Far from the Spirit of the Lord: On the Pope’s New Motu Proprio

The obvious problems with the recent opening of the ministries of lector and acolyte to women by Pope Francis has already been the subject of a number of articles, including one that I wrote earlier this week. As I reflect further on the motu proprio Spiritus Domini, I see more and more disturbing implications of this modification to canon law. Those who think “it’s not a big deal, it just formalizes what we’ve already been doing for decades!” greatly underestimate the difference between custom (which can include bad custom) and legal formalization, and more to the point, between substitution (women filling in for certain functions) and institution (women being installed in ministry by episcopal action).

As I noted in a recent article, Pope Francis’s documents seem to bear clever titles that indicate that the document is about to parody tradition. In the case at hand, the phrase Spiritus Domini (“The Spirit of the Lord”) immediately calls to mind the great centuries-old Introit of Pentecost (and of any Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit). The motu proprio’s first two words brings us squarely to the mystery of Pentecost.

Now, what happened on the original day of Pentecost? The apostles were gathered around the Blessed Virgin Mary. She was indescribably holier than they, but after the descent of the Spirit, did she go out and preach the Gospel? No. It was the male apostles who did that, in imitation of, by the power of, and in the person of Christ. The Blessed Virgin Mary is the highest-ranking human person in the Church and the most powerful, but she was not and is not intermingled with the earthly ecclesiastical hierarchy. This is not how her Son set things up.

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As the eminent Swiss theologian Charles Cardinal Journet explains (echoing countless other theologians), the ultimate and only lasting hierarchy in the Church is that of charity and sanctity. In heaven, everyone’s “rank” is determined by this and by nothing else. On earth, however, the Mystical Body is differentiated into offices or roles; and among holders of these offices, the most important ones for the threefold ministry of ruling, teaching, and sanctifying are the successors of the apostles, the bishops. Taking part in their ministry are the presbyters and deacons they ordain, and, at a further remove but still in the same line, the ministers who assist them in the performance of their duties. These viri, or males, represent Christ in and to the Church. They are also, as baptized faithful, simultaneously members of the Church, and in this capacity, they receive gifts from God just like the laity.

The Spirit of the Lord raised up twelve men to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth, while the holiest among them by far, the Mother of God, never spoke a word in public. Had she done so, we can be sure that these words would have been cherished, gathered up like gold, and preserved for posterity, as occurred with the other precious words of Mary in the Gospels. Her role was superior to that of the male apostles. She received the Son of God in the most sublime manner and lived her union with Him with sinless perfection. None of the apostles could say that of themselves. Nevertheless, hers was an absolute perfection of receiving, embodying, nurturing, and following—the fundamental Christian vocation that belongs to all of us by virtue of our baptism. It would not have added to her sanctity or her charity to busy herself, like Martha, by taking on “ministries” in the sanctuary of a church; in fact, it would have detracted from it. In like manner, it would not have added to the sanctity or charity of the apostles to farm out their apostolic tasks to other competent individuals; again, it would have detracted from it.

The latest motu proprio therefore commits a double categorical error by conflating the dignity of the baptized with the dignity of active liturgical ministry. On the one hand, it implies that only the baptized who take up instituted ministries are fulfilling their proper lay vocation as fully as they might: they become clerical, to the extent possible, in order to be fully lay. On the other hand, it implies that the laity who choose simply to receive the gifts of grace provided in the liturgy—to be, in other words, just like the Virgin Mary at and after Pentecost—are (or, at least, could easily be perceived as and could perceive themselves as) second-class citizens in the Church, men and women who have not embraced their calling to be “engaged,” to “exercise” their rights, to “participate” in a leadership role. In short, Spiritus Domini, as has been pointed out, is a triumphant proclamation of clericalism, exactly contrary to the warning of Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici. We have seen before that the teaching contained in John Paul II’s documents, such as Veritatis Splendor and Familiaris Consortio, does not fare well under this pontificate of rupture.

That Spiritus Domini is an intentional rupture is signaled clearly in the text of the letter to the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith that accompanied the motu proprio (emphasis added):

For centuries the “venerable tradition of the Church” has considered what were known as “minor orders”—including, indeed, the Lectorate and the Acolyte—as steps on a path that was to lead to the “major orders” (Subdiaconate, Diaconate, Presbyterate). Since the sacrament of Orders was reserved for men only, this also applied to the minor orders. A clearer distinction between the attributions of what are today called “non-ordained (or lay) ministries” and “ordained ministries” makes it possible to dissolve the reservation of the former to men alone. 

Note how Francis openly acknowledges that there is a centuries-old (indeed, bimillennial) “venerable tradition of the Church” concerning the minor orders that reserved all of these orders to men only. Then, in the manner of a rabbit emerging from a hat on its own initiative, “a clearer distinction” somehow gets drawn between “lay ministries” and “ordained ministries.” Where did this come from? Why was it done? What are the grounds for departing from the venerable tradition of the Church? On what basis do we simply “dissolve” what the Church has always done, everywhere and by everyone? There has been no adequate explanation and there will not be, because any attempt at explanation would expose the latent confusion about baptismal dignity and the underlying clericalism, feminism, and activism of the project.

What we need to see, and see clearly, is this: the highest dignity of the baptized is to welcome Christ the Lord in Holy Communion. Period. Nothing else they do, no other function or service or activity, can compare to the Marian privilege of receiving God. When we elaborately multiply functions, services, and activities, we introduce distractions, invert priorities, build false hierarchies, and undermine simple faith, devotion, humility, and reverence. The participatio actuosa or actual participation of the faithful in the liturgy is not about doing, but about being, or more precisely, being a good recipient of the Word, so that this Word may be fruitful in us. It is not about busyness with much serving, but about contemplation, the union of love.

The proper role of the clergy, for its part, is to serve actively, bestowing divine gifts or assisting in their bestowal. This role embraces all ministers who assist the clergy in the sanctuary, as they collectively prepare and offer the sacrifice of Christ on behalf of all and for all. The purpose of this distinction, written into the Mystical Body of the Church no less than sexuality is written into the human body, is not to show off the better members, or let them lord it over others, or announce that they have powers, privileges, and perqs that lesser mortals lack. No. It is a power to lead the people closer to the Lord Jesus, whom the clergy and liturgical ministers are to show forth not only in their official actions but also, importantly, in their very being. What we do, what we see, what we hear: in traditional Catholic worship, these are and must be utterly consistent. The powerful, primal, sacramental symbolism of the sexes should not, and in the end cannot, be ignored.

If we are no longer able to recognize these luminous and fundamental truths of the Faith, then we are far indeed from the Spirit of the Lord, and well mired in the Spirit of the Age.

[Photo Credit: Apse of Chapel Miniscalchi in Saint Anastasia’s church, Verona (Shutterstock)]


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