Does the Church still give an ear and a voice to the good and serious-minded Catholics?
Does the Church still give an ear and a voice to the good and serious-minded Catholics?
Cyriacus Ugonna M. Elelleh
NCCF Seminar: September 2018
The 1917 code of canon law described some in our Church as “good and serious-minded Catholic” (c. 2293. 2) and the revised code calls “upright and responsible parishioner” (can. 1741 n. 3). The former code has a provision on infamy which has no direct replica in the new code. The old law recognizes two types of infamy: of law and of fact. Infamy of law is one which is expressly established for cases in common law. On its part, infamy of fact is contracted when someone, on account of a delict committed in the past or on account of depraved morals, has lost good reputation before the good and serious-minded members of the faithful (c. 2293 1.2.3). In the first instance, one is infamous because the law has indicted and convicted him (usually through the courts or tribunals and generally in criminal matters). He may be barred by law from acting as a witness or from holding a public office. In the second instance, one’s attitude has so made one infamous that among members of the community, the good and serious-minded ones have also believed the one is guilty of bad behavior thus incapable of trust with public office. Hence the “good and serious-minded Catholics” or “upright and responsible parishioners” have a moral jurisdiction in our Church.
Sometime ago, a priest visited a man in his middle seventies. The man was a good and serious-minded Catholic, an upright and responsible parishioner. At that time the man had an infamous parish priest, infamous by his low morals. Apart from a few unprintable things, it was a case of a pastor who did not know any other language except that of money. There was no funeral for an indebted dead faithful. There was no Mass in station churches in debt; regrettably debts from unwarranted and illegally imposed taxes. The homilies were money-inducing speeches. The Masses were for the most part unduly long as they were also fund-raising occasions. Anything provoked fund-raising. Money was raised for putting items as little as electric bulbs in the “bishop’s room” in the rectory. The following Sunday was for a mattress on the “bishop’s bed”. It was disgusting. Compare the incessant and compulsive fund-raisings with the state of affairs in the rectory and church compound and one would note an unkempt and near shambolic environment. However, a closer look would reveal a church and a rectory that were once beautiful.
The priest visitor was not new in the family. He had enjoyed some years of friendship with the members. Their chat was often about Church and State and what the Church can do to get the State on board the train of people’s emancipation and salvation. On this faithful day, a rule was broken; a man who would never say a word against priests introduced a discussion of events in his parish that formed the motivation for this short write-up. He said “Fada, mgbe ndi di ka anyi bidokwuru soro complainuwa ….” (Literally – “Fr., when people like us also start complaining …”). On face value, the statement may have some tone of self-justification but the visitor-priest believes it appears so only to someone who does not know the man as he does; for a priest who has not worked with him as he had. He believes that the statement is earned. The man is for him a vir probatus.
Viri probati (Proven men)
Viri probati historically are men and women on whom the Church has fallen back to supply for roles traditionally reserved for the clergy. Often the men among them were accepted into the priesthood thereby changing their status. Viewed only as a resource for the priesthood in times of dearth of men for the priesthood, viri probati refers only to tested or proven married men. It conveys an idea that in extreme lack of priests, married men whose fidelity to the Church and her teachings has been proven may be admitted to the priesthood. The expression is inspired from the first-century letter of a disciple of the apostles, St. Clement. In the letter, Clement explains how the early apostles chose their successors: “And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed their first-fruits, having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe”. In 1206, Pope Innocent III ordered that certain “viri probati” be singled out so that they could dedicate themselves to preaching as “paupers” as a witness against heretics. This gives evidence that these men and women were not always people who must change from the lay to the clerical state. They could play new and traditionally clerical and important roles operating purely from and in their lay state. Those roles were indispensable for the fulfilment of the mission of the Church.
Recently, the subject of viri probati came to the front burner especially with scarcity of priests in some parts of the world heavily felt in the Amazon regions where it has been reported that a large number of Catholics have no priests and so are deprived of the Sacraments. Pope Francis has, in the current discussion about solution for this, revived the subject of ‘married’ men among the faithful who have distinguished themselves in faith and virtue – the viri probati. His reference to this was first revealed by the Brazilian Bishop Erwin Kräutler after his private audience with the Pope on April 4, 2014 and since then, the idea has remained revived. It is not in any way a new debate however. It was an issue in the Second Vatican Council where the idea was jettisoned.
Our interest is not viri probati as solution or otherwise to filling the shortage created by the diminishing numbers of celibate clergy in many parts of the world. We believe they are dispersed across the lay and clerical states in the Church. Hence, viri probati are proven, trusted, serious-minded and dependable catholic men and women who stand solidly with the Church in rain and in sunshine. The role they play passes that of just filling for a diminished clergy. The Church cannot afford to not tap from their enormous goodwill and treat them as precious gifts that they are.
Who are the viri probati in the Christian community?
The viri probati do not form an association in the Church. There is no identified group known as the viri probati. They are not men and women in the Church insulated against errors and mistakes. However, they are men and women whose allegiance to the Church does not depend on the weather; they are there in winter as in summer; they are there when the waters are calm as well as when they are troubled. The lay among them are pillars of support for the clergy and the clergy among them give their all for Christ and the Church and maintain a religious obedience to their superiors. They were there in America, Ireland and elsewhere during the horrid period of priestly sex scandals. They are there today in Chile as it rages and even now that disturbing speculations are floating over the walls of the Church’s citadel. They are not seasonal Catholics. They are dependable. When conservatives rejoice that the new parish priest is conservative and liberals groan and hurt, when liberals rejoice that the hawkish priest has been transferred and a darling priest has come, the viri probati are there. They do not belong to the left or right. They do not belong to Paul or to Peter or to Apollos. They belong to Christ. They belong to the Church (1Cor. 1:12). They are always catholic. They are constant. They just need a priest, his colour, size, shape, ideology, high or low learning does not matter to them. They just hope their priest is available for the sacraments. They just hope he is prepared when he leads. They do not want anyone to bring him to disrepute. They love their priest. They defend him. They are willing to take bullets for him. They do this because they have enormous love for Christ and his Holy Church and so they are willing and ready to give their all for the church. They are very slow at passing judgments and that is why the Church at every level must stop and listen when in any untoward subject, they too complain.
A little look at history
When St Paul reprimanded Christians in the Corinthian Church for resorting to pagans and relying on the courts to settle their conflicts, it was because they neglected their wise and proven men: the viri probati. He says “I say this to make you ashamed of yourselves. Can it really be that it is impossible to find in the community one sensible person capable of deciding disputes between brothers?” (1 Cor. 6:5). Commenting on this text, Kugelman noted that it is either the Christian community instituted its own courts or it should make use of its sophos ‘a prudent or wise brother” to settle disputes. In fact, between the 7th and the 12th centuries, there was evidence of an institution bonorum hominum which was a group of people known as boni homines who settled disputes among freemen at the time it was common for vassals to recourse to their lords in a system of feudalism prevalent at that time.
In the Acts of the Apostles, the Church drew her first deacons from these men. The Apostles noted “you, brothers, must select from among yourselves seven men of good reputation, filled with the Spirit and with wisdom, to whom we can hand over this duty” (6:3), the duty of service and dispute resolution. It appears too that the Apostles had indeed looked closely at these people even earlier that when they thought about replacing Judas, they fell back to that list. The requirements were that the man had to have been with them the entire time of Jesus’ ministry right from the time John was baptizing, and to have been a witness of the resurrection and ascension. They proposed two men: Joseph called Barsabbas and Matthias (Acts. 1:21-22). This underscores an important point that the viri probati has always been the breeding ground for particularly important ministries in the church.
Our viri probati and conflict resolution in the Church
When conflicts, especially of communal nature that arise against an administrative act of the Bishop or the Pope, rear up in the Church, most Catholics around the world are struck with awe in a Church where episcopal and particularly papal pronouncements should be sacrosanct. Conciliar teachings and canonical provisions abound to support the shock that grips people when such conflicts rear up. Are the Christian Faithful not “bound to follow with Christian obedience those things the sacred Pastors, who represent Christ, declare as teachers of the faith and prescribe as rulers of the Church?” (can. 212 §1). “Are Clerics not bound by a special obligation to show reverence and obedience to the Supreme Pontiff and to their own Ordinary?” (can. 273). The conciliar fathers of the Second Vatican Council have a poignant teaching in this regard:
In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.
Papal judgement here does not refer only to his prophetic ministry. The Law is clear when among other titles, she describes the Pope as the pastor of the universal Church on earth who possesses SUPREME, FULL, IMMEDIATE, and UNIVERSAL ORDINARY POWER in the Church, which he is able always to exercise freely (can. 331). Little wonder then people consider any notorious dissent to episcopal and papal authority as audacious and an affront.
From all we have said about the viri probati, it is clear that they are those Catholics who are almost always in default mode of giving a religious assent to everything that comes from Church authority. One factor that must be appraised more closely in every conflict in the church is the position of the viri probati. Authorities must be attentive while asking the question which part the viri probati are in a church conflict? They are constituted of those men and women whom church authorities would have been surprised that they too …; those they would have had an unbiased reason to call on the phone to say even you …. In the midst of the “crowd” of the faithful are always the viri probati. At any time they too understand their “crowd”, Church authority would be helping to avert real crises and prevent making a bad conflict situation worse or destructive by giving them due attention to know why they understood a situation he doesn’t seem to understand. In such situations they deserve, based on seasoned and tested life, every benefit of the doubt. In some morally defendable way, the alignment of the viri probati ‘legitimizes’ a course that they have freely identified with. This is why the Legislator of canon law takes their voice seriously, even if only morally or legally consultative.
The responsibility of the Church
With society getting more and more politically and socially loud, the Church must not allow the voices of her viri probati to die. She must give them back their threatened voices, sound and faithful voices that, in fact, today are blackmailed by deep-seated theological and political agendas. It is a disaster when these men and women can no longer air their views because politicians and hardcore-left-wing or right-wing theologians have boxed them to a corner and silenced their age-tested and ever-necessary guidance. Although they do not enjoy in their status the power of governance in the Church, they are moral rulers and should not be rubbished in any diocesan or parish community. A fight with them takes the church to the gutters. They may not always be big financial donors in our churches but they pay their dues. They spend a lot of their time and energy worrying about the progress or otherwise of their church community. No one pays them for the work they do and they would not charge money either even if one were willing to pay them. They are selfless. The Church at all levels must be willing to give them a voice and give it back to them in places they have lost it.
Sometimes the threats to the voices of the viri probati may be outside of the Church. They may be terrified to succumb to the voice of the loudest, who may intimidate them by subtle but bullish maneuvers. The Church still retains a duty to be surprised when such voices are discordant and create an atmosphere to hear their true position. It is important to know that they exist and have an indispensable voice that needs attention and preservation.
Regaining or salvaging the threatened voice of viri probati
One first simple solution is for church leaders to take time to understand their people and their environments. This understanding will assist in easier identification of the voices of these eternal children and friends of the Church spread everywhere by the founder of our Church. Identified, they have to be treated as gifts that they are. Closer attention has to be given to what they say when they happen to say something.
One area the viri probati have helped the church so very eloquently is in the training and formation of priests. It is God who chooses and ordains priests but He does so through the bishops – human agents. This second element is written everywhere in what is done in the Church. If today the priesthood has been infiltrated with people with strange ideas who are servants of human ideology and party (PO n.6), it is perhaps because the church no longer adequately listens to her God-given viri probati. In this respect, they form those of the faithful who do not criticize or give information against a candidate for ordination out of jealousy, envy or revenge arising from some disputes, they do so for the love of God and the Church. This is why they operate more at the confidential level.
Another area they play significant roles is in the process of an unusual transfer or removal from office of a priest by an Ordinary. Can. 1741 n.3 that we referenced earlier contains norms dealing with that very delicate issue of removing a pastor from office. The wisdom of the supreme legislator is for Ordinaries not to base their assessment of infamy on the judgment of fair-weathered, politically-motivated parishioners but not to stay on the fence when upright and responsible parishioners express worry about their priest. So it is not enough that a priest has lost reputation. This is because it is easy for some pro-choice people to unwarrantedly begin to damage the good image of a priest who begins to preach against issues like abortion and contraceptives; or for a white supremacist group to go against a priest preaching against racism and highlighting equality. These may be Catholics but at the same time, they are also very ideological. The upright and responsible Catholics believe in what the church tells them and would be behind any priest who holds and teaches those beliefs. No matter what ideologists do to suffocate their voices, a lot of difference is made when everyone knows that church authorities take seriously their consultative, moral but small votes in decision-making for the community. The consequences of ignoring them are always clear because they are always dire.
Our church is one with a well-defined hierarchy. Yet it is one with a “diversity of ministry but unity of mission” (AA. n.2). Apart from those given the office of governing, sanctifying and teaching, others share in some unique way in the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ who makes it possible through different gifts that they become witnesses and living instruments of the mission of the Church. These gifts are sometimes in form of persons. Christ has given his Church simple, trusted, good and serious-minded people who are chiefly found in her trust and moral department. They serve the Church always but are often indispensable in more difficult times. In any part of the world where the Church is facing crisis, the voice of the viri probati may just need urgent re-activation. Those who have the power of governance (can. 274 §1) must recognize the consequences of denying, stifling or silencing these voices. God sustains His church in all ages through this group of humble, obedient, simple but noble Christ’s faithful. When the viri probati also join others in a protest, church leaders must stop and listen.
 (I Clem. 42. 4, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/1clement-lightfoot.html, [accessed: 7/07/2018].
 R. J. Kugelman, “The First Letter to the Corinthians”, in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. R. E. Brown – J. A. Fitzmyer – R. E. Murphy, New Jersey 1990, 261.
 cf. C. Giardina, «I boni homines in Italia», in Revista di Storia del diritto Italiano, 5(1932) 30.
 Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, n. 25.