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Beyond Personal Piety: The Laity’s Role in the Church’s Mission

G.K. Chesterton once commented that every modern conversation begins one step too late. His assertion pertains, unfortunately, when we think of the church. Immediately we tend to think of its structure: there are the ordained, the religious, and the laity. According to this reckoning, the laity are defined in a negative manner: they are the ones who are neither ordained nor members of religious orders. If one is a Catholic, and neither ordained nor a religious, then one is lay; it cannot be helped.

There is, as a result, a paradigmatic clericalism within the church. It is not ill-intended. I would argue that it is not intended at all, but it is present nonetheless. There is a widespread assumption in the Catholic community that, to have any real agency in the church, it is necessary that one be ordained. We are all familiar with the model: there is the priest-pastor and his flock. Or, perhaps truer to experience, the priest-pastor and his critics.

That the laity have no agency in the church is not magisterial teaching; it is not, in fact, true. Yet it is the paradigm through which we relate to each other and through which we tend to filter our understanding of magisterial teaching. This apprehension is founded on, and fostered by, the common conception that the purpose of the church is predominantly, or even exclusively, the care of souls. We read in the Second Vatican Council’s decree Christus dominus that “the parish exists solely for the care of souls.” The purpose of the care of souls is personal holiness, our salvation in Christ, which translates in our communal imagination as an invitation to personal piety.

Now, if the whole business of the church is the care of souls, then it is indeed difficult to see that the laity as such have any real agency in the church. I am not referring to the ministries that lay people can undertake by delegation, when they assist in the pastoral care of the community at the discretion of their pastors. Such ministries, though important, are not proper to the laity, but are ministries that are proper to the ordained. When the laity undertake such ministries, they are therefore called “extraordinary” ministers in the church. But what, then, is proper to the laity? The common conception would seem to suggest that the ordinary vocation of lay men and women is a vocation to be cared for, especially through their participation in the sacraments.

That this is the paradigm that governs Catholic imagination is manifested in the fact that lay men and women tend to identify the church with the hierarchy, and therefore to disenfranchise themselves. When Catholics say “the church teaches” they really mean “the hierarchy teaches,” or when Catholics say “the church believes” they tend to mean “bishops and priests believe.” They count themselves out. The church therefore comes to be identified with the bishops and the ordained. What follows from this improper identification is that, when a bishop is immoral, the whole church is held to be corrupt. Whence this identification? And why this paradigm?

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