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What are the laity supposed to be?

Catholics make up around twenty-five percent of our country. Imagine what would happen if, overnight, every Catholic commenced to live in radical detachment from the goods of the world.

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Back in the 1950s, Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, began to articulate a vision that was largely ratified at the Second Vatican Council. She said that the prevailing notion of a “commandments spirituality” for the laity and a “counsels spirituality” for the clergy was dysfunctional. She was referencing the standard view of the period that the laity were called to a kind of least common denominator life of obeying the ten commandments—that is to say, avoiding the most fundamental violations of love and justice—whereas priests and religious were called to a heroic life of following the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Lay people were ordinary players, and the clergy were spiritual athletes.

To all of this, Dorothy Day said a rather emphatic no. Every baptized person, she insisted, was summoned to heroic sanctity—which is to say, the practice of both the commandments and the counsels.

As I say, Vatican II, in its doctrine on the universal call to holiness, endorsed this notion. Though the Council Fathers taught that there is a substantial difference between the manner in which clergy and laity incorporate poverty, chastity, and obedience, they clearly instructed all followers of Christ to seek real sanctity by incorporating those ideals.

So, what would this look like? Let us take poverty first. Though the laity are not, at least typically, summoned to the sort of radical poverty adopted by, say, a Trappist monk, they are indeed supposed to practice a real detachment from the goods of the world, precisely for the sake of their mission on behalf of the world. Unless a lay person has interior freedom from an addiction to wealth, power, pleasure, rank, honor, etc., she cannot follow the will of God as she ought. Only when the woman at the well put down her water jug, only when she stopped seeking to quench her thirst from the water of the world’s pleasures, was she able to evangelize (John 4).

Similarly, only when a baptized person today liberates himself from an addiction to money, authority, or good feelings is he ready to become the saint God wants him to be. So, poverty, in the sense of detachment, is essential to the holiness of the laity.

Chastity, the second of the evangelical counsels, is also crucial to lay spirituality. To be sure, though the way that the clergy and religious practice chastity—namely, as celibates—is unique to them, the virtue itself is just as applicable to the laity. For chastity simply means sexual uprightness or a rightly ordered sexuality. And this implies bringing one’s sexual life under the aegis of love. As Thomas Aquinas taught, love is not a feeling, but rather an act of the will, more precisely, willing the good of the other. It is the ecstatic act by which we break free from the ego, whose gravitational pull wants to draw everything to itself. Like the drive to eat and to drink, sex is a passion related to life itself, which is why it is so powerful and thus so spiritually dangerous, so liable to draw everything and everybody under its control.

Notice how the Church’s teaching that sex belongs within the context of marriage is meant to hold off this negative tendency. In saying that our sexuality should be subordinated to unity (the radical devotion to one’s spouse) and procreation (the equally radical devotion to one’s children), the Church is endeavoring to bring our sex lives completely under the umbrella of love. A disordered sexuality is a deeply destabilizing force within a person, which, in time, brings him off-kilter to love.

Finally, the laity are meant to practice obedience, again not in the manner of religious, but in a manner distinctive to the lay state. This is a willingness to follow, not the voice of one’s own ego, but the higher voice of God, to listen (obedire in Latin) to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. I have spoken often before of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s distinction between the ego-drama (written, produced, directed by, and starring oneself) and the theo-drama (written, produced, and directed by God). We might say that the entire point of the spiritual life is to break free of the former so as to embrace the latter. Most of us sinners, most of the time, are preoccupied with our own wealth, success, career plans, and personal pleasure. To obey God is to break out of those soul-killing preoccupations and hear the voice of the Shepherd.

Catholics make up around twenty-five percent of our country. Imagine what would happen if, overnight, every Catholic commenced to live in radical detachment from the goods of the world. How dramatically politics, economics, and the culture would change for the better. Imagine what our country would be like if, today, every Catholic resolved to live chastely. We would make an enormous dent in the pornography business; human trafficking would be dramatically reduced; families would be significantly strengthened; abortions would appreciably decrease.

And picture what our country would be like if, right now, every Catholic decided to live in obedience to the voice of God. How much of the suffering caused by self-preoccupation would be diminished!

What I am describing in this article is, once again, part of the great Vatican II teaching on the universal call to holiness. Priests and bishops are meant, the Council Fathers taught, to teach and to sanctify the laity who, in turn, are to sanctify the secular order, bringing Christ into politics, finance, entertainment, business, teaching, journalism, etc. And they do so precisely by embracing the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

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About Bishop Robert Barron 205 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron has been the bishop of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester in Minnesota since 2022. He is the founder of, a nonprofit global media apostolate that seeks to draw people into—or back to—the Catholic faith.


  1. “Imagine what would happen if, overnight, every Catholic commenced to live in radical detachment from the goods of the world. How dramatically politics, economics, and the culture would change for the better…”

    Given that one of the priorities for Roman Catholics immigrating to America in the first place was a better financial life, it is a bit too late to talk about priorities. Call to holiness means very little when the churches have not recognized that they themselves are infected with heresies like liberalism and feminism. Any proper ordering will take place beyond institutional walls.

  2. My friend Geoff Gneuhs, who was Dorothy Day’s chaplain and that of the New York Catholic Worker, reminded us that there is even more to Day’s message than many people realize — and she was not, repeat NOT (despite claims to the contrary by people who didn’t know her) a “Christian socialist” or any other kind. Geoff’s response to a piece in America magazine a few years back (which they refused to publish) I think sets the record straight. Geoff, by the way, generously contributed his personal knowledge of Day during the research of my upcoming book, co-authored with Dawn K. Brohawn, “The Greater Reset,” to be published by TAN Books:

    Geoff’s letter can be found here:

  3. “And they do so precisely by embracing the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience.” Who is this “they” Bishop Barron refers to? Certainly not the clergy. While they embrace everything but poverty and chastity, the laity alone are called to obey, and not the Gospels, but only to obey the arbitrary decrees of our hostile bishops. Nope. Those days are over. I do not want to hear anything from any of our bishops, starting with the Bishop of Rome.

    • Timothy, while I understand your frustration, I hope you were being overly general in your comment. I know priests who are heroically striving to live holy lives. They need our support.

  4. As Francis De Sales taught, that is realistically done within the context of our state of life, married, single, clergy. Although I agree with Bishop Barron in principle, there’s also divine expectation of a specifying virtuousness from those who are called to imitate his priesthood. A death to oneself and the world that is inherent to the sacrament of ordination.
    +Heroism in practice differs then in kind for the missionary priest, contemplative nun, the married housewife. Not however different in intensity. For example, Saint Therese of Lisieux lived and taught her little way that’s accessible to all and as efficacious as any other. Intensity in her little way is achieved in depth of love and willingness to endure suffering for the good of others.
    +Writing of it by Barron is a start, preaching it from the pulpit is what’s missing. A very simple, basic evangelical message that all bishops should require of their presbyters for the Church. A joint effort.

  5. This is all wrong. It was never the mission of Christ to “sanctify the secular order” , nor is that the mission of the church. The object of sanctification is the church itself. It is his own followers that Jesus wants to sanctify. It says so in the New Testament at least a hundred times. Dorothey Day was a fine human being, but her grasp of basic Christianity was poor. And if the Catholic Church is determined to follow her “vision”, then it has abandoned the faith in favor of “another gospel”. The world is going to hell, and it is our job to rescue as many survivors as possible. Not to save the world, but to save people FROM the world.

    • The term “the world” is used in various ways in the New Testament, but there’s no doubt that saving and sanctifying the world (created by God, after all) is clearly mentioned. For example:

      For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (Jn 3:16-17)

      • “For God so loved the world”. In deed, he did Carl. During the time of creation, God looked at every stage and said that it was good. Yes, God loved this paradise he made for man – male and female. He told Adam to tend and to keep it. He gave authority to man to have dominion over the animals. So, we were to be in charge of this creation, this world.
        Though we still have that authority, we need to be very careful because Adam, by his disobedient act, allowed Satan into our lives. His kingdom of darkness still troubles us. He still has a lot of control. It is his influence in our world that we need to be aware of.

  6. Jesus became Man that we might be radically attached to Jesus. Jesus reminded us that this would probably not result in “the world” loving us because of it.

    The second underlying question is “imagine what The Church would have to be like” to result in all 29 Million Catholics revering and obeying God first and above all, worshipping Him on the Sabbath as commanded, and following the way of Christ?

    That Church wouldn’t be imitating the reigning Pontiff, nor viceroy Cardinals and Archbishops, most of whom seem to live in total contradiction to the counsels of poverty and obedience to God, and many apparently in contradiction to His command of chastity. That Church wouldn’t be run by the rotten and corrupt Secretariat of State. It might even make the Congregation for The Faith its first priority.

    But the Church as it exists now is infertile, and utterly incapable of producing what Bishop Barron imagines.

    The Church right now produces what Bishop Barron, by implication, laments. This is so because it has abandoned the Gospel, and is radically attached to the Zeitgeist, which it’s Pontiff and it seems most Cardinals and Archbishop serve.

    Dry wood, spoken of one fateful Friday, by The Incarnate Son of God.

    But He was made flesh, that we might know the truth, and be set free from sin, and be leaven in the world.

    God give us the grace to persevere in The Way, and The Truth, and The Life.

    • “The Church right now produces what Bishop Barron, by implication, laments. This is so because it has abandoned the Gospel, and is radically attached to the Zeitgeist, which it’s Pontiff and it seems most Cardinals and Archbishop serve.”

      I have occasionally found myself disagreeing with some of your positions in various other posts, but I have to give credit where credit is due. This was very well said.

  7. I would say given the current state of affairs that exhorting the laity “to the least common denominator of obeying the commandments,” would be a good and necessary thing. Once we regain a handle on that we can move on the the more “heroic things.”

  8. Fine so far as the bishop goes. Yet, in these waning days of Advent, the words of this OP neglect, omit or forget The Word Made Flesh. The Eucharistic Lord makes no appearance here. The sacraments He instituted are missing. Sacraments are the signs which effect sanctity. The Source of Grace which enables, assists, effects sainthood is missing.

    HOW can the vast majority of the laity, deficiently catechized, inadequately (often) educated, discern whether or not the Holy Spirit (an invisible Person, a nebulous concept to most) speaks so that we may “…[obedire” in Latin]” His promptings?

    The failure to appreciate the power of the ‘deposition’ as God Handed us is to ask that we imagine sainthood while not seeing, holding, touching, hearing or having infused the Cause.

    Merry Christmas to all. May the cry of the newborn Babe of Bethlehem wake us in mid night.

  9. In a tribute to ABP Chaput, Carl Trueman wrote, ” I once asked the archbishop why he thought the Catholic Church had so rapidly declined in North America and was surprised (and again instructed) by his answer. He told me that even though his generation was the best-catechized in the Catholic Church’s history, nobody had ever told him that he needed to trust in Christ for his salvation. There was no existential urgency or personal imperative attached to the dogmas he was taught.”

    Barron says “Catholics make up around twenty-five percent of our country.” That is about as meaningful as saying Hilary Clinton is a “devout Methodist.” hat Day seemed to realize was that the clericalism of her era sent the message that all lay people had to do was “be good,” while priests were the “spiritual” ones. But we are should be concerned about “being spiritual,” in the Catholic sense, because we are need to have a saving relationship with Christ. Not just a Baptismal certificate. Today’s Church as acts like none of that truly matters, since we’re all already children of God an all bound for Heaven anyway. Talk of obedience and poverty, chastity, and obedience might need o come after talk about sin and salvation, as fundamentalist as the latter sounds.

    • I agree, Joe M. A God who saves and sends all to heaven requires no allegiance or obedience. The fact remains. God DID command His people by the Ten, and Jesus specifically said he came not to abolish the law. In more ways than one and on many different occasions, he said some version of, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

      A bitter pathos attends the exposure of hierarchy falling short of teaching the fullness of traditional faith. To whom much was given, much will be asked, and fear of the Lord is a virtue, even when servile. Indeed, that is the starting line of the race. Any Christian alive today who thinks he’s already won is on the wrong course.

      Christ alone or the laity with Christ in the traditional faith, will bring the Church through this sorrowful episode in her history. But at what cost remains to be known. Welcome to the world, Lord Babe of Bethlehem and Lonely Lord of Calvary. We trust in You.

  10. I’m a simple man. Seems to me laity are to be holy to become a Saint. If Catholics lived their lives accordingly, making choices based on what makes you holy and helps you build become a Saint, what a difference we could make in the world!

  11. Just as we have oligarchs in the country and around the world who make up just 1% of the population but whose ownership and control of the world’s economic and financial resources surpasses that of us the 99%, in the Catholic world the ordained just make up 1% and we the laity 99% of the membership. The situation is that, similar to the oligarchs, the ordained in the culture we call clericalism, and in spite of Vatican II, perpetuate the notion and practice of a monarchical church where the Pope is king, the bishops are nobles, the clergy and consecrated are gentry, and the laity are peasants. Bishop Barron here somehow perpetuates this divide by going back to the pre-conciliar understanding of the difference of morality and spirituality consisting in following the commandments for the laity and the far superior evangelical counsels for the consecrated. The good bishop’s amplification of Dorothy Day’s magnification of the counsels’ lay application perpetuates this mentality of difference and superiority. How I wish Barron touch on Vatican II’s retrieval of the biblical and patristic teaching on the priority and superiority of the common priesthood of all the baptized and that the ordained priesthood exist to be of service to and to secure the flourishing of the common priesthood, with both priesthoods united in their participation in the high priesthood of Christ (Lumen Gentium 10 and chapter 4). Vatican II has turned upside down the monarchical understanding of the church but still the ordained today like the Bishop in this article, with many of the laity enabling it, somehow are still holding on to and perpetuating this arrangement.

  12. I am right with anyone saying laity are called to be saints in loving God above all created things, and likewise priests, bishops and popes. To the degree they do not is the degree they are no follower of the Christ.

    • “To the degree they do not is the degree they are no follower of the Christ.” Unless they are among those of us who keep trying to follow Him and falling, and trying and falling and trying and falling…

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