Function of Catholic laity

CATHOLIC LAITY IN THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH. By Russell Shaw (Requiem Press, P.O. Box 7, Bethune, S.C. 29009; 2005), 191 pp. PB $14.95.

As with all his writings, Russell Shaw’s latest Catholic literary product, Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church, is rich, balanced, reasoned, lucid, concise, poignant, and widely accessible. In the volume, he takes up a theme that he has continued to address and develop over the course of his career, i.e., the proper nature, role, and function for the Catholic laity.

To cut to the chase: Russell Shaw notes an unhappy irony regarding the contemporary situation of the Catholic laity. On the one hand, since the Second Vatican Council and at the level of official, articulated Church doctrine, never have the laity been given such a clear, brilliant, compelling, and inspiring mission so full of promise for themselves, the Church, and the society, i.e., of the lay apostolate dedicated to the evangelization of the world. He cites as the basis of this mission such important Church documents as Lumen Gentium or the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church; Apostolicam Acutuositatem or the Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People; The New Code of Canon Law, and Pope John Paul II’s Christifideles Laici, among others. It is a vision that emerged, in the author’s words, “in the Second Vatican Council’s teaching that the Church is the mystical Body of Christ, People of God, and communio—communion—which arises from and in some way reflects—the divine-human communion of the New Covenant itself” (p. 33). Shaw notes that Lumen Gentium “insists that all the faithful, not just those who have been ordained or entered religious life, share in Christ’s three fold office as priest, prophet, and king” (p.43). He follows: “The Dogmatic Constitution contains a crucial affirmation of the equality-within-diversity which exists among all of the Church’s members” (p.44) and notes that, for John Paul II in Christifideles Laici “the vocation of the laity does not come by delegation from the hierarchy. It comes from baptism and confirmation and is theirs as members of the Church.” The secularity of lay people, “a theological and ecclesiological reality,” distinguishes them from clergy and religious. Called to holiness, they should make spiritual commitment visible “in their involvement in temporal affairs and in their participation in earthly activities” (pp. 59-60).

However, on the other hand, for Shaw, the great promise of the laity since Vatican II has gone woefully unfulfilled because of two developments that he analyzes at length, the first more so than the second, i.e., 1) the “clericalization of the laity” and 2) a widespread secularization both at the level of culture and within the hearts and minds of many nominal and dissenting Catholics. Regarding the first development, and following John Paul II’s analysis in Christifideles Laici, there are too many laity who are “so strongly interested in Church services and tasks” that they ignore “their responsibilities in the professional, cultural, and political world” (p. 56). Regarding the second development, the author observes that “many Catholics in the United States and other Western countries have been assimilated into a secular culture shaped by values like individualism (‘the right to choose’ in regard to abortion, sexual behavior, and much else) and consumerism which are in conflict with the values of the gospel” (p. 56).

In the volume, Russell Shaw provides a useful historical overview of the changing situation and circumstances of the Catholic laity. In the early Church, for instance, he notes that “the sociological and ecclesial distinction between clergy and laity was not so strongly emphasized as it came to be later” (p. 11) and also, following St. Paul’s understanding of the Church “as the Mystical Body of Christ,” that “there was a strong sense in these early days of the unity and fundamental equality of all members of the Christian community, interacting within a hierarchal structure that provided for a number of complementary roles and functions” (p. 11). The author discusses some of the factors that lead to an encroaching clericalization: the ecclesiastical policy of Constantine and his successors (p. 14), the emergence of monasticism (p. 15), the radical otherworldliness of St. Augustine and his popularizers (p.16), and certain social, political, and religious developments associated with the Middle Ages (p. 17ff). While the author acknowledges that Martin Luther had an important insight regarding the stretching of the concept of vocation into everyday life, Shaw correctly notes “that Luther and his followers carried it too far” (p. 23) in their repudiation of the Catholic conceptions of mediation and sacredness (including the centrality of the Mass) and, conversely, in their promotion of congregationalism and the belief in the “priesthood of the faithful” (p. 24). Even the Council of Trent, its immense positive contributions notwithstanding, “said almost nothing about the laity and their role… (thus tending). . . to reinforce and institutionalize the inferior position occupied by lay people in religious affairs” (p. 25).

With the exception of certain “important Catholic voices now and then” (e.g., St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Frances de Sales, John Henry Cardinal Newman, among others) “taking a significantly different line” (p. 26), Shaw basically sees the continual spiritual impoverishment of the laity until the appearance of Catholic Action, albeit itself “hobbled by built-in limitations” (p. 38). For the author, the development of Catholic Action, the publication of two key encyclicals by Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis (1943) and Mediator Dei (1947), the founding of groups like Opus Dei and Focolare, and the theological reflection contained in Yves Congar, O.P.’s Lay People in the Church (1951), anticipated and set the stage for the theoretical and theological blossoming of the indispensable role of the Catholic laity in the mission of the Church as eventually propounded by the teachings of Vatican II.

This review cannot possibly do justice to the numerous topics that the author addresses or the insights that he makes throughout his book. A few that will intrigue the reader include discussions of the three complementary religious meanings of vocation (“common” through Baptism and Confirmation, as a “state of life,” and as a unique “personal” one acquired through discernment); the call to holiness that is common and universal to all the People of God; the numerous areas or endeavors involved in the lay apostolate; human activity in building up the Kingdom of God; the various consequences of the clericalist mentality; the need to build an intact and functioning Catholic subculture in an unsympathetic broader civilization; and the implications for governance and shared responsibility within the Church given that Vatican II, through Lumen Gentium, insists that all the faithful share in Christ’s threefold office as priest, prophet, and king.

In the author’s opening passage, he states that “…there is much hard work to be done before Catholic lay women and men universally recognize, accept, and carry out the role in the Church’s mission that is theirs by right and obligation—and before others truly recognize that they should. The aim here is to help in bringing these things about” (p.7). Russell Shaw has done his part. As for the rest of the Catholic laity? Buy the book and let’s get going!

Joseph A. Varacalli
Nassau Community College—S.U.N.Y.
Garden City, N.Y.

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