Sacraments shouldn’t be the outward signs of a power trip

In the Pews

Picture the lives of today's Catholics in contrast to the lives of our ancestors a hundred years ago, or of even the older generation who grew up during the Second World War. Unlike our parents, most of us attend college. We must choose among universities as distant as San Diego and Miami and among programs from women's studies to oceanography. Our possible marriage partners come from all over the country and indeed from all over the world. Divorce is a seriously considered option in many of our marriages. We have a smorgasbord of careers to choose from and sometimes we make several choices in the course of our lifetime. Orders from our pastor, our bishop, even the Vatican plus a dollar and a half will get us a ride on the subway. Choice, choice, choice.

Sometimes we make wise choices, sometimes unwise, but we cannot escape the obligation of choice. Our personalities, our characters are shaped by a constant exercise of freedom-and the agony of decision making that freedom imposes.

The Catholic Church has yet to make its peace with the inevitability of the freedom of its laity. It does not like one bit the laity's assumption of the right to make its own decisions, and of its demand that it be persuaded instead of ordered. Moreover, church leaders miss the point of their own tradition, which has proclaimed that virtue is formed by the frequent repetition of free human acts. In any event, the church must adjust to the fact that in the present milieu, the laity reserve the right to say on what terms they will be Catholic. Nothing will change that fact, neither orders from Rome nor hysterical ranting from the tiny fundamentalist Catholic minority.

The failure of many, indeed most, church leaders from top to bottom to perceive this new situation is a horrific failure of leadership. The Vatican Council warned us of the necessity of reading the signs of the times. Our leadership resolutely refuses to read these signs or sees them as a departure from the discipline and the order of the good old days. The leadership, in a monumental failure, urges rather a return to the old discipline of the 1950s-or the 1750s.

But before we blame the Vatican or the chancery, we ought to examine our own behavior locally. To state the matter boldly: More personal pain is inflicted on the laity at the parish level than is inflicted by church leadership at any of the higher levels.

No one gives up power willingly. So church personnel, often thinking of themselves as "liberals," continue to search for ways in which they can exercise authoritarian control over the laity. Believing as they do that the laity are secularists, materialists, pagans, they feel that they must impose on lay folk the practice of virtue to open them up to the work of the Holy Spirit. In this mindset, it is inconceivable that the Spirit might already be at work among the laity, blowing whither she will despite our assumptions. It is also inconceivable that the laity's experience of the Spirit is richer and deeper than our own.

There are three differences between this new Catholic authoritarianism and the old: There are many more rules today than there used to be. There are a lot more rule makers, not all of them clergy by any means. And many of the laity are smart enough to know that there are parishes where such rules do not exist and that they can find one that for reasons of compassion or justice treats them like full-fledged, free human persons.

Since the power of the clergy and the quasi-clergy is hampered by their lack of credibility as leaders, they tend to become neo-authoritarian in the one area where they do have power-access to the sacraments. They often violate the Code of Canon Law in denying the laity the sacraments, but once you are determined to "do good" by forcing the laity to be virtuous, canon law is hardly likely to stop you. The Code asserts that the laity have the right to the sacraments, a right that only in rare and exceptional circumstances may be denied.

I herewith submit a litany of horror stories about the oppression of the laity by church personnel. I lack empirical data to say just how typical these abuses of power are, but I have enough information to say that they represent abuses that are widespread. Many of my horror stories are clear violations of canon law.

1) A couple visits the rectory and asks to be married in three weeks. The parents of the bride work overseas and have been granted an unexpected two-week leave, and the couple, graduates of Catholic colleges, want to get married when her parents are present. They know about the banns so they have come to the rectory in time for that requirement to be met. They also say that any day or evening of the week will be fine. The unsmiling priest tells them it will be quite impossible. "We have a rule here that you must be a registered member of the parish for six months before we permit you to be married in our church. Moreover, diocesan guidelines require six months of marriage preparation," he says. "We've been here at Mass every Sunday for the last year and a half," says the bride. "I don't recognize you," the pastor replies, "and so how do I know you're not lying to me?" "Guidelines are not rules, are they?" asks the groom. "Sure they are," the pastor replies, "why else would we have them? You can forget about being married in my church." So the couple goes down the street to the local Lutheran church and is married there. After the honeymoon, however, they continue to attend the Eucharist at their parish. Their first child is baptized by the Lutheran pastor.

2) A young couple is delighted that only 18 months after the birth of their son, they now have a little sister for him. The mother calls the rectory to arrange for Baptism. The director of religious education (DRE) informs her that she and her husband must come to class every Wednesday for six weeks so that they may be properly prepared to be parents of a newly baptized Christian. Another class will not begin for three months. The mother replies that both she and her husband have had 16 years of Catholic education. The DRE dismisses that as irrelevant. "But I work during the day, and my husband works at night," says the mother. "Get a baby-sitter," the DRE says curtly. The mother admits that just now they can't afford a baby-sitter and that their daughter is too young to be left with one anyway. "That's your problem," she is told. "We didn't have to do all this when my son was baptized," says the mother. "That's because I wasn't in charge here then," the DRE says, hanging up. Once more the Code of Canon Law is shattered.

In another parish, members of the "Baptism Team" are sent to the homes of parents seeking Baptism for their children to determine whether they are "worthy" of the sacrament.

3) A couple of academics, both with doctorates in policy studies, are told that their child cannot be confirmed unless they go to six classes on "The Church and the Social Order." They both know the Catholic Church's social teaching and interpret it in a moderately rightwing fashion. The nun who teaches it is a leftist who has simple solutions for all social problems. They are horrified by the ideological rigidity and the ignorance of her pronouncements, not to mention the dullness of her presentation. But since she can decide whether their child will receive the sacrament, they remain silent.

4) An Episcopalian who is married to a Catholic-all of whose kids are in Catholic schools, and who receives Communion every week-decides to become Catholic. He is told that he must go through two years of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) before he is admitted and that he must leave Mass after the gospel every Sunday for two years because he is a catechumen. He will thus not be able to receive the Eucharist. He wants to become a Catholic badly enough that he is willing to do it. His feisty wife, however, tells the RCIA director that she knows that RCIA is only to be used for those who are not already baptized Christians. The woman responds that in this parish RCIA is used for all adult converts. The wife tells her she is violating church law. "We will not receive your husband into the church," the RCIA director responds. Whereupon husband and wife go to a neighboring parish where the husband, about whose Catholic faith and knowledge there is no doubt, is admitted to the church.

5) A priest preparing the documents for a marriage discovers that the couple have the same address. Are you living together, he asks (which is none of his business). They admit they are. We don't marry people here who live together before marriage, he informs them. As a compromise he insists that they must sleep in separate bedrooms if they wish to be married in this church. They promise him that they will; he's ignorant enough about the human condition to believe them.

The proper approach to the sacraments is to make the ceremony of administration so charming, so moving, so celebratory that the nature of the sacrament is luminous to everyone who is present. Wise parish staffs will make the preparation sessions so intelligent, so excellent, so sensible that the people in the community will want to come. Guidelines, however, cannot and should not be enforced as though they are rules. Even the stern enforcement of the obligation to attend a "pre-Cana" conference is wrong (and a violation of canon law). One persuades people to attend, one does not order, and one certainly accepts the decision of the laity.

What is wrong with this clericalist neo-authoritarianism? It often violates the rights of the laity as specified in the Code of CanonLaw. It is almost always a violation of justice, charity, and compassion, which makes the church look terrible and drives people away.

And it doesn't work. The attitudes and behavior of the laity will not be changed by mini-courses. Only one ignorant of the nature of human nature would think that six sessions will change anything. The truth is that the liturgy of the sacrament, properly performed (which it usually isn't), can have a far more powerful impact on people than classroom instructions.

What can be done about these abuses of power by the neo-authoritarians? The laity have the right to appeal to the bishop. Unfortunately most laypeople and clergy and some bishops are unaware of that right. In some dioceses you waste your time with such an appeal.

Finally, the laity are the ministers of the sacrament of Matrimony and are also valid ministers of the sacrament of Baptism. When appeals fail to vindicate their rights, the situation becomes a "case of necessity." In such situations the laity can administer Baptism. Moreover, if it is impossible to find a priest who will witness the sacrament of Matrimony within 30 days, then the couple is automatically excused from the form and may contract marriage without the priest and the two witnesses. These are drastic measures. They deprive laypeople of the splendor of liturgically elegant administration of the sacraments (which they often don't receive anyway). Yet they may in some cases be the only possible responses to irresponsible, power-drunk neo-authoritarians.

Or you might even try writing the pope. I know of a case where a Catholic couple was refused marriage because she was an immigrant and the deacon in charge concluded that she was marrying him merely to become a legal immigrant, even though they had known each other for five years in the country of her origin. So they wrote to the pope. Within two weeks, the diocese intervened to vindicate their rights to the sacrament.

This article appeared in the July 1998 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 63, No. 7, pages 24-26).

About the author

Father Andrew Greeley

Father Andrew Greeley was a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona, and novelist. He passed away at age 85 in May 2013.

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