Preparing for the Synod on the Laity

The situation of the Church today, in regard to the lay vocation, is extraordinarily paradoxical. A staple topic of the last twenty years has been “the emerging layman” in the Church, and there is no question that the laity are now much more visible. Yet there is currently a very strong tendency, even among those with the best of intentions, to submerge the true lay vocation.

Perhaps the best way to show this is to recount a recent experience of mine. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee is in the midst of preparation for a synod next fall, the first steps toward which have been parish and regional synods. I was a delegate from my parish to the regional synod this past December, where the focus centered on the three topics of prayer and worship, education, and ministry. The most striking feature of the whole day was the tremendous emphasis on lay ministries. The vast majority of the recommendations (collated by diocesan officials from the recommendations of parish synods) with which we were presented at that session concerned expansion of the lay role in the church. Yet not a single one of them had a word to say about my vocation as a layman — i.e., the vocation of the layman delineated by the central documents of Vatican Council II.

The substance of the discussion comes across precisely in the use of the word “ministry.” Almost all of the recommendations called for increased participation of the laity in ecclesiastically sponsored activities. Lay people were to be brought into the Church by having them share the functions that had too long been restricted to priests. Such a step was considered as necessary as it was desirable, given the decline — which was assumed to be irreversible, and which by some was even regarded as providential — of vocations to the priesthood.

This means giving laymen not only a share in the traditional priestly functions, e.g., of the altar and of parish governance, but also in the “emerging” ecclesial functions associated with pursuing justice in the world. Thus, laymen can be lay ministers of communion and parish council members and also of human concerns and social justice ministers. In a more extreme form, as it appeared in one of the day’s new or “prophetic” recommendations, everybody can be commissioned as a “minister to the world.” As a college teacher, I would be a “minister of education,” my wife would be a “minister to the family,” a local city councilman would be a “minister of public policy,” and so on.

This approach is, needless to say, not unrepresentative of trends in the Church in America. What is surprising is that this error, largely associated with people regarded as “progressives” or “liberals,” fits in so nicely with past errors associated with “conservatives.” One former pastor of mine (who was decidedly “un-progressive”) regularly encouraged his parishioners to become lay ministers of communion because this was a step toward being “more serious about our Christian vocation” — as if serving in a quasi-eccesiastical and liturgical role would make us “better” laymen.

Now let me make it clear that I know there is absolutely nothing wrong with lay people performing -liturgical functions when the Church calls on them. Furthermore, certain undertakings within the Church itself not only can but should be done by laymen. (Why Father McGillicuddy had to balance the Church’s books for so long, instead of having a parishioner who was a good accountant do it, is something of a mystery.) There is nothing inherently objectionable in the laity helping in “Church” activities; indeed it can be praiseworthy.

What is objectionable is using the model of lay participation in ecclesiastical activities as the model or norm for the lay vocation. The current trend is partly an understandable reaction against past clericalism in the Church, which at times led to such an emphasis on the ministerial priesthood as the apex of sanctity and on its distinctive (hierarchical) powers, that the lay vocation was slighted (especially by omission). But the answer to that problem is not to blur the line between the ministerial priesthood and the priesthood of the faithful, or to absorb the layman into clerical activities while expanding clerical activities to embrace what is more appropriate for the laity.

The proper answer is described at great length in Vatican II, especially the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity. The Council’s articulation of doctrinal developments regarding the laity is perhaps its most important single accomplishment, and it is in danger of being lost on the current American scene. The Council first emphasized what all the “people of God” have in common, namely, the universal call to holiness and participation in the offices of Christ as Priest, Prophet, and King. But then it went on to show how this common vocation was lived in differentiated forms, and pointed out the distinctiveness of various vocations (hierarchy, religious, and laity). In the section on the laity, we read:

Their secular character is proper and peculiar to the laity. Although those in Holy Orders may sometimes be engaged in secular activities, or even practice a secular profession, yet by reason of their particular vocation, they are principally and expressly ordained to the sacred ministry. At the same time, religious give outstanding and striking testimony that the world cannot be transfigured and offered to God without the spirit of the beatitudes. But by reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will. (Lumen Gentium no. 3 1. )

Several times in the same document, the Council indicates that in addition to this vocation which is for all the laity, there may be circumstances under which some lay people must help to “supply sacred functions” and may be called to a more immediate cooperation in the hierarchy’s apostolate. But those are presented as something different from (and not superior to) what might be called the ordinary or the “proper” vocation of the laity.

The Latin root of the word “proper” has a meaning different from its typical use in English: it connotes that a particular action or quality flows from the nature of a thing. So, for example, there is nothing “improper” about using a hammer as a paperweight, but its “proper” function is to pound nails. And there may be nothing “improper” about a layperson being a lector at Mass or serving on a parish committee, but his “proper” function is “engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will” and doing this with “a secular character.” At the same time, it is worth noting that some “improper” functions can actually hinder the “proper” ones: a hammer used as a paperweight is unavailable for pounding nails and, for some people, serving as a parish social justice minister might require time and effort that would make it impossible to accomplish a more effective apostolate that they could do with their colleagues, family, and friends, in their ordinary, everyday activities.

The blurring of lines between different vocations brings a variety of dangers. First, and most importantly for my present topic, it occasions a continuation of clericalism, though now in a new form. Concepts appropriate for the clerical vocation become the intellectual framework for understanding the laity. For example, the “public” character of “ministry” detracts from one of the elements of secularity that contributes to the apostolic efficacy of lay people: their “naturalness,” their being just like ordinary people, or rather, more precisely, their being ordinary people — not like clerics or religious, who are singled out from the world (even when they act in it) in a special way. I don’t want to be a minister of education. I want to be a college teacher who (without an ecclesial commissioning ceremony) tries to sanctify his everyday activities, without any special public notice being given to his vocation (which would, moreover, detract from my work’s apostolic efficacy). Is my teaching any less a part of my vocation, am I acting any less as a Catholic if I simply act on the basis of “only” the “commission” that I received in baptism and confirmation?

“Public ministry” also (even when this is not intended) appropriates the name of the Church for a person’s activity, even when there may be no ground for doing so. The parish social justice minister may have a perfect right to conclude on his own that some aspect of foreign policy is contrary to the social teachings of the Church and to oppose it. But when he publicly opposes it as a Catholic social justice minister and organizes parish activity against it, then the authority or influence of the Church is being invoked to further what is simply his own opinion, not the teaching of the Church.

In this regard, it is worth stressing that freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin. The Council on many occasions (e.g., Gaudium et Spes, no. 36) went out of its way to stress a legitimate autonomy of temporal affairs. Lay people are not to expect the clergy to provide ready answers to secular problems (even grave problems): “It is rather up to the laymen to shoulder Their responsibilities under the guidance of Christian wisdom and with eager attention to the teaching authority of the Church.” But that freedom of lay people has its complement in the duty to take responsibility for their positions: “They ought to remember that in those cases no one is permitted to identify the authority of the Church exclusively with his own opinion” (ibid, no. 43).

The new clericalism manifests other problems, which are tied to a failure to understand the priestly vocation as well as the lay vocation (the problems commonly go hand in hand). People sometimes lose sight of the distinctiveness of priestly sacramental duties — ones that only a priest can perform — when clerics become more taken up with political and social issues. Spiritual direction, especially in the sacrament of reconciliation, is a sine qua non for serious interior life (itself a condition for lay people to sanctify their ordinary activities), and yet it seems that efforts to revivify and expand that practice often take a back seat to commentary on national and international political issues.

The synod session on education featured among other recommendations, the suggestion that Catholics push politically for a voucher program, as a means of achieving distributive justice and vindicating parental educational rights. But, ironically, to whom was the recommendation addressed, and who was to carry it out? The archbishop and archdiocesan offices were to lead this effort, organizing the laity behind them. In the short run, that may yield more “results.” But, in the long run, wouldn’t the proper approach be to train laymen in the social teaching of the Church, stimulate their interior lives, teach them to see the spiritual dimension of their work, and then let them go out to lead the battle for justice? In this area, which is “ready-made” for real lay activity, the leadership role of the laity in society was lost sight of by those who most strenuously demanded greater “lay participation in the Church.”

The problem is not insufficient “consultation” with the laity in such matters. The point is not that the laity should be consulted about what to do, but that lay men and women should do it, because it’s primarily their function. Consultation with the laity can become an excuse for supplanting them, asserting a clerical role of direction that both oversteps the boundaries of the clerical vocation and invades the domain of the lay vocation.

For the record, I will note the obvious point that the compartments are not watertight. I am not saying that laymen should never perform activities within the Church or that clerics should never become involved in political and social questions. There is some overlap. But that overlap is tolerable only to the extent that it does not occasion a loss of the sense that there are fundamental distinctions among vocations within the Church.


  • Christopher Wolfe

    From 1989 to 2021, Dr. Wolfe was President of the American Public Philosophy Institute, an interdisciplinary group of scholars from various universities, supported by local business and professional leaders, that promotes a natural law public philosophy rooted in the principles of the American Founding. The APPI is now the Dallas Forum for Law, Politics, and Culture, and Dr. Wolfe is President Emeritus. He also is one of Crisis Magazine's original writers.

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