Volume > Issue > Toward a Caste System in The American Church

Toward a Caste System in The American Church


By R. Michael Dunnigan | October 2001
R. Michael Dunnigan is General Counsel to the Saint Joseph Foundation in San Antonio, Texas (phone: 210-697-0717). The Foundation is a lay apostolate that provides advice and assistance to faithful Catholics who believe that their rights within the Church have been violated. An earlier version of this article appeared in the March 19, 2001 issue of the Foundation's newsletter, Christifidelis.

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” —George Orwell, Animal Farm

An important contribution of the Second Vatican Council is its teaching on the equality of all believers. In Lumen Gentium, the Council amplifies the memorable words of St. Paul, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). By recalling Paul’s image of the Body of Christ (“For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” — Rom. 12:4-5) the Council Fathers show that this fundamental equality is fully consistent with the Church’s hierarchical structure. By and large, Catholics throughout the world have received this teaching enthusiastically. However, although the Church’s teaching on the equality of all believers has gained wide acceptance in theory, this teaching today is often undermined in practice.

Exaltation of the Experts

One can perceive a trend among many Catholics today to privilege some classes of believers over others. I am not referring to the distinction between laity and clerics. We can be grateful that Vatican II both reaffirmed the great dignity of the priesthood and taught that laity too receive a distinctive calling that is proper to their state. The problem that I refer to is the gradual introduction into the American Church of a subtle discrimination on the basis of education or social status.

Any Catholic who has resisted liturgical abuses, false teaching, or destructive church renovations in his parish has probably become familiar with this phenomenon. When a parishioner objects to the unlawful practice of directing the faithful to stand during the Eucharistic prayer, the pastor or liturgist often tells the parishioner that he has no competence to question liturgical practices because he is not a liturgist. Similarly, when a parent holds up the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a gauge for the orthodoxy of the teaching in the parish school, the director of religious education (DRE) is likely to answer that, because the parent is neither a bishop nor a DRE, he cannot really understand the Catechism. Likewise, when parishioners express a preference for a traditional basilica-style church over a church-in-the-round, the liturgical design consultant invariably tells them that they do not understand the architectural requirements of contemporary “worship space.” The apostolate to which I belong, the Saint Joseph Foundation, works in the field of canon law, and our clients have ample experience with these and other tactics by which parish and diocesan personnel often minimize the legitimate concerns of the faithful. At least one bishop, Thomas Tobin of Youngstown, Ohio, has taken notice of this phenomenon. “Concerns about fuzzy teaching or liturgical aberrations,” he said, “have too often been neglected, sometimes even belittled.”

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