritatis, which places this topic first among the matters it considers. Here we get a more detailed picture:

There are various circumstances in which a lack of sufficient ministers for the distribution 
of Holy Communion can occur:

1.  during Mass, because of the size of the congregation or a particular difficulty in which a
     celebrant finds himself

2.  outside of Mass, when it is difficult because of distance to take the sacred species,
     especially in the Viaticum, to the sick in danger of death, or when the very number of
     the sick, especially in hospitals and similar institutions, requires many ministers.

Therefore, in order that the faithful who are in the state of grace and who with an upright and pious disposition wish to share in the Sacred Banquet may not be deprived of this sacramental help and consolation, it has seemed appropriate to the Holy Father to establish extraordinary ministers, who may give Holy Communion to themselves and to other faithful under the following determined conditions:

3.  Local ordinaries have the faculty to permit a suitable person individually chosen as an
     extraordinary minister for a specific occasion or for a time or, in the case of necessity,
     in some permanent way, either to give the Eucharist to himself or to other faithful and to
     take it to the sick who are confined to their homes. This faculty may be used whenever:

     a.  there is no priest, deacon, or acolyte;

     b.  these are prevented from administering Holy Communion because of another
          pastoral ministry or because of ill health or advanced age;

      c.  the number of faithful requesting Holy Communion is such that the celebration of
           Mass or the distribution of the Eucharist outside of Mass would be unduly
           prolonged.

4.  Local ordinaries also have the faculty to permit individual priests exercising their sacred
     office to appoint a suitable person who in cases of genuine necessity would distribute
     Holy Communion for a specific occasion. ...Since these faculties are granted only for
     the spiritual good of the faithful and for cases of genuine necessity, priests are to
     remember that they are not thereby excused from the task of distributing the Eucharist
     to the faithful who legitimately request it, and especially from taking and giving it to the
     sick.

When we read of "the size of the congregation or a particular difficulty in which a celebrant finds himself," it would fly in the face of common sense to say that the document had anything other than unusual situations in mind—massive gatherings where it would take an hour for a lone priest to distribute communion to everyone, or a health-condition that would make it nearly impossible for the priest to stand long enough to distribute hosts to all of the faithful receiving. It is taken for granted that if another priest or a deacon is available (at the rectory, for instance), he will assist at the appropriate time, and that when no such person is available, it can only be an undue prolongation of the length of Mass that might justify lay involvement. It is difficult to maintain that five or ten extra minutes of silence or good sacred music constitutes an undue prolongation. The liturgy is not, after all, an assembly line in which the chief aim is efficiency, making sure the gadgets move along as quickly as possible. A Mass that once in a while spilled over the clockwork sixty minutes might break the spell of utilitarianism under which almost everyone in the modern West is enchanted. Immensae caritatis also seems to take it for granted that a layman appointed to the role, after all other possibilities have been exhausted, will usually have it only temporarily, for some occasion(s) when his help is desperately needed. "These faculties are granted only... for cases of genuine necessity."

Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist (1973)

Issued in the same year by the Congregation of Divine Worship, this instruction repeats the teaching of Immensae caritatis in slightly different words.

It is primarily the function of priests and deacons to distribute Holy Communion to the faithful who seek it. It is eminently fitting, therefore, that they should devote a reasonable part of their time, in keeping with the needs of the faithful, to this exercise of their ministry. Acolytes duly appointed, moreover, may, as extraordinary ministers, distribute Holy Communion when no priest or deacon is available, when neither priest or deacon is able to distribute it on account of ill health or advanced age, or because of the pressure of other pastoral duties. Acolytes may similarly distribute Holy Communion when the number of the faithful approaching the altar is so large that the celebration of Mass or other sacred ceremony would be unduly prolonged. The local ordinary may give to other extraordinary ministers the faculty to distribute Holy Communion whenever this seems necessary for the pastoral good of the faithful, and when no priest, deacon, or acolyte is available.2

Especially noteworthy here is the timely reminder that, owing to their sacred office, "it is eminently fitting" for priests and deacons to "devote a reasonable part of their time, in keeping with the needs of the faithful, to this exercise of their ministry." In other words, for an assistant priest or pastor to sleep a bit later, eat breakfast, read the newspaper, or make phone calls in the rectory on Sunday morning while another priest with lay assistance distributes communion to a large congregation indicates a deeply flawed sense of priorities. Again, the phrase "the pressure of other pastoral duties" has to be understood in the framework of good common sense. A dying parishioner or an attempted suicide is one thing, a lighthearted chat with a friend quite another. The central point is well established: lay ministers of the Eucharist (including the "acolytes" mentioned here3) receive the name "extraordinary" precisely because they are to be used only in extraordinary cases of urgent necessity, when no other sacred minister is readily available. The priests and deacons remain, as always, the ordinary ministers.

Dominicae coenae (1980)

I quote the following passage from John Paul II's beautiful and meditative Dominicae coenae, published two years after his accession to the chair of St. Peter, not so much because it adds any details to the legislation—it does not—but rather because of the moving fervor with which he ponders the mystery of the ordained priesthood and its corresponding ministerial primacy, a primacy that must not be obscured by any blurring of the fundamental distinction between priest and laity.

... one must not forget the primary office of priests, who have been consecrated by their ordination to represent Christ the Priest: for this reason their hands, like their words and their will, have become the direct instruments of Christ. Through this fact, that is, as ministers of the Holy Eucharist, they have a primary responsibility for the sacred species, because it is a total responsibility: they offer the bread and wine, they consecrate it, and then distribute the sacred species to the participants in the assembly who wish to receive them. Deacons can only bring to the altar the offerings of the faithful and, once they have been consecrated by the priest, distribute them, How eloquent therefore, even if not of ancient custom, is the rite of the anointing of the hands in our Latin ordination, as though precisely for these hands a special grace and power of the Holy Spirit is necessary! To touch the sacred species and to distribute them with their own hands is a privilege of the ordained, one which indicates an active participation in the ministry of the Eucharist.4

While the Pope then adds that "it is obvious that the Church can grant this faculty to those who are neither priests nor deacons, as is the case with acolytes in the exercise of their ministry, especially if they are destined for future ordination, or with other lay people who are chosen for this to meet a just need," the purpose of Dominicae coenae as a whole is to stress the ineffable mystery of the Eucharist, the sublime and unique dignity of the priesthood, and the urgency of ordained men remaining faithful to the special tasks of their state, above all regarding the worthy veneration and handling of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.

Inaestimabile donum (1980)

In the same year as Dominicae coenae and seven years after Immensae caritatis, the Congregation for Divine Worship once more turned its attention to the topic of lay ministers in a document called Inaestimabile donum, subtitled "Norms on the Worship of the Eucharist." The Introduction laments the distressing number of corruptions that have distorted the liturgical renewal intended by the Second Vatican Council.

But these encouraging and positive aspects [of the liturgical reform] cannot suppress concern at the varied and frequent abuses being reported from different parts of the Catholic world: the confusion of roles, especially regarding the priestly ministry and the role of the laity (indiscriminate shared recitation of the Eucharistic Prayer, homilies given by lay people, lay people distributing communion while the priests refrain from doing so); an increasing loss of the sense of the sacred (abandonment of liturgical vestments, the Eucharist celebrated outside of church without real need, lack of reverence and respect for the Blessed Sacrament, etc.); misunderstanding of the ecclesial character of the liturgy (the use of private texts, the proliferation of unapproved Eucharistic Prayers, the manipulation of the liturgical texts for social and political ends). In these cases we are face to face with a real falsification of the Catholic liturgy.

Although other parts of the document also touch on abuses in lay ministry, sections 9 and 10 contain the most relevant statement:

Communion is a gift of the Lord, given to the faithful through the minister appointed for the purpose. It is not permitted that the faithful should themselves pick up the consecrated bread and the sacred chalice; still less that they should hand them from one to another. The faithful, whether religious or lay, who are authorized as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist can distribute Communion only when there is no priest, deacon or acolyte, when the priest is impeded by illness or advanced age, or when the number of the faithful going to communion is so large as to make the celebration of Mass excessively long. Accordingly, a reprehensible attitude is shown by those priests who, though present at the celebration, refrain from distributing Communion and leave this task to the laity.

As one reviews the magisterial documents, one notices an increase in what might be called a tone of severity—first, a fuller critique of the abuses in themselves, and secondly, a reproof directed towards those who ignore what the Church is asking for. Thus here we find the striking words: "a reprehensible attitude is shown by those priests who, though present at the celebration, refrain from distributing Communion and leave this task to the laity." No subtle qualifications are made to the statement; it is as bald as bald can be.

On Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful (1997)

If I may be pardoned for saying so, the Holy See is very Roman in its way of moving: things happen at a slow pace, with many siestas, in spite of the appearance of general hustle and bustle. One might consider how painfully slow was the official response to Martin Luther back in the 16th century; the time it took to form up a solid counterattack unfortunately gave heresy all the time it needed to spread. But even a lazy dog who likes to take life slowly will, if often enough provoked, snap to its feet and give a good hard bite. A bite of this sort in regard to the question of lay ministers was given in 1997, this time by the Congregation for the Clergy, in what is surely the most important document on the subject to date. Everyone who is involved in any way with liturgical planning or ministries should get a copy of this document and read it carefully.5 Promulgated, like the other documents, by the authority of the Holy Father, it deserves not only a respectful reading but a total adherence of mind and will.

The Introduction states the general subject of the instruction and insists on the grave duty of pastors, above all bishops, to implement the discipline legislated by the Church.6 "Though being born in very difficult and emergency situations and even initiated by those who sought to be genuinely helpful in the pastoral moment, certain practices have often been developed which have had very serious negative consequences and have caused the correct understanding of true ecclesial communion to be damaged." Later, after it has summarized the "absolutely irreplaceable" state and functions of the ordained priesthood, the instruction urges "a continuing, zealous and well-organized pastoral promotion of vocations so as to provide the Church with those ministers which she needs and to ensure a proper seminary training for those preparing for the Sacrament of Holy Orders," noting that "any other solution to problems deriving from a shortage of sacred ministers can only lead to precarious consequences." We are reminded that "all the faithful have a responsibility to foster a positive response to priestly vocation;" this is "especially true for those nations where a strong sense of materialism is evident."

Having said that pastors ought to be familiar with the principles behind the Church's discipline, Section 4 of Part I then makes a forceful general statement: "Therefore a consistent, faithful, and serious application of the current canonical dispositions throughout the entire Church, at the same time avoiding the abuse of multiplying 'exceptional' cases over and above those so designated and regulated by normative discipline, is extremely necessary." The document continues:

Where the existence of abuses or improper practices has been proved, pastors will promptly employ those means judged necessary to prevent their dissemination and to ensure that the correct understanding of the Church's nature is not impaired. In particular, they will apply the established disciplinary norms to promote knowledge of and assiduous respect for that distinction and complementarity of functions which are vital for ecclesial communion. Where abusive practices have become widespread, it is absolutely necessary for those who exercise authority to intervene responsibly so as to promote communion which can only be done by adherence to the truth. Communion, truth, justice, peace and charity are all interdependent terms.8

In Part II, "Practical Provisions," the, instruction reviews a number of particular matters, e.g., the legitimate roles of the laity in the reading of Scripture and of public prayers, parameters for Sunday celebration in the absence of a priest, and the apostolate to the sick9 Article 8, which addresses "The Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion," deserves to be quoted in full, with certain key statements emphasized.

The non-ordained faithful already collaborate with the sacred ministers in diverse pastoral situations, since "This wonderful gift of the Eucharist, which is the greatest gift of all, demands that such an important mystery should be increasingly better known and its saving power more fully shared." Such liturgical service is a response to the objective needs of the faithful, especially those of the sick, and to those liturgical assemblies in which there are particularly large numbers of the faithful who wish to receive Holy Communion.

§1. The canonical discipline concerning extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion must be correctly applied so as to avoid generating confusion. The same discipline establishes that the ordinary minister of Holy Communion is the Bishop, the Priest and the Deacon. Extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion are those instituted as acolytes and the faithful so deputed in accordance with Canon 230, §3.10 A non-ordained member of the faithful, in cases of true necessity, may be deputed by the diocesan bishop, using the appropriate form of blessing for these situation, to act as an extraordinary minister to distribute Holy Communion outside of liturgical celebrations ad actum vel ad tempus or for a more stable period.11 In exceptional cases or in unforeseen circumstances, the priest presiding at the liturgy may authorize such ad actum.

§2. Extraordinary ministers may distribute Holy Communion at eucharistic celebrations only when there are no ordained ministers present or when those ordained ministers present at a liturgical celebration are truly unable to distribute Holy Communion. They may also exercise this function at eucharistic celebrations where there are particularly large numbers of the faithful and which would be excessively prolonged because of an insufficient number of ordained ministers to distribute Holy Communion. This function is supplementary and extraordinary and must be exercised in accordance with the norm of law. It is thus useful for the diocesan bishop to issue particular norms concerning extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion which, in complete harmony with the universal law of the Church, should regulate the exercise of this function in his diocese. Such norms should provide, amongst other things, for matters such as the instruction in eucharistic doctrine of those chosen to be extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, the meaning of the service they provide, the rubrics to be observed, the reverence to be shown for such an august Sacrament and instruction concerning the discipline on admission to Holy Communion.

To avoid creating confusion, certain practices are to be avoided and eliminated where such have emerged in particular Churches:

  • extraordinary ministers receiving Holy Communion apart from the other faithful as though concelebrants;
  • association with the renewal of promises made by priests at the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday, as well as other categories of faithful who renew religious vows or receive a mandate as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion;
  • the habitual use of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion at Mass, thus arbitrarily extending the concept of "a great number of the faithful."

This carefully worded article systematically closes off all possible avenues for misinterpreting or misapplying the Church's discipline on lay ministers of the Eucharist. Noteworthy is the insistence that such lay ministers are, and must always remain, extraordinary. They are to be called upon "in cases of true necessity," "only when there are no ordained ministers present" or when those who are present are "truly unable" to give out communion. If the entire pool of available ordained ministers at a parish, chaplaincy, monastery, or other location of Mass is insufficient for distributing communion to "particularly large numbers of the faithful," then and only then is it possible that extraordinary ministers may have a legitimate role to play. Bishops are exhorted to issue particular norms "in complete harmony with the universal law of the Church": a bishop is simply not allowed, although he may disobediently choose, to issue norms at variance with the universal discipline of the Church. All pastors of souls are urged to take decisive steps to prevent and correct any and every abuse against this discipline. Among the "certain practices" which "are to be avoided and eliminated where such have emerged," forceful mention is made of "the habitual use of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion at Mass, thus arbitrarily extending the concept of "a great number of the faithful.’"

An Admirable Lack of Ambiguity

The six documents we have reviewed indicate that nothing whatsoever in the Church's teaching on the severely limited role of lay Eucharistic ministers can be seen as ambiguous, except by those who play with language and ideas like the dark regime masterfully depicted in George Orwell's 1984. An example of this kind of deceitful doubletalk would be if a bishop were to say, "Well, yes, I certainly concur with the discipline of the Church on this matter, but as a matter of fact, there are young people in my diocese who are being trained to be responsible leaders in tomorrow's Church, and they need good practice in how to be reverent and responsible Eucharistic ministers—so I have given them a dispensation from the discipline, with a view to their pastoral education." The logic of such a policy is hard to fathom: if the institution of lay ministers is objectively abused in the vast majority of parishes, is it really a good idea to inculcate in young people the habit of cooperating with and perpetuating the same abuse? A thorough liturgical education emphasizing the distinct roles of priest and laity and equipping the students to reason peacefully with erring pastors would be far more in keeping with the manifest wishes of Holy Mother Church.12

Now that we have looked at the declarations of the Magisterium on the use of extraordinary ministers, it would be good to step back and contrast her teaching on this with her teaching on some other matters. For owing to complex causes often political in character, one does find in other areas of Church discipline a wavering between adherence to tradition and acceptance of innovations. The relatively recent case of altar girls offers a disturbing case in point, but we shall consider a different and perhaps more surprising example: the practice of communion in the hand. Not allowed to this day among Catholics in Greece because of the massive scandal it would cause to the Eastern Orthodox, communion in the hand was initially strongly opposed by Paul VI and by a clear majority of bishops in the Catholic Church in the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council. In the Instruction Memoriale Domini (28 May 1969), the rationale behind the traditional way of distributing communion is briefly discussed, especially in the following paragraph:

Quite early [in the history of the Church], the function of bringing the Eucharist to those absent [from Mass, e.g., the sick] was assigned exclusively to sacred ministers as a precautionary measure to ensure the reverence due to Christ's Body and to meet the needs of the faithful. With the passage of time as the truth of the Eucharistic mystery, its power, and Christ's presence in it were more deeply understood, the usage adopted was that the minister himself placed the particle of the consecrated bread on the tongue of the communicant. This measure was prompted by a keen sense both of reverence toward the sacrament and of the humility with which it should be received.

Some time prior to the promulgation of Memoriale Domini, Paul VI had sent out a questionnaire to all the bishops asking, among other things, "Do you think that a positive response should be given to the request to allow the rite of receiving communion in the hand?" The tallies were: 567 in favor, 315 in favor with reservations, and 1,233 opposed. After noting that "a change in so important a matter...does not simply affect discipline, but can also bring with it dangers that, it is feared, may arise from the new way of administering communion" (in particular, "the possibility of a lessening of reverence towards and even the profanation of the august Sacrament of the Altar, and the watering down of the true doctrine of the Eucharist"), the Instruction goes on: "The answers given show that by far the greater number of bishops think that the discipline currently in force should not at all be changed. And if it were to be changed, it would be an offence to the sensibilities and spiritual outlook of these bishops and a great many of the faithful.... [Paul VI's] judgement is not to change the long-accepted manner of administering communion to the faithful. The Apostolic See earnestly urges bishops, priests, and faithful, therefore, to obey conscientiously the prevailing law, now reconfirmed."

So far so good. However, the illegal custom itself, having been insinuated among numerous congregations by priests who paid no heed to Church discipline, eventually became established de facto, and the Holy See backed down from her policy of over a thousand years and issued what is technically called a "rescript." This means that her still existing discipline on the most appropriate manner in which to receive the host—namely, placed directly on the tongue by the sacred minister—has been suspended or rescripted for local churches. In short, and in spite of the clear reasons given in Memoriale Domini, the Roman authorities wavered and succumbed. The problematic custom of communion in the hand is now not only widespread, but almost obligatory and exceptionless as far as normal parish life is concerned. I remember my own first communion, when I was instructed to remain standing and receive the host in my cupped hands. This kind of unsacred training, coupled with extremely mushy catechesis, made it possible for me to remain in a state of total ignorance as to what the Eucharist actually is until about sixteen years of age, when in the course of reading a book attacking transubstantiation (given to me by a priest most notable for his sandals and shortsleeves), I became conscious, for the first time, of what the Church really teaches about the Eucharist. (For the curious, I should add that I do not have this book on my shelf, nor do I even remember its title; I do however have a well-thumbed copy of Paul VI's Mysterium Fidei, which ought to be required reading for every literate Catholic in the world.)

Now, this example is worth mentioning precisely in contrast to the Holy See's stance on the extraordinary status of lay Eucharistic ministers and the precise conditions in which this ministry may be appropriately exercised. Never once has there been a referendum to the bishops or a rescript to local churches regarding this, never once a sign of wavering or a submission to subversively established practices, in spite of the tremendous pressure that has been applied to Roman authorities to relax the stringent discipline.13 As can be seen from the succession of documents running from 1969 to 1997, the discipline never changes at all; on the contrary, it is stated with ever-increasing clarity and force in order to combat the serious errors in theory and in practice to which Eucharistic abuses have given rise. The documents that address the question display absolute unanimity and growing urgency in their confirmation of the existing regulations.

The Ultimate Source of the Abuse

If so large a number of the Church's pastors are downright contemptuous of what she authoritatively prescribes about the parameters of lay ministry, do we not sense that there are deeper issues at work here? Indeed there are. At the root of this widespread abuse is a dual problem, a paradoxical intertwining of two potent and opposed forces: clericalism and anti-clericalism.14 Put briefly, what happened in the post-conciliar period is that the Catholic laity, misinformed about what "active participation" means, felt (or their equally misinformed pastors felt on their behalf) that they must get more and more involved in ministry in order to be participating, in order to have some meaning in their churchly life, in order to feel special or privileged; so, when all is said and done, the laity has to become an adjunct clergy. The source of this view is a residual clericalism that has never gone away: only the clergy really matter to God, only the men doing things at the altar are holy, all the rest of us are second-class citizens, mediocre, dispensable, peripheral. Thus, if we want to be first-class citizens, and this is after all our baptismal right, then we all have to act like priests, because priests and religious are the ones who matter, who count with God. Obviously, it is the underlying assumption that is radically false, but as long as the association of "clergy-holiness" and "laity-mediocrity" persists, we will see a hurly-burly effort at getting as many lay people into the clerical functions as possible. In short, the clericalization of the laity presupposes a false understanding of the excellence of the clerical state. The intrinsic value of the layman in the world is quite forgotten, even though Vatican II sought to recover and revitalize this very truth.15

Now, what effect does this flawed perception of the "castes" of the Church have on the clergy properly so-called? They for their part have to be downplayed, sidelined, marginalized, to make room for the invincible People, the Congregation. An exaggerated democratic instinct distorts the rightful understanding of hierarchy in the Church. As a consequence, the Modern Roman Rite as it is often celebrated decisively "laicizes" the clergy. There is an obscure sentiment that if the clergy remain special, in command, set apart, consecrated to holy things, then the clergy will remain an exclusive clique, an anachronistic aristocracy whose heyday has long since passed away in the "real world." At the same time, owing to the forces summarized above, a contrary sentiment necessitates the clericalization of the laity because the laity only have worth, are only validated, if they are "actively involved," that is, doing what priests do. The height of the contradiction becomes apparent: the cleric has value only if he becomes a layman, and the layman has value only if he becomes a cleric. The insistence on maximizing lay participation in the ministries proper to the ordained thus has the long-term effect of blurring and eventually blotting out the distinction between the priestly office exercised in a special way by Christ and His ordained brothers, and the Christian priesthood which all the baptized hold in common. What all of this shows is a deeply erroneous understanding of the priesthood of Christ. To solve the problem will take not only obedience to the Church's pastoral discipline, but a serious commitment to learning anew the ancient and beautiful theology of the Catholic priesthood.

The Proper Response to this Abuse

According to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, it is the duty of all Catholics, laymen and laywomen, priests, bishops, and religious, always and everywhere to make a "loyal submission of will and intellect" to the Magisterium of the Church in its entirety, a Magisterium expressed not only in the public statements of Councils and Popes but also in the documents issued with papal approval from the various Congregations. All believers are asked to give "sincere assent to decisions made by him [the Pope], conformably with his manifest mind and intention.16 "If the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute," wrote Pius XII, "it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the same Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion."17 Bishops and priests, sacramentally ordained for the service of the faithful, have an even greater obligation and cause to conform themselves to the mind of the universal shepherd who looks out for the common good of the entire people of God.18 Once a definitive teaching is known, there is an immediate obligation to embrace it and follow it consistently in practice.

So many bishops and priests in the Church today are driven about by the winds of changing opinions and lack the peaceful stability that comes from assenting with one's whole heart to the unchanging faith and its authoritative interpretation in the Magisterium. But no good is accomplished for anyone if we confront straying pastors in a hostile way or speak badly about them behind their backs. If we are serious about living in charity, we must first of all pray for them, asking God to give them the prudence to seek what is right and the fortitude to enforce it in their jurisdictions. Only when we have done and are doing this, should we do whatever else is possible—again in a spirit of genuine charity—to help them see why they should abandon certain practices and adopt others that are more truly Catholic.19 And if, at the end of the day, our prayers and efforts seem to yield no fruits, we should never forget that even priests can have deathbed conversions.

End notes

  1. The 1917 Code limits the distribution of holy communion to ordained ministers.
  2. Section 17.
  3. It should be noted that "acolyte" in all of these documents—in the context, it does not matter whether we are speaking technically of a minor order or not—refers to a man, usually en route to the priesthood, who is specifically commissioned to assist regularly at Masses as an altar server. The permission recently extended for girls to act as servers at Mass does not mean that girls, or for that matter, boys, are to be called "acolytes"; the term refers, as was said, to a man specially commissioned to fulfill a long-term office in the celebration of the liturgy. Ideally, the Church prefers to see adult men fulfilling the office of assisting the priest at the altar, as can be seen in all of the pontifical and in most episcopal liturgies.
  4. Chapter 3, section 2.
  5. It is available on the internet at www.catholicliturgy.com under "Communion" in the Documents section.
  6. The document continues: "These matters cause the grave pastoral responsibility of many to be recalled (to mind). This is especially true of Bishops whose task it is to promote and ensure observance of the universal discipline of the Church founded on certain doctrinal principles already clearly enunciated by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council and by the Pontifical Magisterium thereafter."
  7. Part 1. section 3.
  8. Emphases added.
  9. It should be noted that the article on the apostolate to the sick specifically reproves and urges the removal of the custom of lay people anointing the sick with holy oil, an abuse found widely among charismatic Catholics.
  10. Canon 230, §3 reads: "Where the needs of the Church require and [ordained] ministers are not available, lay people, even though they are not [stably appointed] lectors or acolytes, can supply certain of their functions, that is, exercise the ministry of the word, preside over liturgical prayers, confer baptism, and distribute Holy Communion, in accordance with the provisions of the law."
  11. Ad actum vel ad tempus here means "temporarily, for a particular ceremony or situation, at a certain time." The distinction is between the temporary appointment of a lay person for a given situation only (e.g., a parish retreat when large numbers of the faithful are gathered and the priests are insufficient for distributing communion), and the stable appointment of a lay person to an ongoing ministerial function (for example, hospital ministry).
  12. Besides, it may be added that the kind of education required to be a responsible lay-minister of Holy Communion in no way necessarily demands actual repeated practice in Mass. The most important element of this education is the theological formation of the mind and heart, so that, being made fully aware of the awesome responsibility of distributing the Body and Blood of the Lord, a lay person will not undertake this task lightly, when there is no objectively good reason to do so. The ordained are ordained for a reason: the celebration of the Eucharist in all its aspects (preparation, consecration, distribution) belongs to them in virtue of their very office and their sacrament of Holy Orders. If practice is deemed useful, it would be easy and far better to do it outside of the Mass, using unconsecrated hosts and wine, much as seminarians do who are learning to offer Mass.
  13. There were, of course, rescripts in the late 1960s allowing lay people to administer Holy Communion; but we are talking here about the use of extraordinary ministers as though they were ordinary ministers. This has never been allowed, and that is the point of this essay.
  14. We find excellent discussions of the problem in John Paul II's Christifideles laici (1988) as well as in the 1997 document already discussed.
  15. John Paul II: "Full participation does not mean that everyone does everything, since this would lead to a clericalizing of the laity and a laicizing of the clergy; and this was not what the Council had in mind. The liturgy, like the Church, is intended to be hierarchical and polyphonic, respecting the different roles assigned by Christ and allowing all the different voices to blend in one great hymn of praise" (Ad limina discourse to the Bishops of the Northwestern United States, 9 October 1998)
  16. Lumen gentium 25.
  17. Humani generis 20.
  18. See Leo XIII, Sapientiae Christianae 37.
  19. For practical suggestions about how to deal with a parish situation in which the usage of extraordinary ministers has gotten out of hand, see Msgr. Peter Elliott, Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), n. 787.

Peter A. Kwasniewski is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria.

Courtesy of The Catholic Faith (Vol. 6, No. 6 November/December2000)

 

Taken from:
Sapientia: Newsletter of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy © 2002
Spring 2002, page 13


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