CD102 Essay of 2000 words due 24 October 2000, by John Lilburne.

What do you consider to be the major developments in the theology of the "laity" in the Church today? Why? What are the areas you think still need development.


Major developments in the theology of the "laity" relate to the role of the laity in the Church. These developments are clearly illustrated in the changing role of the laity in the official Church instructions on liturgy.

In the conclusion to Dominicae Cenae (24 February 1980), Pope John Paul II wrote:

A very close and organic bond exists between the renewal of the liturgy and the renewal of the whole life of the Church.

The Church not only acts but also expresses herself in the liturgy, lives by the liturgy and draws from the liturgy the strength for her life. For this reason liturgical renewal carried out correctly in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council is, in a certain sense, the measure and the condition for putting into effect the teaching of that Council ...

In some places there has been poor implementation of the official instructions. To an extent this due to ignorance and reluctance to change, which will gradually be corrected through education. However it can also indicate areas of uncertainity and dispute, in the theology of the laity, needing further development. In examining the role of the laity in the Church, particular attention is given to the role of the laity as liturgical ministers.

The essay discusses:

the laity in Vatican II,
the term "minister" in the liturgical reform,
instituted readers and acolytes,
the development of the role of women in liturgical ministries,
the problem of reserving institution to men only, and
difficulties for the Church in the implementation of instituted ministers.

The Role of the Laity in Vatican II

Vatican II did not authorise a sharp division of labour between clergy and laity. The decree on the Aposolate of the Laity, Apostolicam actuositatem, exhorts lay persons "to exercise their apostolate both in the Church and in the world, in both the spiritual and temporal orders" (AA 5).[Footnote1: Avery Dulles, The Reshaping of Catholicism (San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1988) 27.]

In Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963) the term "minister" seemed to exclude the laity, in n 28:

In liturgical celebrations each person, minister or layman, ...

However in Sacrosanctum Concilium 35(3) there is some ambiguity:

Instruction which is more explicitly liturgical should also be given in a variety of ways; if necessary, short directives to be spoken by the priest or proper minister should be provided within the rites themselves.

The term "proper minister" could be seen as referring to a deacon or a lay commentator.

Ministers in the 1970 Roman Missal

The 1970 Roman Missal used the term "minister" to refer to altar servers, rather than for the priest himself. The description of the Mass made at least one minister compulsory [Footnote 2: 1970 Roman Missal, General Instruction, n. 77. Documents on the Liturgy, (Minnesota, Liturgical Press, 1982) 489.]. In particular, two tasks were not to be performed by the celebrant, but by a minister:

- Taking the corporal, chalice, Missal, and purificator from the side table and placing them on the altar.

- Pouring water on the priest's hands when he washed them. [Footnote 3: 1970 Roman Missal, General Instruction, n. 100 and 106.]

1972 - Instituted Ministers

In 1972 Pope Paul VI issued the Motu Proprio entitled Ministeria quaedam [Footnote 4: Documents on the Liturgy, (Minnesota, Liturgical Press, 1982) 908.], promulgating amendments to Canon Law:

I First tonsure is no longer conferred; entrance to the clerical state is joined to the diaconate.

II What up to now were called minor orders are henceforth to be called ministries.

III Ministries may be assigned to lay Christians; hence they are no longer to be considered as reserved to candidates for the sacrament of orders.

IV Two ministries, adapted to present-day needs, are to be preserved in the whole Latin Church, namely, those of reader and acolyte.

The conferral of ministries "will not be called ordination, but institution." However:

VII In accordance with the ancient tradition of the Church, institution to the ministries of reader and acolyte is reserved to men.

The changes were incorporated in the 1975 Roman Missal.

In 1980, one commentator wrote:

What Paul VI did in his motu proprio, Ministeria quaedam of 1972, was to dismantle a clerical system which had begun in the Latin Church at the time of the papal decretals of the fourth and fifth centuries and was given its finishing strokes in the medieval period of Roman and Gallican canonical and liturgical intermingling.[Footnote 5: David Power, Gifts that Differ: Lay ministries established and unestablished (New York, Pueblo, 1980) 59.]

1988 Christifideles Laici

In 1983 the changes were included in the Code of Canon Law, as discussed in the 1988 Apostolic Exhortation, Christifideles Laici, n 23:

The Code of Canon Law states: "When the necessity of the Church warrants it and when ministers are lacking, lay persons, even if they are not lectors or acolytes, can also supply for certain of their offices, namely, to exercise the ministry of the word, to preside over liturgical prayers, to confer Baptism, and to distribute Holy Communion in accord with the prescriptions of the law." (Footnote 69: Code of Canon Law, Can. 230.3). However, the exercise of such tasks does not make the lay faithful pastors: in fact, a person is not a minister simply in performing a task, but through sacramental ordination. Only the Sacrament of Orders gives the ordained minister a particular participation in the office of Christ, the Shepherd and Head, and in his Eternal Priesthood. ...

In the context, the statement that a person is a minister "through sacramental ordination" is remarkable. The term "ordination" instead of "institution" is used for "minister" - which refers to acolytes and readers in the previous sentence. Possibly, in relating the instituted ministers to ordination there is the development of a justification for the exclusion of women.

Concerns about the instituted ministers in the 1987 Synod of Bishops are expressed in Christifideles Laici, n 23:

a critical judgment was voiced along with these positive elements, about a too-indiscriminate use of the word "ministry, " the confusion and the equating of the common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood, the lack of observance of ecclesiastical laws and norms, the arbitrary interpretation of the concept of "supply, " 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. ...

In the course of Synod work the Fathers devoted much attention to the Lectorate and the Acolytate. While in the past these ministries existed in the Latin Church only as spiritual steps on route to the ordained ministry, with the motu proprio of Paul VI, Ministerial Quaedam (August 15, 1972), they assumed an autonomy and stability, as well as a possibility of their being given to the lay faithful, albeit, only to men. The same fact is expressed in the new Code of Canon Law. (Footnote 77: Cf. Code of Canon Law, Can. 230.1). At this time the Synod Fathers expressed the desire that "the motu proprio Ministerial Quaedam be reconsidered, bearing in mind the present practice of local churches and above all indicating criteria which ought to be used in choosing those destined for each ministry." (Footnote 78: Propositio 18).

In this regard a Commission was established to respond ...

Evidently there was a lack of consensus at the Synod, with some wanting to restrict the term "ministry" to ordained ministers. According to Bishop Jaramillo, of Columbia, it was important "to underlie the difference that exists between the ministries conferred on the laity, and those which the candidate for the priesthood receives." [Footnote 6: Peter Coughlan, The Hour of the Laity, (Australia, E.J. Dwyer, 1989) 77.]

1997 Ecclesia de mysterio

The results of this Commission seemed to come to light on 15 August 1997 with the publication of Ecclesia de mysterio [Footnote 7: The English title is: Instruction on certain questions regarding the collaboration of the non-ordained faithful in the sacred ministry of priests.]. Following a discussion of the term ministry, Article 1.3 says:

The non-ordained faithful may be generally designated "extraordinary ministers" when deputed by competent authority to discharge, solely by way of supply, those offices mentioned in Canon 230.3 and in Canons 943 and 1112. Naturally, the concrete term may be applied to those to whom functions are canonically entrusted e.g. catechists, acolytes, lectors etc.

This confirms that acolytes and lectors are called "ministers". It seems that after the Synod Fathers request for a reconsideration, the conclusion is to retain these ministries.

Women in Liturgical Ministry

A likely area of development is the institution of women to these ministries. The role of women in liturgy has developed, as shown in the following extracts from documents of the liturgical reform.

1969 Instruction Fidei custos, on special ministers to administer communion: "A woman of outstanding piety may be chosen in cases of necessity, that is, whenever another fit person cannot be found."[Footnote 8: Documents on the Liturgy, (Minnesota, Liturgical Press, 1982) 643.] This was changed in 1973: "The fit person referred to ... will be designated according to the order of this listing (which may be changed at the prudent discretion of the local Ordinary): reader, major seminarian, man religious, woman religious, catechist, one of the faithful - a man or a woman."[Footnote 9: Documents on the Liturgy, (Minnesota, Liturgical Press, 1982) 651.]

1970 Roman Missal, General Instruction, n 66: "The conference of bishops may grant that when there is no man present capable of carrying out the reader's function, a suitable woman, standing outside the sanctuary, may proclaim the readings preceding the gospel."

1975 Roman Missal, General Instruction, n 70: "At the discretion of the rector of the church, women may be appointed to ministries that are performed outside the sanctuary. The conference of bishops may permit qualified women to proclaim the readings before the gospel and to announce the intentions of the general intercessions. The conference may also more precisely designate a suitable place for a woman to proclaim the word of God in the liturgical assembly."

11 July 1992 - An authentic interpretation of the Pontifical Council for the interpretation of Legislative Texts clarified that canon 230.2 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law permits females as well as males to exercise the liturgical function of altar server. [Footnote 10: John Huels, The Pastoral Companion, (Franciscan Press, 1995) 87.]

2000 Roman Missal, General Instruction, n 107: "The liturgical functions which are not proper to the priest or the deacon, and which are listed above (nos. 100-106[Footnote 11: These paragraphs excludes instituted acolytes and readers, but allows the performance of many of their functions in their absence. Also included are the roles of cantor, sacristan, commentator, taking up the collection, usher and Master of Ceremonies.]), may be entrusted to suitable laity chosen by the pastor or rector of the church through a liturgical blessing or a temporary deputation. The function of altar servers is regulated by norms established by the Bishop for his diocese."[Footnote 12: Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani July 2000: An English Language Study Translation (Washington, Secretariat for the Liturgy of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2000) page 23, n 107.] This document removed the description of functions "outside the sanctuary". There is no longer to be reading outside the sanctuary, since the new description of the sanctuary is "the place where the altar stands, the word of God is proclaimed ...".[Footnote13: ibid, page 48, n 295.]

Problems of "male only" Instituted Ministers

Since the functions of the instituted acolyte and lector can be performed by women it seems to be an anomaly that they cannot be instituted to these ministries.

In Christifideles Laici, n 49, the Pope quotes two propositions of the Synod fathers:

Vigorous and incisive pastoral action must be taken by all to overcome completely these forms of discrimination so that the image of God that shines in all human beings without exception may be fully respected.

As an expression of her mission, the Church must stand firmly against all forms of discrimination and abuse of women.

He continues:

Though not called to the apostolate of the Twelve, and thereby to the ministerial priesthood, many women nevertheless accompanied Jesus in his ministry and assisted the group of Apostles (cf. Lk 8:2-3); ... From the evidence of the Gospel, the Church at its origin detached herself from the culture of the time and called women to tasks connected with spreading the Gospel. In his letters the Apostle Paul even cites by name a great number of women for their various functions in service of the primitive Christian community.

A commentary on the Code of Canon Law discusses problems with the instituted ministers, including:

the restriction of installation of these ministries to men. The basis for this restriction has been questioned throughout the process for revising the Code. These are truly lay ministries, are not intended as a step toward sacred orders, and the restriction to males appears an unwarranted discrimination.

The difficulty in practice is that many of the functions installed lectors and acolytes are to perform have already been entrusted to women as well as men. ... What would be the impact on the community if some who provide these ministries were to be installed but others, equally qualified and experienced, were to be denied installation merely on the basis of sex? [Footnote 14: J. Coriden, T. Green and D Heintschell, The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary (USA, Paulist Press, Canon Law Society of America, 1985) 168.]

Women's Ordination and Women's Institution

According to the 1999 report, Women and Man:

it was proposed that the Church explore the expansion of the deacon's role to include women as deacons and also explore the possibility of women acolytes. [Footnote 15: Marie Macdonald et al, Woman and Man - One in Christ Jesus: Report on the Participation of Women in the Catholic Church in Australia (Sydney, Harper Collins, 1999) 388.]

The issues of "women's ordination" and "women's institution" are only related by outdated terminology. What today would be termed "institution to the ministry of acolyte" would have been called, 30 years ago: "ordination as a subdeacon". Indeed, according to the 1972 motu propiro "There is, however, no reason why the acolyte cannot be called a subdeacon in some places, at the discretion of the conference of bishops." [Footnote 16: Documents on the Liturgy, (Minnesota, Liturgical Press, 1982) page 909, n IV.]

In an introduction to Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, on reserving priestly ordination to men alone, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in 1996:

What was previously the bond to the mystery of origin is but now regarded as discrimination against half of humanity, as the archaic holdover of an outdated image of man that must be opposed by the struggle for equal rights. In a world thoroughly characterized by functionality, it has become difficult even to conceive of viewpoints other than those of functionality. The real nature of the sacrament, which is not derived from functionality, can hardly be perceived at all. [Footnote 17: Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, From "Inter Insigniores" to "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" - Documents and Commentaries (Washington, United States Catholic Conference, 1998) 5-6.]

However he later explains why ordination is restricted to men alone:

Priesthood, according to the Catholic faith is a sacrament, that is, not something invented by the Church for pragmatic reasons but something given to her by the Lord. Consequently, she cannot give it any shape she wishes; instead she can only hand on in respectful fidelity what she has received. [Footnote 18: Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, From "Inter Insigniores" to "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" - Documents and Commentaries (Washington, United States Catholic Conference, 1998) 7.]

This would not justify, however, reserving the institution to the ministries of reader and acolyte to men alone. The Church teaches that it is not sacrament, but a sacramental. [Footnote 19: Catechism of the Catholic Church Second Edition (NSW, St Pauls, 2000) page 416, n 1672.]

The Embarrassment of Instituted Ministers

The Church seems to be embarrassed about this issue. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, n 903 teaches: "Lay people who possess the required qualities can be admitted permanently to the ministries of lector and acolyte. (Footnote 436: Cf. CIC, can. 230.1)." It is not mentioned that Canon 230.1 refers only to "lay men" - "Viri laici" .

A distinguishing feature of instituted readers is that they must wear vestments. According to the 1981 General Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass, LM 54:

During the celebration of Mass with a congregation a second priest, a deacon, and an instituted reader must wear the distinctive vestment of their office when they go to the lectern to read the word of God. Those who carry out the ministry of reader just for the occasion or even regularly but without institution may go to the lectern in ordinary attire that is in keeping with local custom.[Footnote 20: Lectionary Vol 1, (Sydney, Collins, 1983) xxix.]

Those opposed to instituted ministers could go as far as to not obey:

LM 54, which requires instituted readers to wear vestments.

Canon 1035, by ordaining deacons without them being instituted as readers and acolytes.

Canon 230.3, which only allows those who are not instituted to read when "ministers are lacking".

But it is difficult to see how regularly breaking Church law could successfully continue for long. If such a strategy were followed with seminarians, few would be prepared to take the Oath of Fidelity, required for ordination, which includes:

I shall follow and foster the common discipline of the whole Church and I shall observe all ecclesiastical laws, especially those which are contained in the Code of Canon Law. [Footnote 21: John Huels, The Pastoral Companion (USA, Franciscan Press, 1995) 379.]

According to John Huels in 1995 instituted ministry "is conferred only rarely on anyone in North America except for seminarians preparing for the priesthood and candidates for permanent diaconate."[Footnote 22: John Huels, The Pastoral Companion, (Franciscan Press, 1995) 87.]

There has been considerable reluctance to implement the institution of lay ministers. Perhaps for the "progressives" they are an unfair discrimination against women and the establishment of hierarchy. The "conservatives" seem reluctant to promote them, concerned that they are a radical change that will undermine the role of the clergy.

For example in 1987 Monsignor Cormac Burke wrote:

Vatican II, then, calls us to an immense broadening and deepening of vision if we are to grasp the true role of the laity. We need to get our minds off the "lay ministries" track. ... The documents of Vatican II in fact nowhere speak of lay ministries. ... It is illusory to see in them a wedge in a door through which, if forced open a little wider, the laity as a body can eventually pass and so occupy their rightful and allotted place.[Footnote 23: Cormac Burke, Freedom and Authority in the Church (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1988) 131 - 132.]

However they are a part of the liturgical renewal and the 1983 Canon Law, so to undermine them is to undermine the Church's renewal and law.


The role of the laity as instituted ministers show recent developments in the theology of the laity. The liturgy is an important and public part of the Church's activity. Developments of the role of the laity in liturgy, particularly of women, are paralleled by other changes in the way the laity participate in the Church.


Burke, Cormac. Freedom and Authority in the Church . San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1988.

Coriden, J., Green T. and Heintschell, D. The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary. USA, Paulist Press, Canon Law Society of America, 1985.

Coughlan, Peter.The Hour of the Laity. Australia, E.J. Dwyer, 1989.

Dulles, Avery.The Reshaping of Catholicism . San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1988.

Huels, John.The Pastoral Companion. USA, Franciscan Press, 1995.

MacDonald, Marie et al. Woman and Man - One in Christ Jesus: Report on the Participation of Women in the Catholic Church in Australia . Sydney, Harper Collins, 1999.

Power, David.Gifts that Differ: Lay ministries established and unestablished . New York, Pueblo, 1980.

Catechism of the Catholic Church -Second Edition. NSW, St Pauls, 2000.

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, From "Inter Insigniores" to "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis"-Documents and Commentaries. Washington, United States Catholic Conference, 1998.

Documents on the Liturgy. Minnesota, Liturgical Press, 1982.

Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani July 2000: An English Language Study Translation. Washington, Secretariat for the Liturgy of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2000.

Lectionary Vol 1. Sydney, Collins, 1983.

Copyright J.R. Lilburne, revised 2 April 2001.