Preparing for the Synod on the Laity

During the protracted controversies of the fourth century, Saint Gregory confessed that he felt “disposed to shun every conference of Bishops; for never saw I synod brought to a happy issue, and remedying, and not rather aggravating existing evils. For rivalry and ambition are stronger than reason . . . ” This may not be all there is to say about synods, but it has the bitter ring of experience. Anyone who followed the American bishops’ election last November of delegates to the synod of the laity, for example, can testify that partisanship in the Church is not dead.

But at the same time, St. Gregory’s remark is a sobering reminder that the short-term hopes of all parties at synods are usually exaggerated. In a world where the media shape and often create public perception this is an important point, since the mere fact of holding a synod raises inordinate expectations.

This synod will not introduce any radical ideas about the role of the laity in the Church and the world. The Church has settled down after a period of post-conciliar turmoil, and the synod is likely to limit itself to extending and clarifying conciliar principles and initiatives. For that reason, it will have to be recast by journalists lusting after news or the few Catholic laymen who seek revolution.

It is a good time, however, for some sober reflection. In this country and in Europe, there has been a return to religion. The return is somewhat superficial (as a chic Washington magazine recently proclaimed, catching the mixed spirit of true seeking and changing fashion, “God is back”). This cries out for some further thinking about the Sitz im Leben, to use a fashionable scholarly term, of the layman in the modern world.

For example, we are always reading about the need for a better Catholic intellectual formation for our new better- educated laity. We have all been to school, however, and may have some doubts about just how well educated this laity or our other fellow citizens are in fact, particularly about religious matters. But we agree wholeheartedly that the Church must find better ways to teach and catechize if the laity are to be prepared for the modern world. In the United States, at any rate, there are no more Catholic ghettos to speak of. Every Catholic will have to grapple at times with problems that once only a few theologians and other professionals had to face. And laymen are generally not inclined simply to accept answers from the Church.

This is sometimes referred to as a crisis of authority. But the problem is not that most laymen do not accept authority; some of them are only too willing to accept the authority of television psychologists, talk-show theologians, and political journalists on a whole range of questions.

This is a serious situation. American Catholics today are not much different in their beliefs and behavior from other Americans. The same could be said of their counter¬ parts in other Western countries. Modern societies are so potent compared with the formation of people in the Faith that we should not be surprised to find the laity in any nation more reflective of a particular sociological profile than of Catholic universality. (The irony of Catholic confessions of “escape” from the supposedly narrow Catholic horizon into conformity with the local culture is a subject waiting for some future Evelyn Waugh.)

But this situation also calls for an effort by Catholics not only to be better grounded in the Faith, but also to work to create a less formidable social environment for themselves. Catholic theology and philosophy are currently so tentative and indistinct that we cannot expect them to inform a vigorous sociology, politics, economics, or culture that are both socially viable and more congenial to Catholic life. The first need, then, is for a Catholic intellectual restoration.

But much as we would like all Catholics to be intellectual warriors, most of them, like most people at most times, will not be very intellectual at all. Such spiritual strength as they will be able to muster will come — humanly speaking — from their liturgies, families, and small face-to- face communities (types of ghettos, if you will). And given the threats to family, school, and the public expression of religious values in our world, a very large burden falls on those responsible for preserving these institutions. The laity themselves, with guidance from the hierarchy, must take the lead here, in shouldering a burden that is not merely secular, but of the most vital religious significance.

The Constitution on the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem), Familaris Consortio, and Laborem Exercens are good starting points for thinking about family, work, and lay public life. But just as we do not get a Christian literature by popes and bishops writing poems and novels in their spare time, we will not get the rich soil of Catholic community merely from the synods, bishops’ conferences, or diocesan statements. Catholic thinkers and lay people, with one eye on the common good of the whole society and the other on the particular needs of the Catholic community, are the only persons who can complete this work.

Perhaps the most crucial element in this whole process is the restoration of the liturgy. We do not necessarily need to return to Latin (though this would connect us with our universal roots again). But we do need to recreate a symbolic richness that will communicate a Catholic spirit to the large numbers of people who cannot be reached by intellectual means. Much of the tenuousness and disaffection found in the Church today is not so much a result of institutional failures as of the shallow, rationalized forms of worship most laymen are forced to endure. The blame for this falls on Catholic intellectuals, cleric and lay, who for their own purposes have virtually dispossessed the people of their traditional deep path to God’s mysteries.

An elitist intellectual ventriloquism has tried to make it appear that the laity will only be happy when they are brought into theological disputes and the management of the institution. (Curiously, many intellectuals during the same period have often felt it more urgent to involve themselves in politics and society.) Perhaps it is generally a good thing that we no longer have such a strict separation of labor as in the past. But our people are not situated, as were the laity of the fourth century, to resist heretical threats or to preserve traditional teaching. Their Sitz im Leben does not allow it.

Anyway, only intellectuals think these are crucial lay functions. For the vast majority of the laity, it is their liturgical participation that must prepare them for the humble daily tasks that have been the vocation of most Catholics at most times. To understand the living role of this laity, we will have to rely on the mystical and democratic dogma that if the people are truly made Catholic and vitally kept so by liturgy, they will — under God — be able to choose their own role for themselves.


  • Robert Royal

    Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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