Reason laity are stepping forward is bigger than decrease in the clergy.
Those who embrace the first theory assume that if the Catholic church suddenly had a resurgence of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life, there would no longer be any need for laypersons to serve as directors of religious education, catechists, youth ministers, eucharistic minister's, lectors, liturgy directors, pastoral associates and so forth.
The laity would go back to what they were doing before the council: helping the priests and nuns fulfill the ministerial work that is rightfully and exclusively theirs.
Thus, if we had a sufficient number of nuns for catechesis, there would no longer be a place for laity in religious education, except perhaps to help the nuns prepare children for first communion and confirmation. as laywomen did before Vatican II.
And if we had a sufficient number of priests to assist the celebrant in the distribution of holy communion, laity would be withdrawn from that ministry at once.
Those who embrace the second theory assume that the Catholic church before 1962, the year the council began, was institutionally stronger and more spiritually healthy than it is today. They base that assumption largely on statistics, particularly on the decline in attendance at Mass.
Although there is some superficial evidence to feed these assumptions and the theories they generate, anyone who looks more closely at the actual pastoral situation in the Catholic church today and who reflects more deeply on its theology and doctrine, especially as they apply to the mystery of the church., will not be mislead by certain appearances to the contrary.
Early last month, for example, a convocation of 1,400 women and men who are members of parish pastoral or finance councils in the Boston archdiocese met at Boston College High School to engage in future pastoral planning. Cardinal Bernard Law, the archbishop of Boston, addressed the gathering,
Although the cardinal has had over the years the reputation of a hard-line conservative, his words on this occasion -- not to mention his pastorally sensitive response to the recent tragic murders at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston -- serve as a reminder that there is still much common ground between conservatives, progressives and moderate middle-of-the-roaders in the Catholic church.
In his talk, the cardinal emphasized the inclusiveness of the church. "We are the church," he began. "Together we are the church; the pastors are not the church; the religious women and religious men in our midst who serve with such self-dedication and sacrifice and love; they are not the church; nor is the laity alone the church, but all of us together constitute the church."
Younger readers may not know this, and some older readers may have forgotten, but the common equivalent for the noun church in the years before Vatican II was hierarchy. By extension it also included priests and nuns.
Laity "attended" church. Laity were loyal "to" the church. Laity made generous sacrifices "for" the church. Laity received the sacraments and moral guidance "from" the church.
But "the church" was always something to which they belonged, to which they contributed services and resources, and from which they derived spiritual benefits in return.
Cardinal Law reminded his audience in Boston that we are all the church -- laity, religious and clergy alike, as the council's "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church" stated.
"What I want you to understand from my point of view," Law continued, "is that planning is not driven by an obsessive fear that we have too few priests.
"We don't have as many as we used to. But the church today isn't the same as it was 50 years ago. Look around 1,400 people did not gather together 50 years ago to plan the future of this archdiocese, it didn't work that way. There's vibrancy, there's life here, there's no turning back.
"So let me tell you, you are not here because there's a shortage of priests. You are here because this is the way the church ought to operate.
"And if even there were four priests in every parish in this archdiocese, I hope to God we would still be together today."
This writer could not improve upon those words or the theology that undergirds them.