A Review of the Instruction Ecclesia de Mysterio
I am a priest in a diocese in Mindanao, where there is a strong impetus for the establishment of Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs). The work these are doing for the Christian faithful is undeniable, especially in those areas hardly reached by the inadequate number of priests. However, at times I have been at odds with such groups because of a certain tendency to supplant the parish. At times, such groups in the rural areas outside the poblacion even dissuade their members from going to town to attend Mass on holy days of obligation, with the reason that they already have what they call a “dry Mass”─basically a liturgy of the Word with the administration of Holy Communion outside Mass─in their chapel. In matters of governance too, at times such BECs are at odds with our Parish priest, because they impose requirements on their members (beyond those required by the Parish) in order to be included in the roster for the reception of Confirmation and Baptism, and even for Marriage. What does Canon Law say about this?
The Problem with BECs
There are two basic problems with the Basic Ecclesial Communities. Firstly, although the term has been used quite extensively in the Philippines, the Magisterium has not really defined it authoritatively. Even in the Philippines, the bishops have not given a real definition. Hence, the margin for abuse of the notion is quite wide.
Secondly, if there is no theological definition, much less could there be a canonical one. The expression does not even appear in the Code of Canon Law. Perhaps it was for this reason─the lack of any clear idea of what they are in the first place─that they have not been treated seriously in the canonical forum.
Nevertheless, the phenomenon does exist and─in Mindanao and to a certain extent also in the Visayas─quite extensively, to the point that somebody had said “they are the new way of being Church.” Hence, it’s not something that can be left to develop helter-skelter, among other things because the Church is not something that develops out of human initiative, but rather follows a Divine design. Hence, if a phenomenon like the BECs is to develop─to borrow the aforementioned quotation─being Church, it cannot be allowed to develop without the proper parameters.
Here is where Canon Law can help, because even if there may not be a canonical definition of the Basic Ecclesial Communities yet, not for this does it follow that there is a normative gap as regards the phenomenon. There is a legal gap (lacuna legis) insofar as the very expression basic ecclesial community does not even appear in the Codex, but there is no normative gap (lacuna normativa), because the juridic structure of the Church is sufficiently fine so as to provide the pertinent norms to the actuation of the BECs. In other words, from the existing legal norms, it is quite possible to draw what is applicable to the constitution and conduct of basic ecclesial communities.
This, in fact, is the inspiration behind the 19th National Convention of the Canon Law Society of the Philippines, to be held this coming April 26-29 in Surigao City. In effect, what the CLSP proposes to do is to sift through existing legal norms in the Church to find what are applicable to BECs and then integrate them into a sort of a draft Guidelines for Basic Ecclesial Communities, for possible presentation to the CBCP for the latter’s adoption and if necessary Papal recognition.
Point of Departure: the Instruction Ecclesia de Mysterio of 1997
In 1997, the Holy See issued the Instruction Ecclesia de Mysterio, On Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests. It was co-authored by six Vatican Congregations (for the Clergy; for the Doctrine of the Faith; for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments; for Bishops; for the Evangelization of Peoples; for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life) and two Pontifical Councils (for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts; for the Laity). The document reaffirmed the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (especially of Lumen Gentium, n.33 and Apostolicam Actuositatem, n.24). Its main purpose was to acknowledge and promote what is specific to the vocations of the lay faithful and of ordained ministers, with the goal of encouraging real communion in the Church.
Surprisingly, it was met either with criticism or with indifference. After almost 15 years, the problem of the BECs compels us to revisit this document, which enjoys the specific approval of the Holy Father.
As an introduction, it may be good to summarize the basic objectives of the Instruction, which simply reaffirms the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and of the more recent post conciliar Magisterium on the positive role of the laity in the Church's mission.
1. Encourage the ordained ministers and foster the ordained ministry. It seeks to encourage ordained ministers by forcefully reintroducing the subject of vocations to the priesthood, stressing that the Church's life depends on the sacrament of Holy Orders as a free, absolutely irreplaceable gift, because the ordained ministry (Bishops, priests, deacons) is part of the Church's very structure. Thus, the Instruction concludes by stating that "the solutions addressing the shortage of ordained ministers cannot be other than transitory and must be linked to a series of pastoral programs which give priority to the promotion of vocations to the Sacrament of Holy Orders."
2. Remind the laity of their specific role. The Instruction also reminds us how the fundamental equality of Christians—based on Baptism—is compatible with an essential difference—based on Sacred Orders—and that lay Christians, precisely because of Baptism, are called to the consecratio mundi, which differs from the task of anyone who belongs, through the sacrament, to the ministerial ranks. Thus, by avoiding every form of clericalism, lay Christians are encouraged to be more aware of their identity and to give their witness in the world and in the Church without considering the exercise of ministerial duties which they may perform from time to time as a form of advancement but only as one of substitution.
3. Expose the "functionalist" and "individualist" errors. The Instruction also calls for critical discernment regarding certain modernistic trends that deeply affect people's idea of the ministry.
The first, the "functionalist" approach, holds that human actions and things in general cannot refer to anything beyond themselves. In this mentality what really counts is to achieve the goal one has set for oneself. We can understand then how, even when moved by true pastoral generosity, some eventually think that whatever does not require the sacramental power of the Bishop, priest or deacon ad validitatem can be assumed ordinarily and permanently by the laity. But in doing so, the ordained ministry begins gradually to be eroded. This is illustrated by the complaint of our priest from Mindanao that some BECs are discouraging their people from attending Mass in the town proper, since anyway they have their own service─presided by a layman─in their barrio chapel.
The "individualist" approach, on the other hand, has become more and more widespread since the 16th century and leads to thinking in terms of "personal success", "competitiveness" and "power". There is no space to tackle this issue now; neither is it too relevant to the problem we have at hand.
4. Authentic promotion of the lay apostolate. The Instruction is not a limitation of the genuine promotion of lay participation in the evangelical and ecclesial apostolate. On the contrary, this is encouraged in the right direction consistent with Catholic ecclesiology. However─as Card. Ratzinger emphasized then─"it intends to rebut and prevent the tendency towards a clericalization of the lay faithful, and the risk of creating, in reality, an ecclesial structure of parallel service to that founded on the sacrament of Orders."
The doctrinal principle at the root of these concerns is the twofold affirmation of the unity of the Church 's mission, in which all the baptized participate, and the essential difference of the ministry of pastors, rooted in the sacrament of Orders, with respect to the other ministries, offices and ecclesial functions that are rooted in the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation.
5. Encourage terminological precision. In Article 1 of the practical provisions─¬entitled "Need for an Appropriate Terminology"─the Instruction rightly insists on the need for a suitable terminology, clarifying the confused use of the word ministry, which describes both the officia and the munera exercised by Pastors in virtue of the sacrament of Orders, and those exercised by the non ordained faithful.
6. Eliminate abuses. As Card. Ratzinger affirmed at the time: "The timeliness and urgent need of this Instruction is explained in the light of the situation occurring in specific and widespread ecclesial circles, which demands, special insistence on the faithful application of the principles and norms contained in the teachings of the Magisterium and the Church's universal legislation in the concrete life of the particular Churches."
In view of the situation in certain ecclesial areas, specifically North Central Europe, North America and Australia, and noting the risk that abuses in the lay faithful's participation in the sacred ministry of the ordained could spread to other ecclesiastical regions, Card. Ratzinger already affirmed then that "it seemed most timely and urgent to define clearly the various forms of assistance open to the lay faithful in the exercise of the priestly ministry."
An Important Observations: collaboration vs. participation
In the substantive level, the most important word─a veritable hermeneutic key─is a term that appears in the title itself of the document. In effect, the title speaks of the collaboration of the non-ordained faithful in the priestly ministry.
The term initially used in the preliminary discussions was participation. Thus, the title of the symposium in April 1994, which launched the serious preparation of this document, was "The Participation of the Lay Faithful in the Priestly Ministry". However, Pope John Paul II himself, in his address to that symposium, never used the term participation in this context. In fact, he belabored the distinction between participation in Christ's priesthood by virtue of baptism and confirmation, and the eventual exercise of some tasks entrusted to them by the priests:
"The laity's every ecclesial action or function─including those for which the Pastors ask them to stand in, where possible─is rooted ontologically in their common participation in Christ's priesthood and not in an ontological participation (either temporary or partial) in the ordained ministry proper to Pastors. Therefore, it is clear that if the Pastors entrust them, in an extraordinary way, with some tasks ordinarily and properly connected with the pastoral ministry but not requiring the proper character of Orders, lay people should know that these tasks are existentially rooted in their baptismal ministry and nowhere else! It must always be remembered that the exercise of such tasks does not make pastors of the lay faithful: in fact, a person is not a minister simply by performing a task, but through sacramental ordination."
The terminological shift is important. In effect, participation ("to take part in") in the ministerial tasks could not strictly speaking take place without the subject ontologically taking part─for that matter─in the ministerial priesthood itself. This could only happen with priestly ordination. From this we see the aptness of the term collaboration ("to work with") when applied to the non-ordained faithful's cooperation with the ministerial work of priests.
With the aforementioned discussion, we can point out the following doctrinal conclusions:
1. Lay collaboration in priestly ministry is not a right. The document contains several assertions that call for hermeneutic clarification. Thus, the part concerned with Theological Principles (n.4) says with respect to the tasks and functions which "are considered along the lines of collaboration with the sacred ministry" that "the non ordained faithful do not enjoy a right to such tasks and functions". Obviously, there is no wish here to deny that these faithful can legitimately exercise the tasks and functions mentioned. The document wants to state, however, that the non ordained faithful do not have the right to demand that they be assigned to the above mentioned tasks or functions.
Elsewhere the Instruction says: "the officia temporarily entrusted to them ... are exclusively the result of a deputation by the Church" (Art.1, §2). "Deputation by the Church" is a shorthand expression for "deputation by the Church's lawful Pastors". This complete formulation, used in other passages of the Instruction, avoids an identification of the Pastors with the Church herself. And §3 of the same article correctly indicates that "the temporary deputation for liturgical purposes mentioned in c.230, §2─does not confer any special or permanent title on the non ordained faithful". The following sentence states that it is unlawful for the non ordained faithful to assume titles such as pastor, chaplain, coordinator or moderator. What applies to temporary deputation applies with all the more reason to permanent deputation for liturgical or pastoral tasks (cf. CIC, c.230, §1, 517, §2,).
2. Lay collaboration is supplementary─i.e., only in cases of necessity. By their ecclesiological nature all of these particular functions belong to the realm of the ordained ministry, in which a lay person, however, can collaborate in cases of necessity, if he has been lawfully deputed to do so. But it must be noted here: "in case of necessity"!
For example, it could never be the Church's objective to replace the Eucharistic celebration by promoting Sunday celebrations without a priest. Nevertheless, wherever there are no other possibilities, the Church is grateful to that lay person who, being well disposed and following the instructions of the Bishop who appointed him, conducts a Liturgy of the Word for and with the faithful who have no other opportunity to celebrate the Lord's Day. It is clear that the lay person here is truly a supplementary aid. Thus, for the good of the faithful he will be glad when a priest is available to celebrate the Eucharist. The Instruction enables us to indicate many other analogous situations.
3. Responsibility for abuses. The practical provisions of the Instruction are not limited to listing possible or actual abuses, but they always seek to indicate the theological and canonical coordinates underlying the respective fields of activity and thereby to draw the necessary consequences. As a well-known Canonist, Prof. Winfried Aymans, pointed out at the time, "the problems mentioned are caused, first of all, by the fact that they are found in a border area." Abuses occur, according to Aymans, when exceptional solutions become alternatives, changing an extraordinary competence into an ordinary one, or, on the other, when the limits provided for collaboration are unlawfully extended and a competence is assumed that has not been given.
"In this regard─Aymans continues─it should be pointed out that the laity usually cannot be considered responsible for true and proper abuses. They in fact fulfill—normally with good intentions─that role which has been introduced in their particular Church and has been entrusted to them. On the other hand, it should be noted that the norms established by the Bishops' Conferences or by individual Bishops generally do not contradict the ordinances of universal law, but their clarity at times is not enough to prevent the spread of an abusive practice."
It is for this reason that the Canon Law Society of the Philippines has chosen this topic for their study and discussion in this year’s CLSP National Convention.