“Religious ‘Infantilization'”

R. Scott Appleby reviews book by Paul Lakeland, Catholicism at the Crossroads.

…. [This is] the best educated and most sophisticated generational cohort of Catholics in the history of the United States, the apathetic majority of whom continue to accept religious “infantilization” within an ecclesial structure that privileges hierarchy at the expense of community, fosters clerical elitism and condescends to the laity in matters theological, spiritual, ethical and (even) financial and administrative[.]

The underlying problem is structural—the absolute lack of a formal voice for the laity in the teaching or the governance of the church. … The laity can and should be consulted on governance and empowered to a greater degree on personnel and financial matters.

In the Catholic system, authority lies solely in the hierarchy, in bishops and pastors. Theirs are the only voices that really matter. Lay officials of dioceses may act with some delegated authority, as I did in my roles in a parish and a diocese, as may parochial vicars (priests who are not pastors)–but they both know who holds the real authority. Unlike other denominations which have lay representation, this is something that does not exist in the Catholic church. Any group of laity, be it a parish or diocesan council or a board associated with an office in a chancery, is “advisory only,” with no real decision making authority in areas affecting their faith, life, or church finances. This is something that was drilled into me in every job I had–pastors and supervisors told me to keep a firm grip on the reins. Likewise, lay theologians may teach in colleges and seminaries from here to Rome, but only documents by bishops have authority; and only Roman documents have authority for everyone.

Liberals criticize the Catholic Church for being patriarchal, but that misses the point. I’d say that it is, rather, paternalistic. “Father knows best.” Lay opinion is too often dismissed; lay questions too often turned aside with an appeal to authority; lay frustrations too often ignored or even reprimanded (as seen in complaints over the years about abusive priests and the church’s response).

In a previous era, laity were told to “pay, pray, and obey.” When John Henry Newman suggested the laity be consulted in matters of doctrine, his bishop dismissively quipped, “Who are the laity?” Newman responded that clerics would look pretty funny without them. Vatican 2 spoke of the apostolate of the laity–but made clear it was an external apostolate in the secular world. The rise of “lay ecclesial ministry” has not really changed this–it has just inserted a caste of lay professionals in between the clerics and the “lay faithful.”

The question Appleby and Lakeland raise is this: should the laity be treated as children who will never grow up–or as adults empowered by the Holy Spirit, who are called to exercise real leadership in the body of Christ? Those churches which have seen this have learned they have nothing to fear.

2 thoughts on ““Religious ‘Infantilization'”

  1. Seems to me that primtiv Church had such “paternalist” way of living. Rooted in tradition, in what is received from Christ and the Apostles, centered by the bishop, “head” of the community….

  2. I think the NT shows a very different way of life. All are one in Christ, the one head of the body. There is on the part of the apostles and other leaders no pretence, no demand for titles, no special attire. Paul commends those who study to see whether what he says is so; he doesn’t want to be a burden, so he continues to make tents. He writes to build up the local churches and to strengthen them. This is very different from paternalistic attitudes that expect laity to be quiet, obey, accept what they’re told, etc. And there are plenty of Catholics who are aware of the same problem–see the Appleby article to which I linked as an example.

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