A Positive Agenda: The Compleat Post-Conciliar Catholic

Whether it is because of the wise leadership of John Paul II, or because of changes in the world outside the Church, or simply because all of the dead wood has now had time to fall from the tree, it seems as though the worst is over of the turmoil following the Second Vatican Council. We can now get out of our storm-shelters, look around us — at the damage, yes, but mostly at the open landscape — roll up our sleeves, and get to work. This is work not of rebuilding, but of building; not of reaction, but of action. But what is to be done? One needs a plan, a sense of priorities.

It helps to make a list of things to do. This is what I aim to do in this article: simply to state, and briefly describe, what a lay Catholic ought to be doing now. I do not propose the list as definitive. Although I have confidence that the first few points belong there, in the order I have chosen, I recognize that others are debatable. But the important thing, it seems to me, is to attempt to gain that clarification which comes of compiling a brief list. So here is mine.

1. Seek holiness above everything else. This is the central point and touchstone of the Council; everything that is truly in the “spirit” of Vatican II promotes holiness. If a person places any human good above holiness, or pursues something for himself with more devotion and fidelity than he seeks holiness, then he is not being faithful to the Council’s teachings. A Catholic, for example, who devotes himself to his career or his physical fitness more than to growing in holiness is not acting in the spirit of the Council. Two things are immediately implied by the serious pursuit of holiness: regular prayer and frequent recourse to the sacraments. Attending daily Mass is very much post-conciliar; making use of confession to grow in the interior life is post-conciliar; grounding all of one’s action in prayer is post-conciliar.

2. Live your family life well. The family is the first place where one’s own faith meets the world, and it is the society through which children come to know the Church. Furthermore, since the family is a natural society, the primary way in which a Catholic acts as a steward over nature is by strengthening and safeguarding his or her family. The family is also the school of virtue: for instance, family members practice the “universal destination of material things,” since goods are held in common; they value one another for what they are, not what they do. In the present world, the family is the principal site of heroism, sacrifice, generosity, and freedom.

 

3. Become well-educated in the faith. Vatican II was a reform, not a revolution. No council in the history of the Church has been destructive; all have conserved what came before. There is more for a layperson to know about the faith today, not less. Like the scribe of the kingdom of heaven, he must be able to bring out old things as well as new from his storehouse. Becoming well-educated would imply at least this: actually reading the principal Vatican II documents; reading the pope’s writings, in which the Council’s message is applied to the contemporary Church; becoming familiar with the writings of Thomas Aquinas or some other doctor of the Church; reading early Christian documents, such as the Didache; becoming well-grounded in moral theology. Most of all, a layperson needs to be intimately familiar with the New Testament. By the end of one’s life, one’s copy of this relatively short book ought to be as well-studied and well-worn as a hiker’s trail guide or a builder’s manual.

4. Develop the virtue of solidarity. Solidarity is a settled and active disposition to work for the good of all peoples, based on a recognition of their common humanity and one’s mutual dependence with them. It is a virtue which all Catholics must acquire. This requires, first of all, knowledge — of geography, of cultures, of nations, of interdependences. Second, it requires that one live one’s life as a member of an international society, which is what the Church is. This would imply such things as assisting the associations of the Church in other countries, and a habit of prayer for the efforts of Catholics elsewhere. It implies, furthermore, a simplicity of life and a spirit of poverty, because that is how most of one’s fellow Catholics live. Note that one of the best ways of growing in the virtue of solidarity is through reading what the pope writes for the universal church — his encyclicals — and taking these to heart.

5. Develop civic virtue. Sanctity for a layperson is incompatible with withdrawal from the world. It is necessary to be active in one’s community, to know about local politics, to know about national politics. Civic virtue is not activism; it consists, rather, of natural habits of acting which are often neglected by a religious person. And for most of us there is no need of extraordinary action: the cumulative and steady effect of the practice of ordinary civic virtue will itself be great.

6. Be an evangelist. The spread of the gospel depends largely on the actions of laypersons. In countries hostile to Christianity, it is often only the layperson who can communicate the good news. In countries which have been secularized, such as European countries and parts of North America, the task of re-evangelization needs to take place from within, by laypersons. But, again, what is needed is not so much extraordinary action, such as preaching on a street corner, but constant and cumulative actions that are small in scope, such as conversations with friends. Yet even these little actions will not happen by themselves, so a layperson needs to acquire an apostolic outlook in everything he does. This should consist in a certain joy in being a Catholic, a joy which one wishes above all to share with others.

7. Keep clear of clerical matters. A layperson has to know where he should work and where his efforts would be misdirected. His proper sphere of action is in the world: family, friends, work, culture. Although serious problems in the hierarchy of the Church can and do arise, usually the lay person’s best course of action is to pray and offer up mortifications, but not to interfere. Likewise, although a layperson should assist his pastor and play a role in his parish, his Christian life should not consist primarily of this, since the parish’s function is to assist his activity in the world. Similarly, he should scorn fads and fashions in liturgy and theology. They are at best a distraction, a diversion — they give the illusion of progress and improvement, when the things that really ought to be done are neglected. A layperson needs to have a kind of constancy in church matters, so that his apostolic attention can be centered elsewhere.

8. Be prepared for the long haul. A layperson needs to acquire a certain calmness that comes from taking a long view of things. Knowledge of history, especially of other troubled times in the Church, is here very helpful. For example, it is useful to know that it took 400 years for the Church in general to implement some of the more elementary reforms of the Council of Trent. The pope, it has been said, thinks in centuries: we would do well to imitate him — thinking in centuries, while acting today. And, more than calmness, one needs a sense of humor and a certain cheerful optimism. This for two reasons: first, because we know that, in other areas of our life, we are effective only if we possess these; second, because when we are faithful to the teaching of the Council, God is on our side, and God does not lose battles. “All things work to the good of those who believe.” The spirit of Vatican II is a cheerful and optimistic spirit, not superficially so, but rooted in the Cross.

Michael Pakaluk

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Michael Pakaluk is Ordinary Professor of Ethics and Social Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. A Newman scholar, he is working on a book on Newman as philosopher. His latest book is The Memoirs of St. Peter: A New Translation of the Gospel According to Mark (Regnery, 2019).

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