Across large parts of the Catholic world, vocations to the priesthood and religious life are in steep decline. Whether it’s Puerto Maldonado in the Amazon or the Archdiocese of New York, the decline has long posed the Catholic Church an existential challenge to how it carries out its mission.
Two arguments have traditionally been put forward to solve the problem. The first argues for a recruitment drive that has seen resources poured into initiatives encouraging single men to choose the priesthood. The second argues for expanding the ranks of the clergy by ordaining married men.
While not disregarding the merits of these arguments, Pope Francis has decided to pursue a third way, which is to build up lay ministry and leadership. Rather than focus on who can be ordained to the presbyterate, Francis has pointed to the vocation to ministry that every Christian, through their baptism, can follow.
In his new constitution for the Roman Curia, the Church’s central administration, the Pope makes the bombshell ruling that any suitably qualified male or female Catholic can lead a Vatican department. Praedicate Evangelium is a game-changer because it breaks the link between ordination and governance in the Church. Fr. Gianfranco Ghirlanda, the Jesuit canon lawyer, explained the “power of governance in the church does not come from the sacrament of [Holy] Orders” but an individual’s mission.
This mini-revolution goes far beyond who gets the top jobs in Rome. It is about tackling the deeper problem that lies behind the vocation shortage: a lack of participation. And this in turn responds to the urgent need to include women’s leadership in the institutional church.
Across many parts of the West, Catholic communities might be likened to a fire that has almost burnt out. But the fire is unlikely to start burning again if all the energy goes into lighting it from near the top. Francis’ reforms are the equivalent of trying to re-ignite the flames from the bottom by striking a match at ground level and blowing into the embers.
The Pope’s constitution to the curia can also be linked to the changes he has made to lay ministry, where he opened the roles of lector, acolyte and catechist to women and men not training to be priests. While Francis has maintained the ban on ordaining women to the priesthood, his changes mean there are new paths for women’s ministry. A second commission on the female diaconate—distinct from the presbyterate—has also been convened, although it is more likely that the question of re-instituting women deacons will come “from below” through local synods. The bottom line is that all church entities and all those involved in ministry, lay and ordained, need to serve the Church’s primary mission of evangelization.
Yves Congar, the Dominican theologian and one of the architects of the Second Vatican Council, argued that for any ministry to exist it needs to meet three tests: it must involve something that is essential to the Church; it needs to be a stable activity that can be relied upon and finally it should be “officially authorized, possibly by a liturgical rite or by the intervention of the bishop.”
This insight points to the need to rethink which “ministers” can lead parishes and communities and how to harness the different gifts within the entire People of God. In a recent talk to a group of Augustinians, the Pope made a startling point. Noting the sharp decline in vocations, he urged them to work with laypeople as they discern ways to continue their mission. “Let us prepare ourselves for what is going to happen,” Francis told them. “And let us give our charism, our gift, to those who can carry it forward.”
The critical question will be how the Pope’s reforms are now to be implemented. While laypeople can have governance roles, they can only do so provided ordination is not required. A laywoman is not going to be placed in charge of Vatican offices directly overseeing matters concerning the clergy. Furthermore, the code of Canon Law, which states that the laity only “participate” in governance, has not been changed—something which shows that Francis’ reforms remain a work in progress. The bigger challenge is going to be a cultural one. If the Dicastery for Bishops is led by a layperson, will that individual be able to tell a bishop the Pope wants him to resign? How would a female theologian find being the prefect of the Vatican’s doctrine office?
Nevertheless, Francis’ reforms have deep roots in tradition and take much of their inspiration from the Early Church. They are not “managerial” changes, but radical ones based on the Gospel. N.T. Wright, the world-renowned New Testament scholar, once described the early Christian communities as “small at first, but growing” while totally different to their cultural milieu because of the “open welcome to all who found themselves grasped by the good news of Jesus.”
More than 2,000 years later, it is this vision of participation that sits as one of the foundation stones of the Franciscan reforms of the Church.
Christopher Lamb is Vatican Correspondent for The Tablet and author of The Outsider: Pope Francis and His Battle to Reform the Church.