Preparing for the Synod on the Laity

As with most things in post-conciliar Catholicism, the role of the laity in the Church has become problematic mainly because classical Catholic ways of thinking have been either forgotten or badly distorted.

As a number of commentators have observed, in an odd way feminism has promoted a new clericalism. Spokesmen such as Rev. Richard McBrien now inform the laity that they do not “count” unless they achieve ordination; and “exclusion” from ordination is treated as a direct insult. (In this as in other respects, it is instructive to notice the example of the Episcopal Church, where it almost seems as though the phenomenon of the devout laywoman is in the process of disappearing — practically every Episcopal lady who takes her faith seriously now appears sooner or later to come forward for ordination.)

Lay and clerical roles have been redefined in a way which almost seems like a simple reversal: lay people press forward eagerly to discharge formal liturgical tasks previously reserved to clerics, while priests and religious aggressively crowd into what were previously considered lay professions, even (as in the case of certain nuns in politics) renouncing their religious status in order to do so. Devout lay people seem to say that they cannot fully live their faith unless they perform recognizably priestly tasks, even as priests complain of being confined in the sanctuary. It may occur to the disinterested observer that such reversals betoken not so much deeper understanding or creative redefinition as simple confusion and formless discontent.

Nothing has subverted the true intention of Pope John XXIII in summoning the Second Vatican Council than the endless efforts at “renewal” which have followed it, not only because so many of those efforts have been themselves misconceived and even perverse, but because the Council obviously intended to be outward-thrusting. That was its heralded “pastoral” character. It was to prepare Catholics to reclaim the world for Christ. But the past quarter century has seen most Catholic energy, lay and religious, turned in-ward toward the life of the Church itself, endlessly scrutinizing, criticizing, rearranging.

The failure of the laity after the Council cannot be understood, in the United States, apart from what can be called the Kennedy Syndrome, the principal contemporary representative of which is Mario Cuomo. By an odd process, prominent lay Catholics have been willing, since about 1960, to talk more openly about their religion, in effect calling attention to themselves on that score, while at the same time compromising their religious principles at every point where they might conflict with prevailing secular/liberal opinion. The process has taken two forms: insisting that religion and public life should be kept in watertight compartments, or redefining the Catholic faith so as to make its moral teachings practically identical with the liberal platform. (In recent years a number of bishops have led the way in the latter effort.)

The Council’s decree on the laity is called Apostolicam Actuositatem (“apostolic activity”); every liberal Catholic, on the eve of the Council, could speak knowingly about “the lay apostolate.” After the Council, that hallowed term, which the council fathers themselves explicitly refused to abandon, was quickly discarded in favor of the more Protestant-sounding “ministry.” In part this change was merely another example of the post-conciliar spirit which emphasized maximum discontinuity with the past, which set out deliberately to obliterate familiar signs on the Catholic landscape, including names. However, “ministry,” as opposed to “apostolate,” has precisely clerical overtones. It serves the dual purpose of lessening the uniqueness of the priestly office while at the same time enabling the lay person to claim an ordained status. (In some parishes even ushers are formally “commissioned,” as “ministers of hospitality.”)

But the importance of the lay vocation cannot be maintained without an equally clear sense of the clerical and religious vocations. The blurring of the distinction leads to precisely the kind of devaluation of the lay state which feminists and others now perpetrate. Similarly, that distinction cannot be maintained without recalling the classical distinctions between church and world, sacred and profane, spiritual and temporal. Classical Catholic theology, including classical Catholic social thought, assumes that the effects of Christ’s redemption have been thwarted in many parts of the world He redeemed and that it is the unique task of lay people to bring redemptive grace to those places. By another ironic twist, many self-consciously “modern” Catholics seem now to regard the Church itself as sinful and in need of redemption, while the world in general is looked upon benignly.

Apostolicam Actuositatem does assume these classical distinctions, and its definition of the lay task in some places embodies a very critical view of the world. The decree also incorporates a classical liturgical theology; the Eucharist is not merely a “celebration,” which notion relegates it to a secondary and possibly expendable place in the economy of grace, but the food which nourishes the lay apostle venturing into the world. Although lay spirituality is in many ways different from religious, classical principles remain the same for both, since lay people no less than religious must be thoroughly formed in the image of Christ before undertaking their worldly tasks.


  • James Hitchcock

    James Hitchcock is Professor of History at St. Louis University. He is the author of many books including The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton) and, most recently, The History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium (Ignatius, 2012).

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