The eminent American Catholic historian John Tracy Ellis, in evaluating the role of the laity on the eve of the Council, cautions against the dangers of anti-clericalism, which American Catholicism has so far avoided but which is increasingly likely unless the gifts of the laity are recognized.
By John Tracy Ellis
Each age in the long and eventful life of the Church has its distinguishing characteristics. When the history of this second half of the twentieth century is written there will, in all probability, be few more striking notes than the emergence of the laity into a strong and active role as collaborators with the clergy in the apostolate. So marked has been this development that there has even emerged a theology of the lay movement, a ne w tract, as it were, which theologians have been refining in recent years in a way that suggests the revival of the part once played in the early Church by the deacon who assisted the priests and bishops in advancing the word of God through the ancient pagan world.
In part this expanding concept of the layman’s place in the divine economy of salvation is an answer to a need. For every well-informed Catholic has for sometime been aware that the rate of increase of the faithful—to say nothing of the increase of potential converts among our separated brethren—has become so rapid that the supply of priests and religious for their spiritual care can in no way keep pace, with the result that the emphasis on the need for lay apostles is by no means confined to Latin America but has become virtually worldwide.In fact, with the exception of certain favored area s like the Republic of Ireland and the Archdiocese of Boston in our own country, lay Catholics—or non-Catholics who may offer a prospect of conversion—far outdistance the proportional growth of priestly and religious vocations. That is one reason why our generation, more than any other in modern times, has heard so insistent a call for lay assistance and participation in the work of the Church.
In recognition of this central fact of contemporary Catholicism there was convened in 1951 the first World Congress of the Lay Apostolate, which was followed six years later by a Second World Congress at Rome in October, 1957. To both of these gatherings Pope Pius XII delivered memorable addresses which outlined the respective roles that the clergy and the laity were expected to play in furthering the apostolate so that it might embrace men of every continent, of every color, and of every race.
On both occasions the Pontiff made clear the necessary distinctions between the function of the clergy, particularly the bishops, who alone represent the teaching authority of the Church, and that of the laity who are asked to cooperate with those in ecclesiastical authority. But Pius XII was at pains to emphasize the layman’s share, stating that—to quote the words he used in 1951—”the assistance rendered by the laity to the apostolate is an indispensable necessity.”
Six years later the Holy Father returned to the same theme, delineating once more as precisely as possible the apostolic functions of the priest and of the layman. And in this latter address to the second World Congress Pius XII maintained that the value and efficacy of the apostolate exercised by any participant was dependent not on his rank but on what the Pope called “his personal ability and supernatural gifts.” Lay teachers, religious, missionary catechists, and all to whom the Church entrusted the truths of faith he said, “can properly apply to themselves the Lord’s words: ‘You are the salt of the earth,’ and ‘You are the light of the world.’”
In view of this development in world Catholicism, what, one may ask, is the situation in which the Catholic laity of the United States find themselves, and how does that situation fit them to offer the maximum response to the responsibilities which the Holy See has asked them to assume?
[the laity] are rather the product of between three hundred and four hundred years of growth in the soil of this Republic.
First, they constitute a body of nearly forty-three million souls joined by a deep supernatural faith and an abiding love for Christ’s Church that makes them one of the world’s most promising reservoirs of Catholic strength and renewal. Theirs is a faith with historic roots that reach back to the Spanish pioneers who brought Catholicism to Florida, the Southwest, and California before the United States itself was born; a faith that was practiced by the French in the Mississippi Valley and the region of the Great Lakes when what we know as the Middle West was still largely an untracked wilderness; a faith for which the tiny minority of their English Catholic forebears in colonial Maryland and Pennsylvania suffered ostracism and legal proscription.In other words, the impressive Catholic laity of today must not be thought a new thing on the American scene; they are rather the product of between three hundred and four hundred years of growth in the soil of this Republic. Secondly, this laity—thanks to God’s bountiful providence and to the frugal living and dedicated labor of their ancestors and of themselves—are the wealthiest group of Catholics in the world, and thus in a material and external sense their numbers and their wealth constitute them the strongest laity within the universal Church.
More important, however, than numbers and wealth has been the intellectual advance of the Catholics of the United States. It is a feature that gains strength with each passing year as thousands of young Americans stream forth from the colleges and universities of the land intellectually equipped to occupy an articulate and meaningful place in national life. With this heightened intellectual and cultural prestige, with the deepening knowledge that accompanies a superior education, there has inevitably appeared a closer scrutiny of all that pertains to the Church, a sharper and more critical turn of mind which makes the educated Catholic layman of this second half of the twentieth century a quite different person than his unlettered immigrant grandparents of two or three generations ago.
…there has come in some sectors of the Catholic community a note of strain in clerical-lay relations.
Here, then, is a new factor in the Catholicism of our day, a factor that is bound to assume increasing importance in the years ahead, a factor that has, indeed, already had a major share in accelerating the speed a t which the Catholic Church of this country has come of age. With this new factor there has come in some sectors of the Catholic community a note of strain in clerical-lay relations.
Here I would wish to emphasize that I have in mind situations quite apart from the indefensible conduct of an insignificant minority of lay Catholics in New Orleans who have gained national notoriety by their defiance of the racial integration policies of their Archbishop. I refer rather to the educated and loyal layman, conscious of the improved position he occupies over that of his grandparents and conscious, too, of the emphasis that the Holy See has repeatedly given of late to the need for the laity to take a more active share in the Church’s life and work. It is this type of Catholic layman — devout, fund mentally respectful of authority, alert, and highly trained — who is seeking to find a channel through which he may contribute his talents and special skills to the apostolate of his time.
“Let us cease to pretend to wish to do what we have no intention of doing.”
In that connection I am reminded of a remark made by John Lancaster Spalding, Bishop of Peoria, in 1889 in a letter to William J. Onahan, at the time probably Chicago’s most outstanding Catholic layman—a remark quoted by Father David F. Sweeny, O.F. M., in his life of Bishop Spalding. Speaking of the Catholic lay congress being planned for the autumn of that year, Bishop Spalding was intent that there should be some practical results, and in instancing lay cooperation with the clergy he strongly urged that Onahan should, as he said, “devise some means by which laymen may really take part in Church work…. Let us cease,” said the Bishop, “to pretend to wish to do what we have no intention of doing. ”It would be untrue to say that there has been no progress in that respect since Bishop Spalding wrote seventy-three years ago. But it would be less than honest to represent the channels of lay participation in the Church’s varied apostolate as fully open to their zeal. Thus James O’Gara of The Commonweal wrote not long ago of the deep conviction that many laymen had concerning the principles of the Papal encyclicals. But, he said, when the layman tries to implement his conviction by doing something about it, he “is frequently rebuffed.” He then declared: “All too often, he is made to feel like a stranger where he should be most welcome, in his own parish. This seems to me a major problem, and one I think should be faced more squarely. Until it is, I am afraid lay participation will remain more pious wish than actual fact. ”
All too often, he is made to feel like a stranger where he should be most welcome, in his own parish.
It is, indeed, a major problem, and with the writer’s rather lugubrious conclusion I feel compelled to agree. Too many laymen trying to find their place in apostolic action have experienced embarrassing encounters with a certain type of churchman who seems never to have heard Pius XII’s exhortation to the clerical delegate s of the first World Congress of the lay Apostolate when he said: “let them encourage them (the laity), suggesting enterprises to them and welcoming with good will the enterprises which they suggest, approving them in a broadminded way according to their opportuneness. In decisive battles, it is often at the front that the most useful initiatives arise.”
More than a century has passed since Orestes Brownson, the best-known Catholic layman of his day, reminded the readers of his Quarterly Review that theirs was an age when education and intelligence were not confined to the clergy, and that the grounds of controversy between the Church and its enemies were not exclusively theological, but such as would ultimately be decided by reason rather than authority. In these circumstances, said Brownson, in October of 1860, “the fullest liberty must be given to laymen, compatible with the supremacy of the spiritual order and the discipline of the Church.”If that could be said with warrant in 1860, with how much more cogency do the changed conditions of our day permit it to be said in 1962. Obviously, care must be taken in the layman’s execution of his apostolic man – date so that what he says and what he does may not transgress the limits imposed upon him by Catholic doctrine and that he may not find himself at cross purposes with what the Catholic sense would interpret as the legitimate exercise of authority by his ecclesiastical superiors. But by the same token the continued harmony and good order of the Catholic community make it imperative that the clergy be persuaded that present conditions call for a relaxing of some of the power and authority they have been accustomed to exercise over the laity in matters not directly pertaining to their divine mission; that they share, in other words, with the laymen in those areas of the Church’s life where the latter’s special training and competence entitle them to participate actively in fulfillment of the directives of the Holy See.
Fortunately, the Catholic Church in this country has never been handicapped by the devastating tradition of anti-clericalism that has proved so detrimental to religion in much of western Europe and of Latin America. Once only in our history have the relations of clergy and laity undergone a real crisis, when at the close of the eighteenth century there arose the movement known as lay trusteeism which continued to plague certain sections of the American Church as late as the Civil War. It was a costly experience for which a rebellious minority of the laity and a small but defiant and ambitious group of priests were equally to blame. But thanks to the fundamental loyalty of the vast majority of the laity, and to the docile and zealous character of most of the clergy, by the mid-century the worst evils of lay trusteeism had run their course.
Meanwhile, between the hundreds of thousands of incoming immigrants—most of whom were poor, illiterate, and without guidance in a strange land—and the priests who either accompanied them or whom they found on their arrival, there were forged the strongest bonds of affection and mutual esteem as they joined hands to establish their religious life—often in a hostile environment—as well as to insure their material welfare by mutual assistance. The result was the emergence of a relationship between the two ranks that earned the admiration of the Catholic world, a model that has endured to our own day and that is still, thank God, essentially intact.
It is a matter of prime importance for the wholesome Catholic life we have known in the United States that we continue to be kept free from [anticlericalism's] lethal influence.
Yet it would be a disservice to the Church that we love were we to deny the presence in our midst of symptoms that suggest an anti-clerical sentiment hitherto unknown to American Catholics. In its issue of April 16 of this year, America noted this phenomenon in an editorial that made somber reading for those whose knowledge of history recalled the price that the Church paid in Europe and Latin America during the nineteenth century because of the deadly poison of anticlericalism. Up to the present we have been mercifully spared from this virus, and it is a matter of prime importance for the wholesome Catholic life we have known in the United States that we continue to be kept free from its lethal influence.
If I were asked to suggest the most effective weapons with which to combat anti-clericalism, I should be inclined to answer as follows. First, the exercise by both clergy and laity of extreme sensitivity and forbearance in their relations with each other so that nothing be said or done that may exasperate or give cause for need – less irritation or offense. And in this category principal emphasis should be placed, I think, on public statements that by the harshness of their tone or the lack of sympathy that they breathe, are likely to wound the feelings of others.
Secondly, there should be a steady and deliberate opening up of new channels for apostolic action to th e layman, such as has taken place, for example, in the archdiocese of Montreal where the entire school boar d has been given over to laymen and in the diocese of Providence where seven out of eleven members of the diocesan school board are laymen. For when one pauses to consider it, could there be any more appropriate arena wherein to implement the layman’s apostolic zeal than membership on the board that frames the policies and directs the destinies of the schools that his children attend?
Another important area is the Family Life Apostolate where, I am reliably informed, at least one hundred thousand married couples at the present time are engaged in giving lectures, conducting conferences, writing articles and books, appearing on television an d radio programs, participating in neighborhood and community activities in their role as Catholic husband s and wives, and in some dioceses even acting as marriage counsellors.
Thirdly, I think of the Catholic press as an area which, it seems to me, is peculiarly fitted for the laymen and where a number of lay journalists have clearly proven that they not only can conduct a Catholic newspaper with high satisfaction but, perhaps, can do it better than the priest by reason of their technical training an d the total dedication that they can bring to the task which the priest is denied because of his simultaneous commitment to other responsibilities.
And last, but by no means the least, are the varied good works of the National Council of Catholic Men and the National Council of Catholic Women which for approximately forty years have been doing yeoman work in activating the laity to a more intelligent an d organized service to the Catholic cause. These aspects of the life of the modern Church, then, the diocesan school board, the Family Life Apostolate, and the Catholic press, and the two National Councils have already given proof in certain dioceses that they hold the key for the layman who wishes to function actively in the Church, and that in a way that redounds not only to the advancement of the Catholic apostolate, but as well to the layman’s personal honor and distinction.
That the percentage of highly educated and specially trained laymen in the American Church will increase is certain; that this fact will create a more exacting and searching spirit among the laity concerning what they find in the Church is equally certain. It thus behooves all of us, clergy and laity alike, to see to it that the infinitely precious tradition of intimate and warm clerical-lay relations that we of this generation have inherited from the American Catholic past is preserved and passed on to those who come after us.
At times this task will demand patience and forbearance on the part of each of us, but the ultimate good to be served is more than worth the effort, for in the greater participation of the laity in the Church’s works lies in part the solution for many of the problems of a harassed and under-staffed clerical body, and in the new avenues opened to lay activity will there be afforded the means for increasing and strengthening the Catholic laymen of the United States along the lines that John Henry Newman had in mind when toward the close of his famous 1851 “lectures on the present position of Catholics in England” he said this:
“What I desiderate in Catholics is the gift of bringing out what their religion is; it is one of these `better gifts,’ of which the Apostle bids you be `zealous: You must not hide your talent in a napkin, or your light under a bushel. I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where the y stand, who know what they hold, and what they do not, who know their creed so well, that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it…. I have no apprehensions you will be the worse Catholics for familiarity with these subjects, provided you cherish a vivid sense of God above and keep in mind that you have souls to be judged and to be saved.”
Rt. Rev. Monsignor John Tracy Elis is professor of Church History at Catholic University. This article is adapted from a commencement address at Carroll College, Montana.
This article was published in the June 22, 1962 issue of Commonweal.