Privatizing Religion

At a party back around Christmas, a man I hadn’t met before asked me what I do. I said I was a writer who, among other things, wrote fairly often about the situation of the Catholic laity in the Church. “Oh,” my new acquaintance responded innocently, “so are you a eucharistic minister in your parish?” I said I wasn’t and let it go at that.

Trivial as it was, though, the incident stuck in my mind. Here was an illustration of something I’ve often said: In the clericalist mindset of many lay people, as well as many priests, it’s taken for granted that lay Catholics who are truly involved in the life of the Church will be doing ministry of some sort.

In principle, that isn’t as recent a development as it might seem. Way back when, before people had heard of lay ministry, being involved in the Church for most people meant being a member of the parish choir or an usher, belonging to the Holy Name Society or the Knights of Columbus, the Altar Society or the Sodality. Today, of course, reading at Mass, distributing Communion, and other “ministerial” functions have largely replaced those things. But the underlying clericalist assumptions are stronger than ever.
This is no help at all to realizing the vision of the Second Vatican Council. For Vatican II, as everyone knows, insisted that “by reason of their special vocation” lay women and men first and foremost have the job of “engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will” (Lumen Gentium, 31).
The reason for repeating all this now lies in a notable 50th anniversary later this year. On September 12, 1960, John F. Kennedy, hard pressed by anti-Catholic bigotry in his race for the presidency, sought to allay Protestant anxiety with a speech to the Houston Ministerial Association.
Kennedy offered profuse assurances that, as president, he wouldn’t let the pope and bishops boss him around. No reasonable person, either then or now, could fault him for that.
But the candidate went a lot farther. JFK’s Houston speech was a remarkable exercise in the privatizing of religion — the process of excluding faith from the public square and locking it up, not just in church but, as Kennedy did, in the shuttered confines of individual conscience.
Declaring his religious views to be his “own private affair,” he assured the ministers that religion wouldn’t affect whatever presidential decisions he might be called on to make concerning “birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling,” or anything else. Instead he’d be guided by his personal views, “without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates.”
“To make religion merely a private matter was idiocy,” Rev. John Courtney Murray, S.J., the eminent church-state theologian, complained of Kennedy’s remarks. (Murray’s groundbreaking book We Hold These Truths was published the same year.)
Even so, Kennedy’s election as president seemed to vindicate the Houston speech. But 50 years later, that looks much different.
Picking up where Kennedy left off, and propelled by the need for what they deemed a politically viable position after Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, countless Catholic politicians have played variations on Kennedy’s Houston themes and gone far beyond them. Geraldine Ferraro, Mario Cuomo, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry — the list goes on and on.
Not long ago, Nancy Pelosi unburdened herself on these matters in a Newsweek interview in which the Speaker of the House sometimes seemed to be channeling JFK and other times to be caricaturing him.
“I am a practicing Catholic,” Pelosi declared, striking a passive-aggressive note, “although they’re probably not too happy about that. But it is my faith.”
I practically mourn this difference of opinion [on abortion and gay rights] because I feel what I was raised to believe is consistent with what I profess, and that is that we are all endowed with a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions. And that women should have that opportunity to exercise their free will.
This is all very interesting, someone might say, but what has it got to do with being a eucharistic minister?
Before I’m accused of blaming the rise of pro-choice Catholic politicians on lay ministry, let me say emphatically: I don’t. The point I’m making is more subtle. And also more important.
It’s this: The clericalist buzz surrounding lay ministry today places a premium on what lay people do in church. What they do out in the secular world is given comparatively short shrift. De facto, this reinforces the Kennedyesque project of privatizing religion, according to which, for Catholics like Pelosi, their split with the Church over things like abortion and gay rights is a “difference of opinion” in which their opinion wins.
In another famous passage, Vatican II deplored “the dichotomy between the faith which many profess and the practice of their daily lives.” The council called this “one of the gravest errors of our time” (Gaudium et Spes, 43). That was 1965. Forty-five years later, the dichotomy is thriving.
To be sure, many things account for it. Secularization, expediency, and ignorance come to mind. And also, I submit, the clericalist notion that to be an involved Catholic lay person means doing ministry in church — an idea whose silent corollary is that what goes on outside church doesn’t have all that much bearing on one’s religious identity.
Let’s be clear about this: Lay ministers are good people. Many of them do exemplary work in the community six days a week, with “ministry” on Sunday a kind of frosting on the cake of their commitment. The problem isn’t with how good people like that organize their lives and live their faith. It is, as I keep repeating, with the mentality that exalts lay ministry and ignores lay apostolate.
Lay people engaged in living their faith may or may not be lay ministers, but they will certainly be lay apostles in the world — in their marriages, families, friendships, civic responsibilities, jobs. And in politics, if that’s their line of work.
That doesn’t mean toeing the hierarchy’s line on contingent political questions allowing for diverse opinions within the framework of agreement on principles. It means taking time and trouble to know and understand the principles and making conscientious decisions — prudential judgments — that apply them to concrete cases. Having done that, the laity, as Vatican II also said, “must bring to their cooperation with others their own special competence, and act on their own responsibility” (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 7).
Two years after Kennedy spoke in Houston, Vatican II began. In its four years, it spoke on many matters. What the council had to say about the laity, conscience, and political life was and remains forward-looking and sound. Kennedy’s message of privatization sank in with many members of the Catholic political class. The wisdom of Vatican II apparently did not.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

  • DWB

    I didn’t consider membership in the Holy Name Society or Knights of Columbus a form of ministry, but recognized that the privilege of being an usher was, in a small way, an extension of one of the minor orders.
    On the other hand, I volunteered my spare time to youth activities, primarily Girl and Boy Scouts, whether within the parish or the general community, as a personal form of ministry. Preaching, as St. Francis is said to have suggested, using words if necessary.

  • Augustine

    Isn’t Shaw a priest? If so, how was the stranger not immediately aware that he was a priest? Was he not wearing any priestly garb?

    By the way, VII advocated religious liberty and the separation of Church and state. This was sound? Not at all!

  • Tom

    How has the engagement of Catholics in temporal affairs been successful in any way? All we seem to get is some kind of “common ground” stance, which doesn’t reflect anything approaching a Catholic view of the world. It certainly doesn’t influence policy or direct it in a more “Catholic” way.

    The idea that the laity are “lay apostles” is absurd on its face. They’re not accountable. And I’m not just talking about the “Kennedyesque” types, either. If you pride yourself on not “toeing the hierarchy’s line,” then what is the point of being a “lay apostle”? Just to come up with a muddy stew of nothing? That won’t produce a Catholic view of the world. It just produces nothing.

  • Deacon Ed

    were to have just one conversation a day with someone they only vaguely know about Jesus Christ and their relationship with him, we might all have a clearer notion of just what is the rightful ministry of the laity in the Catholic Church. Go up to any Catholic, I dare you, and ask, “When was the last time you had a conversation with anyone about your faith in Jesus Christ.” Let me know the look on their face, would you?

    If we had more Catholics doing this, there wouldn’t be the usual rush to the altar on Sunday to be a “Eucharistic minister.”

  • Phil Atley


    Whatever made you assume that Russel Shaw is a priest? Clericalism, perhaps? Nothing in the article remotely suggested he is a priest. Something in your mind made you think he is and you read the article in that light and then went on to make assumptions about not wearing clerical clothing etc. since, had he been dressed in clericals his interlocutor would not have mistaken him for a layman. Your mind is going in circles.

    He’s one of the more prominent public Catholic laymen and anyone who knows anything about him knows that. If one doesn’t know anything about someone, it’s a good rule of thumb not to assume things but to do a quick check (so easy now, on the internet) and find out. Then when one reads what the unknown writes, one will be less likely to read things into it.

    From your somewhat distorted statements about Vatican II, I could make some inferences about where you are coming from, but I won’t.

  • Aaron

    It’s amazing how often you can look in the documents of Vatican II and find, in clear black and white, exactly the opposite of what people in the Church have been teaching for forty years — often invoking the name of Vatican II as they’ve done so. Puzzling, that.

  • Austin

    JFK had to put some distance between himself and the Bishops, as some people actually thought that he was going to bring Pope John XXIII to Washington to rule the United States. I suppose those people did not vote for him anyway. Kind of amusing to think that some people regarded JFK as a “fanatical Catholic.”

  • thomas

    Evangelicals and other protestants have the same introverted clericalism problem too, of course. For all the concern to take the Gospel “to the world,” those with zeal often get co-opted by the ecclesial organization. Consequently and somewhat paradoxically, a clear distinction between laity and clerics actually helps to limit clericalism.

  • Austin

    I am not comfortable with clergy holding political office. This goes for both Catholics and Protestants. The business of Mike Huckabee being an ordained Baptist minister is something of a problem for me, as was Fr. Robert Drinian holding a seat in Congress.

    In the case of Fr. Drinian, he did not exactly advocate Catholic principles anyway, so Pope JP II ordering him to leave Congress was not really a loss to the Church.

  • GW

    Blanket statements that assume the pro-choice stance of all Catholic politicians was arrived at as the “politically viable” option for them is nonsense.

    I’m pro-life, but I recognize that many people in public life have come to their positions after much soul-searching and personal angst. Not all, but many…just as many, but not all of those who profess to “clean up Washington” end up in jail or disgraced. (Paging David Vitter)

  • Deacon Ed

    being pro-life is not a “position” anyone takes. The taking of an innocent human life, especially one that is defenseless is killing and this is the unchangeableteaching of the Church.

  • Augustine

    Phil, it looks like I was thinking of someone else. It’s not so baffling though that one would think that this site would publish something from a priest who doesn’t wear the collar, since this site is infected by liberalism. But that’s another topic….

  • Dibs

    I love the statement by Jackie Kennedy at the time, “I don’t know why people are so” — worried or however she put it –“Jack is such a bad Catholic.”

  • Thomas C. Coleman, Jr.

    Aaron, you are exactly right. Much of the outlandish heterodoxy and misrepresentations of Chruch Teaching we hear both from the pulpit and from our fellow laymen is accompanied by phony reference to Vatican II. One I’ve heard from a priest is that because the laity have a more active role in the Liturgy, there is no need for such pious practices as Stations of the Cross. Also from the pulpit I have heard, I swear, “Remeber the bad old days when they had these things called indulgences?” I have little doubt that in 2004 when John Kerry said,”Ever since Pius XIII (SIC) and Vatican II Catholics have ben able to make up their own minds…” he was repeating something he had heard from someone lying about V2. I propose that Inside Catholic collect from its readers examples of such noesense, compile a compendeum of fake V2 statements, and then provide same to the USCCB so that the bishops can publish officical refutations of the insidious errors that we poor, well-intentioned laymen have been exposed ever since 1965. Does anyone support such a project?

  • Jitpring

    But Thomas, the people behind this site LOVE VII, and hold to the delusion that it was just wrongly implemented, that what’s needed is just a “reform of the reform,” thus failing to notice that a revolution, not reform, is what occurred at VII. The more the fruit of this poisonous tree is exposed, the worse it looks for VII, therefore it’s best not to go too far.

  • Ender

    These two quotes from Vatican II documents are what stood out for me:

    The laity “must bring to their cooperation with others their own special competence, and act on their own responsibility” (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 7).


    “by reason of their special vocation” lay women and men first and foremost have the job of “engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will” (Lumen Gentium, 31).

    Think about those two statements with regard to the bishops activities in proclaiming positions on health care, immigration, and, if you take seriously what is promulgated by the USCCB, pretty much every other conceivable political issue. I am intensely annoyed that bishops take it upon themselves not only to intrude in our area of “special competence” but to do so with the implication that we have some vague moral obligation to accept their political pronouncements for no better reason than that is a bishop (or lay committee)who makes it. This is the side of clericalism that frosts my glasses the most.

  • Bob Stone, CM

    It seems to me that, from the establishment in our country of the checks and balances between the states and the federal government, as well as among the three branches of the federal government, we as Americans have privatized anything that would cause conflict in these systems. In Great Britain the “religious” conflicts sorted themselves out through the de-criminalization of the existence of various faiths (Catholic being among them) combined with an institutionalized respect for different denominations even as the sovereign remained the Head of the Church of England. One can favorably view Kennedy’s statement in this light. On the other hand, today we are more aware of those influences inside and outside the churches which go contrary to the Gospel, and, in fact, promote the culture of death. A politician like Nancy Pelosi has not updated her view of where faith and political life come into contact. We have to revisit this process of privatization and assure that we all understand what is at stake, but to do so without resorting to condemnations and exclusions as the first or only public response by the Church to positions we find not in conformity with Catholic teaching and practice.