On Muzzling the Laity in Matters of Doctrine

The liberal National Catholic Reporter, usually a strong advocate for the rights of the laity, lets slip a major faux pas in an article about an upcoming meeting between Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Archbishop George Niederauer.

“I think it’s a mistake for politicians to talk theology,” said Jesuit Father Thomas J. Reese, senior research fellow at Woodstock Theological Center. “Let’s just say, it’s above their pay grade.”

Replace “politicians” with “lay people,” because that’s really the point here. Reese, after all, is a liberal who would no doubt have much in common ideologically with Pelosi (he was editor of the Jesuit magazine, America, until the Vatican had him removed). Reese is a priest, and it is as a priest he is telling Pelosi that “It’s a mistake for politicians to talk theology.” Pelosi isn’t a priest, of course. She is speaking as an educated lay Catholic; she attended a Catholic high school and college. But Reese says that isn’t enough to be able to comment about your own Catholic faith, and how you understand its teachings. Stick to pragmatic political ramifications, he tells her.

Pelosi may well be wrong, historically, theologically, and morally. But to say the topic is “above (her) pay grade” is rank clericalism.

It reminds me of a recent internet discussion in which a priest who is a canon lawyer insinuated that only canon lawyers have any business commenting on Catholic canon law, specifically, the issue of what can get a Catholic disciplined by the church. Is he saying that no one with a basic education can understand it? That even a graduate course in the subject can’t convey the fundamentals? No, I think like Reese he was speaking from a clericalist standpoint, that only priests are entitled to opinions about sacred matters. The role of the laity is simply to “pray, pay, and obey,” or “to shoot, to hunt, to entertain.” Perhaps these clerics should consider John Henry Newman‘s response when a bishop dismissively opined, “Who are the laity?”–Newman said, “the church would look foolish without them.”

9 thoughts on “On Muzzling the Laity in Matters of Doctrine

  1. The “father knows best” attitude remains, the only argument within the Church is over wether “father” is the aging hippie type or the grumpy old conservative type. The sad part is the level of education of the laity has risen while I believe the levels of education of the clergy have dropped. I certainly noted that the standard of education that seminarians were held to was, in my opinion, lower than that of the laity they studied with.

  2. I would be curious about any possible missing context. Pelosi was so blatantly ignorant, or worse, she wasn’t but she was grossly misinforming others. Saying that the Church has not always been against abortion is serious enough to provoke angry comments by theologians who, we hope, now have to spend some of their time correcting her. And, let’s face it, politicians aren’t like any other lay person in that they are all about the sound bites. What I, as a private lay person say, is far different from what Pelosi says. Many politicians not only have the media spotlight but, in some cases, the sense of authority that makes their comments more harmful than even some movie star or famous athlete.

    That said, I have no doubt that some negative attitudes towards the laity exists. I’m just saying that making that comment about Pelosi right now doesn’t mean they mean it about all the laity.

  3. Consider that Reese (former editor of AMERICA) and NCR are liberals who no doubt agree with Pelosi’s stance on the abortion issue

  4. So a heterodox priest says that a heterodox layperson is not qualified to speak on theology. So what? What point are you trying to make? Does clericism exist in the Church Universal? Of course it does. It exists in every church and every organization. Is the Church more given to cleicism than some other Christian bodies? Sure-I’ll give you that, but She also is more given to certain virtues than many other Christian bodies as well. In truth that should be apparent to any fair observer. The real test is St Catherine of Siena. Laity are given a place of honor in the official teachings of the Church. The members of the Church often fails to live up to Her beliefs. (Especially me). Please do not throw out red herrings. If some priest says some thing foolish it means no more than if my neighbor is a Christian and acts like a jerk. Frankly it has been the laity that has prompted priest and now bishops to speak out. May we never be silent in the face of the murder of innocents. May we all be St. Catherine to our bishops.

  5. Dare I say it but what sets the vast majority of priests and all bishops apart from the Catholic laity? Celibacy seems to me to be a defining characteristic of clericalism. Any takers?

  6. Post hoc argument. Falacious. Look at our benighted supreme court who impose their morality on us since they are our “betters”. They are not celibvate but certainly exhibit their own version of clericism. Doctors are famous for their arogent attitude toward patients and on and on.
    In the protestant world every man is a king and and their is a serious lack of humility (again, I am making generalizations). That is why the churches split into little churches and why their is no real moral authority. If you disagree, vote with your feet. Like gay marriage? Find a church that supports you.

  7. I think you can speak from experience. 🙂

    That certainly sets the clerical reality apart from the Catholic lay reality. But what else goes with it?

    1) A theology of ordination that says the person ordained has undergone an “ontological change”–a change in their very being–and as an “indelible character” that can never be removed.

    2) And this is a change that sets the clergy above the laity–here the influence of neoplatonic thought is responsible, as is evident in Pseudo-Dionysius, “The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy.”

    3) The clergy have the responsibility for teaching, governing, and sanctifying within the church. Laity may assist, but they only assist and advise. The clergy are the teachers, the rulers, the dispensers of sacramental grace. The laity “learn with docility,” obey, and faithfully attend mass.

    4) The clergy are set apart, as symbolized by their celibacy. They live apart, with housekeepers and cooks (sometimes); they’re given lots of free booze and free meals and free tickets to the Astros and the Rockets; given extra cash by the laity for doing the ordinary things of ministry–baptisms, weddings, funerals, mass.

    5) And historically, the Catholic church has also understood that the clergy had certain privileges when it came to the law, too. See Gelasius I’s theory of two swords, for example. In the days of “Christendom,” clergy were immune to secular penalties. And the attitude that they should be immune, that the church should take care of its own, endured into our day, with both law enforcement and church officials acquiescing. Priests who preyed upon the weakest of their flock were protected, moved, and otherwise coddled, while laity who protested were scolded and threatened. See the books of Jason Berry, Gerald Renner, and Leon Podles on the sexual abuse crisis, and http://www.bishop-accountability.org/

    6) This all feeds and breeds what Lee Podles and others identify as “clerical narcissism”– it’s all about them. This cuts across liberal and conservative labels and is present at all levels of the hierarchy.

    7) And a further point. With the restriction of the clergy to males who could not marry, the Catholic clergy attracted a disproportionate share of homosexuals. In the post Vatican 2 days, this has swelled to a majority. There have always been networks of sexually active homosexual priests and bishops, but these grew in importance and influence in recent decades. Seminaries became “pink palaces” with an overt homosexual subculture; faculty and upperclassmen preyed upon younger seminarians; when they left, they protected and advanced one another. See any number of books on this subject, including “Goodbye, Good Men,” and Randy Engel’s “The Rite of Sodomy,” and http://www.rcf.org

    (And, for an historical perspective, consider Luther’s 1520 pamphlet “On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church” http://www.ctsfw.edu/etext/luther/babylonian/babylonian.htm)

  8. I feel that celibacy is one of the practices that binds many of the issues that you mention to each other. It highlights the feeling of separateness and living apart from the world, a world that those who are not able to remain celibate must participate in. The neo-Platonic philosophy that sets some apart from the main body is the same thinking that promotes celibacy as the more perfect Christian vocation.

  9. Dear Bill,

    In this case, you make a pointe argument. I am amused that the NCReporter is the one saying that politicians should not read and preach theology. I do disagree with the NCReporter and Fr. Reese, following your argument.

    I also agree that Fr. Reese is essentially saying that Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Biden should not say anything. Perhaps he, and the NCR, has an agenda?

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