The role of the laity was one of the least-debated topics at the Second Vatican Council. Popes Pius XI and Pius XII had already laid out a vision of the laity as serving on the front lines of the Church – those who take the Church’s teaching and apply it in the secular sphere.
The clergy and members of religious orders were seen as somewhat separate from the ordinary life of society and so it was up to the lay members of Christ’s faithful people to make the Gospel come alive in the secular world.
Catholics older than myself may remember a pre-Vatican II world in which the role of the laity was to pay, pray and obey. That may have been the reality in many places then – and perhaps even in some today – but it was not the theory.
The two previous popes had given a strong impetus to Catholic Action, a movement in which laity gathered together, analyzed social situations and planned how to make those situations more closely resemble what Jesus would want them to be like. “See, judge, act” was the motto and the method for Catholic Action.
That movement assumed that Catholics knew and agreed with their Church’s teaching. If not, the whole thing would fall apart.
Vatican II emphasized the Catholic Action approach.
The lay faithful share in Christ's offices of priest, prophet and king through the ordinary events of daily life.
“The apostolate of the laity is a sharing in the Church’s saving mission,” said The Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). Lay people were to be like leaven in the dough – the tiny bit of yeast that causes the inert ingredients of bread to rise to something larger than they could ever be on their own. The laity were to make the Church fruitful in places and circumstances where only they could be present.
The Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam actuosotatem), approved by the council in 1965, adopted this approach and fleshed out practical ways for implementing the vision.
What was perhaps unique about Vatican II’s vision was its teaching that all the faithful share in Christ’s offices of priest, prophet and king.
The laity do not share in these offices in the same way as do the ordained, but they do share in them. This gives a dignity to the laity that had not always been previously recognized.
Lay people are priests in that they can offer “spiritual sacrifices” – work, family life, relaxation, apostolic activities, etc. – to God through Jesus Christ (LG 34). Their prophetic office consists in witnessing to the grace of God through their words and actions. They are evangelizers in the broad sense of that word (LG 35).
The kingly office of the laity is to overcome “the reign of sin” in themselves and in social situations. Their mission should be “the ordering of the whole of creation to the praise of God” (LG 36).
The key for interpreting the role of the laity is found in the first document approved at Vatican II – the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.
There, it was stated, “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations, which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy, and to which the Christian people . . . have a right and obligation by reason of their Baptism” (n. 14).
Baptism is the foundation of the role of the laity in transforming society. It also gives them rights and responsibilities within the Church itself. They can, for example, be called “to more immediate cooperation in the apostolate of the hierarchy” and can be appointed to Church positions that have a spiritual purpose (LG 33).
Laity are encouraged to accept their pastors’ decisions “in Christian obedience,” to follow Christ’s example of conforming his own will to the will of the Father and to pray for their pastors.
But lay people are not to be purely passive. Sometimes they are duty bound to express their opinions to their pastors on matters affecting the good of the Church. As well, pastors should willingly use prudent advice they receive from the laity, and they should promote the dignity and responsibility of laity within the Church (LG 37).
Still, this apostolate of the laity within the Church is not the norm for most lay Catholics. One can be fully, consciously and actively involved in the Church without assuming any ministries or say, serving on one’s parish council.
One cannot, however, be said to be fully active in the Church if one does not resolutely participate in Christ’s offices of priest, prophet and king.
Elsewhere, Vatican II stated that a split between faith and life is “one of the gravest errors of our time” (Gaudium et Spes, 43). Faith is not some nice accoutrement to be pulled out of the closet, dusted off, dressed up and shown off at church on Sundays. If it is real, it will affect everything one does.
Vatican II did not need to debate the role of the laity. Debate is not the issue; implementation is. Fifty years later, we still have miles to go to make the council’s vision of the laity come alive in our homes, workplaces and politics.