Pentimento: Lay ecclesial ministry and the politics of naming

Sylvia T McGeary, Fordham University


The term, lay ecclesial ministry, is the designated description given in official publications of the US National Conference of Catholic Bishops, to the non-ordained, professional women and men who have chosen to express their call in baptism to full-time service in the Roman Catholic Church. This study is an analysis of the politics of naming, as enshrined in the construction of this term. The organizing metaphor of pentimento—a visible trace of an earlier painting beneath a layer or layers of paint—gives shape to this interdisciplinary study. The work seeks to demonstrate that the uncritical institutionalization of the term lay ecclesial ministry has occurred as a result of the medieval theological knowledge systems and language forms that undergird the organizational structure of authority and power within the Roman Catholic Church. A theoretical and philosophical approach is used to unveil the archaic foundational assumptions that are embedded in the Church's social and cultural relationships. Historical-critical analysis of two thousand years of tradition unmasks the medieval rhetorical system that continues to support a dualistic caste system, over against the original vision of an inclusively diverse understanding of ministry. The new sociology of knowledge is employed to disclose an understanding of the ways in which official documents of the church continue to sustain a pyramidal structure of authority and power. The study proceeds to demonstrate how this pyramidic pattern inhibits forward movement toward more inclusive forms of ministry and a more interactive form of polity in the ecclesia. Transformative Learning Theory is utilized to reveal the distorted meaning perspectives that shape the sociolinguistic and epistemological relationships that continue to maintain the dominant ecclesiastical culture of a dualistic caste system. The study concludes by offering the reconceptualist tradition of religious education as a “mediating language”, providing a public space and a vocabulary in which to conduct a creative, critical discourse. This, in turn, the researcher postulates can open up new forms of mutual ministry that honor unity and diversity, equality and reciprocity, in the gifts of the ordained and non-ordained in the communal life of the church.

Subject Area

Religious education

Recommended Citation

McGeary, Sylvia T, "Pentimento: Lay ecclesial ministry and the politics of naming" (2005). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3169306.