The Laity, the Council and the New Apostolate: From May 6, 1961

WITHOUT WAITING for more developments, we can safely assert that the Second Vatican Council will mark a historic turning point in the apostolic life of the Church. The relatively untapped energies of the lay Catholic will be channeled at last into the main stream of the Church’s apostolate. Pope John XXIII indicated as much when receiving the Permanent Committee of the International Congresses for the Lay Apostolate on February 8. He said that this question would be "an object of vital concern and special study." Later, in the annual official publication, Activities of the Holy See in 1960, the Central Preparatory Commission stated categorically that the nature, prerogatives and limitations of the lay apostolate would be studied in detail at the council, on the level of both theory and practice, with special reference to its relations with the hierarchy.

Such authoritative forecasts reflect the virtually unanimous wishes of the bishops of the whole world. The age of the lay apostolate is arriving. To speak more accurately, that day has already arrived. It remains only for the Fathers of the council to give it formal recognition.


The council's concern with the apostolic possibilities of the layman is a simple response to the sensus fidelium, the ground swell that has been sweeping the Church for many years. One would have to go back to the 13th century and the popular revival aroused by St. Francis of Assisi to find a comparable grass-roots upsurge of lay religious zeal. It seems as though the more society becomes secularized, the more pronounced becomes the spiritual outlook of individual Christians in the face of their environment. The evolving world circumstances also suggest that Providence itself is kindling this fire to coincide with the advent of a revolutionary era.

In the newly developing countries, where Christianity's roots are still tender, unprecedented opportunities are opening at the very moment when, as in Africa and Asia, political independence has tolled the bell for the 19th-century missionary methods which depended so largely upon the prestige of the colonizing power. As if these political and social changes were not enough, rapid technological advances put a premium on specialists trained as no priest or religious worker can be trained. Even if the shortage of priests is not felt in the former mission-sending countries, laymen can perform much of the work now indicated in the apostolate better, if not exclusively.

The needs and the opportunities are evident. Why must we wait for an ecumenical council in order to get the lay apostolate moving? How is it that the recent decades have witnessed so much backing and filling, such unmistakable experimentation and, most of all, such prolonged and indecisive theoretical discussions?

The nub of the difficulty lies precisely in the apostolic nature of this lay action. The layman is doing the work of the Church. Yet, by the will of Christ and the constitution of the Church, the preaching of the gospel and the sanctification of souls are entrusted directly to an order of priesthood, with the bishops at the head. Without abolishing the distinction between clergy and laity, it seems difficult, if not impossible, to conceive of a lay apostolate in the strict sense.

If "apostolate" were understood only in a generic or metaphoric sense, there would be no perplexity. Every Christian, by the fact of his baptism and confirmation, is called to some expressions of apostolic zeal, through prayer, good example and the conscientious fulfillment of the duties of his state in life. A faithful Catholic working in an office, a factory or the Peace Corps, with the right motivation, can find ways of bearing witness to the faith that is in him. But this work is his own personal testimony and not part of the apostolate of the Church.

A wider radius of action, however, is envisaged in the lay apostolate. To use the words of Pius XII when he spoke to the Congress of the Lay Apostolate on October 5, 1957, this apostolate is "the assuming by laymen of tasks deriving from the mission which Christ confided to his Church." Those called to this role are expected, not to supplement the work of the bishops, priests and religious in a marginal way, but to work alongside of these and even to supplant them in certain areas. Whence arise the still unanswered problems of organization, canon law, theology and spirituality which the council must now confront.

A résumé of the stages through which what we now call the lay apostolate has passed will help put today's issues in perspective. The problem is relatively new, at least in its contemporary expression. The Church has known an apostolic laity as far back as Joseph of Arimathea and the Women of Jerusalem; but a lay apostolate is something else again. As a body, the laity has not been invited to participate in the Church's sacerdotal mission in the ministry of the word.

At the high-water mark of Catholic Europe, the "laity" was the civil power itself, as personified in the Emperor or prince. With the French Revolution and its aftermath, when the Catholic princes lost their crowns, or at least their real power, if not their faith, the "laity" signified more and more the individual Catholic in relation to his Church. By reason of personal rather than hereditary status, some Catholics became conspicuous as loyal defenders of the Church's interests and ideals. Hence there arose, in the early decades of the 19th century, what is known, for want of a better word, as the Catholic Movement. The first half of the past century is remarkable for the names of such able and devoted Catholic laymen as de Bonald and de Maistre in France, von Stolberg and Goerres in Germany, Donoso Cortés in Spain, Daniel O'Connell in Ireland and others. By their energies and talents they supplied as best they could for the moral and political decline of the traditional Catholic ruler.

Organizationally, this action of individuals soon gave way to national unions or congresses for the defense of the Church. A notable initiative of this kind was the Katliotikentag, an annual event in Germany, the first of which was held in 1848. In Belgium, the Assemblée générale des catholiques first met in Malines with a similar purpose in 1863. In Italy, the Opera dei congressi e dei comitati cattolici was founded in 1874. As the industrial revolution progressed, bringing with it the problem of socialism, Catholic laymen found an additional outlet for their zeal. The predominantly lay group who created the Union of Fribourg (1884) laid the groundwork for Rerum Novarum. In connection with this social action the names of Toniolo in Italy and Harmel in France, of course, deserve special mention.

During the critical years of the 19th century the Church had reason to be consoled in her sons and daughters. In the parliamentary eloquence of a Montalembert, the charity of an Ozanam, the alms collecting of a Pauline Jaricot, the polemics of a Veuillot, the swords of the Zouaves who came from all over the world to fight for the Pope, the attachment and generosity of the faithful were impressively evident.

But this zeal, once on the march, was not destined to stop at that point. A more intimate participation of the laity in the apostolate of the Church was bound to grow from these beginnings. The Church began to call for lay action on an ever broader front. One of the earliest invitations was that of Leo XIII, who in his encyclical Sapientiae Christianae of January 10, 1890, said: "No one...must entertain the notion that private individuals are prevented from taking some active part in this duty of teaching, especially those on whom God has bestowed gifts of mind with the strong wish of rendering themselves useful."

But the same Pope soon learned that Catholic organizations could provide anxiety as well as comfort and strength. By the turn of the century he was having difficulties because of the political orientation of some movements which wished to serve the Church in their way, without reference to the wishes of the bishops.

Freewheeling by overzealous organizations continued, nonetheless. In 1904, Pope St. Pius X suppressed the Opera dei congressi after it had repeatedly acted in opposition to the Pontiff's known wishes. (As it so happened, the chief troublemaker was not a layman, but a priest, Don Romolo Murri. a Modernist who later left the Church). In a letter of June 11, 1905, Il fermo proposito, the Pope created a new lay organization, the Unione populare, which would avoid the pitfalls of the past. Those works "known by the name of Catholic Action," said the Holy Father, "cannot be conceived as existing in independence of the counsel and sovereign direction of the ecclesiastical authority, especially insofar as they must all be governed by the principles of Christian teaching and morality; still less possible is it to conceive them as existing in opposition, more or less open, to the ecclesiastical authority." Movements which carry the Catholic banner, observed the Pope, should act in a Catholic manner.

The use of the phrase "Catholic Action" by Pope St. Pius X was an abrupt change in terminology. Contemporary observers noted that, as though on purpose, the Pontiff had used this term wherever his predecessor would have spoken of "Christian Democracy." The older term, they commented, had become too ambiguous to be useful. It had taken on both a political and a social (as well as religious) meaning. And so it came about that from this time on, Catholic Action, though not used for the first time in 1905, entered into the language of the Church to designate lay action which is nonpolitical, apostolic and completely subordinated to the hierarchy.

When Pius XI began his pontificate in 1922, he thus found himself in possession of an idea and a name. He proceeded to give concrete organizational form to Catholic Action. Under his impulsion, lay activities of all sorts sprang up. Of these, the model form of Catholic Action was the Young Christian Workers (Jocistes), founded by the famous Canon Cardijn. It would be difficult to overestimate the profound influence of this form of "specialized Catholic Action," which had so many imitators.

To this Pontiff is due the definition of CA as "the participation of the laity in the apostolic mission of the hierarchy." A key device, called the "mandate," was developed in order to assure full episcopal control at all times. Only those movements could be regarded as forming Catholic Action which had received a formal commission from each bishop. This mandate or license could be given or withdrawn at discretion.

The formula of Pius XI, theoretically sound, proved impractical. Subsequent reversals of official policy imply this clearly enough. The remedies for old ills generated new maladies. For instance, the preoccupation with absolute subordination to the bishop only succeeded in chilling lay initiative. The bishops inevitably dealt with the laity as they did with their own priests and religious, in disregard of the whole idea of the lay apostolate and its responsibilities. The method of the mandate also induced confusion and a spirit of rivalry through lack of uniform application from one diocese to another. Furthermore, a sort of superapostolate was created, since Catholic Action appeared to be above older works which, though approved by the Popes and the bishops, did not possess the treasured mandate.

ANOTHER COMPLICATION arose from the growth of Catholic Action in the interwar period. The lay apostle, normally, is married; the couple would probably be engaged in Catholic Action together. Spiritual writers, accordingly, set about to develop a lay spirituality for married apostolic couples. Their efforts were not always satisfactory, inasmuch as the impression was created, contrary to the long-standing ascetical teaching of the Church, that marriage and virginity are states equally favorable for the attainment of sanctity. No doubt many vocations were decided on this basis. It seems probable that the drop in priestly and religious vocations in Europe is traceable to the high praise of sanctity in the married state current in the 1930's. In his encyclical Sacra Virginitas of March 25, 1954, Pope Pius XII corrected the errors and exaggerations that arose in this connection. This is not a serious problem, but its existence illustrates some of the unsuspected doctrinal and pastoral implications in the field of the lay apostolate.

After World War II a new period of development set in. The two world congresses of the lay apostolate summoned by Pius XII in 1951 and 1957 aided in crystallizing further the data of experience. The most striking sign of a change of approach occurred when Pius XII finally resolved the perennial and often sterile dispute over the definition of Catholic Action by the simple process of extending it to embrace every approved Catholic lay activity of an apostolic nature. The term "lay apostolate" is now current; it is the term most likely to get the sanction of official use in the decrees of the general council.

The transitions in vocabulary (Catholic Movement, Christian Democracy, Catholic Action, Lay Apostolate) mark the four phases in the apostolic evolution about to culminate at the council. The pattern of issues to be met is now clear. The bishops want the laity to join with them in the work of the Church. They are careful at the same time to safeguard the God-given constitution of the Church, according to which the power of teaching and governing resides in the bishops alone. But this vigilance has led the clergy to control the lay apostolate from the outside almost at every turn and, too often, even to do with their own hands what the laity should do. Whence the witty and far from inaccurate description of Catholic Action as "the organized interference of the clergy in the apostolic mission of the laity." The delicate balance between lay responsibility and episcopal control is yet to be created.

There seem to be reasonable grounds for hoping that the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council will be able to settle what several Popes have vainly striven to resolve. By their unique prestige, the bishops at the council can at least widen the range of possible solutions in a number of areas. Pastorally, the council can make its own the earlier calls of modern Popes inviting generous lay men and women to a more direct participation in the work of Christ. (It can set the example itself by finding some form of lay consultation at the council.) Canonically, the Vatican synod can give the laity some formal status in ecclesiastical legislation. Such recognition is presently lacking. According to one standard canon law textbook, the laity are simply "those who do not have the power either of order or of jurisdiction."

Theologically, the council can render a more profound service. Lack of adequate theological perspective is part of the reason for the past setbacks of the lay apostolate. At bottom, what is needed is a recasting of the terms in which the Church is presented. Ecclesiology, as many writers point out, has been up to now primarily a hierarchiology. The main stress has been on the teaching and governing role of the episcopacy. Familiar to every layman is the distinction, so often insisted upon in sermons, between the Church Teaching and the Church Taught. At times, the very word "Church" is used as synonymous with "Church Teaching," as though the hierarchy is the Church. What is true of the magisterium is also true of the ruling power as embodied in the symbol of the shepherd. Pope St. Pius X expressed a characteristic churchman's attitude when on February 11, 1906, he declared to the French Catholics: "The one duty of the multitudes is to allow themselves to be led and, like a docile flock, to follow the shepherd." Such exhortations to passivity are hardly a favorable starting point for great lay endeavors in the Lord's vineyard.

The modern awareness of the Mystical Body has done much to center differently the axis of our thinking. We are here reminded that the head, important as it is, is not the body; that the body has other members whose functions are different and whose work cannot be done by the head; and that all members, the greater and the lesser, must contribute their separate part "to the building up of the Body of Christ."

Pius XII indicated the mind of the Church in seeking to redress the balance when he told the 1957 lay congress: "It would be a misunderstanding of the real nature of the Church and her social character to distinguish in her an active element, the ecclesiastical authorities, and a purely passive element, the laity." These are surprising words, in view of earlier statements not only by Pope St. Pius X but also by Pius XII himself. That the Holy Father felt able to make such an utterance without fear of being misunderstood is perhaps possible only because of our newly awakened consciousness of the Mystical Body.

Another doctrinal contribution of the council could be a clarification of the idea of the Royal Priesthood of the laity. Today, in contrast to former times, the Church willingly associates the faithful with the divine liturgy and freely speaks of the priesthood of the laity— again without fear of being misunderstood. This mutual partnership of both sides of the altar rail in the public liturgical prayers is bound to have its natural correlative in the field of action. At the same time, the liturgical life may help provide the basis of the lay spirituality, which is as yet in its primitive form.

The Second Vatican Council, by throwing light on these and other as yet obscure doctrinal comers, by setting in a new framework the apostolic outlook of the Church, by codifying the lessons of the past 150 years of trial and error and by giving timely impetus to worthy tendencies, can earn for itself the title of "Council of the Lay Apostolate." To the timorous (clergy or lay), some aspects of this change may appear revolutionary and dangerous to the essential clergy-lay distinction. But the lay apostolate exists only to energize the strength of the Mystical Body, not to reorganize the constitution of the Church. Those who enter upon this new-style vocation will need more, not less, love and knowledge of the Church; they will need more, not less, loyalty and devotion to the Holy Father and their bishops. The clergy, for their part, will learn how to exercise better their unique and irreplaceable prerogatives of preaching and sanctification. The end-product will be a mighty union of hearts in the Christian community. The zeal of the first Christians brought Christ's gospel only to the limits of the Roman Empire. It may be this age's privilege to extend that Kingdom, in a great leap forward, to the ends of the earth.

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Eileen Gould
7 years ago
Great article and prescient.  
Glad to see America Magazine is still leading us forward.


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