OK, let's get on with this. Now, in order to look at the intended use "Pay, Pray, and Obey," I will have to indulge in some guesswork. Examining hypothetical intentions always runs the risk of unfairness. That's why I'm going to start off in a sympathetic way.
I imagine that the root of the situation which might justify the critique of P.P.O. lies in legalism. A quick survey of the Catechism and the Code will reveal that all of the things that the laity are required to do by the law of the Church themselves follow the pattern of P.P.O. For example, let's look at the Catechism's version of the precepts of the Church:
- You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor.
- You shall confess your sins at least once a year.
- You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season.
- You shall observe the the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church.
- You shall help provide for the needs of the Church.
- (The 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia adds...) not to marry within a certain degree of kindred nor to solemnize marriage at the forbidden times (i.e., Advent or Lent).
One should keep in mind that when I call this "legalism" I do not mean the belief that all of the Church's laws should be followed (this is not legalism; it is faithfulness). Rather, by "legalism" I mean that one's concept of Christian life is determined exclusively by laws. Another word for it is "minimalism;" it presumes that one who rigorously obeys the written precepts has a claim on God's and salvation without the necessity of charity. When it is overt, it can be deeply idolatrous.
This legalism has a double negative impact: first, it feeds into the moral laziness of the clergy and the laity. A lay legalist may believe that once he or she has a hang of the Ten Commandments and the six/seven precepts, he or she has salvation "in the bag" (even if that person lacks charity). Clerics have a substantially greater number of laws they must follow; hence legalism is more tempting for the clergyman because its inherent laziness is not so obvious (heck, even as a seminarian I struggle to do even most of them; if I could do everything required of me, I imagine I would be very proud of myself).
Second, this legalism can feed into the temptation of the clergy and the laity to have contempt for one-another. On the part of the clergy, there is the bittersweet myth that the life of the laity is easier because it has fewer ecclesiastical restrictions. The legalistic clergyman 'naturally' assumes that his laity don't do anything beyond Church law (indeed, if they follow Church law at all), and so inflates his ego with the gas that is his own rigorous obedience. Moreover, and ironically, the clerical legalist becomes exceedingly uncomfortable when the laity do actively go beyond the P.P.O. model. The active Christian life becomes a kind of personal territory of his that he will not cede to the rabble and the mob. Thus--in the guise of rightfully reminding his flock not to abandon the precepts of the Church--the cleric may in fact be insisting that they also not go beyond them.
The converse temptation exists for the laity--that they could imagine that the priest is exactly just as described, when in fact he may not be. This is where the cynical application of "Pay, Pray, and Obey" comes from. It is an anti-clericism which supposes--rightly or wrongly--that the cleric has a kind of contempt for, and patronization of the laity. The critique invokes an image of a church which does not view its lay members as living active Christians and children of God, but rather has the human fodder for the perpetuation of power structures. In its extremes, it may serve as a justification to ignore the precepts of the Church altogether--an anti-legalism, as it were.
I submit that this anti-legalism, in cases where it is rash and inaccurate, can itself be a breed of legalism, for two reasons. First, both legalism and anti-legalism share the assumption that the external obedience (or disobedience) of laws is the true theatre of the rise and fall of values; neither has sufficient regard for the interior dispositions of the other party. In other words, the legalist priest misinterprets lay activism for lawlessness (even if they broke no laws); and the anti-legalist laity misinterprets the priest's discipline for heartlessness (even if he were a man of great kindness).
Second, both legalism and anti-legalism indulge in minimalism; one seeks obedience as a substitute for justice; the other seeks justice as a substitute for obedience. Neither has a strong care for the emphasis of both or the recognition of complementary roles in the Church.
The #1 reason why I have a deep animosity toward the cynical application of the "Pay, Pray, and Obey" critique is that it seems to harbor a thinly veiled, ideologically anti-legalistic contempt for these three actions. It is less a call to the renewal of active Christian life and more an indictment of all humble submission to the visible continuation of Christ's authority on earth. By this, I do not imply that there are no priests who really are legalists and who do have an unfair disdain of the laity. Nor do I imply that the lay vocation is confined to P.P.O.--it must not be. But I have the feeling that people are indulging in Enlightenment fantasies of Christianity without humble prayer, generous tithing, and willing obedience (which itself is as much a clerical virtue as it is a lay virtue, of course).