Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Priests and the Laity

The divine vocation to the priesthood as well as the subsequent sacramental ordination that indelibly seals a baptized person towards a total dedication in the fulfillment of sacred functions sets the ordained essentially apart from the rest of the faithful. This is the teaching that we without doubt hold: there is an essential difference, not only of degree, between the ministerial priesthood and the common priesthood of the faithful. With this doctrinal statement, however, the Church is poised with relevant questions. Should this ordination of her priests necessarily demand a life-style that is distinct from the laypeople? Does the theological and canonical elements of the ordo clericorum require the setting up of a status clericorum which finely defines juridical rules and specifications that safeguard the identity of the cleric and of his ministry? Should the deportment of the priest necessarily differ from that of the lay faithful?

Some years back the Church and her ordained ministers were severely criticized and attacked because of the discriminatory portrayal of the roles and functions of the clergy that make up his clerical status. The priests were placed in so high a pedestal in the life of the Church that they are set not only apart from but over and above the lay people. Gradually, elitism has crept in, its ugly implication negatively influencing the life of the priests and whole system of the institutional Church. Clericalism was born. In a nutshell, it emphasized the distinction and essential differences between the clergy and the laity. This distinction gradually received legal form and recognition by the privileges and immunities granted to the clergy. The arrogation of the power by the clergy was based on the claim that the clergy are superior to the laity, for the reason that they are the guardians of spiritual things; and spiritual things are higher than temporal things. Subsequent legislations, however, have dismantled many of the immunities and privileges granted to the clerics. Still, traces of them remained. In the 1917 Code of Canon Law, for example, the privilegium fori, wherein a cleric is exempted from being brought to civil suit on all cases without the express permission of the bishop (cf. c. 120) was still existent. Or, the so-called privilegium competentis according to which the clerics who were forced by the court to pay the creditors their debts should be allowed to retain what was necessary for his decent sustenance, with the obligation to repay them as soon as possible, could be invoked (cf. c. 122). Again, the 1917 Code held that the faithful owe reverence to the clergy in so harsh a way that if one who inflicts physical injury to cleric commits a sacrilege. Called the privilegium canonis, it is contained in canon 119.

Clericalism carries with it the evil of engendering, perhaps unwittingly, an elitist attitude within the ranks of the clergy that eventually evolve into a way of life that is classy. Members are to be endowed with more and more privileges, favors and exemptions. In time the clergy called the shot in the management of almost all the affairs of the Church and become untouchable in many issues.

The theology and ecclesiology of Vatican II had tried to change all that. It starts by setting up the basic doctrine which states: all persons who belong to the church have a common fundamental legal status, because they all share one and the same basic theological condition and belong to the same primary common category. Fr. Alvaro del Portillo puts it more graphically when he said: “All the faithful, from the Pope to the child who has just been baptized, share one and the same vocation, the same faith, the same Spirit, the same grace. They are all in need of appropriate sacramental and spiritual aids; they must all live a full Christian life, following the same evangelical teachings; they must all lead a basic personal life of piety – that of children of God, brothers and disciples of Christ – which is obligatory for them before and above any specific distinctions which may arise from their different functions within the Church” (Faithful and the Laity in the Church, Ecclesia Press, 1972, p. 19)