THE LAITY: WAKING THE SLEEPY GIANT
The hundred years between 1860 and 1960 in the Catholic Church was a century of burgeoning lay movements or associations, all in different ways putting themselves at the service of the Church and their fellow men. But they only touched a fraction of the Church's total population. How were the rest of the faithful to be persuaded that the Church is more than a social service agency for getting us safely to heaven?
The Council's principal remedy for lay passivity and individualism was its teaching about the call of all members of the Church to holiness ("Be you perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" was not said just for priests, monks and nuns), and the fact that the laity as well as the clergy share in Christ's threefold office of prophet, priest and king (if not in all respects in the same way).
Being a prophet means, in the first Stance, being a teacher of divine truth. Although in the Catholic scheme of things, bishops are the primary guardians and teachers of that truth, the laity's right and duty to bear witness to it (whether by word or example) springs from their baptism. They should ensure that what they are preaching or bearing witness to really is the faith of the Church, but they do not need any further authorisation. If asked "Why do Catholics worship statues?" they do not have to run to their priest or bishop for permission to say they don't. Baptism makes the layman an apostle from the outset.
It also makes him, if not a priest in the strict sense, a member of a "priestly" people. When St. Peter told the first Christians they were a chosen race, a consecrated nation, a royal priesthood, he was not speaking only of the clergy. The laity, it is true, cannot say Mass, forgive sins, confirm, anoint, or make priests or bishops. The Church insists on the distinction between the "common priesthood" of all the faithful and that of the ordained priesthood; it is a distinction of kind not just of degree. Nevertheless, the laity's vocation is priestly in that they have been called by God to offer him worship, intercession and reparation for sin with and under their priests in union with the God-Man Jesus Christ. God wants the offering of a whole people not just of a priesthood in the strict sense. To the perfect offering brought about whenever an ordained priest says Mass, the rest of the "priestly people" are to unite all their "thoughts, words, joys, actions, and sufferings" at least once a week by their physical presence, and at other times in intention.
The Mass, the sacrifice of Christ perpetuated through time and space in union with his "Body" the Christian people, is the heart of the Christian mystery. It is what activates the mystery. The Mass sets in motion and makes possible the dying to sin and rising to new life which is the. essence of Christianity.
This work of worship, sacrifice, intercession and reparation is not just for the benefit of Christians. It is for the whole of mankind. By offering praise to the Blessed Trinity, praying for the world's needs, and, through their acts of penance, "making up for what is wanting in the sufferings of Christ" (Col 1:24), the faithful are the body that exists to draw down the graces necessary for all men, if they so will, to reach the next world safely, and at the same time to keep this one from going rotten. How the members of the Mystical Body act, whether they are more or less faithful to their calling, to a great extent accounts for the state of the world at any given time, as well as the place in the next life of many of their fellow men.
In relation to the world, the Church or Christian people fulfils somewhat the same role as the tribe of Levi did for the other eleven tribes in Old Testament times, while the relationship of clergy to laity within the Church is not unlike that within the tribe of Levi between the priests proper who alone could offer the temple sacrifices and the rest of the tribe dedicated to lesser forms of temple service.
Were it possible for a pagan ruler to understand these truths without himself becoming a Christian — that is recognise that the fidelity or infidelity of his Christian subjects could affect the well-being of his country as a whole — one could imagine him forcing Christians to live up to their vocation under pain of death.
If all this were better understood there would perhaps be fewer Christians asking themselves "What on earth is the Church for?"— the tide for a series of Lenten meditations prepared by an English ecumenical committee a few years ago.
The laity share in Christ's kingly power in the first place, according to the Council, firstly by overcoming the reign of sin in themselves, secondly by serving Christ in their brethren (to serve Christ who reigned by serving is to reign too), thirdly by "engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God's will" (Lumen Gentium 31, 36).
But with regard to this last way of "reigning", the Council warns, the faithful "must distinguish carefully between the rights and duties they have as members of the Church, and those which fall to them as members of human society."
Although "all power in heaven and earth" was given to Christ in reward for his "obedience unto death", nevertheless, in the time between his first and second comings, Christ wills to rule publicly and directly only over his spiritual kingdom, the Church, through the successors of his apostles. "My kingdom is not of this world". The management of this world is given over to men whether they are citizens of his spiritual kingdom or not. Only after his second coming will he rule over all things directly. This is the basis for the distinction between Church and state, which should be recognised even in Christian commonwealths.
The Catholic laity, therefore, as ordinary members of civil society, men like other men, have a direct kingly power over created things, a power deriving from God's command to the first man to "fill and subdue the earth". They govern them by natural right. As members of Our Lord's spiritual kingdom, their power is indirect. They do not derive their power to rule over created things from their baptism. On the other hand, their baptism obliges them to try and order the affairs of this world, so far as circumstances allow, in a Christian direction. In the words of the new code of canon law, they should try to "permeate and perfect the temporal order with the spirit of the Gospel". The laity are the medium through which Our Lord's direct authority in the Church is indirectly brought to bear on or influence the social and cultural life of mankind at large.
In carrying out their earthly duties well, the laity are at the same time fulfilling their prophetic or teaching role. They are teaching by example.
Within the Church, parents exercise a direct kingly authority over their children; so presumably do elected rulers of lay associations. Elsewhere in the Church, authority exercised by lay people would be a delegated authority.
Was all this teaching about the laity new? In the broad sense, No. Nothing fundamental in the Church is ever at any time totally absent from her practice or unknown to her mind, even if not all the knowledge is fully conscious.
Although the Church's constitution is ultimately monarchical, in other respects her life and practice have always been profoundly "populist" (the word "democratic" would be misleading). In every age the priesthood, and so her leadership, has been open to men of every class; everyone starts life as a layman. The law is the same for all — lying and adultery are not less punishable in a bishop than a street sweeper, or if there is any inequality it is in the street sweeper's favour; and most important of all, the highest rank, sanctity, is within everyone's reach.
Few things in the history of the Church are so remarkable as the way popes, cardinals and bishops have been ready to take advice in vital matters from holy lay people of every social class — servant girls, queens, noble women, mothers of families, farm hands, businessmen, artisans. The careers of St. Catherine of Siena and Bl. Anna Maria Taigi, wife of a 19th-century Roman footman consulted by the highest church dignitaries, are unparalleled in the history of civil society. The Church is in a real sense the one classless society and the calendar of saints is there to prove it.
Throughout her history, too, relatively few new undertakings have started from above. The feast of Corpus Christi owes its origin to an orphaned girl from the Low Countries, Bl. Juliana of Montcornillon; the nine first Fridays and Holy Hour devotions to an obscure Burgundian nun, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque; the worldwide Society for the Propagation of the Faith to a middle-class French spinster, Pauline Jaricot. There were laymen among the earliest apologists, for example St. Justin, Lactantius. Minucius Felix. Much of the mind of medieval Christendom was formed by poets like Dante and Langland, and the same can be said of the unknown authors of the medieval mystery plays. The tradition has continued into modern times with writers like Chateaubriand, Cones, Pcguy, Gertrud von It Fort, Manzoni, Chesterton, Belloc, Claudel and Tolkien. Their influence on the general Catholic mind has been as powerful in its own way and time as that of theologians. So too has the influence of the Church's great painters, architects and musicians, the majority likewise laymen.
The rise of the "third orders" in the 13th century, of movements like Gerard Groote's Brethren of the Common Life in the 14th and the Company of the Blessed Sacrament in the 17th centuries shows that the call of all members of the Church to holiness, laity as much as clergy, was never lost sight of either.
During the first four or five centuries there can have been few Christians who did not know that their vocation was a calling to be apostles. What brought about the first great change in the laity's outlook was the fact that, by the 7th century, both in the Byzantine east and the barbarian west, members of Church and State had become one and the same. The upshot was not so much clerical dominance as is often stated, but a more clear-cut division of competences. The clergy looked after things spiritual; the laity, sanctified and instructed in their duties by the clergy, took care of things temporal, ordering them according to what they understood as the mind of God. That at least was the theory, however much practice fell short. Even so there was a great deal of interpenetration, not to mention illegitimate crossing of boundaries, as much from the Lay as the clerical side. From the moment the Roman empire became Christian, much of the Church's history has been the history of her struggle to free herself from lay control. Her battles with Roman emperors and medieval magnates are well known. 1
But lay interference or intervention was not confined to kings and nobles. Lay turbulence was among the reasons the Church abandoned popular episcopal elections. At one medieval conclave, when the cardinals had not reached a decision after a year, the local laity took the roof off the building where they were meeting in order to concentrate their minds by letting in the weather. Even in the more decorous 18th century, we hear of the people of Prato burning the books and episcopal throne of their jansenist bishop when he removed a valued relic from their cathedral and forbade them to light more than 14 candles before a statue at any one time.
I cite these cases simply to correct the picture of a supposedly totally passive laity during the long centuries when Europe was publicly and officially Christian. What chiefly atrophied during these centuries, as I said before, was the laity's missionary spirit, because everyone was in theory a Christian.
However, by the mid-19th century, two things had begun to happen. Where the Church lacked or had lost the support of the state, the surviving faithful tended to look to their clergy as civil as well as religious leaders. Excessive Lay dependence on the clergy was a mainly 19th and early 20th-century phenomenon.
At the same time, some of the Laity began awakening to their missionary vocation. There were now "heathens" enough to convert without going outside one's town or village. But they were heathens with a difference. Unlike the unbaptised heathens of foreign lands, they started with a deep prejudice against the Church and Catholic clergy. Far-sighted bishops and priests realised that if these millions of new unbelievers were to be recovered, more of the laity would have to be turned into active apostles. In both cases, laity and clergy, we are talking about minorities, even small minorities. But all really worthwhile things have small beginnings.
They also began to realise that as Europe became increasingly de-Christianised, ordering society according to the mind of God from above through the state was going to be more and more difficult. If it was to be done at all, it would have to be a work of penetration from below and within. All that has come to be called Catholic action — lay movements like the Legion of Mary for spreading the faith, defending the Church, or improving social conditions — whether directly under the control of the hierarchy or not, flowed from this new awareness and situation.
But how was all this lay activity to be justified theologically? The reigning schools of theology did not envisage lay participation of this kind or on this scale in the Church's mission.
Once again Newman was a pioneer. Newman was one of the first to focus attention again on the laity's share in Christ's threefold office, his chief concern being with their share in his "prophetic" office. His essay On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doarine is the clearest expression of his mind on the subject.
By "consult", Newman was careful to explain, he did not mean taking the kind of expert opinion which settles a question. Nor was he suggesting that the Church's beliefs or practice should be settled by majority vote. By "consult", he said, he meant "making inquiry" into the belief and feelings of the Christian people, and that for two reasons. The first was to make it easier for them to accept the decisions of the magisterium. The second was because the faithful as a whole are one of the sources (or theological loci) by which the Church's beliefs may be known. As prophets they are meant to think about the beliefs they have to bear witness to, and in thinking about them, when they really are faithful, they have what is called a sensus fidei (or the Council described as "a supernatural appreciation of the faith") to guide them. However, the laity's beliefs are only one of several theological loci, and not the primary one. Moreover, to be of any value, their "insights" have to be in accord with what has been believed always and everywhere. 2
How little reliance Newman placed on current opinion in this or that section of the Church at this or that time can be seen when he writes: "Throw up a straw in the air and you will see which way the wind blows; submit your heretical or Catholic principle to the action of the multitude, and you will be able to pronounce at once whether it be imbued with Catholic truth or heretical falsehood". For Newman, consulting the faithful was a matter of what is fitting rather than what is obligatory, and presupposes in the first place the power of discernment in bishops.
Fr. Rosmini, another pioneer, wanted the laity to have a better understanding of their priestly role. In his Five Wounds of the Church he sees the first wound as "the excessive separation of clergy and faithful in worship". The people should be actors in the liturgy as well as hearers. He also wanted lay people to be more aware of their dignity as members of the Church. This too would help to bring clergy and laity closer together. After all, "to be a Christian is the first step in the priesthood". Because enough was not made of the laity's baptismal dignity, too many of both clergy and laity saw becoming a priest as joining a privileged caste.
After Newman and Rosmini, there was much writing about lay activity, but more about the forms it should take than its theological significance. The 1917 code of canon law contained few references to the laity's role. Fr. Congar's Jalons pour une théologie du laïcat, (1953: English translation, Lay People in the Church, 1957) was the first attempt at a full-scale theology of the laity.
In Fr. Congar's opinion, there could be no proper thinking about the laity without a full-scale rethinking about the Church (ecclesiology). A proper theology of the laity could not just be tacked on to the reigning ecclesiology. So the development started by Möhler and Newman must be carried a stage further. The definition of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ was satisfactory up to a point. At least it did justice to the Church's invisible dimension. But according to Congar, there was too much insistence on hierarchical order or levels of authority and responsibility, even if only by implication. For the Church to attract modern men, the accent must be shifted from the notion of hierarchy to the notion of community. Ecclesiology must begin with what is common to all members of the Church. All this led Fr. Congar and his fellow Dominicans and comrades in arms, as he calls them, Frs. Chenu and Feret, to choose "people of God" as the best primary definition of the Church.
It was not a new term. The liturgy is full of references to God's holy people and visitors to the basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome can read the words in the 5th-century mosaics over the high altar. The inscription runs "Sixtus, Bishop of the People of God" (Xstus. Epis. Pop Dei). But neither in theology nor ordinary speech had the term ever been widely used. It only started to attract attention after World War I, when theologians became interested in the idea of the Church as first and foremost a community of believers. The hatreds of the war period had, by way of reaction, generated a climate favourable to ideas of universal brotherhood, democratic egalitarianism and popular social action. 3
In the preface to his The People of God (1937), Dom Anscar Vonier, abbot of Buckfast Abbey, England, described it as "a modest attempt to add my voice to many others, immensely more powerful, to rally Catholics to a fervent realisation of their corporate existence".
The more powerful voices would eventually include those of the German Dominican Fr. Kosters, whose work on the Church as the people of God, Ekklesiologie in Werden appeared in 1940; of the Redemptorist Fr. Eger and the Benedictine Fr. Schaut, whose studies on the same theme appeared in 1947 and 1949; of Fr. Cerfaux, whose La théologie de l'église suivant St. Paul emphasised the influence of the notion on early Christian thinking. A decade earlier, a Fr. Robert Grosche had drawn the attention of theologians to the notion of the Church as a pilgrim people en route to a promised land, an idea long popular with Lutheran theologians.
But on this as well as other matters, Fr. Congar's voice was eventually to be the most powerful. Lumen Gentium, the Council's document on the Church, after dealing in its first chapter with "The Church as a Mystery", devotes the second chapter, under the tide "The People of God", specifically to what all the members as a community have in common. Only in chapter three are the rights and duties of the hierarchy explained.
Giving greater attention to a neglected or under-emphasised part of the Church's teaching does not or should not, as explained earlier, mean denying the importance of its complementary opposite. With this proviso, one can say that in its teaching about the laity the Council shifted the emphasis from the laity's duty of obedience to the teachings and authority of the hierarchy to their obligation to participate in its mission. 4
Notes to Chapter Eleven
1. Around the time of the Council, the forces of dissent launched the term "the Constantinian Church". The idea behind it was that with Constantine the Church entered into a permanent alliance with the State — any and every state apparently — in order to keep the laity in a condition of childlike subjection politically and religiously. a situation that was supposed to have lasted without interruption from 313 A.D. to 1958. At one stroke and in three words 1600 years of the Church's life were impugned. The most expensive public relations agency could not have done better. One regrets that a famous "reformist" member of the sacred college was not above giving countenance to this historical fiction.
2. The same idea is expressed today, e.g. by Cardinal Ratzinger, by saying that we know what must be believed from what has been believed diachronically (across time) as well as what is believed synchronically (everywhere today).
3. However. Cardinal Ratzinger has pointed out that although the term "people of God" appears in the New Testament, only in two places does it refer to the Church. Elsewhere it means the people of the Old Covenant. (The Church, Ecumenism and Politics. German original 1987; English translation, St. Paul Publications, 1988, p. 18.)
mode of that participation has been widely misunderstood. Modernist theology regards the roles of clergy
and laity as more or less interchangeable. The conciliar teaching is that they are complementary: the clergy
sanctify the laity, and the laity in their
turn go out and endeavour to sanctify society or the world. This,
fundamentally. is how the laity are to be involved in the Church's
mission. Unfortunately, many of the clergy,
the majority perhaps quite innocently, understand the teaching in a modernist
or semi-modernist sense. They think that it
means co-opting as many lay people as possible into strictly
church activities, while there has been a growing tendency on the part
of some priests to interest
themselves chiefly in social and political agendas. The 1987 Synod on the Laity referred to this as
"clericalising the laity and laicising the clergy", and the Fathers who used the expression did not
mean it as a compliment. Of course, there is always a need for lay
people to help with parish work, and very worthy work it is. But it is not the essence of the lay
vocation or the lay contribution to the Church's mission. If it were, the bulk of parishioners
would be without a vocation. There is never enough strictly church work to occupy more than a small
percentage of the total parish population.
Copyright © Philip Trower 2003, 2017
Version: 5th June 2017