Thoughts on the Decree on Lay Ministers 

Ten days before his retirement, the 75-year-old Innsbruck, Austria, Bishop Reinhold Stecher issued a response to the Vatican's recent Decree on Lay ministers. During his seventeen-year episcopate, Stecher became renowned among Austria's bishops for exceptional pastoral leadership and courage. One example was his prohibition of age-old popular veneration in his diocese for the relics of a purported child victim of Jewish ritual murder in the Middle Ages. The following translation of Stecher's statement omits a few local references. 

Since I have resolved to criticize the church, where criticism is needed, in office and not as a "courageous retiree," I feel compelled to express my thoughts about the recent Roman Decree on Lay Ministers before I hand on the pastoral staff to my successor. I am not much concerned about the details. Many are reminders of things that are necessary and important. Authorization to celebrate the Eucharist belongs to priests alone; no lay minister can assume or confirm this authority. And admittedly there have been abuses in this regard. 

In speaking about the difference between priests and laity, however, we should not throw everything into the same basket. Defending the priestly power to celebrate the Eucharist need not mean that only priests may preach. When no circuit-riding priest can be found to celebrate the Eucharist, so that a Communion service must be held -- as happens today in many places -- it is difficult to see why a theologically educated and dedicated lay minister should not preach at such a celebration. Certainly anyone who preaches at the liturgy must be authorized by the church to do so. This need not mean, however, that there can be no homily if a non-ordained person leads a eucharistic celebration in the absence of a priest. No one in our parishes can understand such a prohibition when it means that the word of God is not preached at all at a Communion service. 

This brings me to my real difficulty with this restrictive decree, which treats extraordinary ministers of communion, and lay ministers generally, as at best reluctantly permitted helpers in a few exceptional situations for which, unfortunately, no other solution can be found. My real concern is the refusal to recognize the actual pastoral situation in so many countries the world over and the refusal to recognize the theological importance of the Eucharist for the Christian community and for the church

A recent crisis in health care here in Tyrol may illuminate the dilemma for this decree. There are no longer enough fully trained hospital nurses to give insulin injections to diabetics at home or in nursing homes. Understandably the nurses' professional organization defended the sole right of their members to give these injections. Confronted, however, with a genuine crisis in public health, the nurses agreed that nurses' aides could also give injections. The children of this world are indeed wiser than the children of light. 

The church too is concerned with health -- not just for this life but the eternity. Our fully qualified ministers of health (priests) are getting fewer -- and older. Moreover, it is clear that as long as we continue to insist on willingness to live a life of consecrated celibacy the number of priests will continue to decline. Priestly celibacy requires that those who undertake it do so in a positive and healthy manner, not merely repressing the desire for sexual and human intimacy but dedicating all their powers -- spiritual, pastoral, social, intellectual -- to creative ministry. This remains the responsibility of "those who can accept it." And there is not the slightest suggestion in the words of Jesus himself that the number of those so gifted will be sufficient for the pastoral and theological needs of a vital church. 

Problems inevitably arise when we ignore God's desire for universal salvation, and the most profound theological and sacramental reality, in order to absolutize human regulations. 

The Decree on Lay Ministers is concerned entirely with defending the rights of the ordained. It shows no concern for the health of the community. For some time now we have been offering people, tacitly but in reality, a non-sacramental way of salvation. Those familiar with scholastic theology can only shake their heads in disbelief. For that theology strongly emphasizes the necessity for salvation of the Eucharist, penance, and anointing of the sick. 

The difficulty arises because instead of making provision for the Eucharist based on the spiritual health of the Christian community, we concentrate on purely human laws about who is authorized to do what -- laws that ignore God's will that all should be saved as well as the essentially eucharistic structure of the community. Everything is sacrificed to a definition of church office for which there is no basis in revelation. 

Not long ago a bishop renowned for his conservatism said to me with a smile: "In our diocese every priest has three parishes -- and things run splendidly." That most revered gentleman has never had responsibility for even one parish, let alone for three. If he had, he could hardly have made such a light-hearted remark. In France I have met worn-out, exhausted priests who have to ride circuit to seven or even ten parishes. Even if such priests have the best theological qualifications, their voices will never be heard in the church's higher councils. Such priests are not made bishops. Few bishops know what these priests face, with the result that their experiences and frustrations are never represented at the church's highest level. The best we bishops can do is to sigh sympathetically about the difficulties our priests face and utter moving complaints about the lack of Christian families capable of producing enough celibate vocations. At a higher level still all energies are devoted to defending the existing rules Ñ as in this latest decree. The church's real needs are never considered. 

I say all this not because I am opposed to celibacy or because I imagine that all our difficulties would be solved if we were to obtain mature married men as priests. That would inevitable bring fresh difficulties. Nor do I question the value of celibacy for the sake of the kingdom. That is beyond dispute. What distresses me most -- painful as this is to confess -- is the theological and pastoral deficiencies of the church's present leadership. In the biblical view church officeholders are not sacred functionaries existing for themselves. They are ministers of salvation. They cannot be simply indifferent when millions upon millions are unable to receive the sacraments of salvation; and when the Eucharist, which in scripture and dogma is at the center of life in the Christian community, can no longer be experienced in a properly human manner. As we say in the creed: "for us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven." He did not come down from heaven "for our authority and for the strict preservation of our ecclesiastical structures." 

The tendency to place human laws and traditions above our divine commission is the most shocking aspect of many church decisions at the end of this millennium. It seems, for instance, to disturb no one at the highest level of the church that literally hundreds of millions of Catholics are unable to come to the sacraments of forgiveness, which are morally necessary for salvation -- and because they now cannot come, in a generation they will not want to come. In a day in which health care is directing greater attention to the whole person there is a wonderful opportunity for the anointing of the sick. Millions are unable to encounter Christ the good physician in this sacrament, however, because we insist that it can be administered only by a celibate priest. The church's central authority remains fully undisturbed when the widespread amalgamation of parishes makes compassionate sacramental ministry to the sick impossible. And what is at stake is not only people's physical health but their eternal salvation. 

The most disturbing example, for me, of neglecting divine commands is our treatment of priests who have married. In my own experience requests for laicisation forwarded with the bishop's urgent endorsement, for pastoral and human reasons, lie unread for ten years and even more. The most recent decree brings only marginal improvement. Consider that what is being requested is simply reconciliation with God and the church, the possibility of having a Christian marriage and, in some case, being admitted to non-priestly ministries. Here too all we hear is a merciless "No." What did Jesus say? Did he not make the duty of forgiveness and reconciliation the highest duty in all his words, parables, and deeds right up to his final prayers on the cross? Didn't he impose the strictest sanctions on this duty of forgiveness? Didn't he say, "Whoever does not forgive will not be forgiven?" Didn't he tell Peter that he must forgive not seven times a day but seventy times seven? This text never appears in Roman decrees, however, only "Thou art Peter" of Matthew 16:18. 

How many Catholics today emphasize their love of the Pope and want to be praised for their loyalty to him. Mustn't they tremble before the judge of all the world when a Pope dies with thousands of petitions and requests unanswered? What do we do when someone who is dying refuses reconciliation? Don't we do everything in our power to soften the person's attitude, since a soul's eternal salvation is at stake? What would we say about a priest who told a penitent in the confessional: "With a sin like yours, come back in ten years -- maybe then I'll feel inclined to grant you forgiveness?" Doesn't our theology tell us clearly that the refusal of forgiveness and reconciliation is a far worse sin than the violation of celibacy? The latter violates a human law and is a sin of weakness; the former violates God's law and is a sign of hard-heartedness. Or do we suppose that the church's juridical decisions are exempt form Jesus' commands? Do we suppose that on the day of judgement those with desk jobs will get off more lightly that those who have sinned in detail? 

Here too we see the oft-repeated tendency to subordinate Jesus' teaching to administrative practices and the exercise of human authority. 

This is the real reason for the decline in papal authority. This authority, which is vitally necessary for the church, derives its force from agreement with Christ -- as we sin in the case of papal infallibility. History shows, however, that in practice even the church's highest officeholder can stray from Christ. The current treatment of individual sinners contradicts the spirit of Jesus quite as much as past interdicts and banns imposed on whole cities and nations. And I know that many priests and lay people who take their faith seriously suffer under these contradictions and long for a Pope for our times who will embody kindness before all else. As things now stand Rome has lost the image of mercy and assumed the image of harsh authority. Such an image will win the church no tricks in the third millennium's celebration. We need fundamental changes of emphasis in crucial aspects of our pastoral practice, both with regard to Jesus' command to bring the gospel to all, and our treatment of the individual sinner. 

We cannot have a church in which those in the highest positions worry about every speck in the eyes of people at the grassroots but not at all about the plank in their own. 

I have spoken openly about the defects of those who lead the church today, comparing them with the Pharisees whom Jesus condemned. I have undiminished hope, however, in the Spirit's power and the future of Jesus' gospel. We must become more sensitive, however, to the gospel's real demands. Their neglect has brought grave consequences in the past. The millennium summons us to ponder these things and achieve fresh insight. 

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