The document was signed by the heads of eight different Roman dicasteries: the Congregation for the Clergy, Congregation for the Laity, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Congregation for the Sacraments, Congregation for Bishops, Congregation for Evangelization, Congregation for the Consecrated Life, and the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts.
The statement is the product of a symposium on the same topic, held in Rome in April 1994. At that time, a preliminary draft was prepared, and sent to bishops in the countries most directly concerned, for their comments. After a series of discussions and clarifications, a Vatican statement said, a "clear convergence" emerged to support the document published today.
The new statement responds to dangers that the distinctive character of the ordained ministry may become misunderstood as lay people assume roles for which they are not properly qualified. It is crucial, the document argues, "to carefully preserve both the nature and mission of the sacred ministry and the vocation and secular character of the lay faithful. Collaboration does not mean substitution."
The statement points out that in many dioceses, lay people have been able to collaborate with their pastors in very productive ways, without provoking any pastoral problems. However, it admits that in other areas, the entry of the laity into new roles has caused "grave consequences" for the understanding of ecclesial communion.
The "Instruction on certain questions concerning the collaboration of the lay faithful in the ministry of priests" sets out the theological principles that define the distinctive characteristics of the ordained ministry, and thereby set the limits for collaboration in that ministry. The central principle is that the priesthood involves a "sacred power" handed down from the apostles, which cannot be passed on except through ordination.
The special character of the priesthood is not negotiable, nor is it subject to change, the Vatican affirms. In a clear and direct contradiction of arguments for a greater "shared ministry" in which the lay faithful exercise priestly roles, the Instruction insists: "The ministerial priesthood is absolutely irreplaceable." Where non- ordained people are now performing ministerial duties, the Instruction says, Church authorities have an obligation to intervene immediately, to bring those abuses to a halt.
Among the abuses cited in the document are the designation of lay people as "pastors" or "chaplains" for Catholic congregations, and the use of lay people to deliver homilies. (Lay people may serve as chaplains for institutions such as hospitals, but their function must not include the routine ministry of the sacraments.) These roles are reserved for priests, the Instruction points out. Lay people are also prohibited from serving on presbyteral councils.
While it is possible for lay people to lead Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest, the Vatican Instruction that such arrangements must be done with an explicit mandate from the bishop, and should always be viewed as "temporary arrangements" to be discontinued as soon as a priest becomes available. In any liturgical ceremonies, lay people cannot perform the roles reserved for priests; they may distribute the Eucharist, but may not recite the Eucharistic Prayers.
The Instruction makes it clear that lay people should serve as Eucharistic ministers only under "extraordinary" circumstances, and condemns "the habitual use of extraordinary ministers in the course of Masses." Lay people who serve in this role should not administer the Eucharist to themselves, the document added.
Lay people cannot be involved "too extensively" in baptisms, the Instruction says; nor can they lead funerals and burials except when there is no ordained minister available. Lay people cannot substitute for priests as witnesses to marriages except with an explicit mandate from the bishop, who in turn must obtain permission from the Holy See.
Although the Vatican Instruction contains no new teachings, Bishop Tarcisio Bertone, the secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, explained that a definitive document was necessary because "deviations in the Western world" had led to the rise of an inadequate understanding of the ordained ministry. He observed that some Catholics had begun to see the priesthood in terms of functions rather than its sacred character. The unfortunate result, he said, was a downgrading of the priesthood, together with a "clericalization of the laity."