This is, in fact, the stickiest question of all, and one that drives us batty because it forces us to come up against the very real and hard fact that there doesn't seem to be much we can do about it, other than write our letters and withhold our funds from miscreant dioceses.
It is a most frustrating position to be in.
What makes it all the more frustrating is the plain fact that we are being told to trust, trust, trust, and even other lay people are putting out the word - trust your shepherds. Take the long view, you know. Rome wasn't built in a day, nor was the Church.
And of course, in the end, we must - trust, that is. For in the Body of Christ, we must trust Jesus and take him at his word that he would be with us until the end of time. We must treat each other in a way that is open and honest about the potential of failure (i.e. not gullible or blindly trusting of others), but at the same time hopeful that the Spirit is working through us all.
It might be a good idea, at times like these, to read Vatican II's Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity.. Of course, the primary apostolate of the laity, often forgotten in the giddiness of the past four decades is, as the Decree states over and over, in the temporal order. It is unfortunate that in the rush to the sanctuary and to the rectory offices, we laity have so often forgotten this, and have been so ready and willing to take on the mantle of clerics without ordination. When I write this blog, I sometimes forget that the vast majority have not uh...been following my writing for the past ten years, so you aren't aware of my frequently stated views on this subject, views that I share from the perspective of someone who's actually been employed by the Church in many capacities. I think it's dreadful that over the past few decades, so many people have come to associate living out their baptismal vows with being "active in Church." I once was in a small group in which a woman went over the list of innumerable churchy activities she'd immersed herself in over the years, and wondered, at the end, why she still wasn't feeling as spiritually fulfilled as she ought. One of the few times (really) I've felt like marching out of Mass in the middle of a homily was on a Sunday morning on which a priest announced to the congregation that if they, upon leaving Mass, went out the door that would enable them to bypass the many tables set up by parish groups and organizations on this "Ministry Sunday," they may not call themselves "Catholic Christians."
This guy, by the way, had a side "ministry" of magic tricks. One of my students was his niece, and had the responsibility of taking care of his damn rabbits and birds. By the time she got to me, she hated the Catholic Church. And an increased role for laity is worse than that?
But I digress.
So yes, the role of the laity is primarily to leaven the world with the seeds of the Gospel. And if you read the Decree, you will be inspired, I think, and you will be struck by its practical wisdom. Of course. Just think if all the "Catholic" members of Congress took their responsibilities as Catholic laity seriously in the light of this document. If all the "Catholic" doctors, lawyers and educators did, too, not to mention business people.
In the Church there is a diversity of ministry but a oneness of mission. Christ conferred on the Apostles and their successors the duty of teaching, sanctifying, and ruling in His name and power. But the laity likewise share in the priestly, prophetic, and royal office of Christ and therefore have their own share in the mission of the whole people of God in the Church and in the world.
10. As sharers in the role of Christ as priest, prophet, and king, the laity have their work cut out for them in the life and activity of the Church. Their activity is so necessary within the Church communities that without it the apostolate of the pastors is often unable to achieve its full effectiveness. In the manner of the men and women who helped Paul in spreading the Gospel (cf. Acts 18:18, 26; Rom. 16:3) the laity with the right apostolic attitude supply what is lacking to their brethren and refresh the spirit of pastors and of the rest of the faithful (cf. 1 Cor. 16:17-18). Strengthened by active participation in the liturgical life of their community, they are eager to do their share of the apostolic works of that community. They bring to the Church people who perhaps are far removed from it, earnestly cooperate in presenting the word of God especially by means of catechetical instruction, and offer their special skills to make the care of souls and the administration of the temporalities of the Church more efficient and effective.
Now, I think I have to name a certain elephant wandering this room, although someone else might have done it one of the comments. Not to offend anyone, but the name of the elephant is Protestantism. When we start talking about an increased role for the laity in the decision-making, administrative aspect of church life, as opposed to (as I blogged below) in the expression of the Works of Mercy, we all start getting nervous. We start getting nervous because we look at the least hierarchical division of Christianity - Protestantism - and we see, well - division. We see denominations subdividing into sects and redividing into more sects. We see denominational assemblies frought with division and constant infighting about hot-button issues, mostly revolving around sexuality. We see churches splitting because of problems with clergy that they've hired, and then decided they didn't like anymore. And we get justifiably afraid that this is the only model for increased lay participation in decision-making available to us, and that is certainly not what we want for the future of our Church.
Nor do we want more of what we've seen in the past four decades in our own Church. We don't want more time-wasting commissions, boards and committees. We don't want obnoxious people with degrees from summer study programs marching in and ordering us to behave in liturgy in the way their professors taught them to tell us to behave. We don't want - we seriously don't want - any more layers of bureaucracy in the Church. We've got enough thank you, and we could even do without them.
But do you know what? I've got news for you.
Every one of those wacked out, heterodox summer programs is under the charge, ultimately, of a bishop.
Every one of those colleges and universities that are dumbing down their religion requirements, refusing to hang crucifixes in classrooms, hosting pro-abortion speakers and performances of Corpus Christi or The V - Monologues is under the purview of a bishop.
Every one of those flimsy, ridiculous religion textbooks that you gripe about was probably written in large part by a priest or a nun or both, and must, if it is used in your Catholic school, be approved by a bishop.
Every one of those Diocesean Liturgical Commissions that misinterprets directives from Rome was appointed by a bishop.
So, if we're griping about what we see as the malignant impact of the laity on the post-Vatican II church and sniping that this is the last thing we want more of, let's all think again. First of all, most of the problems - I'm sorry to say - originate with priests and religious. For every Swidler, in other words, I'll raise you a Chittister and a McBrien. Secondly, all of this - every bit of it - has occurred with bishops in charge, and believe me, they are still in charge if they want to be. The problem has not been lay involvement. I'm not even going to say, as some like to sniff that the problem is the "wrong" kind of laity. It makes my skin crawl to get into that kind of categorization - although I might feel it sometimes, I really have to check that feeling before it gets too far, because there's a name for it, and it's a sin: pride.
No, the problem is that the bishops haven't been taking their responsibilities seriously - and have not been exercising them in union with the spirit of Rome. Read the Documents of Vatican II. Good heavens, people - there is nothing in the spirit or intent of the Second Vatican Council that calls for bishops to allow Catholic universities to become secularized or Catholic spiritual programs to become NewAge-isized.
The problem is not lay involvement. The problem is bishops not guiding lay involvement in light of the Gospel.
So it seems to me if we understand all of that, look closely and take very seriously the difficult lessons provided to us by the experience of so many Protestant churches, and see lay involvement in decision-making in very specific terms in relation to specific issues in which lay exerptise is needed to assist the ordained, both in terms of the knowledge it brings as well as the effect of averting any temptations to clerical mutual protection or secrecy - we would have a much easier time of it.
And what does this mean, exactly? Well, it means what it has always meant: First, the primary lay apostolate in the temporal order. Secondly, the lay apostolate in organizing and living out the practice of the Works of Mercy, in every Church-sponsored effort from the Vincent de Paul Society to Catholic universities. Third, it means being a part of church structure and decision in making in ways that have, off and on through Church history, been, in part or even entirely - lay responsibility: Church finances, organizational maintenance and, to some extent - personnel decisions, particularly on the level of the episcopacy. The decision for appointing bishops should certainly be less secretive than it is now, and, as someone suggested many months ago, an interesting starter idea is the publication of a sort of "bann" for bishops - vetting names of potential bishops in public, asking lay Catholics, in an systematic way, to provide names of priests they believe to be good potential bishops (the latter is done in some areas, but not systematically).