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.”