Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman
Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman
Prophetic Witness of the Laity in the Present Crisis of the Church

In a recent article Rev. James Schall, SJ. asks if the present sexual abuse crisis is the greatest upheaval of the Church since the Protestant Reformation. I would argue that in some sense this crisis is worse. It is a very deep moral and doctrinal crisis connected with grave faults of commission and omission by the Church’s shepherds.

Many refer to the current crisis as a purification by God of His Church, a reality that reminds us of Jesus’ purification of the Temple. The instrument of this purification has been, as in 2002, the voice of the public media and the courts, rather than the Church’s bishops. God established in the Church an office for teaching, sanctifying,and governing. Many pastors have seriously failed in their duties. Each pastor needs  to examine his own actions.

In light of the public silence of the overwhelming majority of US bishops to this crisis we must ask: What is the role of the faithful laity in this purification? Like the clergy they share, in their own way, in the triple gifts or Office of Christ. As baptized members of the Body of Christ the laity participate in Christ’s priesthood, in His threefold office of teaching, sanctifying and governing. They must safeguard the faith and the spiritual life, and as much as possible, the material well-being of the faithful.

The laity not only teach the faith at home but in schools, universities, and seminaries. Lay people work in ecclesiastical tribunals and chanceries in ways sanctioned by canon law. And in living their own vocations they sanctify themselves and others: they sanctify the Church.

In a special way the laity strengthen and safeguard tradition. As Blessed Newman explained they serve as witness of what the Church believes and has always believed. Furthermore they do so by holding the clergy accountable, both in the daily exercise of their commission as well as in matters of greater importance.

No one in the Church is above the truth. No one is above the moral law. There are times when lay persons must speak the truth boldly to oppose grave abuses by the teachers of the faith. Two notable examples in Church history, although different in nature, are those of St. Catherine of Siena and St. Thomas More.

In the Gospel Jesus enjoins His followers to correct one another when necessary, and He specifies that when someone does not accept correction, that person should be denounced publicly. Jesus’ words are not addressed to the clergy; they are addressed to all of His followers.

The faithful laity are called to exercise a prophetic defense against evil actions in the Church. To correct bishops, the pope included, the laity must establish, after much prayer and consideration with the help of prudent advisors, that there are sufficient grounds for doing so.  Ordinarily such a public act is limited to extraordinary circumstances, and, after private attempts, to correct errors.

As St. Josemaría Escrivá insisted, the laity are not second-class citizens. Yet, they are often treated in this manner by the clergy by an attitude and practice called clericalism. It is said that once, upon hearing of a Vatican official sneering at the laity, Blessed Newman quipped: “… how ridiculous the Church would look with only clergy.”

The laity should exercise their royal priesthood; to do so they must study the faith, grow in piety, and sacramental life, and act with prudence.

Jesus told those following Him to settle disputes among themselves, but warned them that if they did not they would be ‘taken to the judge and they would pay to the last farthing.’ This has been happening, and will continue to happen. But now it is likely that bishops will be prosecuted in court.

The prophetic voice of the laity has been manifest in this past week with two letters addressed to the pope and bishops of the Church. Both letters, one by women, and another by men, written with great respect and sorrow, ask for truthful and transparent answers, and effective actions to combat a host of disorders in the Church.

All Christians are called to pray for the Church and to offer sacrifices for Her, including fasting, as Pope Francis asked in his August 20, 2018, letter. We must consider how much we are praying and fasting. And each one must look to himself to examine his own life to root out with God’s grace any evil actions.

As baptized faithful we cannot close ourselves to the truth of widespread and serious disregard for liturgical and sacramental practices, the moral life and fidelity to doctrine. Christians must read about and analyze the causes of the present crisis. It is a mistake to see this as an attack against the pope. On the contrary it is a sign of love for the Office of Peter, the successor of the Apostles and the Bride of Christ.

In the 19th century Blessed Newman told his fellow Oratorians words which Catholics need to take to heart today: “You must not hide your talent in a napkin, or your light under a bushel. I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold, and what they do not, who know their creed so well, that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity.”

History teaches us about bishops and popes who have made grave mistakes; it gives us lessons about many abuses: the sale of ecclesiastical offices and privileges (Church titles, properties and benefits), worldliness, and gross immorality of the hierarchy during various periods of Church history. Then like in the past, new saints are needed to lead a spiritual renewal in the Church, and the exercise of the laity’s prophetic office opposing these wrongs contributes to this necessary purification.

In all this, we must strive to follow St. Paul’s inspired teaching of “proclaiming the truth in love” (veritates facientes in caritate), Eph 5:14, always keeping our eyes on Christ, who promised to remain with us until the end of time.


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