One of the more positive developments in the Catholic Church today is the broadening of the concept of ministry. At one time the word “ministry” was understood as a Protestant term, in opposition to “priesthood.” And when “ministry” finally seeped into our Catholic vocabulary, it tended to be restricted to the ordained ministry of bishops and priests particularly.
But that situation has been changing since the Second Vatican Council, which insisted that the church is the whole People of God and that all of the baptized participate in the threefold mission of Christ as teacher, ruler (or shepherd) and sanctifier.
More specifically, pastors “were not meant by Christ to shoulder alone the entire saving mission of the Church toward the world. On the contrary, they understand that it is their noble duty so to shepherd the faithful and recognize their ministries and charismatic gifts that all according to their proper roles may cooperate in this common undertaking with one heart” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, n. 30).
Vatican II’s broadened understanding of ministry is evident in the recent document issued by the U. S. Catholic bishops, “Co-workers in the Vineyard of the Lord” (Origins, Dec. 1, 2005), self-described as a “pastoral and theological reflection on the reality of lay ministry.”
Although ministry is exercised by all of the baptized at one time or another in their lives, lay ecclesial ministry is a more formal type of ministry, requiring authorization by the hierarchy and involving, among other things, close collaboration with ordained ministers and also appropriate formation. It is a concept, however, that the document acknowledges is “still maturing.”
To be sure, there is much good material in “Co-workers in the Vineyard of the Lord,” just as there was in an earlier document issued by the cardinal-archbishop of Los Angeles, Roger Mahony, entitled, “As I Have Done for You” (Origins, May 4, 2000).
Like “Co-workers,” this document defined and described lay ecclesial ministry within the broader concept of ministry itself. While acknowledging the distinctive ministry of the ordained, it cautioned against viewing the ordained as “above” or “apart from” the church rather than “in” the church.
The Los Angeles document was explicit in identifying hard pastoral cases for examination and discussion. “Co-workers,” on the other hand, tends to avoid specific examples of problems.
There is only a glancing reference in “Co-workers” to the church’s need to treat its “committed and skilled workers … fairly.” At the same time, it is emphatic in pointing out that every diocese is free to develop its own personnel policies — or to have none at all.
Many lay ecclesial ministers know from unhappy personal experience that pastors and bishops do not always practice what the church officially teaches about justice for the church’s own employees, be they in formal ministry or not.
“While the Church is bound to give witness to justice, it recognizes that anyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes” (“Justice in the World,” Third World Synod of Bishops, 1971). That same teaching was strongly reaffirmed by the U.S. bishops in their 1987 pastoral letter, “Economic Justice for All” (n. 347).
Unfortunately, subsequent documents such as “Co-workers in the Vineyard of the Lord” have tended to gloss over the problem of injustice in the church. Since this month includes the celebration of Labor Day, now is an appropriate time to point that out and to recommit ourselves to addressing it.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.