Should Offending Bishops Be Penalized by “Reduction to Laity?”

Should Offending Bishops Be Penalized by “Reduction to Laity?”

In the wake of the burgeoning scandal surrounding Former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s abuse of minors, subordinates including priests and seminarians, and members of the laity, Bishop Michael F. Olson of the Diocese of Forth Worth has issued a letter to the Faithful of his diocese which reads, in part:

Although [Bishop McCarrick] has now resigned from the College of Cardinals and has been suspended a divinis with direction to live a life of prayer and penance in seclusion, the alleged crimes of the former Cardinal have caused such further damage to the integrity of the hierarchy and mission of the Church that his prompt reduction canonically to the laity should be strongly deliberated, as has been the case for many other priests, for reconciliation and healing in the light of the justice and merciful redemption as won by Christ and promised to all who are alienated by the corruption of sin.

Although Bishop Olson seems to have the well being of the “integrity of the hierarchy” and the “mission of the Church” in mind, his statement unfortunately displays one of the serious problems in the church today.  That problem lies in urging the “reduction” of Bishop McCarrick “to the laity.”  This statement betrays a perspective that a call of an individual to serve in the Church as an ordained minister is an exalted state above the laity and that if the responsibilities of that call are violated, the penalty is a reduction to the disdainful state of the laity.  At the Last Supper, there was disagreement between Peter and Jesus as to the meaning of service and who should serve whom.  Jesus came to serve, to adopt the lowest place for the welfare of many.  “Jesus called the Twelve and said to them, ‘If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.’” [Mark 9:35]  It would seem that one who leaves the laity to become a member of the clergy should be motivated to be a servant, not to be elevated.  Perhaps it would be appropriate, and hoped for, if one who moved into the clerical state would consider that to be a reduction from the more exalted state of the laity that he might better serve.

This unfortunate choice of language stems from the second book of the 1917 Code of Canon Law which contains a section titled, “Reduction of Clerics to the State of the Laity” (Part I, Title VI).  The content of this section implies an inferiority of the laity.  David J. O’Brien[1] has noted that following the French Revolution, the Church reorganized itself at the time of the First Vatican Council in 1869 which reduced the laity to a passive role within the community of faith.  He states further:

The reduction of the laity to a subordinate role within the church was directly linked to the perception of modern culture as fundamentally flawed by rejection of the authority of God’s church.  Thus, in the 1890s, Pope Leo XIII warned American Catholics to associate as much as possible with one another while insisting that they develop a “docile and submissive spirit” and yield a “hearty submission and obedience to the Church.”

Despite the intervening years and the dramatic change in perspective mandated by the Second Vatican Council, some bishops, and other clergy, cling to the notion that they are superior to laity. O’Brien states that one perspective confirms the claims of those who would confine the Church to religious matters, exclude it from public and “political” questions.  From this perspective, according to O’Brien:.

Religion, like peace, is a quite acceptable “option for individuals”; secular matters, like politics and economics, are the realm of the laity. If the separation of church and world is allowed, then it is altogether proper for priests and bishops to stay out of politics and for lay ministry to be confined to the Church. But such a stance reflects an “ecclesiastical narcissism” and “trivialization of the laity,” as Joseph Komanchuk[2] insists. Or, as Archbishop Rembert Weakland[3] puts it: to divide the world into two areas, “worldly and secular on the one hand, and religious on the other,” implies that “somehow the laity are not the Church but some unusual secular branch of it.”

Indeed, if the laity are considered to be an unusual secular branch of the Church, it might make sense to consign Bishop McCarrick to a similar status.  However, the laity are the living Church bringing her to their places of work, to soccer games, to schools, to the grocery store, to the voting booth, to all elements of society with which they interact.  The laity are not to be passive, docile, and submissive.  Bishop McCarrick does not qualify as someone who would be reduced by entrance into this state.  He would bring further damage to the mission of the Church.

Since Vatican II, the role of the laity and the concept of reduction to the laity have been changed in Canon Law.  According to Fr. Damián Astigueta, S.J., the term “laicization” really doesn’t exist anymore among canonists and has been widely replaced by the term “loss of the clerical state.”[4]  The loss of the clerical state does not mean that a cleric is no longer a cleric because the sacrament of Holy Orders isn’t lost.  The sign imprinted on the being of a cleric by the sacrament can never be lost.  Loss of clerical state is a judicial decision that prohibits the individual from exercising the rights proper to that state, such as saying Mass and administering the sacraments, and also the obligations of that state.  In exceptional cases, such as if an individual in danger of death asks for the sacraments, an individual no longer in the clerical state is obliged to hear the confession because the salvation of that person is more important than a juridical determination.  Fr. Astigueta emphasizes the importance of not misrepresenting the loss of the clerical state as a “reduction to the lay state”  precisely because that inaccurately treats laity “in a derogatory way, as if they were lesser. “ Chapter IV, Canon 292 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law states that a cleric who loses the clerical state in accordance with the law loses thereby the rights that are proper to the clerical state. He is prohibited from exercising the power of the order and is automatically deprived of all offices and roles and of any delegated power.[5]  The term and concept of “reduction to the lay state” does not appear.  Ordination is not for a finite time; nor is it an admission to a clerical state that can be abrogated as a subsequent judicial penalty.  Bishop McCarrick cannot be reduced to the laity.

Despite the clear theology and law of the Church concerning this matter, the idea of reduction to the lay state persists. Fr. Tomislav Vlasic, a Franciscan who was assigned to Medjugorje at the time of the alleged beginning of the apparitions there, was subsequently penalized by loss of the clerical state for subsequent transgressions.  Despite the clear phrasing of his loss of state as amissio status clericalis, the translation of this phrase is given as reduction to the lay state in English descriptions of the situation.  Here it must be made clear that loss of clerical state does not and cannot be described as laicization or reduction to the lay state.

Besides the insult to the laity that is carried by the phrase reduction to the lay state, the bishops also denigrate the laity in other ways.  One of the most odious is in characterizing relations with the laity.  A priest who has a close male friend may be challenged by his ordinary as being homosexual; a priest with good female friends is warned about violating his vow of celibacy;  a priest admired and hugged by children can be cast as suffering from paedophilia.   These characterizations fly directly in the face of Jesus whose friend John was the disciple whom he loved, who hung around at the well with the Samaritan woman, and who ordered that the children be allowed to come to him.  Instead of encouraging healthy human relations, the bishops drive their priests and seminarians to situations where careerism leads to the type of relations that Father, then Bishop, then Cardinal McCarrick had with those he governed.  And when, after years of cover-up, the situation was revealed, the proposed solution is “reduction to the laity.”  Who identified seminarian McCarrick as priest material and ordained him?  Who identified Fr. McCarrick as someone to be made a bishop?  Who was so enamored with Bishop McCarrick that he was identified as one who should be named Cardinal McCarrick?  The answer to these questions is not “the laity;” it is “the bishops.”  These are the same men who now do not want to own their error.  They do not state that Bishop McCarrick should lose his clerical state;  they say he should be reduced to the laity!

The problem is that the bishops are not willing to own their problem.  They use words like “zero tolerance,”  but they do not really act.  They set up safe environment training for the laity as a response to abuses by the clergy.  This training may do little more than educate an abuser about the ways to avoid being caught.  The bishops respond with a knee jerk when someone under them is accused of anything sexual, no matter how frivolous the charge.  But when a serious charge involves a fellow bishop, they turn away.  They look for a quick way to say that the culprit is not a bishop but is now a lay person.  Consider Bishop Theodore McCarrick.  Consider Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz Osaa and Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati of Chile.  Consider the removal of all references to bishops who served the Diocese of Harrisburg since the 1940’s from church buildings, schools, and halls.  Consider Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide.  It is good to remove the predators and the facilitators of sexual abuse, but they are still bishops and will always be.

As some effort is mounted to rid the Church of sexual abuse, the problem remains that the bishops who determined suitability of bishop candidates have done nothing to assure that the men are suitable for reasons other than avoidance of sex abuse.  The mentality that looks askance at clerical friendship with laity also promotes abuse of other sorts.  Indeed, this happens throughout the church, often publicly, because a bishop still claims that he is the king of his realm.  No one makes him accountable.

As an example, consider the Bishop of the Diocese of Venice in Florida.  Various allegations have indicated that the bishop is abusive, though not in the sexual realm.  Ten priests of the diocese took the remarkable step of authoring a letter to the Papal Nuncio in 2014 in which they accuse their bishop of violating canon law, abandoning consultative processes and ruling by “intimidation, the use of fear, shaming, bullying, and other non-Christian behaviors.” There has been no response to this letter, only a denial by the Bishop of Venice in Florida.  No bishop has made him accountable.  The Bishop continues on his way and will do so until either overwhelming evidence is assembled that finally forces his removal or he retires.  Until that time, the Bishop is free to characterize those that demand leadership from him as crazies, dissidents,  radicals, and complainers.  Yes, they must be those stuck in the lay state along with some of those priests who consort with them.  Nobody with power to do anything constructive to remedy the situation in the Diocese of Venice in Florida seems to care.

The McCarrick exposure is a tragic event in the Church.  Yet, it seems to be only the beginning.  People will not stand for abuse.  The old boy network in which bishops choose who can join their club and proclaims that anyone in the club is worthy and has been chosen by God will find its downfall.  It will be ugly.  Pope Francis is looking for better ways.  He will have trouble finding them as long as bishops show no respect for the laity and state that any bishops who fail to honor their vocation and vows should be reduced to the laity.  The bishops seem unable to avoid insults in their actions and their words.  They have lost respect, stature, and moral leadership.

[1] O’Brien, D. J., Catholic Evangelization and American Culture, U.S. Catholic Historian, Vol. 11, No. 2, Evangelization and Culture (Spring, 1993) 49—59.

[2] Komanchuk, J. Clergy, Laity, and the Church’s Mission in the World, The Jurist, Vol XLI (1981)

[3] Weakland, R., Where Does the Economics Pastoral Stand?, Origins, XIII (April 26, 1984)

[4] Harris, E., What does it actually mean for a priest to be ‘laicized’?, EWTN News (March 15, 2017}.

[5] Canon 291 states that the loss of the clerical state does not carry with it an automatic dispensation form the obligation of celibacy, which can be granted solely by the Roman Pontiff.

4 thoughts on “Should Offending Bishops Be Penalized by “Reduction to Laity?””

  1. sometimes I worry that the church will not survive ….maybe we need to get it back to being the church that we all know Jesus intended it to be……… maybe keep the good but someone many of us together need to get rid of anything that isn’t like He must have intended it to be — I am not sure how to do that! I wish I knew. The church has been so important a part of my life that I hope it survives …but I see now it needs to change. W are all equals in God’s eyes……….. no ‘hierarchy’ was there was it??? I love our church…… I want others to love it too……….. but as it is now……………. people do not like what they see and hear…..
    May God in his wisdom show us the way to right the wrongs we have created…. it is worth it! Honesty is so important now! Sincerely mary jo


    1. Just reducing pedophile priest to laity does not go far enough. The Vatican should have a special prison established with no statute of limitations so these criminals can be heals until they go to their ultimate punishment in hell


  2. I believe in the theology of my faith but the church hierarchy has gone astray leading many to question why continue. I am now embarrassed to tell people that I am Catholic and I’ve had friends tell me that they feel sorry for Catholics and question me why I haven’t left. It seems like staying is somehow accepting these atrocities.

    The scandals resulting from dereliction of duty and profane disregard for the very essence of human dignity especially of children, have resulted in bankruptcy, loss of assets, not to mention the horrible effect these heinous acts have had on those who were abused.

    Who built those churches, schools, residences (many very luxurious)? It was us, those who contribute their own hard earned money to our churches and to our diocese generously and faithfully. In truth, it is our money that has supported the collection of godless leaders that has become our church and we have been asked to sit by while they sell off our assets to atone for their sins. We have been kept out of decision making and direction for the church. Women have been allowed to wash and clean and raise money but women have been kept out of any major authoritative role. In fact both lay men and women have been kept out of authoritative roles in the church. The phrase “reduced to laity”says it all. This self-appointed, self protective chosen few are at the center of decision making and control and we the laity show up and pay the bills.

    I am saddened because there will be more investigations and more revelations before this is over. While sexual abuse is grabbing headlines (as well it should), there will be more stories of abuse like that perpetrated by Bishop Dewan, abuse both sexual and non-sexual in catholic schools, orphanages and elder care….it will continue to come out.

    Cleansing must take place now but we laity must insist that the church goes through a reformation and reorganization and that in the future of our church, laity must have a much larger role in leadership and direction for the church. There must be accountability at all levels of the clerical staff and laity must take on greater responsibility for decision making in the church. Roles for clerics should be restricted to responsibility for worship and theology while laity take a greater role in policy making, financial management and human resource functions.

    I don’t want to leave because I derive great benefit from my beliefs and my worship. I will tolerate what will be the near term line up of more revelations and scandals for awhile but I must begin to see real reform beginning to take root and I must see that reform includes a major role for the laity.


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