October 1, 2010


Wanted: An educated laity

I want a laity not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men [and women] who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it.”

That quotation is from Cardinal John Henry Newman, who wrote it back in 1851 in a small pamphlet called The Present Position of Catholics in England. (We took the liberty of adding “and women” to the original text.)

Pope Benedict XVI liked it so much that he quoted it on Sept. 19 in England while presiding at Cardinal Newman’s beatification liturgy. He said it should serve as a goal for catechists today.

Cardinal Newman indeed was a champion for the laity. His most famous article on the laity appeared in the periodical The Rambler in 1859. It was titled “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine,” and it discussed the consensus fidelium (consensus of the faithful), which later was adopted by the bishops at the Second Vatican Council. Pope Paul VI went so far as to say that Vatican II was “Newman’s council.”

However, as the quotation that leads this editorial stated, Blessed Newman insisted that he wanted an educated laity, those who know what the Catholic Church teaches and why it teaches it.

Let’s be quick to say, though, that the Church isn’t only for the educated. We know perfectly well that some of the most saintly people understand only the bare basics of their religion. They, too, are part of the lay apostolate.

The Vatican II Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People says, “On all Christians rests the noble obligation of working to bring all people throughout the whole world to hear and accept the divine message of salvation” (#3). The uneducated can do that through their example.

However, in our modern age, there is no good excuse for the laity to remain ignorant about Catholic doctrine. That is especially true among American Catholics, who are among the best educated people when it comes to secular subjects. Unfortunately, too often we see those same well-educated people with only a rudimentary understanding of the tenets of their religion.

All Catholic homes should have at least two basic publications: a Catholic Bible—preferably the New American Bible because of its footnotes—and either the Catechism of The Catholic Church or the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults. An educated Catholic must have a good understanding of what is in those books.

Catholics should also have a book that contains the documents of the Second Vatican Council, and those documents should be read. Then add a Catholic encyclopedia, the annual Catholic Almanac, and one of many books about the lives of the saints.

Just as a well-educated man or woman in the professions—lawyers, doctors, engineers, tax specialists, etc.—must keep current on what is happening in their line of work, so must a well-educated Catholic. That can start with The Criterion, but it shouldn’t end there. Read one of the national Catholic newspapers and several of the more than 80 Catholic magazines.

Then there are Catholic books. Visit a Catholic bookstore, a Barnes & Noble or Borders, or a public library and see the plethora of Catholic books.

Publishers such as Ignatius Press, Our Sunday Visitor Press, Alba House, St. Anthony Messenger Press and Paulist Press are only a few of the good Catholic book publishers.

Of course, there is also the Internet. Check out the Vatican’s website or the U.S. bishops’ website, the archdiocese’s website or other trustworthy Catholic websites for information on topics you are particularly interested in. There is simply no reason, except apathy or laziness, for a modern Catholic to be ill-informed about what the Catholic Church teaches.

Since today’s Catholic Church is so dependent upon the laity to staff its parishes because of the decrease in the number of our clergy and religious, it is great that there are already an estimated 31,000 lay ecclesial ministers with more than 20,000 people—80 percent of them women—in programs of formation to become ecclesial ministers.

At the same time, it is crucial to remember that the mission of all lay men and women is to proclaim and live out the faith in the middle of the secular world. As valuable as lay ministry is in the Church, only a very small percentage of the laity do this full or even part time.

Blessed Cardinal Newman would be happy indeed to see the laity more involved in ministry in the Catholic Church and in the broader society. (He would also undoubtedly be quite surprised.)

These are the educated laity that he wanted, and whom Pope Benedict wants today.

—John F. Fink

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