Preparing for the Synod on the Laity


February 1, 1987

The lay state is, of course, the normal condition under which life is led. The priesthood is defined in relief against the lay state. A priest in any culture is one set apart to mediate between God and man. He is the offeror of sacrifice on behalf of the people, the master of rite and ritual. His function is to sanctify the mundane and to transform the ordinary into fit offerings for the divine. Priesthoods antedate even biblical accounts. In ancient Egypt, the word for “priest” meant “a pure one”; the purity in question was not merely the cleanliness required by ritual but moral purity as well. Other Egyptian terms for priest were hem-netjer, meaning “servant of God” or hem-netjer wehem, “servant of God who carries the message.” The temple , function and the prophetic function are sometimes found in one and the same person, but more often than not in ancient priesthoods, Egyptian, Hebraic, Greek or Roman, they demarcate two distinct roles and two classes. (See Classical Mediterranean Spirituality, edited by A.H. Armstrong, 1986.)

This is worth noting because it gives us a clue regarding the role of the layman in the Church. By definition the layman is not set apart to perform the ritual function. The prophetic function is another thing and is complex. Learning gives one the credentials to speak authoritatively in a discipline or on behalf of an intellectual tradition. While epistemic authority is not to be confused with the authority of the Magisterium, it is the basis for magisterial teaching. It is through scholarship that the layman reaches his highest vocation as a servant of the Church. Though he can serve too as lawyer, clerk, or mason, it is by making available the intellectual tools which enable the official teacher to capture and develop the meaning of the gospels and to grasp the conceptual and cultural heritage of the Church that the layman approaches most nearly the episcopal office. Evidence suggests that many a sermon has been preached in the light of an essay by Etienne Gilson or Joseph Pieper. But this Mary-like role should not obscure the value of a Martha-like service. St. Thomas teaches that the virtue of religion leads to secondary acts of religion, such as almsgiving and care of the sick. Layman and priest alike have an obligation to practice the virtue of religion in all of its parts.

What is most needed, however, is not a call to good works, but an examination of respective roles. Somehow we have allowed the notion of “priesthood” to become blurred, with tragic consequences for vocations. In emphasizing “the priesthood of all believers” as a way of calling attention to the common Apostolic vocation of Christians, we have denied the special character of the one who is “set apart.” Laymen require no special call to the vocation which may make them useful to the religious community, but the priest is pointedly ordained to function on behalf of that community.

Laymen serve best by perfecting themselves morally and intellectually. The fallout is a gifted, self-aware class, always in need of the sacraments, but one which the Church can rely upon for those personal acts which often make collective endeavor unnecessary. Still, there are deeds which only concerted activity can bring about, which only an organization can accomplish. Whether lay or clerically directed, the intelligence needed to accomplish corporate ends is a lay intelligence. There is no substitute for technique, no surrogate for learning, no matter how lofty the goal.

The cradle of lay intelligence and dedication is, of course, the home. The role of parent as teacher is special, indispensable, and untransferable. In a Catholic home the gift of life is accompanied by the gift of faith and all that entails. In ancient Greece as in tribal Africa, it was the father’s obligation to insure the perpetuation of an inherited pattern of worship. Though education may not end in the home, it begins there as the child learns by observation as well as by tutelage the duties which the family holds important. To the family graced by faith the Church is forever present through the sacraments as it sanctifies by ritual and celebration the important events of life. The temporal finality of the Church herself is the fulfillment of domestic need.


  • Jude Dougherty

    Jude Dougherty is Dean Emeritus of the School of Philosophy in the Catholic University of America and the editor of The Review of Metaphysics, and General Editor, Series Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy, Washington, D.C., The Catholic University of America Press.

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