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 last week began publication of a special series devoted to the layman’s hopes and desires in connection with the Council. Philip Scharper, author of this second article in the series, is chief editor of Sheed & Ward. —The Editors
By Philip Scharper
What every Catholic would hope for from the Council is that it succeed in realizing one of the major goals which Pope John set in convoking it: a renewal of the Church which will be so effective that the Church herself will become, by what she is, the most compelling argument for Christian unity.
But it would be a mistake to assume that such reform and renewal were important only to enable the Church to present a fairer face to our separated brothers. On point after point such reform is urgently needed to make the Catholic himself understand the Church more deeply, love her more devotedly, and live in her life more fully.
In what follows, I shall try to set forth what points of renewal seem to me most urgent. They may reflect a parochialism of experience and poverty of observation; but they have also whatever value may attach itself to the reflections of one who has no position to maintain and no interests to serve, except those of Christ in His Church.
…this is the Age of the Laity
First, I would hope that the Council might render more meaningful the statement of Pope Pius XII that this is the Age of the Laity; that the lay person is not only in the front lines of the Church, but “is the Church.” A particularly hopeful line of development would seem, to me at least, to lie in exploring the dimensions of the recovered phrase, “the priesthood of the laity.” Pius XII declared that lay members of the Church should be informed of their priesthood, and the fact of their priesthood “should neither he minimized nor denied.”
These are clear words and strong directives, yet in the years since Pope Pius uttered them I have not heard a single sermon on the priesthood of the laity, been aware of a single study group undertaking it as a subject of inquiry, nor read a single article about it in journals which reach the layman as a matter of policy.
Further, I would hope that any attention given to the role of the laity would allow sociological perspectives in addition to the theological and canonical bases on which the subject must rest.
Further, every effort should be made to treat the layman as though he were in status, as he is in fact, a peer of the priest and religious in the Church’s educational mission.
To cite but an obvious instance: I have known a score of lay editors of Catholic newspapers and magazines, and dozens of dedicated lay teachers in Catholic schools and colleges. These people are not members of the Church in any minimal sense; they are passionately interested in the Church. It is their abiding—often their central—concern. Their home is an ecclesiola; their leisure reading has a generous quota of theology—dogmatic, speculative and ascetical; their leisure activities embrace some form of intelligent Catholic Action, and they are concerned with such things as the liturgy an d the social teachings of the Church.
Sociologically, in short, they are closer to the ideal of the priesthood than is that consecrated priest who does little serious reading, whose leisure activities, though innocent, are worldly and hence trivial, and whose thinking on social issues reflects the mass medi a rather than the mind of the Church.
Such a sociological situation does not, of course, affect the theological and canonical status of either priest or lay person, but it obviously cannot (or should not) be brushed aside if one is considering how the lay person is to share in the unfulfilled work of Christ, the High Priest. It means—among many other things that could be cited—that the lay person should have a voice in some of the councils within the Church. The lay faculty in our schools should be given a larger role in decision-taking and policy-making than is presently the case in many institutions. Further, every effort should be made to treat the layman as though he were in status, as he is in fact, a peer of the priest and religious in the Church’s educational mission.
Parishioners could well be consulted about many matters in the parish, such as the best times for weekday Masses and the hearing of confessions, what subjects they wish to hear treated in sermons, and whether or not the preacher can be heard in any case. Indeed, if one could propose it without seeming facetious, a new Canon might call for a Suggestion Box next to the holy water font at the entrance to each church.
These specific examples may well be as banal as I think they are bathetic, but they point to a fact which is neither: the layman is increasingly urged to ponder and fulfill his role in the Church; lay people are increasingly competent to discharge that role, yet are frustrated by the fact that the administrative structures of the Church often make it difficult, if not impossible, for the layman to respond to the very challenges given him by pulpit and press.
What is relevant is that another responsibility was being set before the laity, but no provision was made for the discharge of that responsibility.
Such, at least, was my feeling some months ago when I read in the Catholic press an injunction of Mr. Martin Work, executive director of the National Council of Catholic Men. Mr. Work chided the laity of the United States for not making known to the proper authorities its desires and wishes concerning the forthcoming Council. But no indication was given as to who these authorities were, how they were to be contacted in this case, nor how the public opinion he called for was effectively to be ascertained and presented. I have the greatest respect for Mr. Work, but that is irrelevant here. What is relevant is that another responsibility was being set before the laity, but no provision was made for the discharge of that responsibility. In effect, the lay person was invited to give a broadcast, was ushered into a studio, and then was seated before a dead microphone. He can be pardoned if, at times, he feels like a Kafka-esque creation.
I would also hope that the Council might address itself to the theology of religious toleration and the closely connected question of the relation of Church and state. I am aware, of course, that these questions are—and have long been—in a state of dialectical tension, but there is much in the modern world to suggest that the tension, if long protracted, will be sterile rather than fruitful. There would seem to be as ample theological warrant for the so-called liberal view as there is for the so-called conservative one, and I suspect that on this point “consulting the faithful” of the world would indicate that most of them have long accepted the “liberal” view. For in our times the experience of Northern Europe and North America gives as valid a reading of the mind of the Church as does the history of Southern Europe and South America, and the present vitality of the Northern churches suggests that the Church is most free to be herself when she is as free from privilege as she is from persecution.
Further, the Church’s concern with Asia and Africa makes imperative some reasonably definite solution, for here the Church is confronted, not with the religious pluralism of Western experience, but with the pluralism of Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Jew, Moslem, Buddhist, Shintoist et al. To confront such traditions with a truncated theology of tolerance or an insistence upon Church-state relations predicated upon an increasingly anachronistic Western historical experience would be in great part to foreclose the future of the Church within these cultures and to force Christ to speak to these peoples, as it were, in a harsh and alien tongue.
One must not judge the past unfairly and must, above all, not blame an earlier generation for lacking insights only painfully gained in our own. Nevertheless, some questions still seem pertinent.
Lastly, one would hope that the Council might somehow serve to create a climate of urgency in which theologians would work to discover the practical corollaries of the Church’s teachings. We have, for example, recovered, after centuries of virtual ignorance, an awareness of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ. But theologians, teachers and preachers have, for the most part, seemingly rested in a continually deepening exposition of the doctrine itself, without too much concern for what we might call the practical consequences of the doctrine for those problems which press most heavily upon modern man.
One of those problems is obviously that of race. Surely the doctrine of the Mystical Body has tremendous implications here, but those implications have all too often been glossed over in favor of purely social, political and economic considerations.
One must not judge the past unfairly and must, above all, not blame an earlier generation for lacking insights only painfully gained in our own. Nevertheless, some questions still seem pertinent. Why, for example, were so many Catholic churches in our South segregated so completely for so long a time? What cast of mind accounted for the fact that the Supreme Court decision of 1954 opened the doors of Catholic colleges to more Negroes than had the fact that the Catholic Negro was a member of Christ’s Body? How can we still partake of the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Unity, and tranquilly permit Christ, in His Negro and Puerto Rican brothers, to be confined to shuns scarcely fit for even animal occupancy?
Modern man is also vexed by the problem of work. Does it have a meaning beyond the obvious economic one? Can it have a deeper meaning for most workers in a complex, industrialized society where work, it has been alleged, increasingly dehumanizes the worker as man increasingly serves his machines? The problem, of course, is old; only its intensity is new.
The doctrine of the Mystical Body would seem to have implications for at least a partial solution to this problem. It would seem to contain generous hints toward a genuine theology of work which would redeem from meaninglessness the working hours of the Christian’s day. The problem is old, but even the phrase, “a theology of work,” is relatively new, and the theology itself has scarcely been attempted on a serious scale. I would almost venture the guess that, in the last five years, more theological attention has been paid to the morality of boxing and careless driving than to the development of a theology of work.
Modern man also confronts the new and perplexing problem of international responsibility. One of the cruellest features of the problem is that it catches man at the intersecting point of a declining nationalism in the West and the rising nationalism of the emergent nations of Africa and Asia.
How does the Christian confront this problem? Should he have a sense of guilt at realizing that the “new nations” suffered much from the colonizers of Christian Europe; that very often the Christian missionizing activity was based on charity toward the “natives,” but seemed unaware of the prior demands of justice, permitting the exploitation of natural resources while proclaiming the Kingdom of God?
Even if the past were blameless, what, if any, is the Christian’s responsibility toward the peoples struggling upward toward a condition of authentic humanity? What response can he make to their often blind but blessed thrust toward freedom from the serfdoms of the past?
Here, too, the doctrine of the Mystical Body would seem to have relevance, but that relevance has yet to be spelled out so often and in such detail that the Catholic cannot evade it. One sees an occasional editorial in the Catholic press on the subject, but rarely one that carries the thought deeper than last year’s editorial. Articles on the subject are yet more rare, and books are almost nonexistent. Birth control, yes. Divorce, yes. Population explosion (in relation to birth control), yes. Federal funds for Catholic schools, yes. These subjects are abundantly treated. But why the comparative silence on our responsibilities to the new world which is taking shape before our eyes?
We have, in short, come into the twentieth century at the great risk of seeming almost irrelevant in the eyes of the non-Catholic world.
Race, work, international responsibility—three problems which roil the modern world and lacerate the soul of twentieth-century man. But we have come into the twentieth century without an adequate “theology” of race, without an adequate “theology” of work, without an adequate “theology” of international responsibility. We have, in short, come into the twentieth century at the great risk of seeming almost irrelevant in the eyes of the non-Catholic world.
The peril of seeming irrelevance confronts, of course, not only Roman Catholicism but all of the Christian churches equally. In itself, this peril constitutes one of the strongest arguments for Christian unity, and make s it clear that no matter how remote may be unity in creed, unity in charity and concern can suffer no delay. This, I take it, was prominently in the mind of Pope John when he said, in speaking of the Council: “We do not intend to conduct a trial of the past; we do not want to prove who was right or who was wrong. The blame is on both sides. All we want is to say: Let us come together. Let us make an end of our divisions.”
Appeal for unity is, of course, not enough. There must be persuasion as well, and the only reason for writing these lines is that they mirror what one Catholic feels to be involved in one of the announced main purposes of the Council: so to renew the Church that she become s herself the most persuasive argument for unity, as she stands before the world—not as we Catholics have made her by our pride and folly, our apathy, our hardness of heart, our confusion of national interests and cultural constructs with the essence of the Church—but as she is in the design of Christ: the splendid City on the mountain, its walls and towers constantly aglow as they faithfully reflect the Light of the Sun.
From the June 8, 1962 issue of Commonweal.