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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Distinction between "Ministry" and "Apostolate" and Why it Matters

Question: On the importance of the distinction between the terms “ministry” and “apostolate”

Objection 1: It would seem that the term “apostolate” would apply to the successors of the apostles and the term “ministry” has a more universal application and understanding.

Objection 2: One who engages in ministry should be termed “minister”.

Objection 3: It seems the distinction is unnecessary because many who minister are in an apostolate and vice versa. To wit; it is unnecessary because the terms are not mutually exclusive nor are they necessarily mutually inclusive.

On the Contrary, it is important to draw the distinction in terms, for, as many theologians have noted, a lack of distinction in terms has led to larger consequences as it applies to doctrines taught by the Church with regard to ministry. In 1994 John Paul II stated, “It must be admitted that the language becomes doubtful, confused and hence not helpful for expression the doctrine of the faith whenever the difference ‘of essence and not merely of degree’ between the baptismal priesthood and the ordained priesthood is in any way obscured." (LG, 10) He also stated in the same document, “We cannot increase the communion and unity of the church by ‘clericalizing’ the lay faithful or by ‘laicizing’ priests.” (1)

I answer that although the definitions of the two terms, “Apostolate” and “Ministry” have not been formally defined to complete satisfaction, in a review of several official Church documents it becomes clear that the words do have specific applications. We can note especially that the Vatican II documents (see especially Apostolicam Actuositatem, Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity) exclusively used the term “Apostolate” to apply to the work of the laity in carrying out the mission of the Church in the world. The word “minister” and “ministry”, in fact, has both historically and, as emphasized in Vatican II only applied to those who have received Holy Orders.

Reply to Objection 1: It would seem that the term “Apostolate” has a wider application. “Every activity of the Mystical Body with this in view goes by the name of “apostolate”; the Church exercises it through all its members, though in various ways.” (2) However, throughout history, the term “ministry” has been restricted to apply only to the activities that flow from Holy Orders in the sacred actions of word and sacrament. Vatican II, as well was very specific in its use of “ministry” as applicable to the work of the Ordained Ministers, and the term “Apostolate” to the work of the laity, especially as it applies in the world. Apostilicam Actuositatem emphasized especially the right and duty of the Catholic faithful to carry out apostolic activity in the Church’s work of sanctifying the world. “From the fact of their union with Christ the head flows the laymen’s right and duty to be apostles. Inserted as they are in the Mystical Body of Christ by baptism and strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit in Confirmation, it is by the Lord himself that they are assigned to the apostolate.” (3) It would seem, therefore, that the term “Ministry” applies properly to the Ministerial Priesthood which is granted specifically through Holy Orders, and the term “Apostolate” applies to the Lay Faithful which is granted and nourished by Baptism and Confirmation.

Reply to Objection 2: The use of the term “minister” has been reserved for the ministerial priesthood; that is, those who have received the Sacrament of Holy Orders and have taken on the character of the priesthood of Jesus Christ. The work of the priest, that is, his ministry, flows from that sacramental character to minister to the people of God in exercising the offices of Priest, Prophet, and King. The 1983 Code of Canon Law extended the privilege of admitting some of the laity to participate in certain liturgical or catechetical offices. This work of the laity in those offices, however, flows not from Holy Orders itself, but out of their own foundation in Baptism and Confirmation, and granted only through the commission of a Priest or a Bishop. Those of the laity who participate in the work of the Priest in the work that does not absolutely require Clergy, such as in liturgical positions (Cantor, Lector, Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion) have an extraordinary character; it is a privilege, not a right and it has limited scope.

In Christifideles laici, John Paul II discussed the fact that although the 1983 Code of Canon Law allowed for lay persons to exercise certain ministries normally belonging to clergy, “…the exercise of such tasks does not make the lay faithful pastors: in fact a person is not a minister simply in performing a task, but through sacramental ordination. Only the Sacrament of Orders gives the ordained minister a particular participation in the office of Christ…” (4)

It would be totally inappropriate for one who serves as a Lector, for example to refer to himself as a “Minister”. It is proper in that case, however, for him to understand that he participates in ministry. Likewise, the teaching office of the Church which flows through Holy Orders may be carried out, through commission, by the laity. In this case, it would be proper for the lay people who do the work of catechesis, that is, handing on the Faith, to recognize that their work is a ministry which is a participation in the ministry of the Priesthood. However, a catechist is not a minister; but rather, enjoys a participation in the ministry.

Reply to Objection 3: Certainly it can be observed that the Clergy participates also in Apostolate, and in some cases, the Lay Faithful are granted the privilege of participating in the Ministry of the Priesthood. However, this does not make the terms mutually exclusive or inclusive, which is why the distinction in terms is clearly necessary. Christifideles laici revealed that in the Synod Assembly, there was a critical judgment voiced regarding a too-indiscriminate use of the word “ministry”. This over-use caused “…the confusion and equating of the common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood, the lack of observance of ecclesiastical laws and norms…the tendency towards a ‘clericalization’ of the lay faithful and risk of creating…an ecclesial structure of parallel service to that founded on the Sacrament of Holy Orders.” (5) As stated above, in the replies to the first and second objections, the use of terms in Objection 3 are founded upon a lack of definition of terms and thus a misunderstanding of the character belonging to each term and inherent mission indicated by it. To properly distinguish “ministry” and “apostolate” is truly revelatory of the mission of the Church and the complimentary roles and charisms that belong to both clergy and laity from within their specific areas of responsibility. The Church cannot exist without the Lay Apostolate; nor can the Lay Apostolate exist without the Ministry of the Priesthood.



1. Address of John Paul II, April 22, 1994
2. Apostolicam Actuositatem, 2
3. ibid, 3
4. Christifideles laici, 23
5. ibid.

Note:  This was a paper written for Pastoral Theology in May, 2010.


Hidden One said...

What about the term "lay apostle"?

Adoro said...

Hidden One ~ I haven't researched that; it's a made-up term as it doesn't exist in any Church documents I've read. My guess it was invented by a misguided person who didn't realize that "Apostle" corresponds to "Bishop". I see it mostly used by Protestants who don't believe in the hierarchy of the Church as Our Lord established it. My guess is a few misguided Catholics were trying to illustrate a point and it took on a life of its own.

I don't see it a lot, though. So...maybe this is one for YOU to research! ;-)

Joshua LeBlanc said...

I would make one correction. You say that the term ministry applies exclusiively to the ministerial priesthood. It would seem that the inclusion should be broadened to "the ordained" to include deacons as the Catechism is clear that deacons are ordained "unto the ministry". Great article.

Adoro said...

Thank you Joshua, and yes, I would agree.

This was a paper I wrote for my MTS and we were limited to 4 pages. Based upon the sources used, which focused on the priesthood, I did exclude the deaconate. However, yes, much of what I say in this article would apply also to the use of the word "ministry" to ordained Deacons!

Thanks for the correction on that as I hadn't considered that facet of ordained ministry (in this context). :-)