What Should the Laity be Doing?

The Church in the United States and in other Western countries is in crisis. The challenge this presents to the Catholic laity is clear. They are called to do more than struggle individually against the temptations that come from the sinful world around them in hopes of saving their souls (although certainly they need to do that). Lay people also need to shoulder and carry out their part in the mission of the Church, especially in the “new evangelization” and the evangelization of culture of which Pope John Paul II spoke so often.

John Paul returned to this theme in Novo Millennio Ineunte (At the Beginning of the New Millennium), the apostolic letter he published January 6, 2001, the Feast of the Epiphany, to mark the start of the third millennium of the Christian era. “Even in countries evangelized many centuries ago,” he pointed out, “the reality of a ‘Christian society’… is now gone.”

Rather than being a cause for discouragement, he argued, this troubling state of affairs should provide impetus for a fresh outburst of evangelizing fervor not unlike that of Christianity’s early days: “This passion will not fail to stir in the Church a new sense of mission, which cannot be left to a group of ‘specialists’ but must involve the responsibility of all the members of the People of God…. A new apostolic outreach is needed, which will be lived as the everyday commitment of Christian communities and groups.”

The pope was describing an evangelizing Catholic community, made up overwhelmingly of lay women and men, which in many respects would resemble the Christian community as we glimpsed it earlier in another historic document. Recall the words of the Epistle to Diognetus, written around 200 A.D.: “What the soul is in the body, that the Christians are in the world…. Such is the important post to which God has assigned them, and they are not at liberty to desert it.” (And we might add: Neither then nor now.)

The practical question is: How should lay people respond to these lofty expectations, carry out this most challenging and rewarding role?

First of all, we need to realize that there are ways for lay people not to respond adequately to the need for a new evangelization. Simply ignoring it is one way, of course. But so is putting so much emphasis on activities within the structures and institutions of the Church—lay ministry, that is—that apostolate in and to the secular world gets short shrift and is virtually ignored.

Several sources support this unhealthy tendency. One of them, ideological in nature, is an updated version of clericalism. Clericalism fosters the idea that the advancement of the laity comes from admitting them to “ministries” and allowing them to do things (read at Mass, distribute Communion, etc.) that only clerics formerly could do. It’s like taking children to a fire station and letting them wear the firefighters’ hats. The more lay people resemble the clergy in what they do (and even in the way they dress), so it’s supposed, the more elevated their status will be.

Another source of the problem is practical rather than ideological. As the number of priests and religious men and women continues to decline, more and more lay people must do work done by clerics and religious in earlier generations in order to make necessary services available and keep ecclesiastical institutions and programs afloat.

True, the emergence of permanent deacons since Vatican Council II has partly alleviated the personnel crunch. (In 2003, there were a little over 14,000 permanent deacons in the United States, a figure that represented nearly half the world total of about 30,000.) But Catholic lay people have provided far more new personnel—”lay ministers” (also working mostly in parishes, but present also in some other church-related institutions) who usually are full-time, salaried staff. A 1999 study put their number in the United States at 29,145.

For the lay ministers, lay ministry represents a generous impulse on the part of people who want to serve the Church. They are badly needed today in parishes and other settings where there are no longer enough priests, permanent deacons, and religious women and men to go around. But to the extent that this development works hand-in-glove with clericalism to make “ministry” a preferred alternative to lay apostolate in the world, there is urgent need for a change of course.

As has been said repeatedly, the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II both leave no doubt that the primary role of Catholic lay people in the Church’s mission is what traditionally has been called lay apostolate. The faithful, says Vatican II, must “recognize the inner nature, the value and the ordering of the whole of creation to the praise of God.”

By their secular activity they help one another achieve greater holiness of life, so that the world may be filled with the spirit of Christ and may the more effectively attain its destiny in justice, in love and in peace. The laity enjoy a principal role in the universal fulfillment of this task…. Thus, through the members of the Church, will Christ increasingly illuminate the whole of human society with his saving light (Lumen Gentium, 36).

These are noble words. They will mean very little, however, unless lay people motivated and formed for apostolic work make them reality.

A second mistake that needs to be avoided—or corrected, where it exists—is to reduce the spirituality of the laity to “freedom,” as a recent writer does. This one-dimensional emphasis then leads to the suggestion that the sin of Adam and Eve was a good thing after all, something even planned and intended by God, since it marked the start of the mature exercise of human autonomy: “The fall is the true creation of the human world” (Paul Lakeland, The Liberation of the Laity). This is “kneeling before the world” carried to bizarre extremes worthy of that nihilistic herald of the amoral superman, Friedrich Nietzsche.

Having extolled the fall as an exercise of human freedom, the same writer proceeds to envisage the laity’s role along lines borrowed from the Marxist-influenced categories of liberation theology. According to this scheme, the current position of the Catholic laity in the United States resembles the degraded position of the proletariat in the Industrial Revolution, as Karl Marx and others observed it in the slums of 19th-century Europe. Thus: “If the vocation of the laity is to human freedom, their existential predicament in today’s church is that they are in chains…. It is just such a condition of ‘structural oppression’ that I believe is the present condition of the laity in the church.”

Speaking this way trivializes the plights of oppressed people in many places in today’s world while also absurdly exaggerating the grievances of middle-class American Catholics. Further opening up of the decision-making processes in the Church to participation by the laity may indeed be desirable, even necessary, in the Church today; but it is ridiculous to say that, as matters stand, such people are “in chains.”

Overemphasizing lay ministry (on the basis of the neo-clericalism that thinks clericalizing the laity leads to their advancement) and arguing for a liberationist view of lay people (as if they were the oppressed urban proletariat of two centuries ago) are both mistakes to avoid. By contrast, the major elements of the path traced here include:

• Giving priority to lay apostolate in and to the secular world as the preferred, though not exclusive, form of lay participation in the mission of the Church;

• Cultivating an authentically lay spirituality incorporating central elements of lay life and experience like marriage and work;

• Discerning, accepting, and living out of the unique personal vocations of lay persons as the essential framework for their apostolate and their personal holiness.

On that basis—but only on that basis—progress is possible.

A New Catholic Subculture

This particular puzzle has one other indispensable piece—a new Catholic subculture to foster and sustain efforts by Catholic lay people to do these things.

At one time, such a subculture existed in the United States as in other countries. It was the basis upon which the Catholic Church in America, in the middle years of the 20th century, was on its way to becoming the dominant influence in the shaping of the nation’s culture as a whole. In 1944-45 the influential Protestant magazine the Christian Century published an eight-part series, “Can Catholicism Win America?” Editor Harold Fey commented that the Catholic Church was committed to “winning the total body of American culture to Catholicism.” Conceding that Catholics had a right to do that, Fey added that, without more unity of effort among Protestants, “the answer to the question, Can Catholicism win America? is—yes.”

He was right. By the 1950s, “the Church appeared pre-eminent.” But, largely behind the scenes, the dismantling of the Catholic subculture largely responsible for the Church’s success had commenced among Catholic academics and intellectuals; it continued throughout the 1960s and 1970s— indeed, it continues to this day.

Factors inside and outside the Church were responsible for what happened. The result was a breakdown of institutional strength and religious identity that, by the start of the 21st century, found Catholicism in the United States much weaker in many ways than it had been 50 years earlier.

The conclusion should be obvious. Unless believing, practicing Catholics—in the United States and countries like it, including Canada and the nations of Western Europe—can re-create a strong new Catholic subculture as a basis for their efforts to engage and evangelize the increasingly secularized culture surrounding them, there is virtually no chance that the larger culture will change for the better, but an excellent chance that Catholicism will further decline.

Simply returning to the Catholic subculture of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s is not possible, nor would it be desirable if it could be done. Along with its undoubted strengths and virtues, the subculture of that era was triumphalistic, intellectually shallow, and overly defensive. Hardly what is needed now, if the evangelization of culture is the goal.

The new Catholic subculture must instead be built upon an infrastructure of dynamically orthodox institutions, programs, and movements committed to forming and motivating Catholics for the evangelization of the secular world. Here and there, it may be starting to happen. If it is to succeed, lay women and men must play a key role.

Which is simply to say that all members of the Church, all the Christifideles, laity, clergy, and religious alike, need to work together to realize the vision presented by Pope John Paul II:

While this “Christian newness of life” given to the members of the Church constitutes for all the basis of their participation in the priestly, prophetic and kingly mission of Christ and of their vocation to holiness in love, it receives expression and is fulfilled in the lay faithful through the secular character uniquely and properly theirs…. The whole Church, Pastors and lay faithful alike…ought to feel more strongly the Church’s responsibility to obey the command of Christ, “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15), and take up anew the missionary endeavor. A great venture, both challenging and wonderful, is entrusted to the Church—that of a re- evangelization, which is so much needed by the present world. The lay faithful ought to regard themselves as an active and responsible part of this venture, called as they are to proclaim and to live the Gospel in service to the person and to society (Christifideles Laici, 64).


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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