Of Deck Chairs and Semantics

I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been accused of “re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” This happens nearly every time I happen to notice a small detail in what someone has said or written. My usual counter is that the deck chairs are likely to be one of the first signs that something larger-scale is wrong—noticing the deck chairs doesn’t mean you’re not going to attempt to fix the larger problem.

In recent days, I’ve noticed some liturgically-connected skittering deck chairs in connection with the events surrounding the laicization of the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. These were not only in the secular media, but in religious media, and the discourse of knowledgeable Roman Catholics as well. Here are three, all related to one another:

One: He can still celebrate the sacraments, as can any baptized Roman Catholic. The repeating sacraments of Eucharist, Reconciliation, and Anointing are celebrated regularly by all the baptized.

Two: Laicization is not the worst punishment that can be given to a priest—excommunication is, as it is for any disciple. While no longer being able to minister within holy orders surely is serious, to be ex-communio doesn’t only exclude one from the ordained office, but from the entire mystical Body of Christ in the Roman rite.

Three: The system that empowered and enabled this situation is still very much in place. This lone laicization is not a “remedy” for what caused it. This will not be the last person to use this ecclesial/sacramental system—one with no concrete, horizontal accountability to the whole Body—for unhealthy, then evil ends. Nor is this the only area in which this systemic structure is harmful. This is an important filter for all of us to have in place as this week’s Vatican meeting convenes.

Along with deck-chair arranging, I’m also accused of “playing semantics” when I insist upon things such as the former Cardinal still celebrating the sacraments. The accusation is often followed up with “You know what I mean.” In this instance, my reply would be that yes, I do know what you mean: that the entire Body of the baptized faithful gathered does not truly celebrate sacraments, that only those ordained to the presbyterate or episcopate do. This meaning is wrong, and it signals (one of the things that semantics does) that we need to get below decks and see what needs to be fixed.

For those of us who focus our ministry in the area of liturgy, it can be tempting to think that what is occurring at this moment in regard to the sexual abuse crisis and cover-up has little, if anything, to do with us. It is in the Church’s liturgy, however, that the baptized faithful have most of their contact with Church, and through which we derive understanding of the Church in its sacraments and ministries. In my view, it behooves us to keep our eyes and ears open.


  1. “ex-communio doesn’t only exclude one from the ordained office, but from the entire mystical Body of Christ in the Roman rite.”

    Speaking of semantics. There is no thing called the “Roman rite” that anyone can belong to. The Latin Church, which happens to use the Roman rite, is one of the 24 autonomous particular Churches that makes up the Catholic Church. One is enrolled in a Church, not a “rite.”

    1. Thank you, John – an important distinction. I struggled to write that sentence accurately, and was not successful. I was trying to avoid implying that the Church of Rome is the entire mystical Body of Christ, or that it is all of (or the only) “Catholic church” or “Church” that exists, since ex-communio is a particular way of describing someone’s ecclesial status. I’m open to other recommendations.

      1. If a person is excommunicated from the Latin Church, he is excommunicated from the entire Catholic Church. All of the 24 Churches that comprise Her are in communion with each other. It’s best just to say that person is excommunicated from the Catholic Church, which is the truth.

  2. Thank you, semantically wise deck chair arranger, for pointing out not only the misunderstandings of this situation but also what many people have recognized–that the abuse crisis and other endemic problems in the churches (including, of course, the Latin Church that celebrates the Roman Rite in its various forms) are linked to the way we worship. The decision not to participate in worship reflects an innate awareness of this link. “Respect the office, not the person” does not apply in an incarnate faith.

  3. What happened to “receive the sacraments”?

    I’m not sure what your point is here, Alan. Are you saying that laicization is not sufficient, that those convicted of abuse ought to be excommunicated?

    I think the point of laicization is that the individual is stripped of clerical privileges and can no longer represent the church “in persona Christi capitis.” This isn’t the answer to all problems, but surely it’s not just a matter of semantics.

    1. Rita and all –

      Apologies for my lack of clarity. My point was that laicization – having to return to the lay (though still baptized) state – is NOT the worst punishment. I didn’t mean to imply that the former cardinal should have been excommunicated, but that excommunication would have been a more extreme remedy. Using this language is a sign of the deep clergification of the church, the reverse side of the language of being “elevated” to the priesthood. As though once you’re no longer in orders, you have no reason to continue being a follower of Christ.

      1. Thanks, Alan.
        I agree with you. In fact, I once complained about this very issue in a discussion at dotCommonweal. Todd Flowerday wrote a post at Catholic Sensibility triggered by my irritated comment that the lay state was being used as a “dumping ground.” Here is the link, FYI. https://catholicsensibility.wordpress.com/2010/04/11/dumping-ground/

        As to the question of “the worst punishment” see Luke 17:1-2, Matthew 18:6, and Mark 9:42. It’s a terrifying saying, and it appears in all the synoptics. Pope Francis was on to this, I think, when he advised the guilty to prepare themselves for judgment. Maybe we should be reading this at every church gathering!

  4. View from the Pew
    Regarding: “It is in the Church’s liturgy, however, that the baptized faithful have most of their contact with Church, and through which we derive understanding of the Church in its sacraments and ministries.”
    – This is a good article and in these times an important reminder that it is sinners who celebrate the liturgy and sacraments. As well, it illustrates that words are important in that they show what we want to change, or illustrate what we are reinforcing instead of changing.
    – Perhaps due to the grievous harms caused by the scandal of episcopal secrecy subsequent to the crimes of the rape of children and molestation of young people by some clerics and church workers it is now more clear than ever before that the baptized faithful, the Body of Christ, have most contact with Church as the Domestic Church wherein the liturgy and sacraments are as lived, rather than as individuals, or families in the parochial pew.
    – Church, inclusive of the parochial and diocesan churches, is manifested as the Domestic Church. So while the harms and their consequences are most grievous burdens to the parochial and diocesan churches, it is the Domestic Church that suffers the sacrilege of spousal abuse when the children and young people of these households of faith that comprise the Domestic Churches are raped, lied to, molested, or suffer the abuse of power.
    – Yet and always, liturgy and sacraments comprise life of all households of faith, no matter how broken and incomplete be they, as part of the eternal Eucharist.

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