By Dr Andrew Kania
One of the architects of the Second Vatican Council, Yves Cardinal Congar (1904–1995), an advocate for the empowerment of the laity, reminded his readers, when discussing the activity of lay-Catholics in the Church, of the ancient Byzantine tradition of lay theologians.
According to Congar, many times when the Bishops lapsed in matters of orthodox doctrine, or in their administrative duties, it was the laity who stayed the Catholic line.
Congar’s reminder was also affirmed by the Orthodox scholar, Vladimir Lossky (1903–1958), who wrote in his work The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church:
“Since the Church is catholic in all her parts, each one of her members – not only the clergy but also each layman – is called to confess and defend the truth of tradition; opposing even the bishops should they fall into heresy” (Lossky, 1998, p16).
The sanctity of the Catholic laity is an unknown quantity within the Church – so much so that perhaps some of the greatest Saints of the Church have probably lived outside the cloister, and simply prayed around their family hearth.
Perhaps these individuals go unrecognised for the very secular reason that, devoid of the financial support of a religious order to financially promote their Cause, the layman and laywoman become the ‘Great Unknown’.
Further still, the laity may be considered that part of the Church whose life is so immersed within the world, that their Causes for canonisation are not deemed worthy enough, for not appearing ‘religious’ enough.
Yves Congar, in his collection of essays, Priest and Layman (1962), spoke at length about the need for the laity to become more actively involved in the life of the Church. Congar’s analysis of the laity (in the West of Christianity at least), being ostracised from important Church matters, is based on the etymological differences found between the words ‘cleric’ and ‘layman’.
Congar writes: “From the late Middle Ages down to the Renaissance, literatus (‘one who knows letters’, that is, Latin) was synonomous with ‘cleric’, whereas the synonym for ‘layman’ was illiteratus or idiota (a simple person, one who cannot explain things)” (Congar, 1962, p243).
As Congar’s thesis is developed, his insights become more and more penetrating. Congar quotes Cardinal Newman who wrote in 1873: “As far as I can see, there are ecclesiastics all over Europe, whose policy is to keep the laity at a distance, with the result that the laity are disgusted and have lost the faith” (Congar, 1962, p246).
Traditionally, some may have said the laity, not having taken a ‘religious’ vow of poverty, chastity and obedience, have in some way forfeited their chance at holiness and saintliness, and their right to be recognised as such.
However, do not the married laity, as one example, also take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience? The married couple are poor, inasmuch as the bringing up of children is a financial dying to oneself; with each child born, the parents forego more and more of their own material desires.
The married laity also are required to promise chastity – a chastity that means, as in the religious life, a vow to direct one’s sexual energies to the sole person to whom one has made the promise.
A married couple must show obedience to one another; for the family would disintegrate if there was no acceptance of mutually accepted authority.
The laity having far more invested in the world, have far more to live for in this world – for they have far more to lose.
It is this imperative attachment to the world that sees them lead a life demanding of Christian detachment – perhaps, even more so than the monastic; for they must learn how to use the things of this world – but in so doing – remember not to become of this world.
Without striving for a life in this world, but not being of it – there would be neither children to be born and develop – nor personal salvation. It is a wonderful but precarious road to holiness.
The celibate may experience their own, painful Dark Night of the Soul, but so too do lay people. Can anyone who has not experienced it know just how ‘Dark the Night’ becomes to a father or mother who holds their dying child in their arms?
In good conscience, the married laity cannot ignore the cry of their infant or infants, four or five times a night.
The married laity must fight in an unforgiving world for their financial survival, rather than being provided for by a diocese or an order (many excellent priests and religious put this time-saved at the heroic service of others).
Every day they, the married laity, live on the precariously balanced knife-edge between employment and unemployment.
The celibate man or woman can rest in the knowledge that God is the most faithful of all lovers and, as such, will never desert them; the married man or woman gives themself totally to a mortal, and fallible human being, who can become angry, irritated, tired, frustrated, depressed, despondent or sick – all these emotions are there for the married person to contend with, to be overcome in order to keep their family unified – and all this for the Glory of God – for the raising of new life.
It is also quite obvious that the married laity take a vow of obedience – for in all things they must negotiate with their spouse, and not override their spouse’s integrity – and this applies also to a lifetime, as with the religious.
As Congar would write in Priest and Layman (1967, first English edition): “The layman is the man who works for the kingdom of God, but not at the expense of his earthly engagement. He has to serve God, not by setting himself above or apart from marriage and the professions, but through marriage and the professions, and in work. He does not take the short cut taken by the priest or the religious, who are dedicated solely to the kingdom of God. He follows a road which is longer and more difficult, but it is his own, his vocation” (p290).
All members of the Catholic Church have the right to be critical as to how their particular church is led and, as such, have a responsibility to speak their mind.
This is the point that Congar and Lossky both express, that an educated, informed and active laity will demand more of those who from day to day lead the Church; otherwise, as with any form of human institution, we will get the form of government, in this case, the form of Church, that we are willing to silently accept.
It is, in fact, the same conclusion that John Henry Newman came to regarding the spiritual evolution of the People of God: “a child lives principally by his imagination, an adult by logic and reasoning, and a mature man is guided by experience” (Congar, 1969, p147).
It is this experiential knowledge of God which has to be at the core of a future and mature Catholic laity.
Today, perhaps more than ever in the history of the Church, it is vital that we have a renaissance of the laity, an awakening that Pope John Paul II attempted to stimulate in Christifideles Laici. Congar, in Priest and Layman (1967), at no stage denigrates the sacramental role of the ordained priest, but he does have a specific vision for the laity in the Church’s future:
“We are drawing ever nearer to a situation in which Christianity will have to exist and be active by means of personal convictions, far more than by the support of institutions and laws; a Christianity no longer ritual and hieratic, but prophetic and lay … I would therefore urge every one of you to look out for any influences within his reach which are alive, creative and uplifting, and to get into touch with them. It may be a priest, a religious house, a place of prayer, a group, a critical or fervent layman, a Christian home, an intellectual, perhaps even some cultural centre or institute. I would almost say; no matter whom or what, provided it forces you to aim higher” (Congar, 1967, pp99 & 101).
Today, we live within a Church that is vastly different from that of the Middle Ages, of the literate, and the idiot. In fact, many of our lay men and women are far more well-educated than many clergy in matters theological. This has its problems.
For as the parent oftentimes struggles with the maturing ideas of his or her adolescent child, so too the Church is now confronted, the Magisterium at least, with lay people who have ideas as to where the Church should reform – ideas not based on pure whim, but based on considered, thoughtful and know-ledgeable speculation.
On both sides, parent and child, adjustments are necessary in order for the relationship between the two to develop with love. But there must always be respect and charity.
Congar is strikingly clear that the Magisterium must always be obeyed, with regard to its sacred teaching authority. If the Magisterium is not respected, then there is no Church, for Truth cannot be defined.
Once Truth cannot be defined and accepted, there exists no foundation for Faith. Yet this respect for the Magisterium does not mean that the Magisterium should not listen to the voice of the people – for the Holy Spirit speaks to all the baptised; and the Wisdom of the Spirit is not confined to a head that has at its base a clerical collar.
Congar’s writings on the laity always emphasise the relationship between the priest and the people – the sacramental perfection the priest offers in the Church, as well as the enormous potential that lay men and women offer – a resource so obviously untapped throughout the vast majority of Catholic Church history.
What is vital is that the Church realises that the laity require a mature place in the life of the Church, one that does not see the authority of the Magisterium displaced or questioned; nor the nature of the sacred priesthood, supplanted, but that gives the lay man and woman a constructive voice, in order to help reform the Church, so as for Her to fully engage with the modern world.
If the laity are not encouraged to speak their minds charitably, and be encouraged to be active in the Church – then perhaps Cardinal Newman’s warning will indeed be the result – a loss of faith.