Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The German and Swiss bishops have hit a dead end with their “synodal” project. The way forward is blocked by the wall of the doctrine of faith as held by the global Church, while behind them church activists demand substantial changes to church doctrine. 

There is a positive aspect to this situation. The current crisis is revealing that an outdated understanding of the Church is finally coming to the end of its dominance. This understanding of the Church has its origins in the Council of Trent. In the face of the Reformation, Trent held that the Church was primarily an institution—one as visible as the Republic of Venice, Robert Bellarmine argued. This emphasis on the Church as an embodied hierarchy was important and necessary at the time. The Church not only survived the Reformation, but flourished. We can look back in awe at the post-Tridentine Catholic culture of saints, robust popular piety, and effective social presence in works of Christian education and charity. 

But the Tridentine emphasis on the Church as an institution was one-sided. It tended toward the view that the Church’s essence was embodied in the hierarchy, the bishops, the priests, and the religious orders. Locally, this social form of the Church manifested itself primarily in the parish, around which a multitude of associations, congregations, and groups gathered. For the baptized, participating in the mission of the Church primarily meant being active in ecclesial structures under and with the clergy. The “living parish” was the gold standard. Being a Christian was defined by participation in the institutions led by the hierarchy. The cleric or member of a religious order represented “perfection” that could be achieved only at a distance from the world. The everyday life of the lay Christian in the family, in the professions, and in political and civic reality was too little explained. Few imagined that one could live one's Christian and ecclesial mission “in the world” or that someone living in the lay state of life could himself also be “the Church.” 

The bishops of the Second Vatican Council recognized the important changes modernity had wrought. The Enlightenment and the French Revolution marked the end of corporate societies, and the “separate world” of ecclesiastical life was weakened. They therefore tried to supplement the hierarchical and institutional view of the Council of Trent. After all, in modern times the hierarchically-ordered Church became less “visible” as the “perfect society.” Political and cultural changes meant that she no longer functioned as a counterpart to the state and civil society. Rather, the individual, as citizen and as Christian, came to the fore. 

Vatican II addressed this new reality, especially the idea of the primacy of the individual, and sought to impart to the baptized a spirituality that would make him an active ecclesial subject in the modern society of the free and equal. Strengthened by the pastoral work of the clergy and shaped by his Christian conscience, he should himself be an ecclesial agent in the midst of the world. The Christian should live his faith in his own name, and not as an emissary of the hierarchy: in his profession, in politics and the media, in civil society, in his family, and among his friends. In Chapter IV of Lumen Gentium, Vatican II achieved this synthesis of the Christian faith with the societies that emerged from the Enlightenment. And, of course, the Council did so without sacrificing the substance of the doctrine of the faith.

However, looking at the conversations happening in the Church today, one would think that this chapter of Lumen Gentium had never been written. At least, it is still misunderstood in large parts of the Church. Even after the clarifications of Vatican II, the Tridentine understanding of the Church was retained and developed. Those pushing for “reform” correctly declared that the laity have an irreplaceable ecclesiastical task, which until then had been neglected. But they wrongly concluded that lay Catholics must carry out this mission within the ecclesiastical structures. The synod and council system developed after the Council was the consequence. 

What is currently being pursued in particular churches and in the universal Church under the name of “synodality” represents the continuation of the Tridentine understanding of the Church by other means. It is an anachronistic attempt to sustain and extend an outdated, hierarchy-centered image of the Church in our democratic age by employing the laity inside the Church’s structure, carving out space for inner-church consultation and decision-making. Only the institutional church matters: This is the fatal message of synodal activism. The assumption is that the faithful are to live out the call to discipleship primarily together with and under the leadership of the hierarchy. The result is the clericalization of the laity, which leads to conflicts with the priests and deacons. 

Vatican II reaffirmed that there is an essential difference between the common priesthood of the faithful and the hierarchical priesthood. Therefore, it is a strange kind of relapse to the theology of pre-conciliar times when more and more attempts are made to confer ecclesiastical tasks on lay people “by decree”—tasks reserved for those who have received the sacrament of Holy Orders. 

There is widespread blindness. Bishops, priests, and lay activists who believe they are progressive do not realize that they are trapped in a pre-Vatican II mentality. They are exacerbating the Tridentine clerical fixation—itself a distortion of Trent—by seeking to make the laity de facto clerics. One need not be a prophet to see that this “strategy” for “updating” the Church, built on faulty theological presuppositions, is self-defeating. In practice it proves to be a self-employment program for those already working for the Church. It further cements into place a self-satisfied ecclesiastical institution that has zero appeal for post-Christian society.

It is uncomfortable for the bishops to be caught between the world Church's “no-go” and the pressure of activists who think they are progressive but are in truth traditionalists unable to offer any forward-looking perspective. This accelerates the decline of the Church. Understanding and implementing Vatican II’s teaching concerning the mission of the laity is the only way forward.

Lay people should want to have a say as Christians. The Second Vatican Council tells them in Lumen Gentium: “The Lord wishes to spread His kingdom also by means of the laity. . . . Therefore, by their competence in secular training and by their activity, elevated from within by the grace of Christ, let them vigorously contribute their effort, so that created goods may be perfected by human labor, technical skill and civic culture for the benefit of all men according to the design of the Creator and the light of His Word.”

Lay people should want to offer a sacrifice to God as priests. How should this be done? The Council says that all the faithful share in Christ’s priestly office: 

For all their works, prayers and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily occupations, their physical and mental relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life, if patiently borne—all these become “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Together with the offering of the Lord's body, they are most fittingly offered in the celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, as those everywhere who adore in holy activity, the laity consecrate the world itself to God.

Lay people should want to proclaim the faith. To do so, the Council tells them: “The laity go forth as powerful proclaimers of a faith in things to be hoped for, when they courageously join to their profession of faith a life springing from faith. This evangelization, that is, this announcing of Christ by a living testimony as well as by the spoken word, takes on a specific quality and a special force in that it is carried out in the ordinary surroundings of the world.”

Only if we succeed in communicating this spirituality to the laity, and if they are able to implement it in their everyday lives, will Christianity regain relevance in the state and in civil society. The clutch—the mission of the laity—must be released. Otherwise, the perpetuation of pre-conciliar immobilism will lead to irrelevance.

Martin Grichting was vicar general of the diocese of Chur and publishes on philosophical and religious issues.

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things.

Image by The Walters Art Museum licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles