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The Catholic Church Lacks an Imagination for Lay Agency

Some two years ago, I attended the Called and Co-Responsible conference at the University of Notre Dame. It was a conference about the role of the laity in the Church. One of the speakers, Fr. Michael Sweeny, O.P. made two insightful statements in his talk that resonated deeply with my experience working with parishes all over the country. He said, “Formation in the Church has always been for the sake of a mission;” and “as a Church, we have no imagination for lay agency.”

In other words, we have seminary formation to prepare men for the mission of priesthood. We have religious formation for men and women to be formed for the mission of a particular religious order. We have schools of theology to prepare men and women (lay or otherwise) to study and/or teach theology. This is because we have an imagination for what the agency (vocation/mission) of each of these roles in the Church entails. But do most Catholics have an imagination for lay agency in the modern world? Do pastoral workers and Catholics-in-the-pews have an imagination that goes beyond involvement in “parish life?” I would argue, in agreement with Fr. Sweeny, no. But why? Let me suggest the source of the problem, its causes, what the problem leads to, and at least some pathways for moving forward.

To be sure, Catholic doctrine and theology in the twentieth century has resulted in tremendous development in the articulation of the lay vocation and mission—lay agency. On the level of Church teaching, there is increasing conceptual clarity on the notion of lay vocation and mission.[1] We know with greater conceptual clarity not only what the laity is not and what they cannot do, but also what the lay vocation is and what the mission does entail.

The “positive” definition of the laity makes all the difference because we cannot form someone according to what they are not. For example, how are we to form someone as “not a ministerial priest?,” or “not a religious sister?” Rather, we form someone in accordance with who they are, and what they are to do. However, all the beautiful development of this doctrine has not yet fully inspired popular Catholicism and those who have been charged with the formation of the laity’s imagination about their vocation (mostly parish pastoral workers and priests). Why?

Principle: Imagination is shaped by experience. Therefore, the experience of Church professionals’ study, popular examples of holiness, their professional environment, hobbies, and social circles, are going to shape our imagination for the formation we deliver, both in content and in manner.

In my experience, both personally, and from interacting with hundreds of pastoral workers across the country, the typical Church professional’s training in grad school has equipped us for teaching theology/adult catechesis in an ecclesiastical or academic setting. For example, we have classes on Christian Anthropology, Soteriology, Trinitarian Theology, Church History, Analysis of Pauline Epistles, etc., which rightly treat these topics as a science. We write papers, take exams, and have colloquiums, all intended to establish intellectual mastery of studied topics. Thus, from our experience in grad school, some of our imagination for lay agency is based on the experience of lay professors and lay students studying academic theology as a profession. Moreover, our imagination for teaching theology has been formed by experiencing theology as an academic discipline in an academic, institutional, or ecclesiastical setting. While I am sure there are exceptions and nuances to this, however, the majority of people I deal with have had this experience.

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