Mark Shea: In the World, the Laity Preside – Part 4

Clergy and lay people participate in a working group at the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment at the Vatican. Photo: CNS photo/Vatican Media

Last time in this space, we noted that at the altar, the priest presides.  That said, it is important to understand that, in the world, whither we go once we have received the sacraments, we laity properly preside.  As I said two articles ago, this does not mean that we are free to blow off the Church’s teaching.  It means, rather, that we can provide real expertise and insight into how best to implement that teaching.

The Church, for instance, teaches that parents have the primary responsibility for rearing their children. I objectively know more about how to raise my family and make a living as a writer than my priest does, for the very good reason that I have done these things and he has not.  You may know more about car repair, plumbing, hedge fund finance, teaching kindergarten, running a farm, or being a cop who investigates sexual abuse than any priest or bishop in the world.  And, of course, parents have knowledge of and responsibility for their kids that no priest or bishop can have.  If a priest somehow tries to intrude on this specialized lay knowledge and competence with his personal views on what sports your kid should try out for or which TV shows you should watch, that’s just his opinion, not The Teaching of the Church. The reality is that the sacrament of Ordination does not confer automatic expertise in these areas.  So laity can have—and may indeed be morally bound to have—real arguments with the clergy if they, in fact, know more than clergy do about some area of special expertise.  If your car is running rough, feel free to ask Father to pray for it—but also take it to a mechanic.

This applies to pretty much any area where technical competence matters.  So, for instance, when the pope writes an encyclical like Laudato Si which makes certain claims about climate change, the pope does not just spitball his notions based on whatever was in the paper this morning.  He consults experts (mainly laity) with competence in such fields as climate and atmospheric science.

The paradoxical result of this is that when climate change-denying laity without competence in these fields confidently declare, “We don’t have to listen to the Holy Father on climate change because he’s just giving us his prudential judgment and not speaking infallibly” they are making the same blunder as someone who confidently declares, “I’ve read a thing or two on the internet and I don’t need to listen to that stupid oncologist about the tumor he says I have in my gut.  He’s not infallible!”

No.  But he does, in fact, speak from an area of human expertise and he is warning you that you will die of cancer if you don’t act.  The climate change denier has chosen to equate a Google search and a rant by Sean Hannity with a Ph.D.  The Pope, while he may not be an expert in climate change himself, has consulted a wide variety of actual experts and knows what he is talking about precisely because he has let them speak from their expertise and inform his own thought with the best human wisdom he can find on the matter.  To that human wisdom he then brings to bear the light of the Tradition to help guide our judgments as we then apply the Tradition to this particular problem.  And given that Genesis reveals that we have been given the task of tending the Garden of Creation, it is difficult to maintain the case that the Pope is somehow violating our conscience by calling us to address climate change or care for the environment.

At the end of the day, we are all going to have to be responsible for our personal choices of obedience to Jesus Christ.  Jesus tells the apostles and their successors, “He who hears you hears me” (Luke 10:16).  He does not add “but only when you speak dogmatically.  The rest they can just blow off if it makes them uncomfortable.”  So the prudent thing to do is just pay attention to the whole of the Church’s teaching and not pick and choose from it.

At the same time, not everything a bishop says about everything is the Teaching of the Church.  Sometimes it’s just his dumb theory about how the Yankees are going to do this year in the playoffs or his stupid opinion about the Beatles.  On extremely rare occasions it may be his criminal attempt to silence a victim of sexual abuse or some other objectively evil thing.  If so, we are to obey our conscience, not the bishop.

But the overwhelming majority of the time, our interaction with clergy and their exposition of the Tradition will be about the prudent way to obey the Tradition, not ignore it.  So stick with Lumen Gentium and odds are you will be fine:

“Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will.”

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