Except for a period of time at the beginning of the church, and a few exceptions in the course of two thousand years, preaching has been consistently off-limits to the non-ordained. However, this consistent exclusion has never been quietly accepted or even readily observed.
So it is understandable, in these days of so much change in the Church, that the question of authorization for lay preaching is still being discussed. In this article, “preaching” means speaking on religious themes publicly in churches or oratories, at liturgical or nonliturgical events. We are not concerned with street preaching or other forms of evangelization that might be carried out by individuals in the public forum.
The format will be to review, in broad strokes, practices surrounding preaching through the history of the Church, but to focus more closely on legislation and other documents issued since Vatican II that refer to lay preaching specifically. Finally, we will draw some conclusions about the current state of authorization for lay preaching, both liturgical and nonliturgical, based on the history presented.
The early church
In the early centuries of the church, the community was unified and charismatic. Preachers preached because they received a gift from the Spirit, which was then recognized by the community, accepted, and exercised for the benefit of all. The authorization to preach came from the Spirit of God and from the community. As we know, charismatic preaching disappeared as the church became more complex, widespread, doctrinal, and sharply divided into clergy and laity.
Authorization from charism and the community was too unpredictable to fit into the developing system. This lack of acceptance of the charismatic reached its zenith in 1215, when the Fourth Lateran Council condemned as heretics any and all who dared preach without proper authorization. In other words, the very act of unauthorized preaching itself was declared heretical. From that point on, until the twentieth century, preaching in all its forms was the domain of bishops, priests, and some others in minor or major orders.
Motivation for this severe limitation was two-fold. First, the hierarchy was concerned that correct doctrine be preached to the people. Second, preaching was too powerful a tool, especially for adult catechesis, to be haphazardly regulated.