Laity, Theology of
LAITY, THEOLOGY OF
The theology of the laity flows from a total ecclesiology that highlights the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist in its consideration of membership, functions, rights, duties, and mission of the faithful. The Second vatican council was unprecedented in its reflection upon and articulation of the identity, role, and spirituality of the laity in the Church and in the world. This renewal of ecclesial thought and practice was due to an emphasis on: the biblical theme of the Church as the People of God, the dignity and equality of the members of the Church that is rooted in baptism, and the common sharing in the threefold mission of Christ as priest, prophet, and king.
Term and Concept. The terms "lay" or "laity" are derived from the Greek terms laos theou, meaning simply the people, and laikos, meaning the mass of common people in contrast to their leaders. The Scriptures only use the term laos. In the Septuagint, the term laos is used to distinguish the people from their rulers or leaders, such as prophets, princes, and priests (Is 24:2; Jer 26:11). But laos is also used in the Septuagint to denote the election of Israel from among the nations as God's chosen race and special possession (Ex 19:4–7; Dt 7:6–12). This sense is used later in the New Testament to affirm that all Christians are chosen, called, and predestined as the People of God (1 Pt 2:9–10; Eph 1:4–5).
The term laikos, on the other hand, is used neither in the Septuagint nor in the New Testament. In fact, it was not used until 95 a.d. in the patristic source of I Clement 40.5. In later Christian usage, however, laikos became the pejorative term for the mass of common, often uneducated, people, as distinguished from the clergy, monastics, and religious of the Church. In this development, the sense of consecration, election, and call of the laity was almost forgotten.
The Second Vatican Council rediscovered the New Testament nuance of the concept of laity, laos, in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (LG ). This document gave a typological description of the laity employing not only the negative sense, that laity are neither clergy nor religious, but also the positive sense of their call, election, and consecration by God. "The faithful who by Baptism are incorporated into Christ, are placed in the People of God, and in their own way share the priestly, prophetic, and kingly office of Christ, and to the best of their ability carry on the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world" (LG 31).
Development of the Theology of the Laity. The conciliar theology of the laity, as articulated in the documents LG, The Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, and The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, is based on a foundation of preconciliar biblical, theological, and liturgical developments. The liturgical movement, begun in the early 20th century, promoted the full, conscious, and active participation of all the baptized as essential to the proper celebration of the liturgical life of the Church. The laity were viewed no longer as passive recipients of the liturgy celebrated by the clergy, but rather as active participants in the sacramental worship of the Church. Another important factor in the development of the conciliar theology of the laity was the theology of the Church as the Body of Christ, as taught by Pope Pius XII (Mystici Corporis 1943). This Pauline and patristic image of the Church highlighted both the unity and diversity of the members of the Body and the common responsibility for the mission of the Church. Similarly, the 20th-century renewal of biblical studies helped to shape a theology of the laity. The study of the New Testament ecclesiologies of the Church as the People of God and the New Israel demonstrated the communal aspect of the Church, which is integral for any theology of the laity. Finally, the apostolic movements of the 20th century, particularly Catholic Action, were the pastoral context for articulating the mission of the laity as a full sharing in the salvific mission of the Church.
Conciliar Theology. As a result of these developments, a new theology of the laity began to emerge. The difficulty in formulating a theology of the laity is that it presupposes a whole ecclesiology in which the mystery of the Church is given in all its dimensions, including the full ecclesial reality of the laity. This shift in ecclesiol ogy is exactly what happened at the Second Vatican Council. It was the first council to treat the laity from a theological, rather than an exclusively canonical, point of view.
The conciliar ecclesiology can be found in LG. This document speaks of the laity in two places: in chapter 2, "The People of God," and chapter 4, "The Laity." Based on the theological and biblical foundation of chapter 2, chapter 4 presents a description of the identity and role of the laity in the context of a total ecclesiology. This renewed ecclesiology enabled the council to speak of the laity from the perspective of their relation to the mystery of the Church itself and to the Church's mission. This document clearly presents the laity as part of the Church, rather than as a mere appendage or addition to the Church. The laity are not simply the object of the ministry of the clergy. In terms of mission, the laity are not merely cooperators in the hierarchy's apostolate, but rather full sharers in the one mission of Christ.
The fundamental equality and dignity of the Christian existence of all the members of the People of God is affirmed within the common matrix of baptismal identity. From this common baptism flows an incorporation into the Church and a common vocation to holiness. Through confirmation, all the baptized are deputed to share in the mission of the Church. According to LG, baptism, confirmation, and holy orders imprint a sacramental character that are both instruments of grace as well as juridical signs giving visible structure to the People of God. From these characters, which are based on sacramental configuration to Christ, flows a functional diversity within the People of God. Within the one mission of the Church, there is a diversity of roles. All the members of the People of God, therefore, share in the activity of the Church, and not just the clergy or religious.
Vocation and Mission of the Laity. The two fundamental concepts in the conciliar theology of the laity are the vocation or identity of the laity and the mission or role of the laity. According to the conciliar ecclesiology, the identity or vocation of the laity must be properly understood before the roles, mission, and function of the laity can be treated. The vocation of the laity is described in LG #31 and the mission of the laity is described in #33. A further elaboration of the mission of the laity can be found in The Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (AA ), specifically sections #2 and #3, which are founded upon the theology of LG. AA sought to give the laity a renewed sense of responsibility in the life of the Church by stressing their active participation in its saving mission.
A typological, rather than ontological description of the laity is given in LG #31. The council gave a proximate genus for the laity, that is, what they have in common with all of the other members of the faithful, as a point of departure for reflecting on their vocation. This common matrix is the baptismal character, which includes the fundamental dignity and equality of all the faithful and a common responsibility for carrying out the mission of the Church. The laity, like clergy and religious, have their own sharing in the threefold offices of Christ as priest, prophet, and king.
This section also gave a description of the specific difference of the vocation of the laity, that is, what belongs properly and exclusively to them, namely, their secular character. The laity seek for the Kingdom of God in temporal affairs. The description itself admits that the clergy and religious engage in secular activities, but their competence is not specifically related to the world, as is the laity's. The conciliar ecclesiology, therefore, views the secular character of the vocation of the laity as something more than sociological, it is in fact part of the theological description of the laity.
The mission of the laity is described in LG #33. The council affirmed that the apostolate of the laity is a sharing in the salvific mission of the Church itself, and not simply a sharing in the apostolate of the hierarchy, which was the popular pre-conciliar definition. The laity, according to the council, have both the right and the responsibility to participate in the Church's mission to the world as well as the right and responsibility to contribute to the Church's inner life and organization.
Section #2 of AA states that there are two aspects to the mission of the Church: to make all people sharers in Christ's redemption and to order the whole world in relationship to Him. The laity participate in both of these aspects by exercising their apostolate in both the Church and the world. Once again, the council is affirming that it is not only the hierarchy who engage in the apostolate, but rather all the members of the faithful have the right and duty to engage in apostolic activity. Within the one mission of the Church, there is a diversity of ministry, according to this section. Among the members of the Church there is a basic equality, yet a functional diversity. All the faithful share in the threefold offices of Christ as priest, prophet, and king, and therefore all have their own responsibility in the mission of the People of God.
The dogmatic basis for the mission of the laity is the sacraments of baptism and confirmation (LG #33; AA #3). These sacramental characters depute the laity for their mission in the Church and in the world. The laity are commissioned by Christ Himself through these sacraments, and thereby receive the right and duty to exercise the apostolate. The laity, therefore, do not need any special delegation or deputation from the hierarchy in order to labor for the sanctification and growth of the Church and the renewal of the temporal order in general terms, since they are deputed by the Lord Himself. The sacramental identity of the laity, which flows from baptism and confirmation, is nourished by the Eucharist since it communicates that love which is the soul of the apostolate.
The laity's participation in the royal priesthood of believers is another aspect of their sacramental identity (AA #3). Along with the ministerial priesthood, the common priesthood of the laity is a true participation in the one priesthood of Christ. Drawing upon the teaching of 1 Peter 2, the council demonstrates that each member of the Church, by reason of their baptism and confirmation, is consecrated into a royal priesthood and a holy people. The mission of those so consecrated consists in offering spiritual sacrifices through everything they do and giving witness to Christ throughout the world. The priestly character of this mission consists in communicating the grace of Christ's redeeming sacrifice to the world.
The secular character of the laity gives their mission its uniqueness (LG #33; AA #2). Typically, although not exclusively, the lay apostolate is exercised in and through direct concern with secular affairs. Because of their secular character, the laity make the Church present and operative in the world in a way distinct from that of the clergy or religious. There are certain circumstances and places, according to the council, where the Church can be the salt of the earth only through the laity. The secular character of the laity is not merely concerned with physical presence in the world—since every member of the Church is in the world in this sense—but with a living presence that involves commitment and immersion in the temporal order. The laity are described not simply as representatives of the Church to the world, but rather, they are the Church in the world. They are the witnesses and living instruments of the mission of the Church through their engagement in temporal affairs. The Christian penetration of the temporal order implies apostolic activity. The council affirms the redemptive value of the daily activities of the laity in the family, workplace, school, and society. The laity, empowered by the Spirit of Christ, exercise their apostolate typically amidst the affairs of the world as a kind of leaven. Because of their secular character, the laity are the Church in the heart of the world, and therefore they bring the world into the heart of the Church.
The mission of the laity includes not only their activities in the world, but also their participation in the inner life and organization of the Church. LG #33 states that the laity can take on a direct form of cooperation in the apostolate of the hierarchy. This organized form of apostolic activity is not specifically described in this section, but it could include liturgical roles, preaching, ecclesiastical administration, works of mercy, etc. This cooperation in the apostolate of the hierarchy can take on an even more direct form, through deputation. These offices are functions, which properly belong to the hierarchy, but can be fulfilled by the laity in a case of necessity through deputation for a spiritual purpose.
This mission of the laity is carried on through the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity (AA #3). These three virtues, poured into the faithful by the power of the Holy Spirit, are the motivating force of their apostolate, and bring with them the new command of love. This new command of love given to the Church by the Lord is fulfilled in bringing the message of salvation to others. This apostolate of communicating eternal life to all is the obligation of all the faithful, and not an additional responsibility for only certain members of the Church. Besides the theological virtues, charisms of the Holy Spirit are also given to the laity for the exercise of their apostolate. Charisms are special gifts given according to the needs of the Church that complement the sacraments and ministries. The reception of these charisms brings with it the right and duty to exercise them by responding to the grace bestowed by the Spirit.
Postconciliar Developments. The most important papal document on the theology of the laity since the Second Vatican Council was Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Exhortation, The Lay Members of Christ's Faithful People (CFL ), issued Dec. 30, 1988. This exhortation was the result of the 1987 Bishops' Synod whose theme was "The Vocation and Mission of the Laity in the Church and in the World Twenty Years after the Second Vatican Council."
The theme of the vocation of the laity is described in CFL #9–15, with the key sections being #9 and #15, where the question of the identity of the laity is specifically raised. The mission of the laity is described in CFL #23–24, which deal with the ministries, offices, roles, and charisms of the laity.
The pope does not offer a new dogmatic definition or description of the laity, but rather, he returns to the conciliar typological description. In CFL #9, two elements of the conciliar teaching are highlighted, the baptismal identity of the laity and their unique secular character. Baptism brings about a newness of life, which is a regeneration in the life of the Son of God, an incorporation into His Body, the Church, and an anointing in the Holy Spirit. After this reflection on baptismal identity, the pope then describes the secular character of the laity. Although all the members of the Church have a secular character because the Church itself has an authentic secular dimension, the laity have their own manner of realization and function within this common secular character. The pope explains how the world is the place, in sociological and theological terms, in which the laity receive their call from God. The laity, because of their secular character, are to be a leaven in the world, sanctifying the world from within by fulfilling their own particular duties.
The mission of the laity is presented by the pope in CFL #23–24 as flowing from their vocation. The Church is an organic communio, characterized by the presence of both a diversity and a complementarity of vocations, states of life, ministries, charisms, and responsibilities. The Holy Spirit is the source of both the diversity and complementarity. Within this communio, there is a fundamental equality and dignity of all the baptized in acting for the edification of the Church. The mission of each member of the faithful is determined by their specific sacramental identities, vocations, and charisms received from the Holy Spirit. The laity participate with all the faithful in the threefold offices of Christ and therefore share in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly mission of Christ. Within this one mission of Christ, the roles, offices, and ministries of the laity find their source in the sacramental identity flowing from baptism and confirmation.
The ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council brought about a new age of the laity. Twenty years later, the 1988 apostolic exhortation on the laity provided a further elaboration of the fundamental themes of the vocation and mission of the laity in the Church and in the world. From these developments emerges the need for renewed understandings of: the spirituality of the laity, their rights and duties according to canon law, the possibilities for lay ministry, and the necessity of spiritual and educational formation of the laity.
Bibliography: "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, The Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity," in Vatican Council II, the Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents, ed. a. flannery (New York 1975). pope john paul ii, Christifideles Laici, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 81 (1989) 393–521 (Eng. tr., "On the Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World," Origins 18  561–595). y. congar, Lay People in the Church (London 1957). p. coughlin, The Hour of the Laity (Philadelphia 1989). l. doohan, The Lay-Centered Church (Minneapolis 1984). a. faivre, The Emergence of the Laity in the Early Church (New York 1990). a. hagstrom, The Concepts of the Vocation and Mission of the Laity (San Francisco 1994). f. klostermann, "The Laity," in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, v. 1, ed. h. vorgrimler (New York 1969) 231–252; "Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity," in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, v. 3, ed. h. vorgrimler (New York 1969) 273–404. k. b. osborne, Ministry: Lay Ministry in the Roman Catholic Church (New York 1993). r. parent, A Church of the Baptized (New York 1987). k. rahner, "Notes on the Lay Apostolate," in Theological Investigations, v. 2 (London 1963) 319–352. e. schillebeeckx, The Layman in the Church and Other Essays (New York 1963); The Mission of the Church (New York 1973).
[a. a. hagstrom]
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