I read an article in the local Catholic newspaper. It outlines some liturgical policies for the diocese, including a restriction of the rite of purification to the Ordained. I thought I might offer some comments on it.
It’s true what the article says: the US bishops asked Rome for permission to allow extraordinary lay ministers to purify, and they were denied that permission. The cardinal who put the kibosh on it, Cardinal Arinze, was a possible candidate for Pope two years ago. He was popular among American Catholics because they liked the idea of having a “black Pope”. If only they knew how conservative African Catholics can be!
The policy is so strong that, if lay purifiers were considered really necessary, the directives would prefer that a church stops offering Communion under both kinds (so that fewer vessels are used, so that fewer people are needed to purify).
I imagine that the fault-line of public opinion would lie in one’s understanding of the meaning of “holiness”. If “holy” is an adjective that can really describe objects (vessels) or offices (priesthood, diaconate), then maybe the policy could be fitting. But if “holiness” only applies to personal kindness, goodness and love, then the notion of “holy vessels” or “holy offices” is silly on the face of it—they are objects, and have no inherent connection to kindness or love. Priests are sinners; objects are dead things.
So, I can understand why the policy is awkward. They effectively say that a lay person, who may incidentally be more graced than a priest, is nevertheless not as fitting to purify the vessels as the priest. And this is so, even if the priest is a nasty piece of work. Isolated from the rest of Christian teaching, this would be exactly what Jesus condemned the Pharisees for: “You pay tithes of mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected… judgment and mercy and fidelity… [you] strain out the gnat and swallow the camel!” (Matt 23:23-24). Religious minutiae should never take the place of justice.
However, the very same Scripture does not imply competition between the "weighter matters" and "the others": "these you should have done, without neglecting the others." We as Catholics should not settle for a false opposition between justice and ritual.
Yet this brings us back to the question posed earlier. Can "holiness" be predicated of things and offices, independent of personal virtues we immediately associate with holiness? The Catholic tradition would certainly answer in the affirmative. But that little word "tradition" fails to light up the faces of, perhaps, the majority of Catholics. We need to ask the basic questions again.