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Role of the Laity

Updated: Nov 20, 2021

A primary tenet of the Heal Our Church mandate is that a Truth and Reconciliation process be led by a diverse representation of lay people. This mandate for the role of the laity finds a solid foundation in Canon Law, The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the documents of Vatican II, statements by Pope Francis, and the National Review Board of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

  • Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church state: “According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which [the laity] possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.” (Canon 212 §3, CCC 907)

  • The Vatican II document, Lumen Gentium (Chapter IV:33), which magnified the authority, identity and the mission of the church as well as the duty of the faithful, teaches: “The laity are called in a special way to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth.”

Further, Lumen Gentium (Chapter IV:37), holds: “. . . They (laity) are, by reason of the knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which they may enjoy, permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church. When occasions arise, let this be done through the organs erected by the Church for this purpose. Let it always be done in truth, in courage and in prudence, with reverence and charity toward those who by reason of their sacred office represent the person of Christ.

  • Pope Francis instructs: “Prayerful listening to the laity by bishops and all clergy, while necessary, is not sufficient if we are really intent on breaking up the clerical sedimentation that exists in our church,” he said, “or to transpose metaphors, we cannot pour ‘new wine’ of ecclesial synodality into the ‘old wineskins’ of canonical structures still tainted by clerical privilege. What is needed is a richer culture of collaboration in church governance at all levels.” (Pope Francis as quoted in Theologians Examine the Role of Power, Clericalism in the Sex Abuse Crisis, by Dennis Sadowski, Catholic News Service, March 27, 2019)

  • The National Review Board, created by the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opined: “. . . It is time for the laity to assume courageous leadership to help the Church respond and to heal and for the bishops to listen carefully to our recommendations. We need not only to pray for the Church and most especially for the victims/survivors and their families who have been wounded by this terrible scourge, but we must take concrete action to address the systemic problems underlying the problem of sexual abuse in the Church.” (August 28, 2018)

“Lay people, too, sharing in the priestly, prophetical and kingly office of Christ, play their part in the mission of the whole people of God in the Church and in the world.” (Second Vatican Council 1965, Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, # 2)

When one reflects on diversity of life experience and expertise among the laity, the authority of the laity to govern a TRC process is compelling. In particular, lay Catholics who have endured great adversity at the hands of Catholic clergy and found the power of forgiveness are the apostles best qualified to participate in a TRC process.

It is the laity, not the church hierarchy, that can establish legitimacy and credibility with victims and survivors of clerical sexual abuse. In addition to the victims of abuse by clergy, the capabilities and experience of countless professionals can be called upon to design and implement an effective Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

More important, any model of justice demands that offenders and their enablers shall not sit in judgment over their victims. According to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in 1995, “Priesthood is a service and not a position of privilege or human power over others.” This straightforward doctrine takes the Church hierarchy completely out of overseeing the process of truth and healing for victims of sexual abuse.

Lay Catholics increasingly believe the organized church is upside down in its approach to truth and reconciliation. According to an October 17, 2018, CBS poll, as high as 25% of Catholics have left the church, with many saying “they are not satisfied leaving reform in the hands of the bishops and diocesan lawyers.”

The time for a credible, legitimate, transparent and empathetic process of truth, reconciliation, and healing designed and overseen by the episcopacy has long passed, if it was ever appropriate in the first place. We expect what Vatican II called our bishops to do, i.e., to recognize and support the laity, empowered by their baptismal gift to responsible collaboration in Church leadership.

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A question: I am a survivor of sexual abuse (from a family member), and have learned that our Church is not the only one where clergy have been involved in sexual abuse of women and minors. Would this be open to victims of other churches and faiths as well?

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