Vatican II and Understanding the Roles of Laity

My friends: I invite you to explore some past documents that create a picture of a Vatican II and post-Vatican II church developing an understanding of the renewed role of the laity in our church. I invite you to comment on this article I recently wrote. I would especially love to hear from the scores of good people and good priests in our church. Sincerely, Dr. Nick Mazza

This paper and presentation of material is a very first attempt in examining the multitude of research, commentary, analysis and activity that has developed over the past fifty years since the opening of the Second Vatican Council, and since it concluded in 1965, on the identity of the laity in the life of the church. Needless to say there has been much written on this subject including their rights, responsibilities and their place in roles of co-responsibility and shared governance within the Church.

Additionally, in today’s church, there exist movements and groups of the faithful making their presence more widely known. They identify themselves as “Voice of the Faithful”, “Future Church”, “Called to Action”, “Neo-Catechumenate-Way”, “Liberation Theology”, the “New Theology”, “Opus Dei”, and “Legionnaires’ of Christ” to name some of the more active. These movements and groups look to the bishops for greater acknowledgement and acceptance.
This essay is an attempt to identify some of the thinking in this area over the past fifty years and to provide a meaningful presentation of information. Since a comprehensive analysis is impossible in eight to ten pages in one semester’s research, this paper will provide a general view from the period slightly pre- Second Vatican II Council and during the period post-Vatican II.

Apostolic cooperation between the clergy and the faithful surfaced in a more cooperative manner during the Catholic Action Movement of the post-World War II period during the early 1950’s. The motivating spirit driving the Catholic Action Movement had an influencing effect on the bishops in their deliberations on church life during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), (Greeley, 1966). The Catholic Action Movement, although relatively short lived historically, can be considered an important stimulus motivating the laity during the post-conciliar period as well. This can be seen in the laity’s desire for collaborative ministry and wider participation in the affairs of church life (Sofield, Kuhn, 1995).

The basis of Catholic Action was to facilitate pastoral ministry in the church through the mutual efforts of the clergy and laity. Much of its support came from active Catholic laity and progressively minded clergy and bishops. However, it was viewed as the “participation of the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy” (O’Malley, 2008). Despite the collaborative spirit of the Catholic Action Movement, a more universal style of cooperation between clergy and laity did not permeate the entire church and surfaced more in ministry to individuals and families then shared governance. This is especially the case when examining the governing roles of women in the church, especially vowed religious (The LCWR Study, 2001 and Cahill in Pope’s “Common Calling”, 2004).

One of the key documents of the Second Vatican Council, “The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium, 1964)”, addresses the very nature of church and is central toward working towards resolving the historical damage created by an authority dominated by a pyramid-style hierarchy (Nichols, Beal, Orsey and Pope in Pope’s “Common Calling”, 2004). Lumen Gentium illustrates the relationship of God (Father, Son and Spirit), a Trinitarian relationship (Cahill in Pope’s “Common Calling”, 2004 ).

This document goes on to state that the church is guided by the Spirit, who dispenses His gifts to those He chooses. Through the plan of God the Father, the saving act of Christ, man is gather into a “…chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation…the People of God”, constantly nourished and affirmed by the Spirit. Additionally, “…the whole body of the faithful who have an anointing that comes from the holy one cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of the faith (sensus fidei) of the whole people, when, ‘”from the bishops to the last of the faithful”‘ they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals.” This royal or “common priesthood” is united to Christ, who alone is the High Priest of the new covenant. All the baptized faithful share in this one priesthood without any distinctions.

“The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” also addresses the need for order in the church. Although each member of the church is, in essence, “equal” by a common priestly identity, there are different “degrees” of expression and order. This order is known as the common priesthood of the faithful, the ministerial priesthood and the ministry of the bishop. The Council asserts that the hierarchal structure of the church is a gift of the Spirit to insure a proper ordering of the People of God. This hierarchal order is entrusted to the bishops, the successors of the Apostles, with the pope as the head of the college of bishops. In turn, the ministerial priests are ordained to serve the priesthood of their bishop. They are followed by the ordained deacons, consecrated religious and laity. It states that these hierarchal distinctions are called to the service of God’s people.

In the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 1965), the council assures the faithful that they have been called to a “special and indispensable role in the mission of the church. Indeed, the Church can never be without the lay apostolate; it is something that derives from the layman’s very vocation as a Christian.” This apostolate and the spirituality of the laity are enriched by the charismatic gifts of the Spirit. “From the reception of these chrisms, even the most ordinary ones, there arises for each of the faithful the right and duty of exercising them in the church and in the world for the good of men and the development of the Church.”
The laity are called to share in the priesthood of their bishop by “cultivating a feeling for the diocese” in which they work and to the needs of the universal church.

The Decree on the Ministry and Life of the Priest (Presbyterorum Ordinis, 1965) addresses the “priesthood of the priest.” This phrase could appear redundant, nonetheless, it accurately communicates that a distinct difference exists between “priesthood’ and “priest”, although the distinctions are rarely used within the everyday dialogue of the institutional church. The ministerial priesthood “…is nevertheless conferred by its own particular sacrament. Through that sacrament priests by the anointing of the Holy Spirit are signed with a special character and so configured to Christ the priest in such a way that they are able to act in the person of Christ the head.” This priesthood is specially set apart to minister to the Word of God, confer the sacraments and rule God’s people. These special ministers of Christ are call to be signs of perfection and holiness in the midst of secularized cultures and nations. The ordained priest is called to be a cooperator with his bishop, his fellow priests and the laity.

In January 1967, Pope Paul VI, in keeping with the proposals of the Vatican Council (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 1965), established the Pontifical Council on the Laity. This council was charged with the responsibility of promoting the lay apostolate internationally, assist in its advice to the hierarchy on matters affecting the laity in the church and the laity in their apostolates, promote doctrinal studies on the laity, and act as a clearinghouse for information. (Motu Proprio of Paul VI, 1967).

Later that same year, at the conclusion of the Synod of Bishops Meeting in Rome, the Synod Fathers sent a message to the Lay Apostolate Congress, also meeting in Rome at that time. The Synod Fathers, referring to their commitment to collaboration with the laity, insert the following quote into their letter to the lay congress membership. The source of this quote is the December 7, 1965 discourse of Pope Paul VI, and speaks of the bishops similar feelings. We (the bishops) “…stand in the midst of the people as those who serve…recognizing the duty and the right of the faithful to collaborate actively in the building up of the Mystical Body of Christ.” (Message of Synod, 1967)

In the U.S. Catholic Bishops pastoral letter to the laity entitled, “Called and Gifted” (1980), the bishops commit themselves to a “new” approach to the laity. In acknowledging the continuing development of a more participatory church since Vatican II, the bishops state that this reality may “…require new concepts, new terminology, new attitudes and new practices. In prayerful dialogue with our sisters and brothers we are prepared to make those changes which will aid in building the kingdom.”

Likewise, the Revised Code of Canon Law (1983), in its section on the obligations and rights of all Christ’s Faithful, declares that the faithful “…have the right, indeed at times the duty, in keeping with their knowledge, competence and position, to manifest to the sacred Pastors their views on matters which concern the good of the church.”

Similarly, in another committee report from the U.S. Bishops Conference entitled, “Building the Local Church”(1984), the Bishops’ committee on the laity addressed issues of shared responsibility in the local church’s pastoral councils. A summary statement from this report states, “Shared responsibility is a reality in the Church today…Communion is not the work of one, but the bonding together of all. The mission is not entrusted only to a few, but is the responsibility of all the people of God…The duty and rights for apostolic initiative resides with all…specified through the gifts given by the Spirit…and coordinated through the ministry of the hierarchy.”

Bishop, now Cardinal, Paul Cordes (1987), a member of the Roman Curia and Vice-President of the Pontifical Council of the Laity, penetrates into a rather deep philosophical exegesis on the nature of “modern democracy and the common priesthood of the faithful.” His ideas were presented on the eve of the Bishops’ Synod on the Laity held in Rome in 1987, twenty years after the close of the Vatican Council. Cordes’ intention was to address the value and appropriateness of including the laity in discussions pertaining to religious and moral questions. He states that the Revealed truths of God can never change; however, truth is not a static reality. It is constantly revealing its greatness in the everyday experiences of humankind. Therefore, the guardians of the truth (religious hierarchy), need not fear the critiques of modern science and scholarly examination derived from non-theological concepts and disciplines; nor from individuals considered competent within their specialized professions. He goes on to state that the exploration of new ways to understand the old is based on an openness to acquire this untapped information from all sectors of society, the arts and the sciences. Cordes is affirming the positive nature of acquiring new information and new interpretations. His talk clearly affirms the value of diversity of opinion.

Shaw (1987) cautions the American Bishops, who are about to embark on this same Synod, to guard against retreating into a church that protects itself with a “clericalism” mentality. Shaw views clericalism, as a “mind-set”, an “attitude” that prevents the laity from being invited into a wider policy making role in the church. He states that clericalism has been a problem for the church for many centuries. Shaw’s hope is that the bishops will not be influenced by these attitudes in their deliberations. If they do, it could cause far reaching problems for the church of the future.

Kelly (1990), in evaluating the outcomes of this Synod, regrets the fact that the Synod did not bring its agenda of wider lay participation to a new prominence in the church. He concludes that Third and Fourth World bishops placed greater pressure and value on the need of the laity to evangelize the everyday affairs of the secular and political fields. These views dominated the
Synod and tabled those issues which would have promoted greater lay involvement in the ecclesial field i.e. governance.

Finally, Russell (1991) comments that the church “lives out” the mission of Christ within the “unity” of the various “priestly expressions” (bishop, priest, deacon and laity). However, he contends that the church has “not made clear” how the theological and spiritual unity between the ordained priesthood and the common priesthood are configured.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) finally states that the arena for the laity’s spiritual work should be directed toward the transformation of the “temporal order”. Governance in the church is seen as a “sacred power” reserved for the bishops.

The church has consistently affirmed, in both its conciliar and post-conciliar documents (at least from the period 1967-1987), that the laity is indispensable sharers and participants in a collaborative church. These documents affirm a church that not only recognizes, but resolves to rectify any inequality that could promote injustice to the laity and disunity to the church. The laity has also been encouraged to actively exert their rights and duties by working to ensure that any practice by the church to the contrary must be addressed. The U.S. bishops have clearly stated that they are prepared to make those changes necessary to aid the laity in their pursuits.

I believe there is adequate evidence supporting the Second Vatican Council’s desire to integrate the laity into roles of wider participation in the church. However, the Vatican II documents and the post-conciliar documents, although clear in isolation to each other, do not bring together a clear and consistent picture of a participatory church. As a result there emerged a fundamental re-interpretation of the Council’s efforts during the period of the Bishops’ Synod on the Laity in 1987 and continues today. This re-interpretation places a greater emphasis on the laity’s participation in the temporal order of society, and places less emphasis on participation in ecclesial matters. It seems that the bishops are taking a cautious view of the laity as co-sharers in matters of church government.

I conclude that these more recent positions by the church hierarchy are a misguided attempt to protect their traditional authority and, thereby, placing the laity in positions and circumstances they believe never intended by the Council Fathers. Should this position of the hierarchy continue, the result will widen the authentic relationship between true authority and full participation of the Catholic faithful.

1.Greeley, Andrew M., The Hesitant Pilgrim, Sheed & Ward, 1966, New York, NY.
2. Sofield, Loughlan, S.T., Kuhn, Donald H., The Collaborative Leader, Ave Maria Press, 1995, Notre Dame, IN.
3.O’ Malley, John W.,What Happened At Vatican II, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008, Cambridge, MA.
4. Munley, Anne, IHM; Smith, Rosemary, SC; Garvey, Helen Maher, BVM; MacGillivray, Lois, SNJM; Milligan, Mary, RSHM; Women and Jurisdiction, an unfolding reality, 2001, The Leadership Conference of Religious Women, MD.
5. Cahill, Lisa Sowle, Feminist Theology and a Participatory Church; an article in Common Calling, Stephen J. Pope, 2004, Georgetown University Press, Washington, D.C.
6. Lumen Gentium, 1964, #1-43.
7. Nichols, Terence L., Participatory Hierarchy, an article in Common Calling, Stephen J. Pope, 2004, Georgetown University Press, Washington, D.C.
8. Beal, John; Weathering “The Perfect Storm”: The Contribution of Canon Law; an article in Common Calling, Stephen J. Pope, 2004, Georgetown University Press, Washington, D.C.
9. Oesey, Ladislas, S.J.; The Church of the Third Millennium: In Praise of Communio; an article in Common Calling, Stephen J. Pope, 2004, Georgetown University Press, Washington, D.C.
10. Pope, Stephen J; Common Calling; 2004, Georgetown University Press, Washington, D.C.
11. Apostolicam Actuositatem, 1965, #1-26.
12. Presbyterorem Ordinis, 1965, #2-9.
13. Apostolic Letter, Motu Proprio, 1967, United States Catholic Conference, Washington, D.C., p.4.
14. Message of the Synod to the Lay Apostolic Congress, September 29 – October 29, 1967, United States Catholic Conference, Washington, D.C., p. 20-21.
15. U.S. Catholic Bishops Pastoral Letter, Called and Gifted, a response, 1980, U.S. Catholic Conference, Washington, D.C., pp. 1-5.
16. Code of Canon Law, 1983, Collins-William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, Can.212#3.
17. Burke, Mary P., and Hemrick, Eugene F., Building the Local Church – Shared Responsibility in Diocesan Pastoral Councils, 1984, USCC, Washington, D.C., p.9.
18. Cordes, Paul Josef, In the Midst of Our World – Forces of Spiritual Renewal, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, 1987, pp. 129-152.
19. Shaw, Russell, Laity Synod: A Step Forward – or Back?, 1987, USCC, Washington, D.C., taken from “one Body: Different Gifts Many Roles – Reflections on the American Catholic Laity.
20. Kelly, George A., Keeping the Church Catholic with John Paul II, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA., 1990, pp150-151.
21. Russell, John, The Image of the Priest in Teresa of Lisieux, 1991, Extract from “The Land of Carmel”, Institutum Carmelit, Rome, Italy, p.441.
22. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994, Apostolate of Family Consecration, Bloomingdale, OH, p.231-241.


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