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The Current Crisis and the Order of the Laity

Of what is Wuerl afraid? In a word, power.

One of the most important works of ecclesiology to be published this century was the English translation of Fr. Nicholas Afanasiev’s The Church of the Holy Spirit, which appeared in 2007. It is a book that all Catholics, in this supreme moment of crisis, need to read. None need to read it more than the bishops, starting with Cardinal Wuerl, who recently floated an unacceptable, vague plan for bishops to hold each other accountable.

Afanasiev died in late 1966, not long after the end of the Second Vatican Council, at which he was an official Eastern Orthodox observer. He was so widely respected that he enjoyed the extremely rare privilege of being cited in the draft documents of the Council. His work played a part in helping shape the vision of the Church that emerged in the conciliar documents.

But the Council’s reading of him—and far too much subsequent Catholic theology—was very selective, and largely and conveniently ignored what I take to be the most important part of his work: his strong theology of what he calls the laics. That was the term he used to designate the fact that the people are not just non-clergy, but constitute a distinct and co-equal order within the Church alongside priests and bishops, all of us participating in the one royal priesthood of Christ. Clergy, of course, exercise that priesthood in particular sacramental ways. But the laics—who are not, he says, “lay” people in the conventional sense of those having no special training, service, or official designation and office—have their own proper ministry within the Church, too, and this is marked by what Afanasiev called their “ordination,” which takes place at their baptism-chrismation.

As I have recently argued here at CWR, other churches—e.g., the Anglican and the Armenian—do a much better job of giving concrete expression to the order of laity within their ecclesial structures and life. The Catholic Church, especially the Latin Church, is arguably the weakest of all Christian bodies on this front, and it shows. Never has the need for dramatic change been as acute as it is now, when the entire order of bishops has sabotaged its own claims to authority and credibility, and no plan such as Wuerl’s is anything other than self-serving and even cowardly.

Of what is Wuerl afraid? In a word, power. Or loss of power. Nobody, in any time or place throughout history, willingly cedes power if one does not have to, especially when that power may be used to expose one’s misdeeds. Far too many bishops today have very good reason to be afraid not only of their own misdeeds being exposed, but perhaps more damningly their lack of interest in doing anything about the malfeasance of McCarrick and others.

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