29 May 2011

Principles vs. Practice

The issue of being able to elect lay friars to serve as major superiors has been on my mind very often lately. It is an issue that has interested me from the time I joined the Order, but it has been brought to the front burner on several occasions this year. Every time I preside at a chapter – four times already this year, with at least another three to go – I am obliged to give “The Speech” about the futility of electing a non-ordained brother to the office of provincial minister or provincial vicar. This puts me in the uncomfortable position of having to defend a law of the Church, to which the Order belongs and to which we have professed obedience, which conflicts with our Order’s history and charism, not to mention common sense. At least in the NAPCC, the chapter delegates have been very diligent in charitably reminding me that they find the law to be unnecessary and unjustified. I know it and I get it!

Recently I have been asking myself which is more important, the principle or the practice? In other words, should we hold on to our position that “all brothers in final vows may be elected to all offices or positions except those which come because of ordination” (Const. 115,6) regardless of how long it takes, or should we accept a partial solution if it were offered to us tomorrow? A partial solution, for instance, might take the form of permission to have either a non-ordained provincial minister or provincial vicar as long as the other was an ordained brother; the general minister and general vicar, however, would always have to be ordained brothers. A few years ago, I would have considered this a rhetorical question, but not any longer. One reason this question has become real for me is that I have heard anecdotal evidence that some clerical institutes have been permitted to have just such an arrangement. If that is true, we could very possibly cut the same deal. The other reason this question has become real for me is that as the provinces in the West get smaller, it becomes more obvious that sometimes the best candidates for leadership positions have to be passed over because they are not ordained.

As the question has moved from rhetorical to real, I find my position shifting away from the principled to the practical solution. On principle, I would dislike having to restrict myself to voting for an ordained brother as provincial vicar merely because the chapter had elected a lay brother as provincial minister. Practically, however, I dislike it even more that I am not allowed to elect a lay friar as either provincial minister or vicar provincial, even when he is the best candidate. The problem with the practical solution is that accepting it might kill any hope we have of receiving what we really want. It is easy to believe that we could accept a partial solution in the short term while continuing to ask for permission to live our charism fully. In practice, however, having the ability to elect lay brothers as major superiors at the jurisdictional level would reduce the sense of urgency felt by the Order to ask for the full solution, as well as reduce the pressure on the Vatican (if, indeed, it feels any) to concede it. So the question really comes down to whether we as an Order are willing to go against our principles in order to receive some of what we want?

As this is an issue that affects all of us, I would appreciate hearing what you think about it.