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Pondering the meaning of lay vocation.

The most nettlesome question left us by the Second Vatican Council is the vocation of laity in the modern world. A strong sense of lay "vocation" was one of the council's real developments. But it gave rise to vast confusion alongside some benefits. In the more optimistic ecclesiological formulations, the clergy would teach, sanctify and govern within the church while lay people would bring their witness into the public sphere. All this was fine, so far as it goes. But neither side could say how far it did--or did not--go.

So the conciliar battle orders have not held. Instead, we have the U.S. bishops in their various incarnations as a body quite active in the public realm. And in the opposite direction, we have some lay people who think that unless they function like clerics, their rights as Christians and children of God are being fundamentally trampled. Most worrisome, vast numbers of Catholics have no clue that they have a vocation at all.

No entirely satisfying parsing of the various vocations in the church currently exists. But a just-published study by Russell Shaw, Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church, has skillfully begun to sort out the full range of issues. He begins with the notion of the church as a communio of persons and shows that while priestly and lay roles were distinguished quite early on, it was only later that clerics unfortunately came to be thought of as possessing a higher spiritual status than lay people. St. Ignatius of Loyola, Francis de Sales, John Henry Newman, Jacques Maritain and the Second Vatican Council have all contributed to reversing that view.

Clericalism, however, comes in several forms, some obvious, others not. Every thinking Catholic has encountered the kind of bishop or church official who seems to go in mortal fear that lay people may be practicing Christianity without a license. It's not pleasant, it's not apostolic, but it's understandable and perhaps inevitable in an institution where authority must exist by the very nature of the mission.

Mr. Shaw makes a perceptive point, however, about what he calls neo-congregationalism: "Although its exaggerated emphasis on baptismal priesthood is sometimes taken to be a healthy reaction against clericalism, it is in reality a mirror image of clericalist values arising from essentially the same deep sources: deep-seated confusion on the subject of vocation, pervasive depreciation of the secular order and of the laity's duties there, and an implicit assumption that for lay people to enjoy real dignity in the church, they must become--and begin to do--what the ordained clergy are and do: In other words, they must be clericalized."

One of Mr. Shaw's rare qualities is that he does not fit into any neat ideological framework. Indeed, he humbly concedes that much work remains to be done to fully understand the lay vocation. Lay people, he argues, need to exercise a proper secularity, a transformative activity within modern secularism. Secularism is a substantive position like Methodism, Marxism or liberalism. It is not the neutral matrix it pretends to be, but a way of understanding the world that ignores transcendence and, as a result, gives rise to materialism.

Secularity, however, is the mode in which a Catholic rightly functions within the world (saeculum in Latin), a public space in which religion cannot be directly implemented, but also a free zone in which we can carry out crucial tasks. Mr. Shaw identifies eight: promoting the dignity of the human person; fostering respect for the right to life; defending freedom of conscience and religious freedom; protecting and encouraging marriage and family life; engaging in works of charity; participating in public life; placing the human person at the center of socioeconomic life; and evangelizing the culture.

These, of course, are the more conservative sides of lay vocation. But Mr. Shaw enters more liberal territory. He speaks of lay people as exercising an apostolate, ministry, and, potentially, shared responsibility. Lay apostolate is not a spin-off from the clerical apostolate but operates in the world by its own right. Mr. Shaw points to the unfortunate loss of the Catholic Action movement and the void it has left in public debate, a void that individual bishops or bishops' conferences labor to fill. Lay ministry, while legitimate in some forms, is not to be confused with priestly ministry, and Mr. Shaw allows that it is only ministry analogously. Shared responsibility may, unexpectedly, be the least controversial area. Financial councils or other oversight boards have had reasonably good track records. In the earlier history of the Catholic church in America, too, lay trustees sometimes ran parishes to avoid legal problems. But these had a checkered history that warrants study. Mr. Shaw points out that the U.S. bishops' ambitious hope that someday there will be a National Pastoral Council for the Church in the United States, with lay and clerical members, has succumbed to circumstances.

There is much to ponder in the story he tells and the recommendation he makes. If you are truly interested in light, rather than heat, on these difficult questions, it is worth spending a few contemplative hours with Russell Shaw.

[Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington.]
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Title Annotation:THE LION'S DEN
Author:Royal, Robert
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 9, 2005
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