Vatican II: End of a clerical church?
VATICAN II WAS A pivotal point in the development of our present ecclesiology, in particular because of its message that all members share equally in being gifted with the Spirit, being called to holiness and being engaged in the Mission of the Church. Lay members, previously seen more as passive subjects of the Church’s ministrations, to the point that Pius XII’s remark that the ‘laity are the Church’ came as a startling revelation to most Catholics, are now drawn by Vatican II’s teaching to the very centre of the Church’s life. This article explores the theological context, the terms of Vatican II regarding the Laity, and the outcomes of the changes in attitude that they represented. Vatican II simultaneously raised great possibilities and great ambiguities for Laity. Very many of them, some fundamental to the being of the Church as a Communion are being questioned in our time. We are in a time of transition towards a very different way of being Church. How shall we move forward as one?
The title of this article is drawn from a book written by a French Jesuit regarding Vatican II’s teaching about Laity: Paul Guilmot, Fin d’un Eglise Clericale? Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1969.
On November 18th, 1965 Pope Paul VI solemnly promulgated the Vatican II decree, Apostolicam Actuositatem (On the Apostolate of the Laity), and in so doing, amazingly, made history in a 1900-year-old church. Vatican II became the first Ecumenical Council of the Church in a long and varied history to deal explicitly with the subject of Laity, the vast majority of its members. We note that this decree was part of a suite of constitutions and decrees of particular significance for Laity (along with Lumen Gentium, Ad Gentes and Gaudium et Spes as well as Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Decree on the Liturgy). However, the promulgation of the specific laity decree Apostolicam Actuositatem by its very singularity begs a question as to why Laity were never expressly considered before 1962 by the Fathers of two Millennia of Councils?
Speaking very broadly, but following the giant footprints of Yves Congar, we might say that in the first millennium of the church’s history there seems to have been little reason to deal separately with the laity. There seems to have been in that era of our history, a much more integrated sense of the church as communion and of the union of all ‘orders’ within it. If the monk Walafrid Strabo wrote truthfully in 841 that, ‘Through the union of the two orders (clergy and laity) and their mutual love, a single house of God is built, a single body of Christ is realised’1, then we may see why an explicit theology of laity may have seemed superfluous. His view points at very least to a unified view of the church in his time.
We might say of the second millennium that there was a concerted movement toward separation of clergy and laity, with hierarchy and structure being named the ‘effective cause’ by which the church is constituted2, and the call to holiness only possible through separa
tion from the world. Thus there seemed no real purpose in dealing with Laity. Laity became seen merely as subjects of the church’s ministration rather than as full sharers in its mission and life. With some major exceptions such as John Henry Newman’s describing the Church as a Conspiratio Pastorum et Fidelium3, this highly clericalist view prevailed from the Council of Trent until last century, through to the time of Pius XI (1922 to 1939) and the beginnings of the Apostolate of the Laity and Catholic Action movements, right up to the Council itself.
As we shall see later in this paper, many see us still as a predominantly clerical church, even now. Whatever about that, certainly the 20th Century, styled as the ‘Century of the Church’, commenced badly for the Laity. In 1906, in his encyclical letter Vehementer Nos, Pope Saint Pius X re-affirmed views about the subject nature of the Laity when he wrote, ‘they (laity) have no other right than to let themselves be guided and so follow their pastors in docility’.4
Such statements, not uncommon at the time, were the expression of three hundred years of post-Tridentine thinking about the nature of the Church. Thankfully, this thinking improved with Pius XI and XII5, and was certainly reversed by Vatican II. And yet, even now in the 21st century, it is still the experience of some laity within the church and even within the church here in Australia. What is more, with some Laity it is the preferred experience. It’s comfortable and secure. For some it is a subconscious experience, perhaps a relic from pre-Vatican II times. In his recent visit to Australia, Joseph Komonchak expressed dismay at the automatic response of Australian Catholics looking to the hierarchy when discussions about the future of the church arose6. This may indicate an abiding hangover from Pius X’s statement, or it may simply respect the fact that the Laity feel generally ill equipped and certainly ill-formed to carry the church into the future and so we look automatically to the hierarchy as typically more learned in church matters—the ‘professionals’.
Yet, liberation of the Laity is said to be one of the great differences made by Vatican II. It gave to the Laity a new mandate to be the Church, to be the spirit-filled bearers of the mission to create the Kingdom of God, by transforming the world. It represents a return to traditional teaching, and in some local churches, it is what is actually happening. We do have experiences of Laity sharing fully, actively in the mission of the church as well as some unfortunate experiences of the old subjectivist approach of earlier centuries. Interpretation and practice is diverse in today’s church. It is in urgent need of development and clarity.
The purpose of this paper is about providing a kind of status quaestionis regarding the Laity in the Post-Vatican II Church. Presenting some elements indicative of the transition in the grip of which we are currently moving painfully forward, and some questions which may draw us onwards.
Vatican II On The Laity: The Memory
It is important, I think, to put into context the Vatican II treatment of Laity by referring to what Avery Dulles described as the ten fundamental principles ‘unquestionably endorsed by the Council.’7 Dulles further declared in the same breath, that anyone not accepting these ten principles cannot honestly claim to have accepted the results of Vatican Council II. Dulles, a Cardinal, is a very highly respected ecclesiologist. His whole ten principles are noted here, with only those closely related to our topic expanded and explained. They form a context for thinking about the whole Council.
1. Aggiornamento. Described by Dulles as updating ourselves to become
a vital influence in the modern world in which we are a pilgrim people.
3. Renewed Attention to the Word of God.
4. Collegiality. Creating a clear break with the distinctly pyramidal structure applied to the Church from the Middle Ages, Collegiality runs right through the Vatican II documents. Dulles sees a broad meaning here, as part of the ‘spirit’ of Vatican II. ‘Thus the principle of collegiality, understood in a wide sense, may be understood as pervading all levels of the Church.’9 This element has direct relationship to our subject because Dulles sees collegiality as impacting on decision-making right through to how the whole church, Laity included, shares responsibility. The challenge of collegiality is the construction of decision-making structures that respect the tradition of hierarchy and the nature of the Church as a Spirit-filled (and therefore wisdom-filled) community of people. More about this later.
5. Religious Freedom. The right to decisions of conscience
6. The Active Role of the Laity. In the thirty to forty years prior to the Council significant attempts had been made to involve elite members of the Laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy as the first break from a passive Laity. Some progressive theologians and pastors even began viewing the Apostolate as belonging to Laity by right of Baptism. The Council ‘canonised’ this latter view and ‘exhorted lay persons to advance the Kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by discharging their familial and vocational obligations in a manner faithful to Christ’.10 But the council did not restrict lay people to their special mission to transform the world in Christ. It regarded Laity as particularly competent in ‘secular’ matters, but it also provided for advanced participation in the inner affairs of the Church.11
7. Regional and Local Variety in the Church. (Strong emphasis on ‘Local’ Church).
8. Ecumenism. (Mutual understanding, respect and solidarity with other Christians)
9. Inter-Religious Dialogue. (Respectful conversations with non-Christian faiths)
10. The Social Mission of the Church. The Council clearly determined that the struggle for justice and the transformation of the world through the Gospel are constitutive elements of the Church’s Mission. ‘Peace and Social Justice are a requirement of the Church’s mission to carry on the work of Christ, who had compassion on the poor and the oppressed.’ 12 The Council speaks with clarity that the primary responsibility for this mission belongs to those whose life is in the temporal world so greatly in need of renewal.
For Dulles, these ten principles, crucial to the life of the Church, are clear amid the ambiguities and compromises of the Council documents. For him, they are not a complete and systematic theology but a principled basis for further exploration. Specifically on Laity, there seem to be six specific developments from Vatican II:
i. Fundamental equality of all the baptised.
ii. The universal call to holiness.
iii. The universal call to Mission arises from baptism not hierarchical commission.
iv. This Mission is both to the world and within the community of the church. Its foremost specifying characteristic is its ‘Secular’ nature. Laity are called primarily to build the ‘Kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and ordering them according to God’s will.’13
v. Diversity of ministries supporting this mission along with a sense of the order of relationships between members of the church. Equal but hierarchical, collaborative and yet with distinct and separate roles and responsibilities. While these and other tensions were acknowledged, the Council did not see its function as resolving them. They are ‘work-in-progress’.
vi. Rediscovery of the sacred dignity of all creation, of marriage, human love and sexuality, of human work and of involvement in human society.
The combined effect of these developments was that Laity, by decree, were being drawn in from the edges of the Church into the very centre of its life. A liberation of the Laity from passivity and dependence! As the American Jesuit, Thomas Rausch noted, the theology of the Laity in Vatican II, ‘reclaimed for Laity a full share in the mission of the Church.’14
It also reclaimed our call to holiness within the world, not separated monastically from it. The world once again became a beautiful place created by God and redeemed by Incarnation of the Word into its material flesh. As Schillebeeckx wrote, ‘the layman has a constitutive relationship with the secular world, which permeates his participation in the Church’s primary Mission.’15
Such was the promise. What of its fulfilment?
The Intervening Years: Vatican II and the
1. Positive Developments
From a positive perspective, we have seen wondrous developments in the way laypersons relate within the total church reality. We should cite some of these developments and rejoice that they have happened.
i. We have seen the growth of consultative structures in the Church, through Parish and Diocesan Pastoral Councils, and the Synodal approach of some Dioceses to governance and pastoral planning.
ii. We have seen models of lay participation even to Diocesan Leadership level as in the model established by Archbishop Leonard Faulkner in Adelaide.
iii. We have seen and enjoyed the ability to participate in many ministries: pastoral and health care, education, liturgy, planning and stewardship. Even the ministry of theologian has been opened out to Laity. What is more, we have seen a wonderful plenitude of people ready and willing to commit themselves to ministry in a highly dedicated and effective fashion. This is especially true of the surge in the numbers of Lay Pastoral Associates providing crucial service in our Parishes. The theology of ‘Ecclesial Ministry’ of Laity in the Church has been soundly developed in the North American Church particularly.16
Significant advances have also been made in distributive justice regarding their employment as well.
iv. We have seen a wonderful rush of Social Justice structures and groups forming themselves for real action in society. Further, we have seen these structures validated and supported by the provision of resources and public theology at official levels of our community. We have also seen the strong continuance of our traditional pastoral care for the poor and disadvantaged.
v. There has been amazing growth in the numbers of Laity educated, trained and formed in ecclesial disciplines. Laity are reaching degree level in fields such as Theology, Liturgy, Canon Law, and Ministry, creating the beginnings of an educated Laity, so essential for creating true partnership in Mission.
vi. Curial support has been acknowledged by the establishment of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, and a matching Committee raised by the Australian Bishops Conference.
vii. The 1983 Revision of the Code of Canon Law saw clear improvements in delineating the significant rights of Laity to participation in the total life of the Church, rather than the passive, minimalist approach of its 1917 predecessor.
viii. The 1987 Synod of Bishops, and the subsequent publication of the Papal Exhortation, Christifideles Laici as well as multiple statements of Papal and other teaching significantly developed the Theology of Laity.
ix. There has been significant growth in Lay Movements such as the Small Christian Communities movement, among many other movements, both official and unofficial.
x. The consultation and publication of Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus in Australia is a sign of hope for women in particular and for Laity in general. Indeed the future of women is intimately tied up with the future of Laity, because at present, all women may be considered as Laity. Certainly none are in Holy Orders.
These and other developments have given rise to much hope for the future. There are still many challenges to be faced, however. While we celebrate the growth of recognition of Laity and the significant steps taken so far, there are still many ambiguities, paradoxes and concerns that trouble the People of God.
2. Matters Of Continuing Concern
Broad principle, as is often relayed in Vatican II documents, can be capable of compromise and ambiguity and subjected to multiple interpretation. More frequently such principles are subject to stagnation, because they give as many reasons for doing nothing as they do for making concerted efforts. In 1969, the French Jesuit, Paul Guilmot, for whose work this paper is named, wrote:
The Council swings back and forth between two positions: on the one hand, the major insight of Lumen Gentium chapter two and of Gaudium et Spes where the Church is an active presence of Christians in the world and for the world, with the consequences this involves for the priesthood and the religious life, and on the other, a clerical approach in which the layman is once again considered as a subordinate, a kind of subject of the hierarchy. This can already be seen in chapter four of Lumen Gentium and becomes flagrant in the Decree on the Lay Apostolate.17
It is this kind of ambivalence which seems to characterise the ongoing approach to Laity in the thinking and practice of the whole church over the past 40 years. It all seems to depend, as one lay woman writes, on how much the hierarchy is ‘willing to engage with the new (Vatican II) ideas and begin the shared journey on which their meaning would unfold.’18 The promise of liberation of the Laity into full partnership in the Mission of the Church is very mixed indeed. Even some of the positive elements noted above are diluted in practice and there are still other unresolved tensions.
i. The consultative structures of the Church are still only ‘recommended’ and ‘advisory’. They do not necessarily facilitate Lay participation in real decision-making. Such participation as well as its authority are dependent on the individual Bishop or Parish Priest, and may be dismantled at will. Denis Edwards, sees this participation by Laity in the decision-making of the Church as one of the great challenges of the third millennium. In Edwards’ view, ‘we need to embrace decisively a move away from all forms of clericalism towards an understanding of baptismal equality.’19
ii. Further, it is anomalous in the extreme that even in those areas considered by the Council to be the areas of expertise of the Laity, e.g. work, marriage and family, Laity do not have any more than advisory or auditory roles. Even in the great Synod of 1987, discussing the very role of Laity in the Church, Lay people were only present as auditors. And while there was consultation prior to the Synod, it seems to have been patchy in coverage, and uncertain as to whether any of it survived the process to be integrated in the output.20
iii. The Pontifical Council for the Laity is seen by many as being less than Lay in its composition and as focusing its attention mainly on fringe charismatic movements rather than on genuine Lay Apostolate movements.21
iv. The 1983 Code of Canon Law revision, while promising much, delivered something short of the expectations raised by the Council. It left ambiguities and uncertainties and threw little light on the ‘secular’ identity of the Laity. As Herbert Haag described it, ‘as far as the new Code is concerned, the Catholic Church is and remains a clerical church.’22
v. Christifideles Laici, as a comprehensive statement on Laity leaves us with continuing ambiguities, and without ecclesial energy or structures to implement its theology.
vi. There has been awkwardness between the ‘explosion’ of Laity into ecclesial ministries and the continuing concern of the hierarchy about the ‘clericalisation’ of the Laity. Perhaps even concern about usurpation of Clerical functioning, position and, dare we say, power. The theme of ‘ontological difference’ between baptised and ordained seems to have had the effect of driving further wedges of separation between Laity and Clergy.
vii. Further, there has not been the same explosion of Laity into clear involvement in the mission of evangelisation and transformation of the world, seen by the council as the primary mission of both the Church and of the Laity within the Church. In my view, we have not yet resolved the ‘sacred/secular’ duality. We have neither marked the Mission to the world as sacred business, nor have we adequately formed our people to participate in it. We have rightly attracted and formed people for the support act, ministry, but not yet for the main feature, mission. The sanctuary is seen as a sacred place, but so is every factory, every workshop, every bus station, every cradle, every bed.23 The difference is we have not marked them as such. Are we focusing on internal ministry to the neglect of the mission of Laity to the world? Or are we rather moving intentionally to set up our ‘inner house’ before venturing to the world outside? If this latter suggestion is the plan, it’s a well-concealed one.
viii. In fact, it would seem that our leaders are either not conscious or not really convinced of the centrality of the mission of the Laity. There seems to be an almost exclusive focus on reform and development of the clergy. Those leaders that are Laity focused either find it difficult to integrate their convictions into their planning and practice or treat the mission of the Laity as an inferior priority.24 As Hinojosa writes, ‘if the church wants to be effective in bringing the Gospel to the world, the single most important thing it can do is to re-focus its pastoral vision, planning and action towards that part of the Church that most directly connects with the world, that is, the Laity.’25
ix. An unfortunate converse is that there is a general lack of mission consciousness and focus on the part of the Laity as well. In 1995, Patricia Egan, Pastoral Planner for the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, wrote, ‘some four and a half million Australians identify themselves as Catholic, but very few appear to have any sense of themselves as being ‘the Church’ or the Church’s Mission as being dependent on them.’26 I have a very strong hunch that Patricia is largely correct in what she says.27
x. There seems to be a worldwide and ongoing restlessness for change from the control/dependency model of church to an adult, co-responsible church.
The following series of vignettes from across the years may serve to document it:
• Twelve years ago, on the 25th anniversary of the end of Vatican II, ecclesiologist Michael Lawler commented that in replacing the vision of church ‘organised by the clergy for the laity, with a renewed vision of the church as the People of God, we find nothing much has changed.’28
• Five years ago the Laity in Austria and in the United Kingdom petitioned their respective episcopates seeking to bridge the gap between clergy and laity, seeking resolution of the continuing tension between charism and office, and seeking real participation by Laity in decisions.29
• Two years ago American Jesuit Thomas Rausch described the North American Church as characterised by ‘a restive Laity with a diminished sense of Catholic identity and institutional commitment.’30 Very many would say that the Australian situation is much the same.
• Two years ago, also, American Layman Juan Hinojosa described a Church where the Laity’s vocation and mission are not a priority and generally not understood, affirmed, encouraged or supported. He also described a ‘fundamental disconnection’ between the Church and recognition of the ‘sacred in everyday life.’31
• One year ago, Irishwoman Cathy Molloy noted her belief that even at this point, more than thirty-five years after the end of Vatican Council II, we are still a clerical church, lacking real participation by Laity, lacking connectedness between life and the institutional Church, and failing to develop and promote the perspectives and participation of women. More than that, she expressed belief that ‘efforts to encourage the role and vocation of the Laity are frequently impeded, either by fear of particular clerics in the face of change they cannot cope with, or by instructions from Rome.’32 We here in Australia might find resonance with this latter comment by recalling the comments made by the head of Sydney’s Aquinas Institute, Dr. Michael Whelan, describing the ‘Statement of Conclusions’ following the Oceania Synod of Bishops, as ‘a disgrace.’33
Thus it is an awkward, uncomfortable place which we seem to have reached after 40 years of pilgrimage as a Laity ‘liberated’ by Vatican Council II.
The Future: Where To From Here?
Below these three fundamentals is a substratum of issues and questions seeking answers so we may move forward together. What follows are but some of them.
i. The starting question is about the nature and purpose of the Church. If it is about being the sacrament of the loving communion which exists within God, drawing all creation into communion, then how shall we be its living sign through our call to communion with God, each other and all creation? How shall we be a Communion engaging the world in God’s intimacy?
ii. How shall we build the warm human communities that will support and sustain our communion and our mission? How shall we be Church, and what ‘face’ do we present to the world to be a faithful sign of God’s communion?
iii. How shall we identify in real and inspiring terms the purpose, the mission for which we are gathered in communion by God’s grace? How shall we re-focus on the primary mission for which we are gathered, name it clearly, mark it as sacred, plan for it, change our language and our symbols to celebrate it? Re-evangelise our people to become involved in fulfilling it?
iv. How do we achieve greater clarity and balance around the distinctly ‘secular’ nature of the Laity’s role in Mission? Most of all in this regard, how shall we shrug off the old sacred/secular duality which provides a strong barrier to seeing Christian involvement in the world as sacred and central to mission? The Holy Father has many times reiterated the Vatican II notion that, ‘it is the fundamental call of lay people to renew the temporal order in all its many elements.’35 What does this mean and how really central is it to the Church?
v. What kind of structures will enable, sustain and support us in mission? The current structures are struggling. What should our visible community look like to be a true sacrament of the communion which exists in God? What does communion leadership look like? How does it reconcile equality in communion with the notion of hierarchy? What structures of determined formation for all the Church do we need to build to fit us for this mission given from all eternity in God and described most powerfully for us in the Second Vatican Council? What kind of structures will sustain us in this mission? How reconcile and integrate charism and office in the mission of the Church?
vi. What structures do we need to put in place to ensure participation in decisions made in regard to this mission of the Church in which we have a vital interest as partners not as subjects? How shall we structure the natural right of the People of God to ensure the full participation due to all baptised?
vii. Related to the structural questions, what does the Holy Father mean when he describes the relationship between Laity and Clergy as ‘Deep Complementarity—not equality’?36 How does this reconcile with the Vatican II principle of the equality of all believers in chapter one of Lumen Gentium? For example, control and compliance as required in 1906, are complementary and not equal, but hopefully no longer the case in a post-Vatican II Church. What does the Holy Father mean by this term? If it does not mean shared and equal but different responsibility for the life and mission of the Church, what does it mean? Could he possibly mean that Laity are the bearers of the primary mission of the Church, and the hierarchy’s only role is to serve and support our mission? Does complementarity mean the bringing together in loving communion of those at the face of the mission and those engaged in the ministries that support it? Would that it were so.
viii. How shall we heal and reconcile our sinfulness?
ix. How shall we become in truth the Church of the Poor?
x. What are the present ‘signs of the times’ from which we may draw both hope and challenge?
xi. How shall we fulfil the Mission for which we as church are all called, together as a whole church and not as a ‘two-class’ society. How shall we mirror the mutuality and equality of persons entrusted to the Church from within the very being of God? How shall we engage the whole Church in mission, recognising affirming and developing the multiple charisms with which the Spirit of God evidently and fulsomely blesses us?
xii. How shall we continue to be a People gathered around the Eucharist?
Today, these questions and others like them cannot remain unanswered. We are in a place of transit, a dispersed and troubled people in a world seeking our light. Now is the time for dialogue, for bringing together, for community as well as communion. We yearn for an integrated ‘whole-of-church’ ecclesiology so dear to Congar’s heart.37 Perhaps the last word should go to Yves Congar. In conversation with the writer, Bernard Lauret in 1987, he remarked that in previously challenging times the Church had traditionally responded by reforming the clergy. In Congar’s view that time is long gone so that:
Today the challenge of unbelief or rather indifference is such that it can only be met by all the People of God acting together. We have to take part in this effort of reviving the priestly conscience of all Christian People.38
Peter Price is writing a PhD. (Theology) dissertation analysing the theology and practice of the Australian Church regarding the Laity. He works as a Human Resources Consultant with Qantas Australia.
1. See André Vauchez. The Laity in the Middle
Ages. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993, 40.
Reprinted with permission from the Australian E-Journal of Theology from the MacAuley Campus of Australian Catholic University (http://dlibrary.acu.edu.au/research/theology/ejournal/).