Should Theologians Get to Preach in Mass?

This summer, I read a great book called New Wine, New Wineskins edited by William Mattison III. Here’s a review of one of the essays by Christopher Vogt who questions whether Catholic theologians should not be given an invitation by the bishop to start preaching during Mass. His essay is entitled, “Finding a Place at the Heart of the Church: On the Vocation of a Lay Theologian.”

In this essay, Christopher Vogt’s main complaint, drawn largely from his own personal experience, is that theologians are not engaging in practices that make them better Christians. The vocation of the theologian has become, he claims, disconnected from the life of the Church. Theologians do lots of things that might in some way be considered for the Church like writing papers, teaching, or presenting at conferences, but such activities are not conducted in the Church. He writes,

There is no venue in which I regularly interact with the people of God as an audience or as a source for my work. There is no mechanism in place for me to be heard by local clergy or my local bishop, nor is there any ongoing practice in place for me to hear the concerns, criticisms, or ideas of pastoral leaders. In the absence of such practices, I am becoming a professional academic but one with only loose, informal connections with the church (48).

Vogt acknowledges that lay theologians might just be encouraged to go to Mass more, to pray the liturgy of the hours, or to attend regular devotions like rosaries or Eucharistic adorations. Such practices, while valuable in their own right, are insufficient for lay theologians who wish to strengthen the connection between their profession work and their life of faith as Christians. What is needed, he argues, is not a replacement for these practices, but an additional practice specifically for the lay theologian to become more connected to the life of the church. The practice he argues for is preaching.

Vogt says that the local bishop should support lay theologians by inviting them to preach during mass. The first reason for this is that it is important for the theologian to have a deep connection to the community of faith in this community’s worship, a connection that is currently missing in the church. Theological reflection is not meant to be undertaken by a neutral observer in a context wholly separate from the life of the church, but rather, theology exists only in and for the church. Allowing lay theologians the opportunity to preach would draw them into a closer relationship with living church, and would thereby strengthen them in their vocation to speak about this living church and the faith that it holds.

Vogt identifies several ways theologians can benefit from an invitation to preach. First, they can talk about theological reflection in a more personal (i.e. “first-person”) way that the academy does not encourage. Vogt complains that theological argumentation, while valuable academically, is not necessarily a practice that strengthens one’s spirituality. Second, preaching gives the opportunity for the lay theologian to become more immersed in the liturgy by following the liturgical calendar and presenting theological reflection on scriptural selections that the theologians may not have chosen for themselves. Third, allowing the lay theologian to preach provides an opportunity for the theologian to understand in a deeper, more profound way, the lives of the people of God who hold the faith.

Vogt also thinks that the church itself will benefit by inviting lay theologians to preach. He notes that many priests give quite bad homilies due to insufficient theological knowledge (think of how bad the homilies frequently are on Trinity Sunday). Other priests might be “morally absent,” meaning that the presiding priest is physically present, and thus able to say mass, but unprepared to preach. And there is also the problem of the priest shortage. The German bishops have already received permission from Rome to allow lay people to preach on a regular and ongoing basis at Sunday liturgy. In the U.S., lay people can lead a Liturgy of the Word when a priest is absent.

Moreover, there is both historical and juridical precedent to allow lay theologians to preach regularly. Pope John Paul II lifted to outright ban on lay preaching in 1983, though the current code prevents lay people from preaching a homily. Vogt claims that the term homily has taken on a legal meaning such that it simply means “preaching by a priest or deacon in the context of the regular liturgy.” He argues that “if a lay person performs the same task of ‘offering a reflection,’ by definition it cannot be a homily, and therefore it can be permitted” (58). He concludes,

Given the lack of a definitive theological closure on this issue, I would humbly suggest that it should be reconsidered whether the current discipline of an absolute prohibition on homiletic preaching by lay people is the best discipline by which to ensure the unity of the Liturgy of the Word and Eucharis and to preserve the theological distinction between ordained priesthood and the universal priesthood of the baptized. . . Regular preaching would be a practice appropriate for theologians because their vocation demands that they serve the church as interpreters of the Word and because preaching would draw on their considerable training in a way that complements their pursuit of teaching and research and leads them to be more pastorally aware (59).

Vogt’s recommendation is bold, provocative, and initially very persuasive. Actually, maybe because I am married to a member of the Church of Christ where lay people, including my husband, preach all the time, I did not think Vogt’s recommendation was that shocking or provocative at first read. Nevertheless, Vogt is right to say that theologians have both a professional and a spiritual vocation to engage in faith seeking critical understanding. The theologian should also definitely have a strong connection with the Christian community. I disapprove highly of theologians and theology students who stop going to mass or church all-together. One cannot be a theologian if they are completely disconnected from the life of the church. That being said, the vocation of a theologian is not an ecclesial vocation. In other words, Christian theologians have a distinct (i.e. different) vocation from priests and bishops.

As important as it is for the theologian to be immersed in the life of the church, it is also important to keep a critical distance between the university and the episcopate. Theologians must be given a certain freedom to think freely, to make provocative inquiries into the nature of the faith, and to challenge the church’s teaching when necessary. It would, however, be very dangerous if ordinary lay people were exposed to the sort of critical inquiry that theologians engage in. The job of the theologian is to critically examine the faith; the church in both the people of God and the magisterial teaching body discerns what should get passed on to the flock.

I think that Vogt has recommended a practice that in some cases could be very good for some churches. There are lay theologians, like ordained theologians, that have been given a gift to preach. In these cases, it should depend on the prudential discernment of the bishop to decide who, where, and under which circumstances a lay theologian should give a sermon during Sunday liturgical services. I think that it is probably wise for canon law for allow for this possibility. But I also think it would be rash to suddenly allow lay theologians to preach in a liturgical role that should be occupied for someone as both a theological authority and a spiritual shepherd.

I have one friend who said that this issue should call us as a church to rethink ordination. That some people are called and given the grace by God to be teachers, preachers, healers, and evangelists, and you should not have to be ordained as a priest to have the church sanction you in your work in any one of these given areas. So there could be a sort of analogous ordination for people to preach, whereby the church “lays hands on” the person and sanctions their work for the good of the church’s body. This could also be one way of addressing the issue of women’s ordination, without saying that women need to be made priests.

Perhaps a more prudent immediate step would be to encourage more communication and hands-on work with priests and theologians. That is, rather than having a theologian give a sermon or homily, theologians could be given roles as theological advisers to parish priests who may have had improper theological education. Of course, this does not solve the problem of the shortage of priests, or the problem of “morally absent” priests, as Vogt calls them. In parishes where this is a problem, it might be a good idea for the bishop to find some trusted theologians to take over, or at least heavily supplement, the preaching responsibilities. Nevertheless, Vogt’s essay encourages us to think about the vocation of the theologian and the relationship of the theological profession and the life of the church.


2 comments so far

  1. Kevin on

    Beth I read this with great interest and enthusiasm. Thank you! Unfortunately I am so busy to give a more detailed response as this post deserves it. I think you raise some wonderful issues from the role of the theologian to ideas about vocation and ordination that I find compelling. I too have personally felt the pull that Christopher Vogt has discussed. I think there is something to be said for his suggestion but you also raise some interesting points to consider as well.

    In the end, while your point about separation between university and church is one I wish to keep as well for the reasons you suggest, I do think that Vogt is right in pointing out how the Church and the theologian could benefit for some more interaction than what is currently happening in most places. If I had time I would flesh that out more but I must be going.

    But thanks again for a wonderful post!

  2. WiND05 on

    “So there could be a sort of analogous ordination for people to preach, whereby the church “lays hands on” the person and sanctions their work for the good of the church’s body.”

    There’s a lot to think about here, but my first question concerns the above quotation — isn’t that what the diaconate is for? As currently practiced, that doesn’t necessarily present an answer for the role of women in preaching, of course. But, being ordained for the proclamation and explication of the Gospel in the assemble: that’s my understanding of the diaconate.

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