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The Clergy and the Laity: Who's Responsible for Whom?

By Peter Mirus (bio - articles ) | Nov 02, 2004

When it comes to discussing the troubles in today’s Church, I’ve heard a lot of different theories on what “caused the problem”. Most people want to point to a single thing that put us into today’s state of affairs. But in my opinion, many theories falls short of being accurate because of a common fatal flaw -- and as long as this flaw exists, we’ll never be any better off than we are today.

I’ve heard opinions from many concerned people -- voiced in person, via email, and on message boards across the Internet. Let me start by listing some of the common theories. Among them: Vatican II was a deeply flawed council; Vatican II was fine but not properly implemented; our current Pope and his recent predecessors are not good disciplinarians; the clergy have become more hungry for power than for truth; priestly celibacy was a deeply flawed system that was doomed to fail; homosexuals were allowed to become priests. The list goes on and on.

The Primary Complaint

The majority of theories that I have heard boil down to a single complaint: “The clergy have abandoned the faithful.” In fact, this is nearly an exact quote of what has been expressed to me by many people -- by educated Catholics and by nominal Catholics, both of whom feel “disenfranchised” from the Church’s recent scandals and related problems.

You certainly don’t see anything in society to discourage this perspective. Our society is generally antagonistic to the Church and its values, and wants you to focus your attention on everyone’s perennial favorite scapegoat, our clergy. The media’s investigation of the scandals always presents us with a fresh member of the hierarchy to blame, and a new outwardly directed indignation at the management of the Church.

Rather than taking a circumspect approach to the Church’s problems, we move the clergy to the left, the laity to the right -- and pretend that there is no logical connection between the two.

All Signs Point the Wrong Way

And this returns us to the aforementioned “fatal flaw”: to mentally isolate the Church hierarchy or clergy. Why is this flaw so devastating? Because the more we point the finger at our clergy, the less we point the finger at ourselves. Many people who hate the Church have already figured out what so many of us have not: the longer we point that finger away from ourselves, the longer the Church will founder in the wake of its own scandals and problems.

Society Offers Its Own to the Church

Too many of us forget that the clergy are drawn from the laity, and that as long as the laity are a reflection of the ills of society, so also will be the clergy. We tend to ignore this fact. To me, and I hope others as well, that is an alarming mental disconnect.

When we hear that Fr. John Doe has engaged in a scandalous act, or has taught something contrary to doctrine, what do we think? Here’s what most of us think: “Fr. Doe is a treacherous evil man who has rejected his Faith and has committed an evil sin.” We blame the priest, blame the clergy who trained the priest, blame the bishop, blame the Vatican for appointing the bishop, and often blame the Holy Father for being blind to the workings of the Vatican.

We never get to the point where we consider our own role in society, and more integrally our role as a member of the Catholic Faithful. Do we consider our own responsibility? Do we think, “Have I always done as much as could reasonably be expected of me to strengthen the Faithful, to reform society, to support the holiness of the clergy? Or have I allowed society to form me?” The fact is, we as a group and more specifically the family of this priest, have probably failed at some point in the formation and continued support of this man.

The Laity Are Also Responsible for the Holiness of the Clergy

I’m not trying to suggest that the clergy aren’t responsible for their own actions, but merely that the laity must regard the clergy as brothers in Christ, and that we are our brother’s keeper. I think that we tend to act as if the clergy are solely responsible for the holiness of the clergy. While we are bemoaning the lack of holiness in our clergy, why aren’t we bemoaning the lack of holiness in ourselves? Have we done everything possible to evangelize -- both in the home and in the community?

A Case in Point -- Catholic Education

Let’s say that you live in a good Catholic parish where the clergy is sound and there is a strong community of orthodox believers. Now let’s assume that there is a good Catholic education to be had in the parish boundaries from pre-school through twelfth grade. (This would accurately describe my own parish, without including diocesan and parish operated schools.) If you were to take a poll of the fathers in your local Knights of Columbus council, how many do you think have made the sacrifice to send their children to these excellent Catholic schools from K-12? I’d venture to say less than 25%.

How many of these same fathers have children of college age and have bothered to send them to the excellent Catholic colleges available in our country? (I’m not counting institutions such as Notre Dame and Catholic University of America). I’d wager dramatically less than 10%.

The point is that many of us, even educated Catholics, have abdicated our primary responsibility -- the education of our children -- to institutions that are often openly hostile to our most valued principles. Catholics, even good ones, have demonstrated as a whole an unwillingness to sacrifice time and treasure to the proper Catholic formation of children. More than this, we have exhibited a startling inability to count and appreciate the value of Catholic education through the college years, depriving our children of the opportunity to learn true Catholic leadership and strengthen their conviction in the Faith.

The Finger of Blame Has to Point Both Ways

Until we start accepting part of the blame for the problems in our clergy, we will never take the first steps towards a reformation. But in accepting part of the blame, we need to act as if we are the entire solution.

We might think of our relationship with the clergy as being a marriage. Marriages don’t succeed while operating under the premise that each partner contributed 50%. In marriage, each partner is counted on to give 100% in complete self-sacrifice. In this respect we need to raise expectations for ourselves to the same level of expectation that we have for our clergy. Three to get married? You bet. A perfect marriage between clergy and laity makes the Church into the spotless bride of Christ.

“Holiness Now” for All Means Being Counter-Cultural

Ultimately, we expect our priests to be icons of counter-cultural behavior -- and we should have this expectation. The problem is that we expect, and therefore receive, far less from ourselves.

Both individually and as families we must become holy TODAY, in a manner that is both internal and publicly demonstrated. We must consider our lives anew, and decide where we have made concessions to negative societal influence. We need to stop using progress in some areas as an excuse for lack of progress in others. On THIS day, we must decide that wearing a cross on our lapel is no substitute for properly educating our children.

When each one of us can honestly say that we have held nothing back in the pursuit of holiness, we will look around and see a holy clergy. All of us, not just the clergy, are called to sainthood. And not to be saints tomorrow, but right now.

 

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