In one of my weaker moments, I did something rather foolish, born from curiosity. That is, I read Pope Francis’ new motu proprio: Spiritus Domini. It was not so much what the document promulgated that interested me – that women shall be made official acolytes and lectors of the Church – but rather in how it was accomplished. How exactly does a pope go about codifying an illicit and vexatious practice? Is it as simple as a few magic words, a stroke of the pen, and voila, women can officially act the role of men? It turns out that this is not far from the truth.
As I read, almost immediately I was confused. Spiritus Domini begins by vaguely speaking of charisms. Everyone, we are told, receives charisms in order to build up the Church. Fine. But with no further distinction, these charisms are then “called ministries because they are publicly recognized and instituted by the Church.” Equating all charisms with publicly recognized Church ministries is a devious jump in logic, especially when one considers the context of this motu proprio. The object of the motu proprio is to formally codify the many years of disobedience where certain women have acted as acolytes and lectors (shame on the many pastors for approving this). To equate this disobedience as a charism is a scandalous proposition. What next? Approving sins against the Sixth Commandment because people are doing them anyway? Or cancelling the Sunday Mass obligation because people are not attending anyway? Never mind that last example.
With the idea of charisms and ministry muddled, Francis then attempts to place “lay ministries” in a historical context. He explains, “Following a venerable tradition, the reception of ‘lay ministries’, which Saint Paul VI regulated in the Motu Proprio Ministeria Quaedam (17 August 1972), preceded in a preparatory manner the reception of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, although such ministries were conferred on other suitable male faithful.”
Brideshead Revisited’s Rex Mottram comes to mind – if the pope says it is going to rain then it must, or at least rain spiritually for those holy enough to see. If Francis says that Paul VI followed the venerable 1700-year tradition of minor orders by kicking the orders to the curb in the name of a “contemporary outlook” (Paul VI’s own words), then he must have done so, at least spiritually for those holy enough to see.
Pope Francis continues: “A number of Assemblies of the Synod of Bishops have highlighted the need to deepen the subject doctrinally.” It is 2021. This motu proprio was released mere days following the collapse of hope in the United States and much of the world. Lockdowns are crushing humanity. Starvation is rising. Mass attendance is at a stunning 5%. But we are told that certifying women to read at Mass is what must be highlighted. This may be partially true I suppose, considering many churches will soon no longer have any lay men at Mass.
Reading further, Francis chalks up the need to change what is in place by infamously calling it, to the delight of James Martin, “a doctrinal development.” From this he drops the bombshell on Canon 230 §1, declaring that “[l]ay persons of suitable age” are to be established in the ministries of lectors and acolytes. Thus concludes Spiritus Domini.
There is much I could say about this motu proprio. First, it never really addresses why women must become acolytes and lectors. Is simply being a wife, mother, or even a bride of Christ too blasé? Is it empowering for a woman to serve a man (priest) at a table (altar) in front of a dwindling and ever-aging congregation? This is the feminist dream? Or is this, as we all suspect, just the obvious next step towards the impossible: female ordinations?
To coin a new phrase: Is the modern pope always canonized?
But what stands out most in Spiritus Domini is the clear manipulation of the term ministry. I am not surprised. Since the papacy of Paul VI, was ever there a more overused and convoluted word than ministry? I immediately think of one nearby parish where everyone is a minister of something. There is usher ministry, music ministry, décor ministry, hospitality ministry, and kitchen ministry. There is also sign ministry, to make the poor soul who changes the outdoor church sign in 40 below weather feel important. I imagine there is even ministry-ministry, for the people who make the lists dictating who must actively participate in which ministry for a given week. Pope Francis suggests that these are all charisms of the Holy Spirit. I counter that the Holy Spirit does not go around looking to give figurative ice cream cones to all Catholics so that they can feel important. Sentimentality is no charism. Nor is reciting the word ministry a theological argument.
To be honest, I do not know what ministry means anymore. It apparently no longer has anything to do with ordinations. It is whatever we call it to be. For all I can tell, Pope Francis has thrown terms such as “charism”, “venerable tradition”, and “doctrinal development” at the word, and then simply did what he wished to do all along. Well I shall call the word ministry something else: A dull, unspectacular, and unconvincing excuse.
On we trod. The world indeed falls apart. The Church rushes to join in the folly. Holy Spirit, give us your true grace to fight for souls. I can only conclude with the tragic words of the late John Senior in The Death of Christian Culture:
“And Christians look fearfully toward a second age of martyrdom, this time without the lions, under the reign of a sophisticated terror by lobotomy and drugs to create international, nondenominational, multiracial moral and political imbecility. The Church Herself is split by an apostasy within, far worse than any that has ever been without. Christians who have lived in the hope that the Church would save them must fight to save the Church. No sooner on the ark than they must man the pumps” (p. 148).
Perhaps, then, there is one more ministry we must still consider. Save-the-Church ministry.
Sign me up.
Dan Millette is a husband and father of four. He teaches in Saskatchewan, Canada. Millette is a graduate from Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College in Ontario and has a Master of Arts degree in theology from Holy Apostles College in Connecticut. His personal blog is www.bravestthing.com.