November 18, 2005


Challenge to the laity

The date of today’s issue, Nov. 18, is the 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People. Its second sentence alludes to “the laity’s special and indispensable role in the mission of the Church.” Indeed, as Cardinal John Henry Newman once wrote, “The Church would look funny without the laity.”

This has become the age of the laity in the Church far more than the fathers of the Second Vatican Council expected when they authored that decree. In the mid-1960s, vocations to the priesthood were plentiful and there was no indication that that would change. It has, though, and members of the laity have assumed positions in the Church that didn’t exist 40 years ago.

Today, there are more than 30,000 theologically-trained lay ecclesial ministers working in parishes in the United States.

That, though, is not what the bishops had in mind when they wrote about the apostolate of lay people—or even what they would have had in mind if they knew that vocations to the priesthood would drop precipitously. The proper place for the laity to exercise its apostolate is in the secular world.

Today, it is also in our parishes, but it is still primarily in the secular world. And it is here that we members of the laity could be doing a much better job.

The decree didn’t mince words when it spoke of our responsibility to evangelize the world. It said, speaking of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, “A member who does not work at the growth of the body to the extent of his possibilities must be considered useless both to the Church and to himself.”

Specifically, it said, “Laymen ought to take on themselves as their distinctive task the renewal of the temporal order. Guided by the light of the Gospel and the mind of the Church, prompted by Christian love, they should act in this domain in a direct way and in their own specific manner.”

It also said, “The temporal order is to be renewed in such a way that, while its own principles are fully respected, it is harmonized with the principles of the Christian life and adapted to the various conditions of times, places and people. Among the tasks of this apostolate Christian social action is preeminent.”

We must bring the teachings of the Church into the marketplace, in our jobs, family, social and political activities. Are we really doing that to the extent we should be or are we succumbing to America’s constantly eroding moral values? We continually see Catholic politicians supporting things that are opposed to Catholic teachings, often with the backing of other Catholics. That’s scandalous.

The family, which should be the bedrock of society, is relentlessly being attacked in American society. Are we Catholic laity doing anything to counter that? The number of couples who are living together without getting married has skyrocketed, as has the number of children born outside of marriage. There is now a clamor for same-sex marriages, which should be a contradiction of terms. What are we Catholic laity doing to uphold the Church’s teachings about marriage and family life?

America’s entertainment, especially movies and television, appeals to our basest tendencies. Premarital and extramarital sex are glamorized and made to seem normal. The industry doesn’t even consider making wholesome entertainment films and shows like those that were popular 40 years ago. What are we Catholic laity doing to encourage better quality entertainment?

Catholics comprise about a quarter of the U.S. population. It would seem that, if we truly took seriously our mission of “spreading the kingdom of Christ over all the earth for the glory of God the Father,” as the decree said, we’d have more influence on modern culture, especially considering that we can work with other Christians, and non-Christians, who share our values. This does not mean imposing Catholic doctrine on others, but it does mean more actively trying to combat the relativism that now permeates our society.

Unfortunately, Catholics are known for being hesitant about sharing our faith. That is exactly what the Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People challenged us not to be.

— John F. Fink


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