As Catholics throughout the world expectantly await the opening of the Second Vatican Council, it has already become apparent that the preparation for the Council has, in itself, been a source of hope and vitality for the Church. For the layman, these preparations have been of special significance: they have been the source of considerable soul-searching on the part of laity and clergy alike concerning the role of the laity in the Church. Moreover, in many nations and in numerous dioceses, the laity have been invited to make known to the hierarchy their hopes, criticisms and aspirations.
The most specific call to the laity was, perhaps, that of Francis Cardinal Koenig of Vienna, a member of the Central Preparatory Commission for the Council. Speaking at a meeting of Austrian Catholic newsmen, Cardinal Koenig said: “Do not wait for the Bishop or for a report from Rome, if you have something to say about the Council. Sound a warning whenever you feel that you ought to. Urge, when you feel urging is necessary… Report everything that the people and the Catholics expect concerning the Council.”
With the coming Council in mind, The Commonweal begins in this issue a special series devoted to the layman’s hopes and desires in the contemporary Church. To begin the series, however, we have asked Father Robert Hovda of the Department of Religion at the Catholic University of America to comment, from the viewpoint of a theologian, on the theological problem of the layman’s role in the Church. In the weeks to come, a number of laymen will, in turn, address themselves to the question of the laity. It is our hope that their frank and open discussion will, in some measure, be a contribution to the work of those Bishops and theologians who will participate in the coming Ecumenical Council.
By Robert W. Hovda
Reaction is potentially as dangerous a phenomenon as it is natural in every human society, in all movements of human thought and action. Opposition to mistakes or errors, in a philosophy, in a political theory, in an economic program, often finds it difficult to avoid caricaturing its genuine insights and its truth. Reaction constantly threatens to distort truth by losing the balance required for its accurate formulation.
…it is the worship of the whole community in which the “amen” is as essential as the collect.
It is impossible to talk about present healthy developments in the theology of the Church, and particularly in the theology of the layman in the Church, without first recognizing that we are emerging from a period of intense and unbalanced theological reaction. We are emerging from a period in which, though the laypeoples part, office, functions, or ministry in the Church was never denied in principle, it was rarely affirmed. The Church’s doctrine, however, has never forgotten that, while her worship is hierarchically ordered for the sake of unity, it is the worship of the whole community in which the “amen” is as essential as the collect.The Church’s doctrine has never forgotten that, while she is structured by the apostolic college of Jesus’ institution, she is also the community of the Spirit. The Church’s doctrine has never forgotten that while hierarchical authority rules, it does not rule in a vacuum, without consulting with and listening to the voices of the laypeople, whose sacramental initiation and Christian life render ridiculous the notion of a merely passive laity. The Church’s doctrine has never forgotten that, while the hierarchy judges, this very fact demands initiatives from the community, and that sometimes it is the younger member who speaks with greater wisdom.
What movement in the Church would have succeeded, what contemplative or charitable work would have been founded, without this freedom (and responsibility ) to create and invent, to suggest, to be heard and to be tested? The saints are a constant witness in the Church’s life to these initiatives, to this breathing of the Spirit.
Tradition in the Church is a reality and force with unhappy as well as happy aspects. So many “traditions,” purely human customs, habits, attitudes, hide under the cloak of the Gospel truth, of the Good News, which Tradition is bound to bring to men. It is so easy to fail to make the necessary distinctions and to inherit, in stead of the freedom offered by God’s Word, a kind of slavery to our Christian ancestors. But one of the happy aspects of Tradition’s power is the fact that it conserves through periods of ignorance or indifference truths upon which later generations can build, when the ignorance and the indifference have passed.
Thanks to Scripture scholarship, theological exploration, patristic studies, liturgical science, archeology, and church history, we are rediscovering some of these riches of Tradition. Most of us are aware of a transformation, unfortunately just beginning in many places, affecting Catholic public worship, particularly the celebration of the Mass. From inert, if dutiful, worshipers at a rite insufficiently intelligible to them and from which their active participation is almost inevitably excluded, the laity are in some places again becoming listening, praying, singing, sacrificing, communing participants in a living, popular worship which sacrifices nothing of the Church’s liturgical wisdom and tradition.
They are also in many places being recalled to their proper ministry and witness in the temporal order, as well as in the Church’s missionary evangelization. Who could fail to note the effect on the laity of America of the birth and growth of hundreds of forms, structures, organizations of the lay apostolate, of “Catholic Action,” of lay missionary activity? In the liturgical revival and in the lay apostolate we have obvious and convincing evidence of the laity’s reintegration in the amazingly clericalized Church of modern times.
But there are other areas where our progress is less obvious. The term “church government” is inadequate because, though the Church is a visible society, a people, it is much more. And no treatment of its life and governance which examines it only as a religious counterpart to political society can be anything but misleading.The Church is generically different, vastly different, from any human society or institution, including the state. Hence, as Father John Courtney Murray has pointed out, the folly of attempting to argue from the government of the state to the government of the Church, or vice versa. One is human and natural, founded on the social nature of man, formed by the work of human reason, guided by human political wisdom, concerning itself with public order and the external acts of men. The other is divine and supernatural, constituted by the Savior, receiving its basic structure as a gift, with the internal bond of union in the Spirit.
So the Catholic finds no difficulty in the fact that the Church is not a democracy in the political sense. She is Christ’s Mystical Body and her transcendent claims make this arrangement indeed impossible. But if she is not a democracy in the political sense, neither is she an autocracy in the political sense, nor a monarchy in the political sense. These categories have no meaning for her. She belongs to another order.
Yet in this “space-between,” in this period of the Church in the world, it is not only a worshiping community, not only a community whose task and privilege it is to bear witness to a Word from God. Because it is visible, made up of men, it is also a community with government. The bishops of the apostolic college, gathered around the Roman primacy, are rulers as well as priests and teachers.
If the layman is more than simply one of the “governed,” in the political sense, if he has more than a merely passive role to play in this area of the Church’s life, it must appear in his relation to the bishop. Does he have any voice in choosing men for the hierarchical ministry? And what power has his voice with the bishop once elected?
The early practice of the Church reveals a definite participation of the laity in the election of bishops. This participation has taken different forms: sometimes the approval (unanimity was apparently sought as a sign of the Spirit’s presence) of the nominee of the apostolic college; sometimes the election of several candidates from whom the apostolic college would choose one; sometimes the choice of one of several presented by the apostolic college.
Gradually, however, the voice of the faithful in elections was practically reduced to the voice of kings and princes. Because of this “representative” system and because ecclesiastical offices were at times plums of temporal power and fortune, medieval times saw a practical abandonment of lay consultation in these matters. But the principle remains.
The Spirit is given to the whole Church. Infallibility belongs to the whole Church.
What about the layman’s relationship to the bishop once elected? And to the pastor once appointed? How does or should the layman figure in the daily decisions of the Church on many levels and in its legislation? Such decisions concern a multitude of problems, ranging from building programs and methods and measures in the apostolate to questions of church positions on matters of public policy which touch faith and morals. The bishop always functions as the bishop of a Christian community. And the relationship between bishop and the rest of the community is in the Church not only a political relationship. If it were, we could follow the same rules, base our thinking on the same principles, and achieve the same evolution as we have in political life. But the relationship of bishop and people is an organic thing. The Spirit is given to the whole Church. Infallibility belongs to the whole Church. So the bishop exercises his power of ruling and teaching and presiding at public worship in close touch with the whole Church, with the feelings, thoughts, desires of the faithful.
The Church is not only a priestly and institutional reality, she is a prophetical one as well. There is, perhaps there should be, a tension between its priestly and its prophetical missions. In the visible organs of its magisterium, it has the means from Christ of presiding over and directing the members of the Mystical Body. And to the same Church has been given the Spirit Who breathes where He wills. It is death to Christianity when one consents to choose between these elements. Both must be affirmed.
The Church is not only a priestly and institutional reality, she is a prophetical one as well.
We don’t have to consider here what we regard as the Protestant problem. The Reformers made a choice. They those a prophetical principle divorced from the priestly. The Catholic Church has never made such a choice. She has always affinned the simultaneous necessity of priesthood and prophecy, of institution and Spirit, of organization and organism.
But if the Catholic Church has not made the choice of the Protestant Reformers, if she has not allowed herself to be forced into that kind of either-or dilemma, we should he less than honest if we did not admit that Protestant and pre-Protestant emphasis on the prophetic has received so reactionary a response from us that we have tended in practice to reduce the Church to the priestly and the institutional. In practice, not in doctrine, I would emphasize. But practice teaches, too, sometimes more powerfully.
Hence freedom of thought and speech and criticism, public opinion, the responsibility of laity and clergy to express their ideas-outside the Church these are almost universally thought to be alien to Catholicism. And within the Church, among most of us, one notices a marked hesitancy to be open, to be forthright, to be critical. As a result of this, a caricature of the Church is almost everywhere today accepted as its authentic portrait. It sees the Church as a mother whose smothering embrace crushes breath and life out of her children, reducing them to a kind of dazed and inert half-human existence.This reluctance to speak our minds on issues, this irrational kind of “obedience,” this assumption that a constructive contribution is an act of disloyalty—this is treason to the Church, to our sacramental initiation, to our bishops and Pope who deserve this contribution, and to the Holy Spirit. It is possible we might make mistakes. This is the risk of life. And judgment is the task of that hierarchical structure which, with the Eucharist it celebrates, is our bond of union. Mistakes are bad only if we are not faithful enough to accept judgment. But there have to be developments, there has to be thinking, there has to be an expression of views, if there is to be anything to judge.
In his essay, “Free Speech in the Church,” Father Karl Rahner has strongly affirmed the necessity of an articulate public opinion for the life and health of the Church. Pope Pius XII did the same in his 1950 speech to the International Congress of the Catholic Press, an appeal echoed in the synodal statutes of the Archdiocese of Cologne in 1954. As Father Rahner points out, if the Church is to communicate the good news, the hierarchy in its official teaching capacity must know not only the Message but also the state of the listener, the times in which he lives, his concerns, his mentality, his problems and interests.
Imperfection belongs to the very essence of the Church on earth. This presupposes that we have the courage to endure a permanent state of dissatisfaction.
Such contributions of public opinion, such criticisms, are acts of love, of a love which penetrates deeply into the meaning of the Church. A true love, based on true knowledge—not the pseudo-love which has to pretend conformity because it is mixed with a kind of servile fear of the hierarchy, or because our own comfort reacts against the prospect of change, or because we really believe that supernatural faith is a gift which relieves us of the necessity of thought. Father Guardini’s classic statement is relevant: “Imperfection belongs to the very essence of the Church on earth. This presupposes that we have the courage to endure a permanent state of dissatisfaction.”
Somehow we Catholics must reaffirm the prophetic mission (and the priestly) of all members of the Church in practice as we have always maintained it in doctrine. Somehow we must balance the excessive attention we have given to its hierarchical structure (under pressure of controversy) with some advertence to the Church as the community of the faithful. This is difficult to do, because we not only have to train the Church’s members to what is for all practical purposes a new concept of responsibility and obedience, but we also have to provide some kind of structures for consultation and for the expression of public opinion. Some bishops have experimented with such structures. Some are meeting with lay advisory councils composed of representatives of the parishes in their diocese. Some have called meetings of layman to make suggestions relative to the forthcoming Ecumenical Council. Many have at least some means of occasional contact with already established diocesan lay organizations. There will have to be a good deal of experimentation, no doubt, before any particular system of representation gains widespread acceptance.
Parishes, too, can certainly experiment with various forms of lay councils to meet with the pastor at regular intervals. It is also within the realm of possibility that the Vatican may internationalize itself and avail itself and its congregations of lay opinion through appropriate offices and contacts with lay organizations.
Not that we have no instrumentalities within the Church at present for this intramural dialogue and for these initiatives. We always have, of course, the possibility of personal contact with our pastors and our bishop. We have a Catholic press which is willing, at least in many areas, to voice the opinions of the faithful. There is still great scope for personal initiatives of many kinds within the present structure of parish and diocesan life. We could not have produced great lay figures and great lay periodicals if this were not true.
But the fact that the prophetic voice exists in the same house with the priestly is not enough. There must be some cross-fertilization. There must be some recognition of each by the other. And, in any case, the examples we can think of are rare flowers. The common, garden varieties are mostly under bushels. And they need new structures, as well as a bit of warmth, to tempt them out. It might be added also that our present lay organizations in the Church quite generally feel a need for more autonomy, more trust and confidence, more freedom, if their function is to be really profitable to Catholic life.
In the course of these remarks I have discussed chiefly the layman’s contribution of thought, of his temporal competence and experience, of whatever inspirations the Spirit may grant him, in areas of the Church’s life which might he described as peripheral. But I did not mean to imply that such contributions are to be restricted to problems of policy, of missionary technique, of an understanding of the times to which the Church addresses herself. I mentioned briefly the liturgical revival, certainly central in the life of the Mystical Body, and the general apostolate of Christian witness.
The recent republication of Cardinal Newman’s essay, “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine,” reminds us of the layman’s part in the development of doctrine, in the Church’s growth in its understanding of God’s Word. Newman shows the relationship between the magisterium and the faithful in this doctrinal area. Not in terms of an active and a passive element, but a much more complicated relationship—as between a husband and wife in marriage.
What the layman actually believes, particularly when there is a recognizable consensus of faith in the Christian community, is of concern to the whole Church. Newman calls such a consensus: “a testimony of apostolic dogma; a sort of instinct deep in the bosom of the Mystical Body; a direction of the Holy Spirit; an answer to the prayer of the Church; a jealousy of error, which it at once feels as a scandal.”
It is obvious that this involves heavy responsibilities which many a layman is not eager to assume. He can make this contribution only if he is living the life of the Church at its deepest level of sacramental life, prayer and witness… and only if he is fully lay. That is, only if he is fully committed as a man or woman and as a Christian to the temporal order, to the secular achievements of his age, to its thought, its culture, its significant movements.
These paragraphs just skim the surface. Much more must be said and discussed and meditated about these problems. One does not say these things to become popular with the laity. And one does not say them as a nihilist or even as a griper. One says them because, when they are forgotten, the Church suffers, not an essential change, but a distortion, a weakening of her native powers, a diminishment of her catholicity, an obscuring of her relevance. Yet she cannot afford to suffer distortion, disease and diminishment in these days when the world is finally prepared to appreciate that idea of the catholic unity of mankind which the Church has carried in her heart as a kind of unrequited love all these centuries.
From the June 1, 1962 issue of Commonweal Magazine.