Spring 1983, Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 59-71.

Donald Goergen:
      Current Trends: Preaching and the Nonordained

Father Goergen, O.P., now doing research in the field of Christology in the course of writing a book on that subject, was formerly professor of systematic theology at Aquinas Institute, prior to its move to St. Louis, Missouri

FROM October 8-10, 1982, in Columbus, Ohio, a national symposium was held entitled "Preaching and the Non-Ordained: Toward A Theology of Preaching." There were over 350 participants present. A paper by Father Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., professor of theology at the University of Nijmegen and author of the recent books Jesus, Christ, and Ministry,(1) provided the keynote address for the symposium. The other major resources for the symposium were: Mary Collins, O.S.B., of Catholic University of America, speaking on baptism as the sacramental foundation for preaching; William Hill, O.P., also of Catholic University, speaking on the theology of preaching; James Provost, of Catholic University, speaking on preaching and canon law; and Sandra Schneiders, I.H.M., of the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, speaking on the biblical foundations for preaching.(2) Given the significance of the symposium for the American church and the readership of Spirituality Today, it is appropriate to reflect further upon the topic of the symposium.

We need to understand the question which is being asked by many in the church, and which can be worded in various ways: Who has the right to preach? Who has the right to preach in the name of the church? What authorizes someone, or gives someone the authority, to preach? Is the ministry of preaching a ministry in the Christian community which follows from the rite of ordination to the diaconate or priesthood? There are still other questions. For example, what is preaching? What does it mean to preach "in the name of the church"? We will not be discussing all these questions here, but they are all theological questions pertinent to the discussion.

Two clarifications are in order: the relationship between the question of the right to preach and the issue of women in ministry in the church; and the relationship between preaching inside or outside liturgical contexts, for example, during a retreat in contrast to during the Eucharist. Although these questions are inseparable, they are distinguishable; and the failure to be aware of the distinction only creates confusion.

The first clarification pertains to the relationship between lay preaching and the role of women. In fact, at present, all women are laity in the church; they are not ordained. So these two questions are existentially very tied together. Yet they are theoretically and theologically distinct. For example, if or when the Roman Catholic church moves in the direction of ordaining women, there will still be the valid question about laity preaching in the church. Lay preaching is not only a "women's issue"; it is a question of the role of the laity -- female and male -- in the church. It is the question of lay preaching qua lay, as nonordained preaching; that is the specific subject of our concern here.

Second, a focal point for discussion becomes the eucharistic homily. The reason is fairly obvious. Whatever may be said about preaching outside the eucharistic assembly, the leader of the eucharistic assembly is ordained. If one grants the right of the laity to preach in some settings, what about their right to preach specifically in the eucharistic setting?

In discussing this question of the right of the laity to preach, I will focus first on the paper of Schillebeeckx and then on my own personal reflections in the light of the symposium.


Schillebeeckx's own effort to answer the question of who has authority to preach can be seen in the evolution of the title for his paper. He has been accustomed to speak of "the right of the Christian community to preaching," the right of a community to hear the word of God proclaimed effectively.(3) But there was a shift from that perspective on the topic to simply "the right to preach," which right thus seems based not only on the right of the community but on the right of the proclaimer. His final title for the address, however, was "The Right of Every Christian to Speak in the Light of Evangelical Experience in the Midst of Brothers and Sisters." In this title he has clarified his own thinking further, as we shall see. Schillebeeckx's paper was divided into four parts, the first three of which provided historical background for his own conclusions.

1. During the Middle Ages, "preaching by lay people was banned for the first time in the history of the Church."(4) From the ninth century on, the proclamation of the gospel became one of the functions of the local parish priest. Preaching became more and more connected with the church, that is the building, and with the Sunday Eucharist, and thus with the responsibilities of the parish clergy. This practice, however, became threatened by the expansion of the monastic abbeys in the tenth and eleventh centuries. These abbeys did not have parishes but became great centers of pastoral care. Thus there emerged a clash between the parochial and abbatial centers, a power struggle between diocesan clergy and the monks. Most monks were not priests, and thus an issue was lay (monastic) preaching versus clerical (parochial) preaching.

Gregory the Great in the sixth century had provided the foundation for the eventual resolution. His starting point had been that preaching was the right of bishops; they possessed the fullness of the pastoral office and thus formed an order of preachers. His theology is closely related to a hierarchial understanding of the church. Praedicatio and praelatio, that is preaching and being a "prelate," a superior, became linked. Women were excluded from preaching, not on the basis of being women, but because they were not prelates, superiors, in the church; an abbess, however, as a "superior," had the right to preach to her "subjects." At any rate, the bishops became the "order of preachers" in the church. Parish priests had the right to preach as sent by their bishops.

During the eleventh century and after, the church experienced many new phenomena: new religious orders; evangelically based lay preaching, which was often heretical; parish priests living in community as "canons regular." Monks preached against the decadence of the clergy; and this led to some popes' imposing a ban on preaching by monks, and to other popes' defending lay monastic preaching because the monks were supportive (instruments) of papal reform programs. Yet, in principle, preaching remained a priestly function and especially a function of the parish priest.

The major conflict over the right to preach at this period was between the monks and canons regular. The canons were favorable to clerical reform but opposed to priest-monks who were ordained but had no parish pastoral duties. The conflict was resolved by both groups recognizing that the right to preach was not based on a papal or episcopal mission but on the sacrament of ordination. This was a compromise -- no lay preaching, but monks who were also priests were recognized as having the right to preach; and a change in the theology of preaching. The arguments, or theologies, operative in the conflict, varied: the right to preach is based on the imitation of Jesus in an evangelical way of life; or the right is based on being sent, either by a bishop or the pope; or the right is based on being in the clerical state by receiving tonsure; or the right is based on priestly ordination. The latter argument or theology more or less "won," and this led to the further clericalization of the preaching ministry. Schillebeeckx writes: "The power to proclaim the gospel, which was, via pastoral care, still concerned with people in a definite parish, thus became, in the twelfth century, an abstract privilege enjoyed by 'ordained' men and dissociated from that definite community. It became, in other words, a sign of the difference between the priest and the lay person. At the same time, it also became dissociated from pastoral duties."

Even monks had been forced to base their own right to preach on priestly ordination. This right, however, which excluded lay preaching, was not based on theological foundations, that is, on a theology of the preaching office, as much it was grounded on (a) a competitive struggle within the clergy, (b) alarm due to heretical lay preaching, and (c) the medieval view of the lay person as uneducated.

2. Another important historical phenomenon, in the thirteenth century, was the emergence of a new religious order, the Dominicans, as another "order of preachers" within the church. Pope Innocent III wanted to launch a campaign against heresy and proposed a supraregional body of preachers to be sent out by the pope, not by local bishops: a "preaching campaign carried out by a specialized body of preachers." The plan did not work until Bishop Diego of Osma in Spain and one of his canons, Dominic Guzman, encountered the first body of preachers, which was mainly Cistercian, and helped to "diagnose" the problem: the preachers had not adopted the simple, poor, and evangelical way of life which had been adopted by, and had lent authority to, the heretical preachers. Innocent III supported this perspective and a new preaching campaign, the praedicatio Jesu Christi, was launched in southern France.(5) Bishop Diego and Dominic made Prouille the center for their preaching. Diego died in 1207 and Dominic became the leader of the movement. To make a long story shorter, in 1215 several men took the vows of an order and joined Dominic. This was the beginning of the Dominican order as an "order of preachers." It was at first a diocesan body in the diocese of Toulouse. The praedicatio Jesu Christi began as a supradiocesan mission sanctioned by the pope but soon became a specialized body of preachers working on a diocesan basis. The order of preaching brothers was initially an order of clergy. What was especially new was the (at first, episcopal) instruction to the whole brotherhood to preach so that future members ipso facto had authority to preach. There also now existed in fact a "supraparochial," and in possibility a "supradiocesan," body of preachers. In 1217 this supradiocesan possibility also became a fact as Dominic dispersed his friars to Paris, Spain, Rome, and Bologna, with letters of papal support or authorization.

In 1220 the Dominicans held their first general chapter in Bologna. At this chapter, emphasis was placed on the apostolic lifestyle of the itinerant preacher. Also, although the friars were exempt from the local bishop with respect to their authorization to preach (they had the authority as an order, one approved by the pope), yet out of sensitivity to local bishops, Dominicans were to pay a visit to the local bishop when they first entered a diocese. The Dominicans were also the first to introduce a rule prescribing study into the history of the church's religious life. Priority was given to study over other traditional monastic observances.

3. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries the struggle had been between the monks and canons regular. Now, in the second half of the thirteenth century, the struggle over the right to preach would be between the new Dominican and Franciscan mendicant preaching movement and the diocesan clergy who reacted strongly against it. In 1255, a diocesan theologian, William of Saint-Amour, launched a strong attack against the mendicants. He maintained that the rights of local clergy had been infringed upon by the papal privileges to Dominicans and Franciscans. Thus Dominicans and Franciscans had to provide a theology of preaching as justification for their mission. The diocesan clergy argued that the basis for the right to preach was not ordination but canonical mission. Thus, the earlier compromise and the theology of the twelfth century was abandoned, according to which the power to preach was based on the sacrament of ordination; now it was being argued that the right to preach was based on jurisdiction. The mendicants (unfortunately) accepted this jurisdictional standpoint and defended their right to preach on a distinction between papal jurisdiction and episcopal jurisdiction, and in the end the mendicants (and the pope) were victorious. The mendicants did not consider basing their right to preach on the charisma of an evangelical life and thus let an historical opportunity pass.

4. In the final section of his paper, Schillebeeckx raises the question: Is lay preaching "theologically' impossible? The prohibition against laity's preaching is very much connected with historical conflicts and situations. Gregory IX (1227-41) had forbade lay preaching. Canons from the Statuta ecclesiae antiqua (the fifth century), however, were included in the Decretum Gratiani (twelfth century) and permitted the lay person to preach in the presence of the clergy and with their consent. Even earlier, however, the basis for preaching had been recognized in being sent by Christ. Today the concept of mission is usually understood in a juridical or institutional sense, rather than in a biblical sense. It is not the church's mission, however, which gives authority to the preacher. "The very reverse is true -- the individual proclaiming the Word of God has to confer a distinctive status on the Church's office by his personal commitment and his personal and social competence."

Biblically, mission is linked to Jesus. His message is passed on only where his life-praxis is followed. "Jesus made what he spoke about a direct and practical reality in the way in which he turned towards others. He did not, for example, say to Zacchaeus, who was watching out for him in a tree:'God loves you' (as some modern fundamentalist posters do). On the contrary, he went home with him and by his praxis made God's love for Zacchaeus a living reality." The sending out of the disciples was not simply a mission to proclaim the word of God; it was also an obligation to imitate the life-praxis of Jesus. The competence to proclaim the gospel is only part of this more all-embracing reality as expressed in the life of Jesus.

Thus, the foundation for a Spirit-filled proclamation of the gospel is faithfulness to the life-praxis of Jesus. "The mission to preach the message is justified insofar as and on condition that the proclamation is both a part and an expression of the imitation of Jesus." A purely juridical mission can no longer serve as a justification for the right to preach. The authentic basis is the vita apostolica, the evangelical way of life, the following of the life-praxis of Jesus. "The real norm and justification for competent proclamation of the gospel message is the praxis of Jesus himself embodied in the life of the preacher." "That is why Francis of Assisi refused to accept the power to preach as a privilege granted by the pope. The evangelical power to preach was, in his view, to be found in the evangelical way of life. Dominic thought the same, but he also from the very beginning insisted that a sound theological training should be the second condition, protecting that evangelical witness from possible fanaticism and one-sidedness."


I would like to share some reflections of my own which flow from Schillebeeckx's approach as well as from the discussion within the symposium.

1. What is the relationship between preaching and pastoral care? A major tradition of the church involved a close link between the two. Canons opposed ordained monks' preaching because the latter had no parish pastoral responsibilities. Preaching was entrusted to the one responsible for the care of souls in a territorily defined setting. Preaching was a function of the pastoral office. How does this link relate to the experience of the church today where there are many nonordained ministers involved in pastoral care in a parish setting? If tradition affirms the relationship between pastoral care and preaching, why limit preaching to ordained members of a pastoral team?

2. One of the historical elements involved in forbidding lay preaching in the Middle Ages was the laity's lack of education. Laity were often not literate and were theologically uneducated. What about the experience in the church today where laity are not only educated, and even, in some cases, well educated, but also theologically educated and sometimes even more theologically educated than some priests? Reluctance to promote lay preaching cannot be a question of the pastoral nature of the preaching office nor of theological competence. Many lay people are both "pastors" and "theologians."

3. Even though there was a clericalization of the preaching office in the Middle Ages and it became tied to ordination, there was a strong (stronger) tradition which linked preaching to mission. One who is sent by the bishop has the right to preach in the name of the church. In the later conflict between mendicant and secular clergy, it was still a question of mission (jurisdiction); but one can be missioned by the pope for supradiocesan preaching. If mission is the basis for authority to preach, why does a bishop have to limit that mission or jurisdiction to the ordained? Why can he not grant such a mission or jurisdiction to nonordained preachers, either at the parochial or supraparochial level? Linking preaching to jurisdiction need not limit preaching to the ordained.

This may also be the place to mention a suggestion raised in a small group by one participant in the symposium. What about the development of a preaching office in the church, of a body of authorized preachers, which could exist on a parochial or diocesan basis, which need not be linked with ordination? The suggestion is not unrelated to the historical function of an "order of preachers" for the church in addition to the diocesan clergy.

4. The important question remains the "authority" of the preacher. What or who authorizes someone to preach, grants someone the right to preach? Schillebeeckx argues for the authority of the vita apostolica, the evangelical way of life, not ordination, nor a canonical mission. The church would do well to take this theology of preaching seriously. Is this not the "criterion" which authorizes someone to preach even if ordained? Ordination does not authorize one to proclaim the gospel; one's gospel life authorizes one to do so, whether ordained or not.

One difficulty in the suggestion of Schillebeeckx is the need to clarify further that in which this vita apostolica consists. Liturgically it has its roots in baptism, as Mary Collins pointed out. Faith is linked to baptism in the Christian community. Does it not also imply, however, conversion. Conversion implies some personal experience of the risen Lord. It is this to which Paul himself pointed for his own authority to preach. In the language of Schillebeeckx, however, this vita apostolica is very much the life-praxis of Jesus, the sequela Jesu, an imitation or following of the life of Jesus as he fleshed out for us what being grasped by the reign of God means.

Here we must indeed recognize the importance of orthopraxis, the life-praxis of Jesus, for any authentic proclamation of the Word. Indeed, just as witnessing to orthodoxy was paramount at one point in the church's history, is not orthopraxis the challenge facing the church today? It is at the heart of the question whether we are in fact church and thus authorized to proclaim the Word.

William Hill commented during the symposium that there is always a primacy of praxis over theory in Christology; he referred to a statement of Sartre that Christianity has discredited itself because, in practice, it makes no difference in the lives of Christians. This is the challenge facing the followers of Jesus. And perhaps the most significant contribution of Schillebeeckx is his emphasis on the priority of following the life-praxis of Jesus, thus grounding a theology of preaching not only in ecclesiology but in Christology.

5. If one is in search of criteria for valid preaching, the following three suggest themselves in their order of importance. All three follow from the Dominican "order of preachers" as it expressed its self-understanding in its first general chapter at Bologna in 1220. (a) The testimony or witness of one's life. Indeed, here was the authority underneath the heretical preachers whom Dominic opposed, and thus a central element in the Dominican "diagnosis": to live the life of evangelical poverty like the heretics. This criterion is not to be identified with the vow of poverty but rather with the inseparability between life and Word, between witness and proclamation. It is the life-praxis of Jesus, living as one grasped by the reign of God. (b) Theological competence. Here Dominic saw the importance of study, and one today recognizes the need for sufficient training if one is to preach publicly. The second, however, is not a substitute for the first. One who has been grasped by the reign of God, whose life is in accord with it, and has then sufficiently studied the Scriptures and theology, is the one who can present himself or herself to the community as having the call to preach. (c) The preacher preaches with, and not against, the church. Hence jurisdiction is also involved. It does not give the preacher his or her authority (this comes from the Lord and is manifested in one's life-praxis) but authorizes or certifies that one indeed has been judged competent to preach. Dominic did not consider the friars as authorized to preach by the bishops, yet the chapter insisted they pay a visit to the bishop of a diocese they entered. Their evangelical preaching was "with the church." And the Council of Avignon of 1209 had shown that preaching would not be effective if not in cooperation with the parochial and diocesan structures. None of these three "theological" criteria link the right to preach to the sacrament of orders. In fact, every Christian, through baptism, has the right to call upon the church to test his or her competence and, if adequate, authorize him or her to preach.

6. "Charismatic" preaching (which ought not be simply identified with lay preaching) and "formal" or "institutional" preaching (which ought not be equated with the ordained, although is more likely to be preaching by the ordained) ought not be opposed to one another; they can complement each other. Throughout Jewish and Christian history, both charismatic and institutionalized offices have contributed toward the development of authentic religious tradition. In fact, they are in need of each other. They should not be considered in an either/or fashion. Institutionalized forms of the preaching office must be open to the continuing activity of the Spirit in history; and innovative, Spirit-filled forms of preaching cannot oppose themselves to the already existing structures of the church, even if they exist in conflict and tension with them. Each must see the value of the other.

Within the development of the preaching office in the church today, there is the difficult task of a hierarchically structured church's becoming more and more the church of Jesus in which status has no place, and in which distinction based on ethnicity or sex has no place.(6)

As the church after Vatican II more and more adjusts itself to its being the people of God, we can see more and more value in, and the complementarity of, both lay and ordained preaching.

7. There is value in our recognition of the fact that there are different "kinds" of preaching. The distinction between exhortatio and praedicatio goes back to Innocent III. Although it would be a mistake to identify today exhortatio with lay preaching and praedicatio with ordained preaching, since the preaching ministry in itself is not intrinsically related to ordination, we can still recognize the need for witness, kerygma, and doctrine; and not every preacher is equally well qualified for each.

8. We can return to the question of the relation between lay preaching and women in the church. These remain theologically distinct issues. We have been speaking here about the specific value to the church of lay preaching qua lay. There is no doubt, however, that in the experience and life of the church today these two issues are tied together.(7) For lay preaching is currently the only way for women evangelically called and theologically competent to proclaim the gospel; and without their voice the church itself suffers. The answer to the cry of women to preach must ultimately include opening ordination to them, but that step ought not minimize the continuing importance of lay preaching and the right to preach rooted in baptism, conversion, and competence. The laity will continue to be as much a part of the church as ordained women or men and to have their contribution to make in proclaiming the word of God.

9. The most problematic area in any theology of preaching becomes liturgical preaching, especially proclamation within the Eucharist. Since the Eucharist is presided over by an ordained person, ought preaching in the Eucharist be restricted to the ordained? I give only my personal response here. There are two extremes: limiting preaching in the context of the Eucharist to the ordained is one extreme; recognizing no internal relatedness between the proclamation of the Word and the proclamation of the Eucharistic prayer is another extreme. There is a unity between Word and Eucharist, a unity symbolized in one president.

There are many possibilities between these two extremes. I myself would see the one who presides over the eucharistic prayer as the one who ordinarily proclaims the Word through preaching. This is to support the unity of the action. However, there are many ways of presiding over a community or an action which involves diverse ministries. One does not preside by doing everything oneself. Thus, although the ordained person is one who ordinarily proclaims the Word, a good president can well invite or authorize, even frequently, a nonordained person to do so, and still maintain the unity of the action and integrity of the symbol.

If we were to ordain women, I do not think we would argue that the one to proclaim the Word ought ordinarily be a lay person. The one ordinarily to preach in the Eucharist would be someone ordained (not to preach but to preside at Eucharist). Lay preaching would ordinarily be outside the eucharistic setting. Until we ordain women, however, the president of the eucharistic assembly would do well to frequently commission women to preach in the eucharistic setting (always keeping in mind the criteria mentioned above for anyone who preaches). An effective president and pastor recognizes publicly the gifts of those within the community entrusted to his care and helps to put them at the service of the church.

10. My final point can be brief. Both lay preaching and preaching by women are theologically possible, even in a liturgical setting. The reason for encouraging and recognizing these "preachers" is not for their sake, however, but for the sake of the church. Why deprive the Christian and Catholic community of any effective proclamation of the word of God (and effectiveness has no intrinsic relation to ordination)? Thus what the symposium on preaching very poignantly called home is the need and value of a pluralism within the preaching office for the welfare, the vitality, of the church. We the people gain when gifts are not quenched, and we lose when they are.

  1. Edward Schillebeeckx, Jesus (New York: Crossroad Books, 1979); Christ (New York; Crossroad Books, 1980); Ministry (New York: Crossroad Books, 1981).
  2. The papers from the conference will be published and made available.
  3. See "The Christian Community and Its Office-bearers," in Right of the Community to a Priest, Edward Schillebeeckx and Johannes Metz, eds., Concilium 133 (New York: Seabury, 1980).
  4. This first section of "Current Trends" is entirely a summary of the research of Schillebeeckx; the material presented is his, not my own. All quotations are taken from the translation of the text delivered at the conference.
  5. For background on the praedicatio Jesu Christi and the founding of the Dominican Order, see M.H. Vicaire, Saint Dominic and His Times (London, 1964).
  6. For further discussion of the exercise of authority in contemporary Catholicism, see Journal of Ecumenical Studies 19 (Spring 1982), devoted entirely to that topic, and including an article by Schillebeeckx, "The Magisterium and Ideology," pp. 5-17.
  7. Sandra Schneiders in particular made this point well at the symposium, both in her major presentation and in her remarks during the final panel discussion. See her article on the biblical foundations for preaching.