Privatizing Religion

At a party back around Christmas, a man I hadn’t met before asked me what I do. I said I was a writer who, among other things, wrote fairly often about the situation of the Catholic laity in the Church. “Oh,” my new acquaintance responded innocently, “so are you a eucharistic minister in your parish?” I said I wasn’t and let it go at that.
Trivial as it was, though, the incident stuck in my mind. Here was an illustration of something I’ve often said: In the clericalist mindset of many lay people, as well as many priests, it’s taken for granted that lay Catholics who are truly involved in the life of the Church will be doing ministry of some sort.

In principle, that isn’t as recent a development as it might seem. Way back when, before people had heard of lay ministry, being involved in the Church for most people meant being a member of the parish choir or an usher, belonging to the Holy Name Society or the Knights of Columbus, the Altar Society or the Sodality. Today, of course, reading at Mass, distributing Communion, and other “ministerial” functions have largely replaced those things. But the underlying clericalist assumptions are stronger than ever.
This is no help at all to realizing the vision of the Second Vatican Council. For Vatican II, as everyone knows, insisted that “by reason of their special vocation” lay women and men first and foremost have the job of “engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will” (Lumen Gentium, 31).
The reason for repeating all this now lies in a notable 50th anniversary later this year. On September 12, 1960, John F. Kennedy, hard pressed by anti-Catholic bigotry in his race for the presidency, sought to allay Protestant anxiety with a speech to the Houston Ministerial Association.
Kennedy offered profuse assurances that, as president, he wouldn’t let the pope and bishops boss him around. No reasonable person, either then or now, could fault him for that.
But the candidate went a lot farther. JFK’s Houston speech was a remarkable exercise in the privatizing of religion — the process of excluding faith from the public square and locking it up, not just in church but, as Kennedy did, in the shuttered confines of individual conscience.
Declaring his religious views to be his “own private affair,” he assured the ministers that religion wouldn’t affect whatever presidential decisions he might be called on to make concerning “birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling,” or anything else. Instead he’d be guided by his personal views, “without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates.”
“To make religion merely a private matter was idiocy,” Rev. John Courtney Murray, S.J., the eminent church-state theologian, complained of Kennedy’s remarks. (Murray’s groundbreaking book We Hold These Truths was published the same year.)
Even so, Kennedy’s election as president seemed to vindicate the Houston speech. But 50 years later, that looks much different.
Picking up where Kennedy left off, and propelled by the need for what they deemed a politically viable position after Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, countless Catholic politicians have played variations on Kennedy’s Houston themes and gone far beyond them. Geraldine Ferraro, Mario Cuomo, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry — the list goes on and on.
Not long ago, Nancy Pelosi unburdened herself on these matters in a Newsweek interview in which the Speaker of the House sometimes seemed to be channeling JFK and other times to be caricaturing him.
“I am a practicing Catholic,” Pelosi declared, striking a passive-aggressive note, “although they’re probably not too happy about that. But it is my faith.”
I practically mourn this difference of opinion [on abortion and gay rights] because I feel what I was raised to believe is consistent with what I profess, and that is that we are all endowed with a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions. And that women should have that opportunity to exercise their free will.
This is all very interesting, someone might say, but what has it got to do with being a eucharistic minister?
Before I’m accused of blaming the rise of pro-choice Catholic politicians on lay ministry, let me say emphatically: I don’t. The point I’m making is more subtle. And also more important.
It’s this: The clericalist buzz surrounding lay ministry today places a premium on what lay people do in church. What they do out in the secular world is given comparatively short shrift. De facto, this reinforces the Kennedyesque project of privatizing religion, according to which, for Catholics like Pelosi, their split with the Church over things like abortion and gay rights is a “difference of opinion” in which their opinion wins.
In another famous passage, Vatican II deplored “the dichotomy between the faith which many profess and the practice of their daily lives.” The council called this “one of the gravest errors of our time” (Gaudium et Spes, 43). That was 1965. Forty-five years later, the dichotomy is thriving.
To be sure, many things account for it. Secularization, expediency, and ignorance come to mind. And also, I submit, the clericalist notion that to be an involved Catholic lay person means doing ministry in church — an idea whose silent corollary is that what goes on outside church doesn’t have all that much bearing on one’s religious identity.
Let’s be clear about this: Lay ministers are good people. Many of them do exemplary work in the community six days a week, with “ministry” on Sunday a kind of frosting on the cake of their commitment. The problem isn’t with how good people like that organize their lives and live their faith. It is, as I keep repeating, with the mentality that exalts lay ministry and ignores lay apostolate.
Lay people engaged in living their faith may or may not be lay ministers, but they will certainly be lay apostles in the world — in their marriages, families, friendships, civic responsibilities, jobs. And in politics, if that’s their line of work.
That doesn’t mean toeing the hierarchy’s line on contingent political questions allowing for diverse opinions within the framework of agreement on principles. It means taking time and trouble to know and understand the principles and making conscientious decisions — prudential judgments — that apply them to concrete cases. Having done that, the laity, as Vatican II also said, “must bring to their cooperation with others their own special competence, and act on their own responsibility” (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 7).
Two years after Kennedy spoke in Houston, Vatican II began. In its four years, it spoke on many matters. What the council had to say about the laity, conscience, and political life was and remains forward-looking and sound. Kennedy’s message of privatization sank in with many members of the Catholic political class. The wisdom of Vatican II apparently did not.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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