Preparing for the Synod on the Laity

Changes in the role of the laity in the Catholic Church over the next twenty-five years are difficult to project in particulars; general and substantive changes are not likely to be significantly different from changes that have taken place in the last twenty-five years. Those changes have been minimal in contrast with changes in the role of the clergy. If one uses accepted definitions of the words used to distinguish, traditionally, between the laity and the clergy, the clergy has been, in significant ways and measure, laicized — not in the formal canonical sense, although many clergy have been subjected to this process, but in the broader application of the term laity. Priests and former priests are practicing what had come to be called “lay vocations.” Some have become stockbrokers; some have become accountants and some, television and radio commentators. Others have taken up more traditional and commonplace professions, para-professions, sub-professions, and even work not classed as professional. Nuns and Christian brothers, never considered a part of the clergy, have extended their fields of service beyond those of teaching and care of the sick.

The movement in the other direction (I do not say up-ward), from what has historically been defined as sub- or extra-clerical order into the range or orbit of priestly functions, has been slower and irregular and not clearly marked. This is not a surprising difference. The trend of separating lay from clerical functions has been in progress for centuries, whereas the actual movement from clerical to a shared lay life is relatively new and has not been formally obstructed except, incidentally, possibly only by civil ser-vice requirements, since that change was not anticipated by church or state.,

The historical process by which laity was distinguished from clergy was marked by more than formal changes. It was accompanied by changes in thought and language. Designations such as “lay” and “secular” became practically synonymous — and the separation of “secular” from “sacred” and “religious” accepted with little protest or effective challenge. William Langland in The Vision of Piers Plowman complained about the exclusiveness of the use of Latin in the Church when he wrote of “the angel from heaven speaking loudly in Latin,” so that laymen might not challenge. The soldier in Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest charged the clergy with having secularized the military, leaving Joan of Arc as the “last Christian soldier.”

Meanwhile, the process of separating secular from religious orders proceeded. Loss of recognition and awareness of Christian vocation marked the progressive secularization of society. This change did not arise in the late centuries of enlightenment or of modernism, but was evident even at the height of the “Christian Era” when monks with priestly orders defended their discontinuation of manual labor on the grounds that such work was incompatible with the priestly role and the higher sanctity. Progressively, in most fields or work, old vocations were lost and new ones either not recognized or rejected. The services of medieval class traders, merchants, and financiers were denied status in the medieval sacral order. Along with the progressive loss of the sense of vocation, there was an accompanying loss of the concept of profession — in a way, a denial or rejection of the sacramental character of life.

Medieval Christian society, for all of its faults, was essentially a professional society. Its members were professed Christians. By accident of birth or by choice within the limits existing, persons accepted vocations and then professed to them. The oath of allegiance of the serf was a profession. The promises of the craftsman upon his admission to the guild were similarly a profession. Knights, religious kings and queens, and nobles took oaths. Profession was essentially a public formal acceptance of vocation, a public and formal acceptance of a way of life through which, or by which, the Christian was in both a private and social way to serve the general good of society — a society in which secular and religious were combined.

The movement today from the separated order of religious life and service to what in recent centuries has been designated as secular and non-religious has been marked by minimal concessions to the laity — the use of the vernacular, bestowing minor orders on persons not of the priestly order, allowing lay persons to participate in the liturgy as readers and acolytes, and allowing women in the sanctuary . . . for purposes other than cleaning. This trend is likely to continue. With priests now practicing psychiatry, psychiatrists might be given limited orders, possibly as exorcists. Baptism, somewhat like marriage, may be recognized as a family function to be performed with priests as witness and not necessarily as minister. Confirmation might well be given recognition and administered, say, at the time of graduation from high-school; Extreme Unction removed from the ambulance chase, the battle field, the fire department and partially socialized, say, incorporated into a ceremony accompanying the receipt of a first Social Security check.

There is no going back to supposedly good old days and little to be gained from dreaming of a new medievalism. It is all-important to realize that our society has been fragmented; that it lacks unity and continuity; and that the individualism, the specialization and the separatism that marks our time must be challenged and reversed if the Church is to carry out its mission: a mission not only of sanctification and salvation of persons, but also of sanctification and salvation of society. This last goal can be achieved only with a Church in which false and artificial distinctions between laity and clergy, between religious and secular are eliminated or, at least, reduced to minimal force.


  • Eugene McCarthy

    Eugene Joseph "Gene" McCarthy (1916 – 2005) was an American politician, poet, and a long-time member of the United States Congress from Minnesota. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1949 to 1959 and the U.S. Senate from 1959 to 1971.

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