More than 30,000 laypeople work at least 20 hours a week in paid ministerial positions in Roman Catholic parishes in the United States, and 80 percent of them are women. But the church has no uniform system for training and authorizing them -- and is not even sure what they should be called.
Yesterday, the nation's Catholic bishops adopted an 80-page statement that gingerly gives these workers a name -- "lay ecclesial ministers" -- and affirms their importance to the church.
Yet those small steps were anything but easy. The bishops voted 190 to 47 to adopt the statement, "Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord," after two days of debate and many objections. A substantial minority of bishops tried to send it back to a committee, and others pushed for consultations with Rome, prompting Cincinnati's Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk to warn: "We could consult ourselves into immobility."
One reason the topic is so touchy is that the ranks of parish priests have been steadily shrinking, while Catholic lay ministry has grown dramatically since the 1960s. Some bishops worry that there could be "a blurring of the lines, that the laity could somehow replace the ordained in the work of the church," said Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, one of the statement's principal authors.
Kicanas assured his fellow bishops, both verbally and in the document itself, that lay ministers can never replace priests, because only the ordained can celebrate the Eucharist, hear confessions and anoint the sick.
The document also stipulates that it is not establishing a new rank or specific job title; each bishop will remain free to set the titles and job descriptions in his diocese.
Zeni V. Fox, a theologian at Seton Hall University in New Jersey and author of "New Ecclesial Ministry," a book on the phenomenon, said the statement is important mainly as a "recognition of the reality" of what is happening in U.S. parishes.
The number of laypeople serving as parish administrators, pastoral associates, youth ministers, directors of liturgy, directors of religious education and similar jobs has doubled since 1990, she said. Two-thirds of all Catholic parishes now employ at least one salaried layperson in a ministerial role, though 95 percent of lay ministers do not lead worship services, she said.
Before retiring behind closed doors for 21/2 days of confidential discussions -- an unusually long executive session -- the bishops also renewed their call for an end to the death penalty.
Citing the exoneration of more than 100 death-row inmates through DNA evidence, Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of Brooklyn said that "the machinery of the death penalty is deeply flawed and often unfair."