The year was 1859. Back then people thought differently about a lot of things, including the laity and their place in the Catholic Church.
One day in May, a bishop and a priest were having a polite but increasingly tense conversation. “Who are the laity?” the bishop asked in a slightly sarcastic tone suggesting that the correct answer was, “Who, indeed?” But instead of saying that, then-Father John Henry Newman said, “The Church would look foolish without them.”
Since then, his remark has been quoted many times. He wasn’t only making a small joke but also underlining a point of more than ordinary importance: It’s difficult to imagine there even being such a thing as the Catholic Church apart from its lay members.
Father — later Cardinal and Blessed — Newman was a convert and theologian. His appreciation for the laity and their role — in its day much ahead of its time — was perhaps most famously expressed in a controversial essay published in July 1859. There he drew upon his formidable knowledge of Church history to argue that sometimes over the centuries, orthodox faith had been more truly reflected in the faith of the laity than almost anywhere else.
His positive view of laypeople hasn’t always been universally shared. For long stretches of time, in fact, laity and clerics alike seemed to operate on the assumption that non-clerics were second-class citizens in the ecclesiastical polity — by nature silent, passive and subservient.
And how do things stand now? In fact, recent decades have brought much improvement in the situation of laypeople.
Much of that real progress can be traced to either or both of two things. One is the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which took a new, positive view of the lay members of the Church. The other is Pope John Paul II’s landmark apostolic constitution Christifideles Laici (On the Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful), which reaffirmed, strengthened and expanded what the council said.
Universal call to holiness
But major changes had set in well before Vatican II. Starting early in the 20th century, the Catholic Action movement and other lay-oriented groups had been urging a more active and engaged lay role, especially when it came to representing the Church’s interests in secular society.
Although, by comparison with what the bishop had said to Cardinal Newman, that was progress of historic proportions, it had a serious limitation. In speaking of “apostolate” — the mission of the Church — the official definition of Catholic Action insisted that the apostolate of laypeople was a form of participation in the apostolate of the clerical hierarchy. It seemed to follow that the laity had no role in the Church’s mission properly their own.
By the time of Vatican II, something better obviously was needed. And the ecumenical council provided it, making at least two profoundly significant affirmations about the laity. Occurring in its central doctrinal document, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), these concern the fundamental equality in dignity and rights of all Church members, both laity and clergy, and the call to holiness that is directed to all.
While pointing to the necessary variety of ecclesiastical offices and functions, Lumen Gentium had this to say on the subject of equality:
“There is a common dignity of members [of the Church] deriving from their rebirth in Christ, a common grace as sons, a common vocation to perfection, one salvation, one hope and undivided charity … a true equality between all with regard to dignity and to the activity which is common to all the faithful in the building up of the Body of Christ” (No. 32).
As for the universal call to holiness, the council said this:
“All in the Church, whether they belong to the hierarchy or are cared for by it, are called to holiness. … The followers of Christ … have been made sons of God in the baptism of faith and partakers of the divine nature, and so are truly sanctified … It is therefore quite clear that all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love, and by this holiness a more human manner of life is fostered also in earthly society” (Nos. 39-40).
Of central importance for Vatican II’s teaching under both headings, equality and holiness, was the council’s theology of baptism as the fundamental source of the vocation to apostolate received by every member of the Church.
In contrast with the Catholic Action version, which viewed lay participation in the Church’s mission as a form of participation in the apostolate of the hierarchy, Vatican II said the laity, like other members of the Church, receive this calling directly from Christ in baptism and so possess an intrinsic right, as well as duty, to do their share in the work of the Church.
Lumen Gentium put it this way: “Incorporated into the Church by baptism, the faithful are appointed by their baptismal character to Christian religious worship; reborn as sons of God, they must profess before men the faith they have received from God through the Church” (No. 11). And again: “By baptism [the members of the Church, including lay people] are incorporated into Christ, are placed in the People of God, and in their own way share the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ, and to the best of their ability carry on the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world” (No. 31). And yet again: “The apostolate of the laity is a sharing in the salvific mission of the Church. Through baptism and confirmation all are appointed to this apostolate by the Lord himself” (No. 33).
Surveying texts like these, Jesuit Father John A. Hardon, a prominent and eminently orthodox theologian of that era, called the council’s teaching on the laity a “marvelous development in doctrine.”
Twenty-five years after the start of Vatican II, Pope John Paul II — who, as a young bishop, had been an active participant in the great event — convoked an assembly of the world Synod of Bishops in 1987 to reflect on the situation of the laity in light of a quarter century of experience putting that teaching to work. After the synod, he published a document summing up its reflections and adding his thoughts.
Christifideles Laici (“The Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful People”) is long, complex and covers much ground. But John Paul’s most notable contribution to the Church’s thinking about laypeople may be what he says concerning unique personal vocation.
Blessed John Paul II was by no means the first person to speak of personal vocation and apply the idea to the laity. Among others, St. Francis de Sales and Cardinal Newman had done that, too. But Pope John Paul was the first pope to make personal vocation a major theme of papal teaching and to develop the idea at length, as he does in Christifideles Laici.
He writes: “In fact, from eternity God has thought of us and has loved us as unique individuals. Every one of us he called by name … In the unfolding of the history of our lives and its events is the eternal plan of God revealed to each of us. Therefore, it is a gradual process; in a certain sense, one that happens day by day” (No. 58).
This has important practical implications — for example, in regard to forming the laity: “The fundamental objective of the formation of the lay faithful is an ever-clearer discovery of one’s vocation and the ever-greater willingness to live so as to fulfill one’s mission.” The main elements of this formation process, says the pope, are “receptive listening to God’s word and to the Church, fervent and constant prayer, the help of a wise spiritual director, and the discernment that involves fitting one’s god-given talents to the circumstances of the world around one.”
The teaching of Vatican II and Christifideles Laici together provide a benchmark for measuring how the Catholic laity of the United States have been doing in the last half-century. The picture, to put it briefly, can only be called mixed.
Much progress has been made in advancing the role of laypeople in the Church. But serious problems not only remain but appear to have gotten worse. The most serious of all, where the laity are concerned, is the large number who have either dropped out of the Church in whole or part or else remain passive and uninvolved.
Obviously, many factors combine to produce this situation. Some, such as the growing secularization of society and the spread of attitudes and values opposed to faith via the media, are beyond the Church’s ability to do much about. But others could be corrected if enough Catholics chose to correct them. Among these is clericalism.
The word refers to two quite different things. In Europe, for historical reasons, clericalism is the name for interference by clerics in secular politics. In centuries past, this sometimes was a problem, as was its mirror image, the intrusion of secular rulers in the internal affairs of the Church.
But clerical interference is hardly the problem today. Instead, the real challenge in the West is the ongoing secularist campaign to drive religion out of the public square while forcing believers to submit to laws that violate their religious and moral convictions.
It’s a different story, though, with the second kind of clericalism. In general terms, this is a state of mind that takes the clerical vocation and state in life to be both superior to and normative for all other Christian vocations and states. According to this way of thinking, clerics (bishops and priests, and to a lesser degree deacons) are the dominant, active people in the Church — the ones who make the decisions, give the orders, exercise command; the role of the laity is to listen and do as they’re told.
American Catholic laypeople think like this at least as much as, and possibly more than, their priests do. That’s true even of those who rebel against it and angrily drop out of the Church. Deeply rooted and pervasive, it’s an abuse that reduces the ideal of a Church whose fundamentally equal members have diverse, complementary offices and roles to a caricature: clerics are bosses, laypeople get bossed.
|Volunteers serve food cooked at the Wednesday Soup Kitchen at St. Blase Parish in Argo Summit, Ill. CNS photo/Karen Callaway
In Christifideles Laici, Pope John Paul warns that lay ministry can have the unintended consequence of reinforcing clericalist thinking. Lay ministry is a good thing in itself, but it can encourage the idea that the advancement of the laity lies in taking on more functions inside the institutions and structures of the Church — more laypeople in the sanctuary doing the readings and distributing Communion, more laity on councils and committees and the like. These are good things in themselves but they aren’t what Catholic laypeople should first and foremost be doing.
And what’s that? Lumen Gentium gives this answer: “By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will … . They are called by God [to] contribute to the sanctification of the world … by fulfilling their own particular duties” (No. 31).
That’s lay apostolate. Lay ministry is good, but it’s not the top priority. Unfortunately, clericalist thinking tends to suggest otherwise.
|Laura Cartagena, a volunteer with A Simple House, shows Hakeem Alston, 14, how to receive a blessing during Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. A Simple House is an outreach to residents in federally subsidized housing in Washington, D.C. CNS photo/Bob Roller
There is a solution, though — personal vocation. As Blessed John Paul II writes in Christifideles Laici, “God calls me and sends me forth as a laborer in his vineyard. He calls me and sends me forth for the coming of his kingdom in history. This personal vocation and mission defines the dignity and the responsibility of each member of the lay faithful and makes up the focal point of the whole work of formation” (No. 58).
Clericalism’s biggest mistake is to suppose that the clerical vocation is the norm of excellence for everyone. But for each individual it’s his or her personal vocation that sets the standard fidelity to God’s will. For some, this will involve the priesthood or religious life; for others, it’s a calling to the life of a lay woman or man — perhaps engaged in some form of ministry but in every instance doing apostolate by living Gospel values in the middle of the world. Hearing and heeding God’s call is what matters.
In an interview in 2011, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires — now better known to the world as Pope Francis — made it clear that he understands and supports the essentially secular nature of the laity’s role. Warning against “the temptation to clericalism,” he said: “The layman is a layman and has to live as a layman with the strength of his baptism, which enables him to be a leaven of the love of God in society itself, to create and sow hope, to proclaim the faith, not from a pulpit but from his everyday life.”
Today more and more Catholics, both clerics and laity, appear to be catching on. But this understanding of the laity and their role in the Church’s mission spreads slowly. Only when it’s universally recognized and accepted will the vision of the laity set out by the Second Vatican Council, Pope John Paul II, and now Pope Francis be fully realized and become the engine driving the New Evangelization.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.
Pope Emeritus Benedict spoke several times during his pontificate about the “co-responsibility” for the Church of laypeople along with clergy and religious. Last August he made the point again in a message to the International Forum of Catholic Action held in Romania. Here is an excerpt:
“Co-responsibility demands a change in mindset especially concerning the role of laypeople in the Church. They should not be regarded as ‘collaborators’ of the clergy, but, rather, as people who are really ‘co-responsible’ for the Church’s being and acting.
“It is therefore important that a mature and committed laity be consolidated, which can make its own specific contribution to the ecclesial mission with respect for the ministries and tasks that each one has in the life of the Church and always in cordial communion with the bishops … .
“Guiding people to the encounter with Christ, proclaiming his message of salvation in languages and ways understandable to our time, marked by social and cultural processes in rapid transformation, is the challenge of the new evangelization.”
|The Good and the Bad
The role of the laity has progressed in the past several decades. Laywomen and men occupy prominent policy-making and administrative roles at the national, diocesan and parish levels. Laypeople are highly visible in the liturgy, in Catholic education and in other sectors of the Church’s life. And lay-oriented groups for spiritual formation have mobilized the energies of thousands of committed laypeople in the pursuit of holiness in the secular world.
But the picture also has a dark side. The lay dropout rate from the Church is very high. Others remain Catholic in name but seldom go to Mass or receive the sacraments, while declaring their dissent from Church teaching — and even from the Church’s authority to teach. In this, they seem to take their inspiration from Catholic politicians who say they’re personally opposed to abortion yet support its legalization. (Some, of course, politicians and non-politicians alike, don’t bother saying they’re “personally opposed” any more.)
The rate of Sunday Mass attendance by American Catholics is a good indicator of what’s been happening. In the 1960s, it was 70 percent or higher. Now it’s about 25 percent.