Theological Trends: Ministry and Ordination I

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British Jesuits


The Roman Catholic Church enters the I980s in the grip of a virtual revolution in the area of ministry. As recently as twenty years ago, few theological topics were more easily handled. Ministry was the work, mainly sacramental, by which the hierarchy, with the help of the lower ranks of the clergy, carried out the mission it had received from Jesus Christ by virtue of ordination. As early as the 'fifties and 'sixties there were occasional questions raised about what role, if any, the laity were called upon to play in the mission and/or ministry of the Church. However, despite the notable efforts of theologians like Yves Congar(1) and Hans Küng(2) to highlight the universal christian vocation to ministry implied by baptismal participation in the priesthood of Christ, the prevailing understanding of ministry in the roman communion was that it was the preserve of the clergy,(3) who might, under certain circumstances, delegate tasks to the laity. This understanding was epitomized in the definition of 'Catholic action' still current in the 'fifties and 'sixties: 'The participation of the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy'.(4) The relation between mission/ministry and ordination was unambiguous: ordination both conferred ecclesial mission and empowered for ministry. Ordination was the unique legitimation of ministerial initiative. As we shall see, it is the simultaneous explicit challenging and implicit acceptance of this unambiguous relationship between ministry and ordination which is at the root of the theoretical and practical ministerial malaise that characterizes the contemporary Church.