A revolution in the Church’s thinking and practice regarding the Catholic laity has been underway for the past century or more. This striking development in theology and pastoral policy received by far its biggest boost up to now from the Second Vatican Council, although the development itself actually began well before Vatican II, and its full scope and significance have yet to appear.
An incident from the early 1950s helps set the Council’s contribution in historical context. At the time, I was attending a Catholic high school for boys run by a religious order whose members worked hard to attract promising students to the priesthood, especially as priests of that particular order.
In those halcyon days of plentiful clerical vocations, these efforts often met with success. I wasn’t attracted myself, but a number of my friends and classmates went from high school straight into the seminary. Some became priests and have persevered, and some did not.
I take it for granted that similar efforts to recruit for the priesthood and religious life also were going on back then at other Catholic schools. Why not? I hope it’s still like that. But at my school and, I suspect, many others, another form of recruitment—for the lay apostolate—was also underway.
In those years we students were strongly encouraged to attend a week-long program called the Summer School of Catholic Action run by the Jesuits at Fordham University in New York and other Catholic college campuses around the country. In the summer between my junior and senior years, I talked my parents into letting me go. I wasn’t as keen on Catholic Action as on seeing New York, but together with several hundred other boys and girls from Catholic high schools up and down the East Coast, I took in enough of the program that week to get the message.
As best I recall it now, the message was something like this:
“Apostolic lay people are needed to help the priests and religious save the world. Catholic teenagers should study hard, attend Catholic colleges, maybe even graduate school or law school or medical school, get excellent educations, become professional people good at their jobs, and then put it all to work—education, job, all the rest—in the service of Christ the King for the conversion of the heathens who surround us and the Christianizing of secular culture. That’s Catholic Action.”
Despite the allure of the Empire State Building and Broadway, more of that message may have sunk in than I realized at the time.
By then, of course, Catholic Action had been around for at least half a century. It took off in the 1920s and 1930s, apparently as a Church-supported response to fascism, Nazism, and communism. Pope Pius XI, its most notable champion, earned the name “Pope of Catholic Action” for his efforts on its behalf.
The movement made an impact some places in Europe and Latin America. Although it wasn’t so well known in the United States, in the 1930s and 1940s a number of groups and programs sprang up inspired by Catholic Action thinking. The “summer school” at Fordham was one of these.
Catholic Action in its day marked a giant step forward in the Church’s thinking about the laity. Giving lay men and women meaningful roles in the mission of the Church was something new back then. But Catholic Action also had a serious built-in limitation—its own official definition of lay apostolate.
Time again, you found something like this in the literature of Catholic Action: “The apostolate of the laity is a participation in the apostolate of the hierarchy.” Which is to say that the right and duty to share in the mission of the Church is a concession to the laity on the hierarchy’s part—something that comes to them on loan, so to speak—and in the end what lay people do by way of apostolate naturally is decided by the clergy.
Sixty years ago, I suppose, people were prepared to take all that for granted.
Then came the Second Vatican Council and its paradigm shift in the official vision of lay people. This is found especially in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, and in the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem, and it has two central points: first, lay people are called to be saints; second, lay people are called directly by Christ to take part in the apostolate, in the mission of the Church.
Chapter V of the Constitution on the Church, “The Call to Holiness,” says this:
It is therefore quite clear that all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love, and by this holiness a more human manner of life is fostered also in earthly society….The forms and tasks of life are many but holiness is one….Therefore all the faithful are invited and obliged to holiness and the perfection of their own state of life. (Lumen Gentium, 40,41)
It wasn’t that the Church hadn’t previously urged lay people to lead holy lives and offered them the means—indeed, that was done from the start. For too long, though, the emphasis was on minimal, legalistic goals for the laity—make your Easter duty, try to avoid mortal sin, get to Mass on Sundays and holy days. But now: “the fullness of Christian life and…the perfection of love.” That would have blown the mind of the British monsignor who a century earlier remarked that the “province of the laity” was “to hunt, to shoot, to entertain.”
The Constitution on the Church discusses lay apostolate in Chapter IV, “The Laity.” The crucial statement is this:
The apostolate of the laity is a sharing in the salvific mission of the Church. Through Baptism and Confirmation all are appointed to this apostolate by the Lord himself. (Lumen Gentium, 33)
The laity’s participation in the mission of the Church is by no means necessarily a sharing in the apostolate of the clerical hierarchy. The Catholic Action model still had its place (lay people “can be called…to more immediate participation in the apostolate of the hierarchy,” the constitution says). But the laity have an apostolate that is properly their own—an apostolate to which they’re called directly by Christ in baptism and confirmation and which, as the constitution says, is “communicated and nourished” by the Eucharist and the other sacraments.
Lumen Gentium makes another point about lay apostolate that’s turned out to be of exceptional importance in light of postconcilar developments concerning lay ministry. The apostolate proper to Catholic lay people, it says, doesn’t take place within the structures and institutions of the Church, but out there—out in the secular world. The laity have “this special vocation: to make the Church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them that she can become the salt of the earth” (ibid.).
Here and there, of course, some people had said that for years, but up to this time the response had been underwhelming. “You’ve come a century too soon,” a curial official told Father Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, when he attempted to explain the new group a few years earlier. Now visionaries like Escriva were vindicated—by an ecumenical council, no less. “Epoch making,” exclaimed a lay auditor at Vatican II.
The Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity develops and expands a number of these points. Of particular importance is what it says about individual apostolate, which it calls “the starting point and condition of all types of lay apostolate” (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 16), and about “group apostolate.”
Speaking of the latter, it declares that lay people, “while preserving the necessary link” with ecclesiastical authority, possess “the right to establish and direct associations, and to join existing ones” (ibid., 19). The Church, it notes approvingly, has “very many apostolic enterprises owing their origin to the free choice of the laity and run at their own discretion” (ibid., 24). It might have been difficult to say what many of these were, but the approbation was welcome just the same.
The sixth chapter of the decree, “Training for the Apostolate,” supplies an overview of its subject arguably more noteworthy today than it was then, considering the currently prevailing neglect of apostolic formation of the laity. It comes down to this:
Training for the apostolate should begin from the very start of a child’s education. But it is more particularly adolescents and youth who should be initiated into the apostolate and imbued with its spirit. This training should be continued all through life. (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 30)
A noble ideal, which is now sadly ignored.
Major developments since the Council include the publication in 1983 of the new Code of Canon Law for the Western Church, with its fairly extensive treatment of lay people’s rights and duties; the 1987 general assembly of the world Synod of Bishops, which focused on the laity, and the subsequent publication of Blessed John Paul II’s post-synod document Christifideles Laici (“The Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful People,” dated December 30, 1988 and released January 30, 1989); and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which Pope John Paul promulgated in 1992.
All these documents assume and build on the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, while Christifideles Laici also adds important insights about personal vocation and about the pros and cons of lay ministry.
John Paul II was hardly the first person to speak of personal vocation and apply the idea to the laity—among others, St. Francis de Sales and Cardinal Newman had done the same. But John Paul was the first pope to make personal vocation a central theme of his teaching and work out the idea at length, as he does in Christifideles Laici.
In fact, from eternity God has thought of us and has loved us as unique individuals. Every one of us he called by name…. However, only in the unfolding of the history of our lives and its events is the eternal plan of God revealed to each of us. Therefore, it is a gradual process; in a certain sense, one that happens day by day. (Christifideles Laici, 58)
This has important practical consequences—for example, with regard to formation.
The fundamental objective of the formation of the lay faithful is an ever-clearer discovery of one’s vocation and the ever-greater willingness to live so as to fulfill one’s mission. (ibid.)
The central elements of this formation process John Paul lists as “receptive listening” to God’s word and to the Church, fervent and constant prayer, the help of a wise spiritual director, and discernment that involves applying one’s God-given talents to the circumstances of the world around one.
On lay ministry, Christifideles Laici combines approval with a cautionary note.
Vatican II had pointed the way to lay ministries, and Pope Paul VI in a 1972 document greatly expanded the possibilities for lay people to perform these roles of properly ecclesial service. By the time John Paul II wrote, however, problems had begun to emerge. These he listed as:
A too-indiscriminate use of the word “ministry,” the confusion and the equating of the common priesthood [i.e., the priesthood of the faithful or baptismal priesthood] and the ministerial priesthood, the lack of observance of ecclesiastical laws and norms, the arbitrary interpretation of the concept of “supply” [i.e., the circumstances in which a shortage of priests requires that lay people to take on some ministerial functions], the tendency toward a “clericalization” of the lay faithful and the risk of creating, in reality, an ecclesial structure of parallel service to that founded on the Sacrament of Orders. (ibid., 23)
John Paul adds that ministries and other roles performed in the Church by lay people “ought to be exercised in conformity with their specific lay vocation,” which is precisely the evangelization of the secular order (ibid.). As the popularity of lay ministries has grown in American parishes in recent decades, it’s fair to ask whether this point has been heeded or—as seems likely—pretty often ignored.
The teaching of the Second Vatican Council concerning the laity was an enormous and lasting achievement, particularly when seen in conjunction with Blessed John Paul II’s contributions in Christifideles Laici. The doctrine is clear. But there is much work to do when it comes to forming Catholic lay people for the great task assigned to them by Vatican II in the name of Christ and his Church—the work of proclaiming the gospel to an indifferent and often hostile secular world.
Speaking of the laity’s role, Pope Benedict says lay women and men “should not be regarded as ‘collaborators’ of the clergy, but, rather, as people who are genuinely ‘co-responsible’ for the Church” (Message to the International Forum of Catholic Action, August 10, 2012). Here is an understanding of the laity’s role from which both they and the clergy stand to benefit greatly. It deserves close study and development. Thanks in large part to the Second Vatican Council, the revolution in thinking and practice concerning the laity clearly has come a long way. It still has a long way to go.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!