Preparing for the Synod on the Laity

A recent trip to study the Italian lay movement Communion and Liberation led me to consider the self-imposed limits that most lay Catholics in the United States place on faith-inspired actions in American society and politics. It is time for lay Catholics in this country to establish a concrete Christian presence that will provoke a reassessment of materialistic and secular values, and that will evangelize Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Naturally, U.S. Catholics not only respect, but are willingly constrained by, America’s pluralist tradition. It is impossible to imagine a U.S. political party along the lines of Italy’s Christian Democrat Party, which was formed and promoted by Pius XII and Catholic Action. Further, the non-partisan status of the Catholic Church in the U.S. has strengthened its credibility and influence in American society.

Respect for our pluralist patrimony, however, need not limit our efforts to build a personal, Christian culture in our homes, in our workplace and in society at large. Yet for a variety of reasons we do not see our faith as the basis for establishing a concrete Christian presence in the world. Many of us do not see the event of Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago as a reference point for every action we take, every judgment we make about the world. Such an approach is simply too radical: It demands that we give up too much control and that we broaden the role of God in our lives.

Some of us have been taught too well to be good Americans, and our faith has lost its inherent counter- cultural edge. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote recently, “You know neither the Church nor the world if you think that they could meet without conflict or that they could even coincide.” Yet we constantly use partisan political yardsticks to measure the true faith of a Church leader or layman, when real Christian activism is likely to transcend and to confound established party platforms. Understandably, many Catholics see faith-inspired activism as a threat to pluralism, to their hard-fought mainstream status or to church unity and episcopal authority. Indeed, only a deep faith that accepts the full role of grace and human freedom is likely to be completely free of intolerance. And the extensive prudential judgments that appear in some of the U.S. bishops pastoral letters have provoked bitterness and cynicism.

There are other reasons for our resistance toward building a personal, Christian culture. Such a culture is formed by looking openly at everything in our lives and in the world and asking, as Don Luigi Giussani, the founder of Communion and Liberation, has said: What do I think of this? If the question is asked seriously, it will have consequences. It could reaffirm our present values and path of life, or it could prompt a reassessment. It could inspire action or further study. Whatever happens, asking that question forces us to establish a relationship between our faith and our life in the world — the basis of a Christian culture.

But many Catholics choose not to reassess the secular values that shape their cultural perspective precisely because they do not want to feel alienated from the world in which they live, and they doubt there are other paths to consider. It is not enough simply to question what one sees. One must be able to find Christian alternatives that can be proposed in place of what already exists. For these two reasons, a Christian needs a broader community to support him as he questions, and to help him find the much richer alternatives that have been created for him.

Community — whether it is a formal grouping of Christians, a family, or a loose network of friends — then becomes that presence in the world that will provoke others to ask: What do I think of this? As a lay Catholic who used assiduously to avoid groups and “movements,” I have come to understand that participation in a Christian community — whether formal or informal — is essential to making the leap between faith and practice, and is the basis for a Christian presence powerful enough to encourage a major change in American society.

I believe the laity must be at the center of a Christian presence in the world. The reach of the laity is longer than the reach of the cleric. The special vocation of the lay person is to live in the world and to ask: What do I think of this? Our bishops, perhaps not always effectively, have sought to prompt this question, but we are the ones who must answer it in our own lives, every day.


  • Joan Frawley Desmond

    Joan Frawley Desmond has written for the Wall Street Journal, First Things, and the National Catholic Register, among other publications.

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