Editorial Note: This post is an excerpt from a longer article, published on Church Life Journal on Tuesday, November 19, 2019. Read the full version here.
What is leadership in the Church?
There is, of course, the leadership that comes with the sacrament of Holy Orders, which includes the gifts of sacramental celebration, apostolic teaching, and governance in the manner of Christ the Good Shepherd, filled with pastoral charity. This remains in place and is undisputed. But is that the full extent of leadership in the Church? Is “leadership” just another way of talking about the hierarchy and nothing else? Is “leadership” merely synonymous with the gifts of governance and authoritative teaching that are indisputably intrinsic to the episcopal order?
Or is “leadership” a wider category in the Church? Is there leadership in the Church that is appropriate to the baptized as baptized, who also truly share, in their own manner, in the priestly, prophetic and royal vocation of Christ? How does our understanding of leadership change when we take the role and dignity of all the baptized as seriously as it ought to be taken? If lay people are to have true leadership roles in the Church, then “leadership” itself is and must be a wider category than “governance”, reducible to the hierarchy alone.
This is the radical implication of Pope Benedict’s little-known call for what he designated “co-responsibility” for the mission of the Church, issued in a scantly publicized speech delivered in 2012 on the occasion of the sixth Ordinary Assembly of the International Forum of Catholic Action. Benedict called for a change in how we think about the role of lay people in the Church, using the new word “co-responsibility” to refer to it. He said that lay people “should not be regarded as ‘collaborators’ of the clergy, but, rather, as people who are really ‘co-responsible’ for the Church’s being and acting.” He went on to say that it was therefore “important that a mature and committed laity be consolidated, which can make its own specific contribution to the ecclesial mission.” What does it mean that lay people are not to be regarded essentially as “collaborators” with the clergy, but that all the baptized are “co-responsible” together for the Church’s mission?
I take that it means that lay people do not have a responsibility for mission that is limited to participating in a governance structure already fully intact, in which they are then slotted into subordinate roles. It means that lay leadership is not limited to (though it certainly includes) “lay ecclesial ministry,” which is a subordinate participation in the ministry specific to the ordained. But if the responsibility of lay people for the being and acting of the Church is no longer limited to “collaboration,” then it re-contextualizes not just the discussion of what lay leadership is in the Church, but the discussion of what leadership is in the Church pure and simple. It is that dramatic.
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[Pope] Francis insists on what his predecessors going back to at least Paul VI have themselves insisted again and again: citing John Paul II, Francis notes that evangelization is “‘the first task of the Church’” (Evangelii Gaudium 15, citing Redemptoris Missio 34). If this is so, then “co-responsibility” for the mission of the Church must mean co-responsibility for evangelization.
From March 4 to March 6 at the University of Notre Dame, the McGrath Institute for Church Life will host a conference dedicated to developing the call to “co-responsibility.” Our conference hopes to make this “co-responsible” form of leadership visible as such, and at the same time to make the theology that empowers it visible as such as well. This theology and this form of leadership is already in the documents of Vatican II, along with other magisterial documents on evangelization beginning with Paul VI and continuing all the way through to Francis.
Our task today is to draw out this vision more explicitly, and to offer the fruits of our work to the life of the Church. The “Called & Co-Responsible” conference is a concrete effort towards this end. We hope and intend for this effort to be a new beginning rather than the end of exploring this genuinely new conception of leadership in the Church. And even as this co-responsible form of leadership makes the Church more irreducibly lay, it is also that form of leadership that is irreducibly ordered to the sacramental communion and hierarchical constitution willed by Christ himself and without which we are not the Catholic Church.