Sitting on the Sidelines: Waiting for the Laity to Take the Field

It is a truth not universally acknowledged that 35 years after the Second Vatican Council the laity has no idea what to do with itself. It was not supposed to be this way. As early as 1952, Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote that “the hour of the laity is sounding in the Church.” The Council Fathers took note and gave the laity a mandate: Transform the culture in Christ. To make sure that everyone got the message, they abolished the old negative definition of the laity—”non-clerical members of the faithful.” They also retired the idea of the Church as a juridical machine operated by the hierarchy, with the laity as a mere object of pastoral care. The stage was set for the laity to come of age—but nothing happened.

The Church today has never been more clerical, in the bad sense of the word. The laity (excepting a few) is where it has always been spiritually and intellectually: sitting on the sidelines, waiting for something to happen.

Historical Roots

The problem has deep roots in Church history. It goes back at least to the early Middle Ages. In fact, if you want to know how the laity should act, you have to look at the earliest centuries. One reason that Henri de Lubac and others insisted that Catholics return to the Church Fathers was that Christian writers from these times had a sounder understanding of the mission of the laity than did the writers of neo-scholastic manuals. So did the authors of the New Testament. The spread of Christianity, as told in the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of St. Paul, was very much a lay enterprise, involving shopkeepers, prison guards, and even a fugitive slave: people with names like Prisca, Aquila, Gaius, and Aristobulus.

But at some point between the conversion of Constantine and the rise of the medieval cathedrals, the laity retreated into the shadows. If there were ever a proper balance between them and the clergy, it did not survive the collapse of the Roman Empire. Despite the fact that Christ had addressed the Beatitudes to everyone, lay and spiritual life went in different directions. There were, for example, the Desert Fathers, who fashioned a model of sanctity set apart from the world. What, practically speaking, could a seller of purple dyes in Tyre learn from St. Antony or St. Simeon Stylites? The Syrian followers of St. Simeon, we are told, “not content with fettering themselves in chains … devised the idea of climbing to the top of a pillar in order to escape all human contact.” It may be, as St. Athanasius believed, that the prayers and austerities of the Desert Fathers saved the Church from Arianism. But where did this leave Christians who had to get up in the morning and support a family?

The fall of Rome forced the institutional Church to take on functions that were never part of her original mission. There was a clericalization of activities that belong to the secular order. The everyday world of the laity shrank in significance, losing its value and dignity. A medieval craftsman could be forgiven for thinking that grace was not available in his workshop, that it was bottled up in the cathedrals and monasteries.

The displacement of the ordinary made a genuine Christian humanism almost impossible. Although officially condemned by the Church, a Platonic anthropology took its place. It was easy to take the view that lay people are carnal, monks are spiritual. Look at a great ascetical work like the Imitation of Christ: Such a book can be read by the laity with great profit, but it is really addressed to people who have left the world to find holiness in a cloister. Most great Catholic spiritual writers down through the centuries (St. Francis de Sales is an exception) had little to say about what most people spend most of their lives doing. Work, marriage, and child-rearing were not typically presented as paths to sanctity. The assumption was that a lay person works out his salvation despite being in the world, that a life of holiness and a life of ordinary work are two separate things.

Counter-Reformation Catholicism, resplendent in so many ways, seemed to regard the laity as an afterthought, a misplaced object in the magnificent baroque edifice of the Church. The more silent and docile the laity was, the better. This was especially true in the case of the Irish, who had no small influence on American Catholicism. The 19th-century Irish hierarchy viewed John Henry Newman as dangerous because he wanted the laity to have a first-rate education in the liberal arts. In other words, he wanted them to think. This was contrary to Irish clerical tradition. The situation was little different in England. “Who are the laity?” Bishop Ullathorne of Manchester famously asked, to which Newman replied that the hierarchy would look silly without them. Even Leo XIII, who ushered the Church into the modern world, was hardly modern on the subject of the laity. In a letter to the archbishop of Tours, he defined the layman as “he who, in the Church, obeys and honors the clergy”

This 19th-century clericalism easily survived the Atlantic transit. Fifty years ago the message one might receive was simple: If you want to be truly holy, become a priest or nun. Otherwise, avoid the big sins, do your Easter duty, and don’t eat fish on Fridays. Adult intellectual curiosity about the faith was considered a sign of a missed vocation to the priesthood. In his memoirs, The Church and I, Frank Sheed recounts his exasperation with Catholic ladies who came to him after his theology lectures and asked with puzzlement and alarm why—since he knew so much—he was not a priest.

Spiritual Benchwarmers

Catholic lay mentality is as clerical now as it was in 1950. But there is a difference. The attitude of a well-intentioned, pre-Vatican II Catholic often ran something like this: “Well, I didn’t have the stuff to enter a seminary, so here I am in the bleachers watching the priests and nuns, who are the true athletes of spirituality. I’ll just be holy to the extent that I plug in, however distantly, to their holiness.” The post-Vatican II Catholic still thinks of the clergy as having a special lock on holiness, but the attitude is no longer one of distant admiration. Now, thanks to Vatican II, lay people can act like clergy, doing things that were formerly reserved for priests, such as handing out Holy Communion or being lectors. More than a few Catholics are under the impression that the summit of lay spirituality is being a Eucharistic minister. I am not knocking these ministries, but there is a danger here, because hanging around the sacristy and being “churchy” is a counterfeit spirituality; it is not what the laity is called to do.

Both laity and clergy need to be reminded why the Second Vatican Council happened: The pre-conciliar Church had become rigid. The emphasis was on structure rather than sanctity, erecting buildings rather than interior formation, ready-made formulas rather than a radical call to holiness. Bernanos’s complaint that Catholic education produced laymen bottled in a supernatural “closed jar” was on the mark, as were the criticisms of de Lubac and von Balthasar concerning the fortress mentality of Catholics. There was a tendency to identify the institutional Church as “Christendom” and anathematize everything outside her walls. As a result, the Church was increasingly unable to talk to the modern world. The vocabulary of scholastic manuals, written in bad Latin, was totally, inadequate, as were the baroque and stilted communiques of the Roman Curia.

The Catholic Church in America on the eve of the council seemed a great success story. The statistics still dazzle. But, as Martin Buber once said, success is not one of the names of God. Behind the impressive facade, the growing affluence of American Catholics took a devastat¬ing toll. God was easily assimilated into the new bourgeois order. So were the clergy. A religious order’s advertisement for vocations in a national magazine in 1957 read, “Do You Want To Become A Priest? Duties Are Few ….” In their introductory essay to a collection of writings by Fr. John Hugo (1911-1985), Weapons of the Spirit, David Scott and Mike Aquilina write that in the 1940s Fr. Hugo, a great and holy priest of the diocese of Pittsburgh, was hounded and “silenced” for suggesting that priests and lay people alike are called to serious ascetical struggle. Fr. Hugo was no Jansenist; he simply thought that there was more to parish life than announcements, appeals for money, bingo games, and financial statements, a notion that did not sit well with his fellow priests—or with his bishop, who eventually forbade him to give retreats.

We should not be too quick to dismiss American Catholicism before the council, since we have lost much from it that was good. But the rapidity of the collapse in the late ’60s can only be explained by the lukewarmness of the average Catholic before Vatican II. It was a problem that the council itself tried to correct. Today, most laity think that Vatican II was mainly about changing the liturgy. Its real message was that lay people themselves no longer had a “bye” on the interior life and apostolate. They were called to sanctify themselves and the world through their work as lawyers, bricklayers, housewives. They were to engage in ascetical struggle and do apostolate and not just leave these activities to priests and nuns.

This message never got out. Instead, the laity in America became ever more bourgeois. As Christopher Dawson pointed out, one cannot be deeply bourgeois and deeply Christian. What defined the Catholic laity over the past 30 years was not the council documents but rather the rejection of Humanae Vitae. The hysteria over that encyclical had little to do with honest theological doubt. It was, rather, bourgeois comfort-seekers clamoring for their rights. Catholics no longer wanted to place demands on themselves for supernatural reasons. The only inconvenience they now put up with is the Sunday Mass obligation—but in decreasing numbers who often arrive late and leave early.

It doesn’t matter that we have ricocheted from a frozen integralism to an easy accommodationism. The majority of Catholics have made their peace with the therapeutic culture. The model of the human person, as presented even in CCD and RCIA programs, is of a little god in a universe of “options”—self-affirmed, plotting his comforts, quick to “follow his conscience” when he wants an in-vitro baby or a second spouse. Catholics abort at a higher rate than the general population and move easily with the prevailing wind in the voting booth. Christ came, as Guardini put it, “to shake human life to its foundations.” Do Catholics in America today really bother anybody?

What, for example, happened to Catholic apologetics? Or to the apostolate? The Second Vatican Council said that a lay Catholic who “does not work at the growth of the body [of Christ] to the extent of his possibilities must be considered useless.” These are strong words. How many Catholics are trying to bring people into the Church? Isn’t there, instead, a religious indifferentism that can actually be embarrassed by a neighbor or colleague who starts asking questions about the faith?

New Theology of the Laity

The problem of the laity is chronic, and the new evangelization is not going to happen until it is solved. Not surprisingly, the person who understands this best is Pope John Paul II. One of the many providential occurrences in the life of this pope was his early meeting in Krakow with lay activist Jan Tyranowski. This simple clothes-maker from Debniki gathered around him young Catholic men and taught them that Christian activism must be an overflow of the interior life. Each layman has a call from God; but there is no “flight from the world” in answering it; both feet remain planted firmly in the ordinary. The lay person should have access to the ascetical means available to priests and nuns—mental prayer, spiritual direction, frequent communion—while retaining a secular (not secularist) outlook. Only then can he act as leaven in the world. Tyranowski himself lived a life of heroic sanctity without entering the priesthood or a cloister. It was a very ordinary life that, in a sense, begot an extraordinary pope.

What is needed today is a new theology of the laity. Its foundations have been laid by Newman, von Balthasar, Blessed Josemaria Escrivi, John Paul II, and the Second Vatican Council, which, we need to remind ourselves, was about the role of the laity, not in the Church but in the world. In the Anglo-Saxon countries, where Catholics have very Protestant mental habits, such a theology will necessarily reintroduce the Marian dimension of the Christian vocation (receptivity, inwardness) as an antidote to the frenzied activism that is the First World version of sloth. The renewal of the laity is going to be Marian, or it will not be at all.

It is time for orthodox lay Catholics to stop waiting— and to stop complaining about the hierarchy, as though we have to ask the bishops’ permission to answer the call to holiness. The future of the Church depends much more on the laity living the Gospel than on what goes on in the chanceries. Even the “crisis” of vocations to the priesthood will be solved once the laity gets its own house in order. And this reformation of the laity need not involve large movements or “structures.” That is not God’s usual way of doing things. Rather, it will be the interior conversion of individual Catholics that will determine the next chapter of history.

  • George Sim Johnston

    George Sim Johnston is the author of "Did Darwin Get It Right? Catholics and the Theory of Evolution" (Our Sunday Visitor).

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