Is “Lay People Suck” the New Teaching of the Church?–UPDATE


UPDATE:  (Errata) I had copied and pasted Deacon Dietewig’s byline from his blog page where, at the end of his piece,  he identifies himself as “Professor of Theology, and former Executive Director, USCCB Secretariat for the Diaconate and Interim Executive Director, USCCB Secretariat for Evangelization”  I just received word from an informed source that,  “Deacon Ditewig was a former interim director over ten years ago in the former Evangelization Secretariat. He hasn’t worked at the Conference for a while.”   Also the person who contacted me asked that I clarify that, “Fr. Weinandy was most recently a consultant to the Committee on Doctrine–he finished as exec director in 2013.”  

I sincerely apologize for any confusion caused by my republishing Deacon Bill’s byline.


I’ve grown more than a little weary of the progressive trope that any confusion caused by chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia is simply a matter of conflict between people who want an “adult church…a mature people of God” versus those who are childish, rigid, and “afraid of the unknown.”


Let me just lay my cards on the table.  I’m sure there are at least a few people in the church who spend more time in the trenches actually thinking about what it means to actually “be pastoral” than I do, but I think it would be fair to say that it’s a fairly small club.

Since 1999, I have directed a pastoral counseling agency that conducts over 12,000 of pastoral counseling per year.  That means that, over the last 18 years, I have either personally conducted, or been directly responsible for, over 216,000 hours of pastoral counseling, which is all about asking how one can apply the teachings of our Catholic faith to some of the most complex situations one could encounter in life.  Our agency’s services are delivered in English and Spanish to Catholic couples, families, and individuals across North and South America, Europe, Asia (primarily Hong Kong and India), Australia, and Africa, which has given me a uniquely multi-cultural lens through which to view this question of pastoral practice.  I am a Fellow of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, and I serve as the Chair of the Education Committee for the Catholic Psychotherapy Association, which is responsible for the professional  development of the next generation of pastoral psychotherapists.  I also direct a graduate program in pastoral studies which is forming the next generation of pastoral ministers.  I have written over 20 books and programs on a host of serious, practical, faith-based topics that have been translated into at least 7 languages.

“Bully, for you, Popcak. Whoopee.” (slow clap).

I know.  None of that means anything.  It certainly doesn’t mean I’m right about anything.  And it definitely doesn’t mean that anyone needs to agree with me…about anything. I mean that.  But I don’t think I’m out of line for suggesting that my experience at least means that I have thought enough about the question of what “being pastoral” means that I ought to be considered an adult Christian who is not afraid of complexity of human suffering and–maybe, just maybe–has one or two valid things to contribute to the conversation.

That is, unless you are  among the spiritually exalted ranks of good folks like, Deacon Bill Ditewig, PH.D., who is, “Professor of Theology, and former Executive Director, USCCB Secretariat for the Diaconate and Interim Executive Director, USCCB Secretariat for Evangelization.”  (NOTE UPDATE ABOVE:  Deacon Bill’s byline, copied here from his post, is a misrepresentation.  He has not worked with the USCCB in over 10 years.)  No, apparently Deacon Bill thinks that lay people, like me, who are genuinely confused as to how some of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia squares with the previous teaching of the Church are not worth considering.  We wouldn’t know pastoral practice if it hit us in the face because, apparently, we are just children who have never put out into the deep, who cower in our cave of rules and rigorism.

He argues that people who claim to be “confused” about what Pope Francis’ writings mean and how they square with the historical teaching of the Church are really pretending to be confused when they simply just disagree.   Now, it is absolutely true that “I’m confused” is often a cover for “I disagree.” After all, progressives have practiced this dodge in all the years since Humanae Vitae and especially through all the years of St. John Paul’s pontificate. Indeed, as we saw in the Synod for Families, progressives can barely be bothered to read the Theology of the Body much less claim to understand the practical significance of it.  But when there is a specific question being asked and ignored–namely, how these recent teachings exhibit continuity with previous teaching (and no, simply ignoring the question or responding, ” ‘Cause he said so” isn’t an explanation)–it is harder to accept that this claim of confusion is just a conservative dodge.

Four Questions

For those like Deacon Bill who like to profess confusion about all this confusion, I propose four simple questions.

1) How, exactly, do the recommendations in chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia square with the historical teaching of the church, particularly that of St. John Paul in Veritatis Splendor? And if it is a development, how does this development square with Newman’s rules (so to speak) for the development of doctrine?

2) Who is right? Those bishops in Malta and Germany who are admitting those who are divorced and remarried without an annulment to communion or those bishops, almost everywhere else in the world who aren’t? Why?

3) What would you say about the client who, after AL was first published, came to me and asked, “Are you a JPII Catholic or a Pope Francis Catholic?”  Was he confused?  Why or why not?

4) And, finally, if you agree with Pope Francis’ approach to handling this crisis, where among the Spiritual Works of Mercy do we find that we can simply, “Ignore the annoying?”

Oh, and one more bonus question of a slightly more personal nature.  What do you call it–if not “confusion” or even “chaos”–when the USCCB’s Interim Director of the Secretariat for Evangelization turns to the internet to publicly take to task the Chief of Staff (well, until yesterday) of the USCCB’s Bishop’s Committee on Doctrine?

Lay People Suck
While you’re chewing on that, let me suggest a different dichotomy than the “Grown Up Progressive” vs. “Infantile Rigorist Conservative” trope folks like Deacon Bill proclaim. I would propose that this debate is really between those who believe in the Universal Call to Holiness and those who believe that “heroism is not for the average Christian” (as Cardinal Kasper proclaimed in an interview with Commonweal explaining his support for a new approach to communion for those who are remarried without the benefit of an annulment)

The idea that the laity are doomed to be spiritual also-rans strikes me as a particularly pernicious failure of pastoral practice.  I am, frankly, appalled that what appears to be driving the progressive advocacy of an interpretation of Chapter 8 of AL that supports communion for Catholics who are remarried without the benefit of annulment is that lay people are just too weak to live holy lives.  It seems to me that some 50 years after Vatican II, lay people deserve a little better than “we think we have to lower the bar because, well, you suck.”

When it comes right down to it, progressives, like Deacon Bill, appear to have drunk the Kool-Aid of clericalism that says that lay people just can’t cut it.  Moreover, he appears to believe that we don’t even deserve the benefit of an explanation as to why Pope John Paul II, whose entire pontificate (and especially whose TOB) was about defining the practical ramifications of the universal call to holiness, believed that lay people could be faithful intentional disciples and saints–even in the face of real hardship and sacrifice–but so many supporters a liberal interpretation of AL chapter 8 seem to think that all lay people are good for is being patted on the head while their spiritual betters do the heavy lifting.

A Challenge

What progressives fail to acknowledge is that any proposed changes to the doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage and how it relates to the marriage supper of the  Lamb (i.e., Communion) is a de facto denial of the universal call to holiness and the dignity that marriage holds in the divine plan.   That is a question that deserves to be addressed, not for the sake of some ivory tower rigorist navel-gazing, but because I happen to work with an awful lot of people who have been heroically bearing the cross of living faithfully in their irregular marriages for years and who are a testament both to the fact that  the current teaching bears real personal and relational fruit AND the fact that heroism is for the average Christian (thank you very much).  On their behalf, I can only say, “How dare you.” to anyone, who out of their misguided approach to pastoral practice would seek to demean the witness of such faithful, courageous, godly, and yes, heroic people.

Deacon Bill, I have no doubt you are a good and faithful man.  I am also quite sure you mean well, but I call you to repent of the incipient clericalism that infects your position that the only possible explanation for asking Pope Francis for clarification of chapter 8 of AL is childish obstinacy. I challenge you, and others like you, to repent of the idea that the voices of the thousands of people gracefully striving to live the gospel in their difficult marital circumstances should be discounted.  I challenge you to respond with a more authentic approach to both pastoral ministry and evangelization; namely, one that listens to the lived experience of those who are faithfully striving to live the teachings of the Church instead of one that patronizes the laity with the soft clericalism of low expectations.

Finally, I respectfully challenge you, and others like you, to reject your advocacy of a Church that believes that heroism is not for the average Christian and instead, to proclaim the message of Christ, who invites all who are willing to both take up the cross and to experience the resurrection that attends the faithful embrace of the same.



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