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catholic dialogue
Isabella R. Moyer


Pope Francis seeks to overturn distrust of the laity


“We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.” This is one of the most quoted lines from Amoris Laetitia: (The Joy of Love), the post-synodal exhortation by Pope Francis. It challenges the centuries-old parent-child paradigm between the hierarchy and the laity. It challenges the old-school clericalism that imposes undue power and control over lay and family life.

Much has been written about the lack of any visible change in doctrine and church teaching regarding marriage and family life in Amoris Laetitia. Traditionalist hearts breathed a sigh of relief. Liberal hearts mourned the missed opportunity for major reform.

I would have loved to see Francis single-handedly sweep away all church teachings that have caused women and men to feel excluded from the Body of Christ. I also know that I would not want all popes to have this kind of power.

Pope Francis is a believer in a synodal church. He initiated a more open and transparent synod than those of his predecessors, and his respect for the process is reflected in Amoris Laetitia. The document includes many references to Vatican and synod documents. Francis is, after all, a man of the church and he is speaking for the church.

Francis is also a man of the people. If you want to know the mind and heart of this pope, read Chapter 4 of Amoris Laetitia. It’s a practical reflection on “Love in Marriage” written by a true pastor. Or, read any of the daily reports on the homilies, speeches and letters of Francis. His message is unmistakable. Doctrinal and theological wrangling take a back seat to mercy, love and service.

What Francis is doing is greater than simply changing laws. He is challenging minds and hearts to prepare the way for a more participatory, egalitarian and inclusive church. A truly synodal church must allow all voices to be heard, not just priests and bishops.

The National Catholic Reporter’s Rome correspondent Joshua J. McElwee recently wrote an article titled “Francis: Spirit works in laypeople, ‘is not property of the hierarchy.’ ” The context of the article was a letter written by Pope Francis to Cardinal Marc Ouellet in his role as head of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America. The pope’s letter was a followup to the commission’s recent plenary assembly on the theme “The indispensable role of the lay faithful in the public life of Latin American countries.”

On the one hand, it’s sad that Francis needs to remind bishops and priests that the Holy Spirit is not an exclusive gift given to those in the hierarchy. And, yet, how many times have we been led to believe that those with the sacred oils of ordination have a direct line to the Divine while we, the great unwashed in the pews, are wallowing in ignorance?

Clericalism is the antithesis of a participatory, egalitarian and inclusive spirit. In his letter Francis called clericalism “one of the greatest deformations that Latin America must confront.” Francis speaks often about the evils of clericalism, and the damage it has imposed on the church. Writing to Cardinal Ouellet he stated, “Clericalism, far from giving impulse to diverse contributions and proposals, turns off, little by little, the prophetic fire from which the entire church is called to give testimony in the heart of its peoples. Clericalism forgets that the visibility and the sacramentality of the church belongs to all the People of God and not only an elect or illuminated few.”

Historically, this mentality led to the belief that lay people were not to be trusted with reading the Scriptures in case they strayed from or questioned the official church interpretations of the Word of God. We were also not to be trusted with our own consciences in intimate, moral matters.

Francis is seeking to overturn this distrust of the laity.

“We trust in our people, in their memory and in their ‘sense of smell,’ we trust that the Holy Spirit works in and with them, and that this Spirit is not only the ‘property’ of the ecclesial hierarchy.”
The Holy Spirit works in each of us. God can speak directly to us in God’s Word. We might have better knowledge than a priest of what is right and wrong in our own situation. For some this is obvious, but many generations of women and men have suffered from clerical control in all aspects of their lives.

Clericalism is at the heart of much that is wrong with our church. Clericalism feeds, supports and shelters the power and control that has been associated with the hierarchy for centuries. Clericalism wraps itself in finery and surrounds itself with symbols of prestige. Clericalism demands to be served rather than to serve.

Francis is nudging the People of God to an adult faith, a faith that sheds an unhealthy and dysfunctional dependence on “Father.” Father does not always know best. Clericalism stifles the independence and freedom needed to form spiritually, emotionally, physically and intellectually mature women and men.

Moyer blogs at She lives in Gimli, Man., with her husband, David. They have five adult children and four grandchildren.