Volume > Issue > Spiritus Domini: How the Exception Became the Rule

Spiritus Domini: How the Exception Became the Rule


By Gerard T. Mundy | June 2021
Gerard T. Mundy is a writer and teaches philosophy at a private college in New York City.

Pope Francis’s decision to allow women into two of what had once been known collectively as the “minor orders” of the Church is a case study in how significant change need not be instituted all at once but can be equally as effective when instituted incrementally. Earlier this year, the Holy Father issued a motu proprio titled Spiritus Domini, which amends canon law to allow women to be instituted by a bishop into the roles of lector and acolyte. Francis amended the law by altering terminology from the previous “Laymen” to the gender-neutral “Lay persons.” Francis explains that “a doctrinal development has taken place in recent years which has highlighted how certain ministries instituted by the Church are based on the common condition of being baptized and the regal priesthood received in the Sacrament of Baptism.” As such, these ministries “may be entrusted to all suitable faithful, whether male or female,” as “they are essentially distinct from the ordained ministry received in the Sacrament of Orders.”

Spiritus Domini uses language that has similarly been employed to justify other changes in recent decades, particularly with regard to the document’s linguistic focus on the laity’s “exercise of the baptismal priesthood.” Progressive lay movements in the Church often place great emphasis on language emanating from Vatican II that declares the laity be allowed active “participation in the one priesthood of Christ,” as Lumen Gentium puts it, by way of their baptism.

Nevertheless, as a result of Pope Francis’s official alterations to canon law, Catholics in the average American parish will notice few, if any, differences, for these changes have already unofficially been made the visible norm.

To understand how small changes eventually led to a significant shift, one may consider the historical events that preceded the changes to canon law formalized by Spiritus Domini.

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