While a synod on the laity isn’t as dramatic as a re-examination of Vatican II, this one is probably even more significant. So much of the absurdity and pain in the Catholic Church today stem from massive confusion over the role of the laity.
One of the best statements on the role of the Catholic laity is in the mid-second century Epistle to Diognetus, which is still included in the breviary readings. It said that “what the soul is to the body, the Christian is to the world.” In our own century, Vatican II defined the laity’s role pretty much the same way: lay Catholics, according to Lumen Gentium, are supposed “to arrange worldly things so that these may contribute to God’s Kingdom.” Note that sacerdotal functions are not assigned.
As a reporter, I’ve been fascinated by the bizarre spectacle of lay people clamoring to get on the altar while priests flee the sanctuary in droves. While lay people dispense Holy Communion, priests dispense political wisdom. We’re definitely going through a topsy-turvy period. I only hope some contemporary comic genius is recording the havoc. But on a spiritual level it isn’t very funny. A stint on the women’s ordination trail has shown me how much rancor results from confusion over one’s vocation.
Another product of this dire confusion, in my opinion, is the vocation crisis. When the metaphysical distinction between the lay and clerical states is obscured and lay people encroach on priestly duties, then what is often unfelicitously referred to today as the “ordained ministry” loses its value. That increasingly few candidates of the appropriate gender now present themselves for Holy Orders should therefore come as no surprise. Many Catholics, especially feminists, are veering towards a Protestant ideology of the priesthood of all believers. As so many Protestant churches have amply demonstrated, however, the priesthood of all believers inevitably degenerates into the priesthood of nobody, and finally into complete secularization; the world needs priestcraft.
But it also desperately needs a Catholic laity committed to the sort of witness that converted the ancient world to Christ. Our world abounds in egregious examples of exactly the opposite: Whenever we let a “Catholic” politician off the hook for a pro-abortion vote, the Kingdom of God shrinks. Let’s hope the synod Fathers will remedy the situation. As I think of the role of the laity, I can’t resist mentioning a Catholic physician who, in my opinion, upholds the ideal. Living in a small Southern town, he is father of three retarded children. While this may be deeply shocking to the contraception-minded burghers, I think it carries an unmistakable message about the holiness of life.
Signs are encouraging that the age of a para-priestly laity is drawing to an end. A handful of movements, most notably Opus Dei and Focolare, are trying to reclaim the ancient ideals of a vocation in the world. Opus Dei speaks of the “sanctification” of one’s work, which I suspect is a fancy way of expressing St. Francis de Sales’s homelier ideas about living a Christian life on the job. At any rate, it’s healthy to get folks off the altar and into the world.
A word about language: My hope is that the synod Fathers will avoid the sort of terminology that only muddies the waters. St. Peter could speak of our being “a priestly people” precisely because there were no errant theologians around to confuse the matter. The synod Fathers don’t have that luxury. And, as a symbolic gesture, why don’t we restore our altar rails?