Preparing for the Synod on the Laity

The situation of laymen is very different from country to country. So is the awareness of the dignity and of the tasks of laymen as they were outlined in the constitution Lumen Gentium and the decree Apostolicam Actuositatem by the Second Vatican Council. While in Germany, where I write these lines, there exists a long tradition of laymen acting independently of their bishops, but in unlimited loyalty to the Church, in Spanish-speaking countries as well as in the Netherlands, for example, the bishops and priests decided on worldly tasks of laymen until very recent times, and thereby unwillingly produced a post-conciliary thirst for independence which today touches upon matters with respect to which laymen are strictly incompetent. The situation in the United States, as far as I can judge it from occasional visits, lies somewhere between these extremes.

In spite of such regional and national differences it is very clear to anyone of sound judgment how laymen should see themselves in the coming decades. On the one hand, they are invited to be thoroughly faithful followers of Christ no less than priests and members of religious orders. Among other things, such as a sacramental life and a life of prayer, this entails strict obedience to their pastors in doctrinal, moral, and spiritual matters. On the other hand, the laywomen and laymen cannot rely on their bishops in the ad-ministration of “temporal things.” No bishop has any competence with respect to how parents should achieve the ideal of a loving family, or how the wealthy countries should help the poor, or how a Third World War could best be prevented. Of course, the bishops have the right and indeed the duty to remind their faithful of the Christian principles pertinent in such matters; but they certainly should not, as the South African bishops did last year, side with the African National Congress (ANC) against Botha’s government. Quite apart from the question that the ANC is much too dependent upon communist ideologists to deserve the sympathy of Christians, bishops have no authority whatsoever in politics in general and in the painful question of how to overcome apartheid in particular. Of course, a bishop is a citizen and as such he has the right to speak up on political matters; but he must, in such cases, make it as clear as possible that he is speaking as a citizen, not as the pastor of his flock.

Unfortunately, two tendencies have obfuscated these neat principles during the last two decades. On the one hand, the Church’s earnest desire to extricate itself from politics has often been misunderstood as an extrication from the establishment alone. Thus, just as in past centuries the hierarchy sided with monarchs and their power, today many Christians feel that the Church has to stand on the side of those who want to overthrow their government. Of course, following Christ, the Church has to be particularly concerned about those who suffer from hunger and thirst, are poor or oppressed. But this cannot mean simply that it should side with revolutionaries against  governments. Much of the theology of liberation and similar trends are nothing but a curiously inverted theocracy in spe: after all, when the revolutionaries come to power, they will soon be the Establishment. And what then, dear Boffs and Guiterrezes?

Secondly, and more to the point, there has emerged the danger of a “laicization of the clergy and a clericalization of the laity” (John Paul II). Many priests and occasionally even bishops claim a competence in worldly matters, indeed act as if they were laymen, and many laywomen and laymen feel that their proper place is at the altar and on the preacher’s pulpit. In the long run, members of the clergy will demonstrate against the president or, as it happens in Germany, against atomic plants, while laywomen storm pulpits and laymen write pastoral letters. These are apocalyptic times; in Europe there goes the story that in New York sisters demonstrated with banners on which was written “Lesbian nuns for abortion.” Si non e vero, e bene trovato . . .

My main point, then, is that the future of the laity is inseparably connected with that of the clergy and the religiosi. After all, both are members of the same mystical body; if some of its parts misfunction, other parts will be torn almost inevitably into the whirl of the disease. On the other hand, however, the Lord has reminded us that we should be more concerned about the beam in our own eyes than the splinter in our neighbor’s eye; and this also means that we are called to do our duty without unnecessarily complaining about the mistakes others commit. This Christian tenet probably never was as timely as it is today.

The task of the laywoman and of the layman, then, is to seek the evangelization and sanctification of mankind and to penetrate, indeed to perfect, the temporal order with the spirit of the Gospel (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 2). This presupposes a proper spirituality of the layman; to develop it is perhaps the most important task of the future. There are a number of movements of religious renewal around today, which are helpful in this respect: Opus Dei with its insistence on the sanctification of daily work, above all professional activities; the Italian movement Communione e Liberazione with its accent on the experience of Christ’s freedom in the community of the Church in the midst of the world; the Foccolarine with its insistence on a life of prayer and love full of joy; the charismatic movement with its emphasis on the guidance by the Holy Spirit; and so on. One need not be a member of these movements to recognize that each of them contributes to the spirituality of the laity in the midst of the world. Even if one likes none of them enough to join or lacks the courage to take this step, laywomen and laymen should learn from them to discover how to follow Christ in the midst of the world and how to master tasks of the temporal order in the spirit of Christ.

This may sound as if we Catholic laywomen and laymen should become part of the evangelical movement. We cannot, since most of the evangelicals do not know the Church. And yet their spirit is closer to that of faithful Catholics not long ago than the “Catholicism” of those who reduce the Church to an innerworldly project of “happyfying” socio-political reforms. In a way, we all know this — including the proverbial lesbian nuns. The problem is not an intellectual one, although sometimes at some levels it may involve philosophical and theological issues. What is at stake is commitment, obedience, and inner freedom: the inner freedom necessary for solving problems of the secular order without lazily expecting orders from where no competent orders can emerge; a humble obedience to those who serve the community of the faithful as their pastors; and an unrestricted commitment to Christ and his Church.

As Cardinal Ratzinger put it a short time ago: where the Mother of God is ignored, something tends to go wrong in our personal relationship with Christ. Since many of the members of the clergy seem to ignore her, one of the important tasks of the laity consists in rediscovering who she is, while they live and act in a secularized world. After all, it was Mary who said the decisive fiat of world history. Contrary to Abraham, who only is an example of how we should obey God, Mary moreover has become the mediatrix between God and Man. A Catholic laywoman or layman should live his life close to her.

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At the time this article was written, Nicholas Lobkowicz was President of Katholische Universitat in Eichstatt, West Germany.

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