At the recent USCCB Convocation of Catholic Leaders in Orlando, my wife and co-author, Lisa Popcak, and I were honored to lead a panel titled “The Family and Sexuality: Challenges and Opportunities.” One of the first questions addressed by the panel was, “What is often overlooked when attempting to evangelize people about the Catholic vision of sex and love?”
Our response? The single most overlooked point is that sex stands at the center of the lay vocation. Attempting to practice a lay spirituality while ignoring sex is like living a zombie spirituality that divorces the body from the soul. If the Church is serious about the universal call to holiness, it has to get serious about proclaiming and helping people live the Catholic vision of sex and love.
What am I talking about? I’m glad you asked.
Laypeople: Spiritual also-rans?
Historically speaking, until the Second Vatican Council, laypeople were all but officially considered to be “spiritual also-rans” who, if they wanted to be serious about their faith, were welcome to borrow spiritual equipment (for example, Liturgy of the Hours, Lectio Divina, contemplative prayer, etc.) from the spiritual A-team — clergy and religious.
But it isn’t always easy for laypeople to use these tools. Lisa and I regularly hear from people who complain, “Since I had kids, I just don’t have time to pray like I used to.” The problem isn’t that laypeople are spiritually lax. It’s that many of the tools Catholics consider to be our spiritual stock-in-trade were primarily developed for clergy and religious and don’t easily translate to life in the domestic church.
Until Vatican II’s earth-shattering proclamation of the “universal call to holiness” that declared that priests, religious and laypeople alike are capable of real sanctity, no one really considered of what an authentically homegrown, lay approach to spirituality would even consist.
Lay spirituality: A new approach
Enter Pope St. John Paul II. As (effectively) the first post-Vatican II pope, he dedicated his life to laying the foundations of a lay spirituality that fit the demands of the domestic church. Because laypeople’s lives are consumed with the minutiae of paying bills and raising families, he made St. Thérèse of Lisieux a Doctor of the Church because her “little way” of holiness offered a path to sainthood that consisted of doing little things with great love.
Acknowledging how few examples of sanctity the Church offered to laypeople, he canonized more lay and married saints than any pope before him. Considering all the challenges laypeople face trying to live a holy life in the midst of a troubled world, he promoted devotion to Divine Mercy. Viewing the Rosary as the layperson’s easiest entrée into contemplative prayer, he wrote an apostolic letter on how to pray it properly and added an entire set of mysteries highlighting events every family could relate to: a baptism, a wedding, teaching children life lessons through stories, a father raising up his beloved son, a family meal.
And the crown jewel in this effort? St. John Paul’s Theology of the Body, through which, week-after-week, over the course of 129 Wednesday audiences, he promoted a marriage-centric, nuptial view of the pursuit of holiness, the sacraments, salvation history, the Church and the Gospel itself.
Sex: The heart of lay vocation
And what was at the center of this massive reflection on lay spirituality? Sex. Why? Because virtually every waking moment of the layperson’s life is spent seeking a mate, maintaining their relationship with their mate, conceiving children, dealing with struggles related to conceiving children and raising those children to find good and godly spouses. It all comes down to sex.
Christianity is an incarnational faith. It begins with conception, with God emptying himself and becoming embodied. As such, an authentically Christian spiritual life must also be embodied. If celibacy allows priests and religious to dedicate their bodies to work for the good of God’s kingdom, how could a layperson share in this work? The Theology of the Body answers this question by encouraging laypeople to resist the secular world’s reconception of fertility as a disease and to refuse to engage in sexual practices that treat people as sexual objects, create barriers to the two becoming one flesh and make children seem like a burden.
Any lay spirituality that seeks to divorce itself from the sexual character of the lay vocation is little more than a zombie spirituality, a body stumbling around desperately seeking redemption for its basic hungers. Christians, especially lay Christians, can do better. It’s time for the Church to give laypeople their rightful spiritual inheritance by boldly proclaiming and supporting laypeople in living an authentic, embodied, home-grown, nuptial, spiritual life. And it is time for laypeople to claim their sacred right to live the universal call to holiness in the unique ways only laypeople can.
Dr. Greg Popcak is the director of CatholicCounselors.com, the author of Holy Sex! and the host of More2Life on EWTN Radio/SiriusXM 130.