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Mark Shea: There’s more to the Church than priestly and religious life

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PHOTO: Caroline Hernandez

So the other day, a friend sends along this little manifesto from some guy here in the US who runs some kind of Catholic homeschool thingie. Sez he:

The goal of Catholic parenting – especially among homeschooling parents – is to supply the Church with priests, monks and nuns. If, at the end of our parenting, we have produced kids doing the same things that unbelievers’ kids are doing, we will have failed as Catholic parents and shouldn’t be pretending to celebrate worldly achievements, which are, in fact, failures.

Got a high school diploma? Admitted to college? Graduated from college? Got a job? Got married? Having children? Bought a house? Got a promotion? Retiring?

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Christ did not need to die and rise from the dead to allow men to do these things, and they are not the things produced by the Holy Spirit working through Christ’s people. They are common to all men and are not Christian achievements.

“As in the days of Noe, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, even till that day in which Noe entered into the ark, and they knew not till the flood came, and took them all away; so also shall the coming of the Son of man be.” – Jesus, Matthew 24

No. The goal of Catholic parenting is to help foster disciples of Jesus Christ in his holy Church who can fully and joyfully live out their human freedom as saints in whatever role Jesus calls them to do. The term for this person’s thinking is “clericalism”. Such clericalism is an insult to the countless lay saints who have filled the Church from St Joseph the Worker down to St Josemaria Escriva, whose entire mission and theology of the dignity of lay work is directly contrary to all this. Such an oppressive cookie-cutter vision of vocation is a toxic way to guarantee that your kid will walk away from the authoritarian police state you have put in place of the gospel and never return. It is utterly foreign to Romans 12:

For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him. For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (Ro 12:3–8)

1 Corinthians 12:

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single organ, where would the body be? (1 Co 12:14–19)

and Ephesians 5:

And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. (Eph 4:11–13)

not to mention Christifideles Laici and Laborem Exercens.

Now it’s all well and good to pray for your kids to discern a religious vocation and to encourage them to consider the possibility that, of all the possible vocations God may have for them, a religious one is among them.

But to say that any vocation but one in religious or ordained life is a failure is to radically misunderstand Catholic theology and ecclesiology. It is also to badly misunderstand what Jesus’ mission is.

Note the language: “Christ did not need to die and rise from the dead to allow men to do these things”. “Allow”? On the contrary, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17). Jesus’ mission is to redeem the whole world, not just priests and religious.

The members of the Body of Christ are given an immense diversity of gifts, lay, religious, and ordained. St Joseph was not ordained. Nor was the Blessed Virgin Mary. They were married lay people and they could not have fulfilled their mission in any other state in life. Where would we be without the witness of Justin Martyr, Thomas More, Louis and Zelie Martin, or Gianna Molla? And that is just scratching the surface of lay saints. God himself has ordained that the overwhelming bulk of the Church be lay, for it is the laity who bring the gospel into the nooks and crannies of the world where the ordained very often cannot go. You and I, as lay apostles, bear witness to Jesus in the lives of people who will never ever meet our priest, our bishop, or the Holy Father. You and I are the only Jesus some people will ever meet.

That is not, in the least, to deny the enormous value of priestly or vowed life. Rather it is to place it in the context of the whole Body and the gifts given to all. At the altar, the priest presides, and rightly so. But why? Because in the world, the lay person presides and needs the gifts and graces he or she receives through the sacraments to fulfil his or her unique and crucial mission in the work of redemption. Paul tells us plainly that the work of the ordained is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ”. We laypeople are those saints. The work of the ordained and religious is so that we can do our work as apostles to the world.

Indeed, the irony of the whole “The Only Real Catholic is an Ordained Catholic” philosophy is that it distracts laity from their real mission in the world by falsely telling them that the only real mission is in the sanctuary. No wonder so many clamour for the blunder of women’s ordination. If you are a lay woman seeking to serve God and all you ever hear is that lay work is garbage, then you will of course come to conclude that your call to serve God is a call to the priesthood.

But lay work is not garbage. It is, as St Josemaria Escriva saw, vital to the Church’s mission and the normal way in which the overwhelming majority of the Church works out its salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who works in us both to will and do his good pleasure. It is in our ordinary work – changing diapers, fixing the car, helping a neighbour move, composing an essay for The Catholic Weekly, helping with the dishes, writing a song, and any number of an infinite variety of other things that we obey Paul’s command that “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col 3:17)

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