Question #4 of the old Baltimore Catechism asks, "What must we do to gain the happiness of heaven?" The succinct answer: "To gain the happiness of heaven we must know, love and serve God in this world."
The catechism might have added that this answer applies to lay people as well as to priests and religious. While that might seem like belaboring the obvious, it is far from obvious to many today.
Peter Kreeft, a philosopher at Boston College, a Catholic university, routinely asks his students why God should allow them into heaven after they die. Well over three-quarters of them don't know. "Their answer to that question is something like 'be sincere' or 'try your best' or 'don't hurt people' or 'work for peace' or some such trumpet blast" (Fundamentals of the Faith, p. 15).
Such ignorance displays not only a lack of knowledge about the Catholic faith, but also betrays an assumption deeply ingrained in the Catholic psyche -- that the life of faith is something for priests and religious and is not something with which lay people need to be bothered.
This assumption has been a disaster for both church and society as well as lay people themselves. It leads to minimal religious participation by even so-called active Catholics and to a legalistic morality with many "don'ts" and few "do's." It discourages evangelization and leaves secular society without the influence of Catholic values. Our society is in a state of decay, even collapse, in no small part because faith and life are treated as separate entities with no effect on each other.
This problem is the flip side of the issue I examined in the previous article on the church's hierarchy. If the hierarchy is identified with power in the church, laity must be identified with lack of power or responsibility. With some encouragement from Second Vatican Council documents, people have tried to redress this perceived power issue by allowing laity to perform some roles previously reserved for clerics.
While such involvement has merit, a sole emphasis on this approach tends to solidify the assumption that the real work of the church is that traditionally done by priests. This assumption, quite simply, is a new form of clericalism. The church needs to shake it out of its system as rapidly and as thoroughly as possible.
The main thrust of Vatican II teaching on the laity is, in fact, quite different. The council said laity are called to "work for the sanctification of the world from within" (Constitution on the Church, 31). Again, their job is that of "fashioning and perfecting the sphere of earthly things according to the spirit of Christ" (Decree on the Laity, 4). And the goal of the laity is nothing less than "the renewal of the whole temporal order" (no. 5).
This is a mighty task and also one of great dignity. It involves not a power struggle with the clergy, but a working-together toward a common end by serving in complementary ways. The formation of laity for this task will be as extensive as the formation of priests. And such formation will continue throughout life as we seek greater maturity in the faith. It will not only impart knowledge, but also develop holiness.
Formation programs in the church reveal where the church is putting its energy. Russell Shaw, director of public information for the Knights of Columbus, observes that "although many programs of education and formation are now available to laymen preparing for ministry, systematic formation of the laity to undertake their secular duties in the spirit of apostolate is almost totally lacking" (To Hunt, To Shoot, To Entertain: Clericalism and Catholic Laity, p. 94).
Pope John Paul, in his 1988 statement on the laity, outlined such a program of lay formation in terms of spiritual formation, formation in doctrine including church social teaching, and the cultivation of human values" (Christifideles Laici, 60).
The church's social doctrine is sometimes described as its best-kept secret. But really social teaching is probably no less understood than are numerous other aspects of church teaching. Moreover, it cannot properly be understood except in the context of the full range of doctrine. Church social teaching will find its feet once laity en masse find their vocation of service within the body of Christ.
That body is not to be restricted to liturgical celebrations in church buildings. It ought to walk out of the sanctuary into the streets and institutions of the secular world. Nothing is exempt from the healing touch of Christ's hand. And it is the unique service of lay people to be that hand which reaches out and touches the world in places where it is hurting the most.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.