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How can the Church overcome clericalism?

Russell Shaw - published on 01/15/13 - updated on 06/08/17



christifideles] a true equality with regard to dignity and the activity whereby all cooperate in the building up of the Body of Christ in accord with each one’s own condition and function."

Other sections of the Code affirm various duties and rights of the laity including engaging in evangelization. Canon 212 says the faithful are "bound by Christian obedience" to follow the teaching and decisions of bishops and free to make their needs and wishes known to the pastors of the Church; according to their qualifications and consistent with "the integrity of faith and morals" and respect for the pastors, this canon adds, lay people possess a right "and even a duty" to share their view of the good of the Church with its leaders and with other  members of the faithful.

So what should be done about clericalism? In looking for answers, we have to set aside the idea that the clergy-laity distinction says everything that needs saying about the fundamental structure of the Church. True, from a certain point of view, the Church is divided into clerics and lay people. That’s how Christ wanted it. But this division isn’t the be-all and end-all of ecclesiology. More basic than any division is the undivided state of the Christian community, the community of the christifideles. In ecclesial terms, this is the condition of the Church considered as communion – a community of persons in union with God and one another, within which relationships are best understood on the model of the Trinity itself.

Without falling prey to the confusions present in some neo-congregationalist thinking about ministry, it’s imperative that the radical oneness and equality of all members of the Church, arising from baptism, receive renewed emphasis today. That the Church is hierarchically structured and divided into clergy and laity should not obscure the no less real unity and equality of all the christifideles.

It’s on this basis that clerics and lay people can discern and live out their own proper vocations and apostolates and ministries in ways that are genuinely complementary and mutually supportive. When they do, it becomes clear that the complementarity and interdependence of laity and clergy aren’t just sociological conveniences but essential elements of the faith community. As the International Theological Commission (an advisory body attached to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) says: "The people cannot exercise their ministry without  [a] priestly minister, but, similarly, the latter – bishop or priest – cannot fulfill his priestly office without the people, for he exists only in the priestly community. ‘No Church without bishop and no bishop without Church,’ said St. Cyprian."

Implicit in this way of thinking is an understanding of  "vocation" that sees it as embracing three realities: first, the baptismal vocation – the calling all Christians have to love and serve God and neighbor and do their share in the work of the Church; second, state in life – the clerical state, consecrated life, marriage, the single lay state in the world – which provides a stable framework for living out the baptismal vocation and which is the way "vocation" is commonly used today; and third, personal vocation. This third meaning of vocation has been around for a long time, but it is only recently – and with a large assist from Pope Bl. John Paul II – that it has come into its own.

Personal vocation is the unique, essentially unrepeatable role God intends each one of us to have in his providential, redemptive plan. It consists, in the words of the epistle to the Ephesians–of the particular set of "good works, which God prepared beforehand" for each to perform in the course of his or her life (Eph 2.10). Every baptized person, man or woman, clergy or lay, has one. In
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