The People’s Pope and the Role of the Laity

In the aftermath of the papal visit, the Catholic Herald published an insightful article which warrants mention.  Noting that the British tabloids had already nicknamed him the “People’s Pope,” the Herald notes just how apt the new moniker is:

From his homily in Bellahouston Park to his speech in Hyde Park, Pope Benedict kept returning to the role of lay people. It almost seemed as though the Holy Father, in his elegant way, was calling for an empowered laity.

This is a far cry from the 1960s radical call for empowered laity where people wrestled for new positions on parish councils and the faithful became ever more clericalised. This was not a call for more lay people to take over the role of the priest during Mass or be more active in the life of their parish, because in many ways, that point was passed long ago. He was instead calling the laity to live their Christian faith, to go beyond mere faith and live the Gospel.
The role of the laity as Benedict envisages it, is to engage with Catholic culture and present it as an alternative to the “dictatorship of relativism”.

The article then substantiates this claim with a number of good quotes from Benedict himself.  It’s this concept in particular that I want to hone in upon.  There are, I think, roughly three camps which people can fall into when thinking about the involvement of the laity in the church.  The first two are two sides to the same coin, I think.

I. The Errors of Clericalism and Anti-Clericalism

First, there’s what I’m calling traditional clericalism.  I’m using this term loosely, to stand in for the mindset that people sometimes get into where the clergy are the Church, and the laity are mere spectators.  Monks and nuns are sometimes referred to collectively as “religious” (generally in the phrase, “priests and religious”), and there was a tendency to think that the quest for God was something that came at the expense of an ordinary job or a family.  As a result, the Church produced a wealth of great saints from the ranks of priests, monks, and nuns, but not a few moms, dads, and laborers slacked off in their faith because they didn’t view it as their own calling.  The Mass reflected this as well: the priest would pray the Mass, while the faithful would all too often simply pray the rosary, or watch what was going on.  This is a spiritual pitfall that’s been present with the Church for centuries, at the least.  St. Francis De Sales was combating it in his Introduction to the Devout Life, and the Second Vatican Council was still facing the same problems four centuries later.

Next, and largely in response to the first, there’s what you might call progressive clericalism.  This is the “radical call” from the 60s that the Herald article mentioned.  In the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, we saw the flip side to traditional clericalism.  Now, the laity wanted to (and were told to) be empowered, but tried to do so by co-opting clerical roles.  In other words, much of the post-conciliar “lay empowerment” consisted of turning the laity into quasi-priests.  The most extreme examples of this are the quixotic push for women’s ordination, and the shocking practice of having laypeople and the priest hold hands around the altar and pray the words of Consecration.  These two were clear heresies, but beyond them, were simple obnoxious culture wars on the issues of female altar servers, Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, laypeople reading the first and second Readings, even over the placement and garments of the choir and cantor.  My intent here isn’t to criticize those laypeople who, say, do the Readings at Mass.  Rather, it’s to point out that if the way that the laity are empowered is by a handful of them assuming traditionally clerical roles, the underlying implication is that to be fully active as a Catholic, you need “Fr.” before your name.  In other words, it’s the same error as traditional clericalism. 

Progressive clericalism often (and bizarrely) has gone hand-in-hand with outright anti-clericalism, an opposition to Holy Orders entirely.  This view is, of course, heretical and intrinsically anti-Catholic. But what’s so strange about this is that the same people will, say, attack the Catholic Church by denouncing it as merely the “hierarchical Church,” and in the next breath, support women becoming priests and bishops.  You can’t really argue “Down with Management!” while you’re putting in your job application as manager: it seems self-interested and hypocritical.  And certainly, it has been.  National Catholic Reporter, one of the worst of the lot, has a regular column entitled “The Peace Puplit” of essays and sermons written by Bishop Thomas Gumbleton.  That he’s a member of the hierarchy would only be a negative if he actually believed the things the Catholic Church believes, apparently; otherwise, they’re happy to give him all the column space he wants.

II. The Solution to these Errors: Re-Valuing the Laity

The strange position which post-conciliar lay “empowerment” found itself isn’t radically different than the position which second-wave feminism found itself.  Feminism in the 60s and 70s called for female empowerment, but what often resulted was an obsession with trying to convince everyone that women were the same as men (rather than equal to them), and paradoxically, a lot of man-hating.  Women were encouraged to not only do traditionally male roles, but to do them wearing traditionally male clothes.  Meanwhile, men were told they weren’t needed any more than a fish needs a bicycle.  In the end, it came across as feminists trying to be men, and attacking both masculine men, and feminine women.

Fortunately, a large subset of the population believes in women’s equality without the hangups up femininity and masculinity. These people realized that if you attack every traditionally-feminine role, you end up attacking women, not helping them.  So there’s been in third-wave feminism, the rise of what’s called revalorist feminism.  The central argument of revalorist feminism, which I’m sympathetic to, is that women and men are equal, but not the same.  This isn’t “separate but equal,” but “different but equal.”  And it’s an incredibly American concept: we believe that “all men are created equal,” but don’t for a second believe that all men are created the same.  It’s also an incredibly Christian concept: one need look no further than Paul’s beautiful words in 1 Corinthians 12:14-26, about how the different parts of the Body are each indispensable, and yet each different.  The fact that hands and feet aren’t the same doesn’t mean one’s more important than the other.  The idea is that a housewife isn’t less than a working woman; likewise, a working woman who wants to show up to work dressed as a woman shouldn’t be treated as if she’s less professional as a result.  Instead, emphasis was being placed on recognizing the work that, for example, housewives and mothers do as work, and as work worthy of our respect.

What Pope Benedict calls for is something of a Catholic revalorism.  In other words, he’s not calling for the laity to dress up and act like priests.  But neither is he asking the laity to sit down and shut up.  Rather, he’s calling them to be empowered as laity.  At Bellahouston, the pope said:

“The evangelisation of culture is all the more important in our times, when a ‘dictatorship of relativism’ threatens to obscure the unchanging truth about man’s nature, his destiny and his ultimate good. There are some who now seek to exclude religious belief from public discourse, to privatise it or even to paint it as a threat to equality and liberty. Yet religion is in fact a guarantee of authentic liberty and respect, leading us to look upon every person as a brother or sister.

“For this reason I appeal in particular to you, the lay faithful, in accordance with your baptismal calling and mission, not only to be examples of faith in public, but also to put the case for the promotion of faith’s wisdom and vision in the public forum. Society today needs clear voices which propose our right to live, not in a jungle of self-destructive and arbitrary freedoms, but in a society which works for the true welfare of its citizens and offers them guidance and protection in the face of their weakness and fragility.

“Do not be afraid to take up this service to your brothers and sisters, and to the future of your beloved nation.”

This area of politics is one of ever-growing importance.  Under current canon law, priests are forbidden from holding political office in all but emergency situations, so the role of Catholic lawmaker is one which belongs virtually exclusively to the laity.  In addition, priests have an increasingly hard time in getting non-Catholics to take them seriously, particularly on political issues.  For example, the Catholic Church opposes abortion, because She thinks it’s against natural law.  That is, She thinks that nearly anyone, with the light of reason, can recognize that killing an innocent human being is wrong, and that unborn children count as innocent human beings.  She doesn’t oppose abortion because of anything in particular Jesus said, because He didn’t have to tell us that murder was wrong.  Nevertheless, is a priest tries to present that simple message, it’s considered him trying to combine Church and state.  This is, to put it charitably, a confused understanding of what the First Amendment says, but that’s almost irrelevant.  Finally, the laity are often in a better position to evangelize in modern society, because they’re viewed as more independent.  Catholic clergy are viewed as company men, if you will.  If you hear a manager of Nabisco tell you that Nabisco foods are great, you dismiss it: of course he thinks that.  But if your tennis buddy won’t stop going on about those darn Nabisco snack foods, you’re more likely to file that info away mentally.  Likewise, Catholic priests are expected to believe everything the Church teaches (would that were always true!).  But Catholic laypeople are given a somewhat fairer hearing.

In promoting the idea that the laity should become more active in the Church as laity, Benedict is continuing a long line of Catholic thought on this issue: I mentioned St. Francis De Sales earlier, and I’ve quoted St. Josemaria Escriva to the same effect earlier, but it’s worth mentioning that this is exactly what Vatican II actually taught (for example, in paragraph 31 of Lumen Gentium).  It’s also the life that was lived by some of the great Catholic lay saints, from St. Gianna to Dorothy Day.  And, of course, it’s the clear message of Jesus Christ: He doesn’t deputize Mary, Martha, or Lazarus as quasi-Apostles, yet they clearly have a mission which complements the Apostolic mission.  It’s the mission of laypeople who lead ordinary lives while proclaiming the Gospel of Christ.

Those of us who are not called to be priests or members of the “religious life” should embrace what we are called to: a life dedicated to Jesus Christ and lived abundantly for Him, a life in harmony with the Gospel proclaimed by His Church, and a life truly pleasing to Him.  What that looks like in each life is likely to be a radical and beautiful thing.


  1. “And there was also a strife amongst them, which of them should seem to be the greater.” Luke 22:24

    Unfortunately, the Enemy has been going at the Church over this issue since the very beginning; envy is one of his bread-and-butter weapons. And, as with all the Enemy’s other weapons (his offense is actually more boring and predictable than the Woody Hayes’ famed three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust) it is an attack on the created order and the nature of things. “Why don’t you try to do the other guy’s job badly than your own job very well – besides, the other guy’s job is WAY COOLER!”

    Of course you properly cite 1 Corinthians 12:14-26 as the best defense against this attack. (Far better even than putting 11 “in the box” against the 1967 Ohio State offense.) As I tell my CCD class, when a surgeon goes into an operating room he has a wide array of special purpose instruments available and uses a number of them in completing a successful procedure. Humans are special purpose instruments in God’s execution of His Divine Plan. We’re all indispensable, to Him and to each other. We’re happy when we recognize our role and perform it well.

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