In recent months laymen have repeatedly been invited to voice their views and aspirations on the Ecumenical Council. Thus Francis Cardinal Koenig of Vienna, a member of the Central Preparatory Commission for the Council, said: “Do not wait for the Bishop or for a report from Rome, if you have something to say about the Council…. Urge, when you feel urging is necessary.”
In keeping with these invitations, The Commonweal is publishing a special series devoted to the layman’s hopes and desires in connection with the Council. Joseph E. Cunneen, author of this third article in the series, is managing editor of “Cross Currents.” —The Editors
By Joseph E. Cunneen
Let me strike a sour note at the outset, and suggest that the invitation for laymen to speak out on the coming Council first be considered in the dominant context of Catholic indifference and skepticism. It is true, of course, that in the last few years alumnae groups who wanted to be au courant have scheduled at least one speaker who could flavor his talk with words like “ecumenical” and “dialogue,” but any idea that the Council requires an involvement and commitment of the entire Church could hardly make much headway against our perennial absorption in building drives and rhetorical anti-Communism. To all outward appearances, the parish clergy and church-going laity possess a united response: the Council is a good idea, but no concern of ours.
And as for consulting laymen, what possibly can Cardinal Koenig, who voiced the explicit invitation, mean? Doubtless there are available amiable eccentrics who specialize in Byzantine liturgies or the history of canon law, but what response outside of downright hilarity would greet any wide-eyed “Catholic Actionist” who told the local Holy Name Society—to say nothing of that more representative group, the men who do not attend the meetings—that their views on the coming Council were being solicited? “I can’t get through to my pastor,” one might say, “on why I object to using envelopes in the collection, or why I want to keep my family together, and not ship the kids off to a separate children’s Mass; how can I have anything to say to theologians and cardinals?”
Those who rightly complain of lay immaturity today should be forced to reflect on those patterns in Catholic life which help to prolong indefinitely a state of adolescence.
Only, of course, no one says this to the bishop; and, unless conditions are very different in Austria, no one says this to Cardinal Koenig, either. A laudable reverence for his role as heir of the Apostles shields him from the vulgarity in which the layman might express his instinctive, somewhat cynical conviction that the business of the Church is an affair for specialists. Occasionally, a dissident voice may reach his ears, but it is apt to sound like what it probably is: a gripe, a clash of personalities, some uninformed and irresponsible petulance. Yet even such expressions have their importance, and partly because of their inadequacy. If we had a strong and continuing tradition of lay responsibility, the voices would be more positive, more confident—and more deeply Christian.
Those who rightly complain of lay immaturity today should be forced to reflect on those patterns in Catholic life which help to prolong indefinitely a state of adolescence. Catholic schools that pride themselves on their discipline rarely provide the most exemplary models of student self-government. Similarly, laymen are often given the impression by their priest friends that any display of initiative will only make their superiors suspicious. One ultimately begins to believe that the atmosphere of ecclesiastical restraint, coupled with a prudence not exclusively spiritual in character, is hardly an ideal one to help the bishop become truly informed about the problems in his diocese.
It would appear, then, that the opening of lines of regular communication within the Church should be an underlying concern throughout the work of the Council. At the same time, it is only just to recognize that gestures of encouragement such as that of Cardinal Koenig are increasingly common on all levels, from the Vatican to the local parish.
The two World Congresses of the Lay Apostolate held at Rome (another is planned for 1963), the first African meeting of the Lay Apostolate at Uganda (1953) and the first Asian meeting at Manila (1955) are important events in a twentieth-century history of the Church. Such international movements as the Y.C.W., Pax Romana, Pax Christi, etc.—some of which seem surprisingly feeble or non-existent in the United States—are playing an indispensable role in world opinion.
When a document on “Temporal Commitment” was recently published by the French Episcopal Commission on Labor, it was the fruit of a collaboration between those bishops who were members of the committee and the national leaders of the Labor section of Catholic Action. As the preface states, these lay leaders contributed “their experience of the workers’ world, their direct observation, which has made it possible for them to see how the worker looks at this commitment.” A similar direction is suggested in the proposal of Father Lombardi for the creation of various councils, some composed of laymen, others of both priests and laymen, which would be capped by a lay “Senate of humanity.”
Does the nature of the Church really call for a clerical Sherman Adams, shielding bishops or the Pope from disturbing facts, especially if they are not couched in the terms of seminary rhetoric?
Nevertheless, despite the responsible and genuine nature of such appeals, in the day-to-day life of the local church one can easily get the impression that “the age of the layman” is merely a new slogan for the inevitable Catholic organizations, summoned into being to suggest the outlines of vast popular support. Even at the World Lay Congress in Rome, John Todd’s report on the first meeting written for Downside Review, Spring 1952—suggests that genuine communication with authority was short-circuited, and that lay recommendations and resolutions were drastically edited by zealous monsignori. Does the nature of the Church really call for a clerical Sherman Adams, shielding bishops or the Pope from disturbing facts, especially if they are not couched in the terms of seminary rhetoric?
It would be a mockery of any notion of lay responsibility to summon a group into existence that would either never act, or whose judgments—in their own are a of competence—were always identical with those of th e hierarchy. In a given case, a Catholic labor group might decide to support a strike led by leftist leaders, or involving employees at Catholic institutions. They must not represent the bishop’s position unfairly, and should keep in mind that their own is not infallible; nevertheless, I cannot see why they should not abide by their judgment. Another Catholic group, specialists on international affairs, may conclude that America should abandon its policy of trying to exclude Communist China from membership in the United Nations. But will they issue this statement if they know episcopal support will be immediately withdrawn, and their organization accused of indifference to the plight of the “Church of silence”? If they refrain, will their Christianity be more adult? Does the avoidance of embarrassment constitute a victory for the Church?
Does the avoidance of embarrassment constitute a victory for the Church?
What is needed, then, it would seem, is not more “study days” on the role of the layman, but a change in attitude which for some may appear to be fundamental. There is no reason, however, to believe that attitudes cannot be changed in the Church if there is a will to dramatize the new approach: consider the revolution accomplished in the half-century since Pius X brought Communion to young children, and began to make us all see the necessity for more frequent reception of the Eucharist. Proposals already made in regard to the Council, advocating greater decentralization and further encouraging lay participation in the liturgy, suggest exciting possibilities.
Would smaller parishes, whose unpretentious structures would use the most economical materials possible, make it easier for all of us to see the altar as central? Studies of modem urbanism by sociologists of religion tend to suggest ecclesiastical units small enough for priests and people to know each other more easily , and in which spontaneous and meaningful ways of using lay assistants might develop naturally. The parish must keep in focus its central activity of celebrating the Christian mysteries, and through this means forming the minds and hearts of Christian adults; Christian parents, especially in these times of revolution, must be so trained that they can assume the major burden for the religious education of their children. This will free the parish to rediscover the essentially missionary dimension of Christianity, and to be present, without righteousness or proselytizing zeal, among the needs and concerns of the total community.
Any Catholic who honestly grapples with his temporal vocation in the world comes to see the centrality of the bishop’s role, and prays only to encounter him more frequently as teacher than as super-administrator.
There need be no fear that the layman, in a burst of willful impatience, is straining at the teaching authority of the Church. Any Catholic who honestly grapples with his temporal vocation in the world comes to see the centrality of the bishop’s role, and prays only to encounter him more frequently as teacher than as super-administrator. Few are the Sunday sermons which center on doctrine; fewer still are those which help us see in what way doctrines change anything in our lives. In this connection it might be helpful to take seriously Canon Jacques Leclercq’s notion of moral heresy, especially since those teachings which are related to the Christian concept of fraternity are of central concern to everyday life.
It is hard for us to realize that justice demands that we seriously attack the problem of the shocking disparity of living standards between ourselves and the newer nations.
We all make too little effort today to see the meaning of Christian poverty; is it an anachronism in our affluent societies of the West? It is hard for us to realize that justice demands that we seriously attack the problem of the shocking disparity of living standards between ourselves and the newer nations. Similarly, the same Catholic who is eager to make a personal sacrifice in his contribution to the parochial school in a growing suburban area is rarely helped to realize that his effort to build up Christ’s body in his neighborhood is a fraud if it cooperates, even by passive collusion, with a pattern of systematic segregation in the new housing projects which are developing.
No critique could be more telling than Canon Leclereq’s summary: “The Catholic, as he is generally conceived, is characterized by his religious practices: he goes to Mass, he goes without meat on Friday; he is not characterized by charity. But this is practice; let us put the question from the doctrinal point of view: the Catholic then is one who believes that he must go to Mass and that he must do without meat on Friday, who recognizes that he is at fault if he does not do this; he is not one who believes that he must love his neighbor as Christ loved us and who acknowledges himself to be at fault if he does not love him in that manner.”
An informed Catholic can see the importance of such a Council proposal as re-emphasis of the office of bishop, especially since the notion of papal infallibility is usually seen in hopelessly unbalanced perspective. Nevertheless, the layman is apt to fear that the appreciation of such fundamentals will be obscured if the image of the Church projected is one with apparently no decisive and healing word to offer a desperately troubled world on such questions as modern warfare, the limits of nationalism, world hunger and capital punishment.
The Council’s concern for our Orthodox brothers is a reason for hope, since among the positive results of the meetings is apt to be warmer and more frequent personal contacts, as well as increased mature study of Orthodoxy, perhaps even as part of regular seminary training. Reputable Catholic theologians have often told us that we will be better able to see that which is purely local, transient or unbalanced in our western Christendom as we gain greater familiarity with the Christian traditions of the East, with its experimental emphasis, its sense of transcendence allied to “negative theology,” centered in the mystery of the Holy Trinity.
What is crucial for us at the Council is not the precise wording of a decree but a significant reminder that through the Church we are being invited by Christ to share His life.
Unless this new knowledge is merely to be fitted into the rational, positive and technical character of Latin theology, however, must there not be a constant care, whether in the seminary, the pulpit, or the Catholic school, to stress the openness, the continuous operation of every Christian’s attempt to appropriate the meaning of Revelation in his lived experience? Will this not lead logically to another of Cardinal Koenig’s suggested topics, reforms in canon law pertaining to the reading of “prohibited books”? When there is less emphasis on prohibition, and more on the limited character of infallibility, the merely probable nature of many propositions now often presented as part of Catholic tradition will become clearer, as well as the inevitably speculative character of the bulk of the theological enterprise.
The magisterium has always one sure, but rarely employed, way to remind laymen of their vanity and ignorance: ask them to be saints. If we are hard on our pastors, it may finally be because they ask us only to be regular in our religious practices.
What is crucial for us at the Council is not the precise wording of a decree but a significant reminder that through the Church we are being invited by Christ to share His life. What is needed at the Council, then, is not better public relations, spectacular demonstrations or an ingenious use of popular jargon. What we must seek is a deeper understanding that the spirit in which the entire Church is called into Council is not for a certain number of days over in Rome, but something to be continued in human contacts and open communication every day in every parish.
From the June 15, 1962 issue of Commonweal.