Preparing for the Synod on the Laity

Amid the sharp, even acrimonious, differences that have shaken the Catholic Church in the last several decades, one observation seems to invite general agreement: the role of the laity will become increasingly important. Alas, the general agreement stops almost right there, and differences about what the role should be take over. As distinctions between functions proper to the clergy and those proper to the laity become increasingly blurred, it may be useful to recover what was only recently a hard-won clarification that, even more recently, has become obscured.

I will base my own highly circumscribed remarks on the role of the laity on a single statement from the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. In that document the bishops state: “The Church guards the heritage of God’s Word and draws from it religious and moral principles, without always having at hand the solution to particular problems.”

Bland enough, traditional enough. But let us push on. Who, within the Church, guards the heritage and draws the religious and moral principles? Primarily the bishops, the theologians, the educated and trained teachers. Usually clerics, but not always. But do these persons have, in virtue of their station, the solution to particular problems in the political and social spheres? Clearly not, or both ordinary citizen and high political leaders would long since have learned to have regular recourse to their worldly wisdom. Yet within the political and social realms there is a constant need for decisions. Who should make them? As observation should have long since taught us, they are usually best made by those who are most intimately involved and most experienced in the pertinent disciplines and activities. This means, for example, that political, economic, and military decisions are ordinarily best made by those engaged in military, economic, and political affairs within the boundaries established by the state and the culture; usually laypeople.

Does this neatly divide the allotted tasks between clergy and laity, one caring for the spiritual and the other for the material things of the world? Not entirely. In particular political and cultural situations — Poland, Chile, Nicaragua, South Africa, China — particular accommodations may be necessary. And even in the United States, where the individual citizen is free to exercise his influence on political and social issues through his vote and the expression of his opinion through various agencies, that clean separation may not always hold. Msgr. George Higgins, who has been involved in social action for decades, wisely points out the gray areas, the times and places at which clergy and laity cooperate, collaborate, and share religious and civic responsibilities. But the exceptions should not subvert the principle. And particularly in a democracy with a separation of church and state, the general principle should be indisputable: the political order, broadly conceived, is the natural province of the citizen — cleric and lay, believer and non-believer. The church leadership may, and should, enunciate religious and moral principles, but the application of those principles to particular social and political issues is properly the work of the citizen, which means primarily the laity.

In their much-praised pastoral letters on war and peace and on the economy, the episcopal leadership of the Catholic Church in this country has done much to confuse the issues and subvert this principle — and this on two counts.

First, the pastoral letters not only draw religious and moral principles from “the heritage of God’s Word” and assert strongly and appropriately their pertinence to private and public life; they also drive to many highly specific judgments in controverted areas of political, economic, and military affairs. These are properly the areas of the believer as citizen, not the areas of the believer as episcopal leader. The bishops’ explicit disclaimer that not all of their statements have the same degree of moral authority — which is abundantly true — is insufficient to clarify the confusion they have created, as much subsequent commentary attests.

An authoritative spokesman for the bishops has observed that without such specific recommendations the pastoral letters would have received little attention. This may be true,. but it is not a principled justification for the practice. It should be rejected both by those who agree and those who disagree with the particular policy recommendations of the pastoral letters.

Second, the pastoral letters are divisive within the American Catholic community. There is a clear, definable political bias in the letters. Those who share the political and social agendas of the letters may applaud the partisan stands of the bishops. (When the applause comes from non- believing socialists, we can safely assume that it is not the informing religious principles but the specific agendas that excite the applause.) That the bishops received comments and advice from many different sources and invite critical comment does not invalidate the partisan label. As a result of these pastorals, the Catholic Church — as it is represented by the bishops — is in danger of being regarded as the left wing of the Democratic Party at prayer — not the most elevated station to which the Church should aspire. And it is one that risks diluting the authority proper to the episcopal office.

A parenthesis here: To reject the present procedures of the pastoral letters is not to deny the bishops a substantial and vocal role in social affairs. The elaboration of religious and moral principles pertinent to our time and our problems involves the work of evangelization, the need for which John Paul II has frequently noted. It is a task of large proportions that demands and deserves as much time and creative energy as the bishops are able to give to it. And the bishops could well develop these principles and commission authoritative citizens — clerical or lay — to prepare studies informed by these principles on particular political and social issues, studies that would not invoke, endanger, or dilute their own episcopal authority.

Educated, informed, and dedicated Catholic laity are destined to play an ever-greater part in determining that the general culture and particular political and social policies are informed by the religious and moral principles derived from “the heritage of God’s Word.” When episcopal authority attempts to preempt that responsibility, this difficult task is made more difficult; unnecessary and harmful tensions between laity and clergy are generated; and both church and society are badly served.


  • James Finn

    James Finn is author of Protest: Pacifism and Politics, a study of the Vietnam peace movement, and, when Crisis was originally published in 1982, he was editor of Freedom at Issue, the bimonthly journal of Freedom House.

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