Role of Laity in the Church


Role of Laity in the Church

Compare the [Vatican II] Council’s view of the role of the laity in the Church with laity expectations for their role.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Dan Gannon

   The role of the laity according to the Second Vatican Council is primarily a renewed call to engagement in apostolic activity – the purpose of the laity being essentially pastoral in nature. Lumen Gentium is very clear on this point, as the council fathers wanted to change the tendency to view the laity as a passive, overlooked body. A balance to the hierarchical view of the Church was needed. The council characterized the Church as the People of God, which is made up of both clerical and lay people and even includes separated brethren in a real way. The council noted everything that has been said of the People of God is addressed equally to laity, religious and clergy. The Catholic Action movement was already underway when the council began, which Pope Pius VI strongly supported. This movement exhorted laity to witness and evangelize to the world, so the expectation of many laity was a greater emphasis and guidance to be given by the council to them. Perhaps there was notable expectation by the laity that the council would diminish the hierarchy in its greater recognition of the laity, but Lumen Gentium very clearly reaffirmed papal infallibility and the authority of the Magisterium. The council exhorted the laity to submit to their bishops decisions on faith and morals, and the Pope, even when not speaking ex cathedra.

More specifically, the council sets out the role of the laity in Lumen Gentium as: directing temporal affairs according to God’s will; they are leaven in the world, manifesting Christ to all; in unity with their priests and bishops; engaged in their special vocation to make the Church present in the world; transforming the Church to become the “salt of the earth”; enjoying a principal role in secular society to spread the spirit of Christ and impregnate culture and human works with moral value. It seems the exhortation to apostolic activity and witness was the most enthusiastically and successfully received aspect of the council by the laity. There were already movements afoot in this vein, and clearly the laity have responded to this call. However there has also manifested confusion and resistance concerning authority, their role in the liturgy, prayer life, and family life, for example.

The laity had limited knowledge of the liturgy as of the time of the council. Most did not know what the priest was saying, but believed Christ’s body and blood were made present. It is fair to say the laity tended to be like ‘spectators’, often meditating on their private devotions during mass, praying the rosary, etc. The faithful often found their emotional and personal expression in private devotions, while the liturgy tended to be an obligatory, yet objective and somewhat calm, dry and detached reality in the spiritual lives of the laity. The council fathers wanted the role of the laity here to change. They wanted the laity to understand the divine action and authentic nature of the liturgy. The liturgical movement was underway at the time of the council, which encouraged active participation of the faithful in the liturgy. Vatican II declared active participation of the laity in the liturgy as essential. It seems the expectations of the laity were quite reserved in the area of liturgy, and much confusion ensued about how to interpret and implement what Sacrosanctum Concilium called a “full, conscious and active participation in liturgical celebration” to which “all should be led … by right and obligation via baptism.” The council called for some noble simplifications in the liturgy, removing aspects that are non-essential or redundant, with new emphasis on Scripture, with suitable place made for vernacular to be allowed (e.g. Scripture readings, prayers of the faithful) and the participation of the faithful in the singing in Latin those parts of the mass pertaining to them. To promote active participation, the laity should take part in acclamations, response, psalms, antiphons, hymns, gestures and reverent silence at appropriate times. No person could add, remove or change anything in the mass … no ‘innovations’ were to be permitted.

However, many who implemented the ‘reform’ of the liturgy did not do so in accordance with the true spirit, let alone the actual documents of Vatican II, summarized above. The laity experienced a devastating, almost overnight change in the liturgy, with the vernacular all but replacing Latin, suppression of personal devotions, ‘gutting’ of Church art and sanctuaries. There was strong movement away from the divine to the human in liturgy, with all sorts of deviations from the direction of the council, which we will not detail here except to mention substitution of readings, spontaneous prayers, alternative hymns. In a word, the liturgy became ‘expressive’ of personal, subjective feelings and opinions. Since subjective experience and preference are relative, we have seen a fragmentation of the liturgy with local preference being the guiding principle, rather than the universal, unified liturgy. This was the opposite of the council’s intentions and writings. It seems the laity did not expect this at all, and could be most accurately described in their role as confused and perhaps even held in contempt by so-called ‘progressives’ who made sweeping, erroneous changes in the name of the spirit of Vatican II. The effects still reverberate today, with several interventions and exhortations by the Vatican to shepherd the flock into the corral again regarding liturgy. Many helpful clarifications and movements have countered this reaction in recent years.

Another important expectation fostered in the laity by theologians and priests around the time of the council – concerned the Church’s teaching on contraception. While Pope John XXIII removed this topic from the council for special commission focus, Gaudium et Spes spoke clearly, as Humanae Vitae would soon after the council, affirming traditional teaching (among many others) that contraception is immoral and that life is precious from conception. Here, expectations of many laypersons were misplaced, due to a very strong expectation on the part of clergy and theologians that the ban on contraception would be lifted, given the spirit of the sexual ‘revolution’, which was in full swing and general cultural climate of questioning traditional institutions and morality. Clearly, the cultural decay occurring while technology and economic achievement accelerated as never before – contributed greatly to this false expectation on the part of the laity (and clergy, for that matter). Thus, many were told to “follow their conscience”, laying aside the truth that consciences must be rightly formed to be morally sound. The ‘consensus of the believers’ was promoted as the proper standard by theologians like Charles Curran. It was, at root – a question of authority … the laity were confused as to who they should listen to – their pastors, theologians, media… or the Pope and bishops? This crisis of authority reached far beyond the contraception issue to people’s views on the bond of marriage, celibate priesthood and religious life and the very nature of the Church itself. Several reiterations of this teaching and the Catechism of the Catholic Church have helped guide the laity through these troubled waters since the council.

Finally, the council fathers saw the role of the laity as important for ecumenism and reaching out to the modern world, so desperately in need of the Gospel to be preached, using words when necessary, as St. Francis said. Spiritual ecumenism, set out in Unitatis Redintegratio, called for the laity especially to take an “active and intelligent part” in ecumenism. This was to be done especially via dialogue, interior conversion and repentance for our failings in being a witness to Christ, and becoming familiar with the outlook of separated brethren – not in order to capitulate any doctrine of the Catholic faith, but to see the truth that is found in the faith of the separated brethren. In a word, be open-minded. This then becomes the point of departure for deeper understanding of each other, paving the way to greater unity among Christians, in the hope one day we “shall all be one” (Jn. 17:21). It was quite unexpected by the laity – to see the Church hierarchy reaching out to the separated churches of the East and West, exhorting Catholics to associate and even pray with those from other denominations (within prescribed limits, of course). The laity are thus challenged in their role to a new level of knowledge of their faith and a new maturity in witnessing to the world. By following Gaudium et Spes’ exhortation to bridge the dichotomy between faith and everyday life, Catholics are called to ecumenism and evangelization primarily through their daily witness in the secular world – carrying out their work with dignity and charity. It seems the laity generally anticipated Vatican II might address the modern world much as previous councils had – with emphasis on condemnation and distancing oneself from the world. It was contrary to the expectations of the laity to see Vatican II address the modern world in a balanced manner, praising what is truly good, yet acknowledging where the world is misguided and how the Church has the answer – Jesus Christ. Some erroneously expected Vatican II to conform more to the world, casting off essential truths and disciplines, but instead, the council fathers reaffirmed this and held fast to the virtuous mean by challenging Her children to be in, but not of the world. (Cf. Jn. 17: 14-18)