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What should come next?

Fifty years ago the Vatican Council said about the laity: “Whoever they are, they are called upon, as living members, to expend all their energy for the growth of the Church and its continuous sanctification, since this very energy is a gift of the Creator and a blessing of the Redeemer.” Lay people were not presented as depending on the clergy for initiatives. Laity aren’t supposed to wait for a request from the episcopal palace. They have a task that is theirs from Baptism.

Done anything lately to make the Church grow?

What exactly is this task? “The laity are called in a special way to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth.” These places and circumstances involve schools, business, politics, medicine, science, international affairs, wars, the list is endless.

But in the American Church, many Catholics are waiting for the clergy when they ought to be doing things themselves. By Baptism and Confirmation, “every layman, in virtue of the very gifts bestowed upon him, is at the same time a witness and a living instrument of the mission of the Church itself ‘according to the measure of Christ’s bestowal. . .’”

Lay people know a lot about the secular world. They typically do not bring to their work all the philosophical and theological analysis that academics and some clergy do. But lay people do have the raw data and lived experience many theologians lack. They are constantly exposed to and engaged with what is going on in the world.

The official Church has revelation through tradition and scripture and the work of the magisterium. The trouble often is that the people with ecclesiastical learning and the people with lay experience do not often pool what they know and definitely not on the subjects that really concern laypeople.

Here’s the thing: forget the historical question why this situation developed – that would fill volumes. But now, right now, as the American Church seems to be fading into national irrelevance, why don’t the laity seek out the necessary theological insight into the many fields of human life? Starting at the parish level: why can’t we have courses that inform people about what the Church really teaches? What are we spending money on that could be better spent on the Christian analysis of everyday life?

            Christ Preaching in the Temple by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), c. 1625

If “father” won’t organize it, hire people yourselves – reliable experts in the field – to do the teaching that is needed. Enough clergy and informed laity know that doctor X or father Y are not orthodox, but doctor Z would be good. He or she is authentically Catholic and learned and capable of communicating the content of the Faith to lay people who want to hear it.

To be sure, the much feared question about orthodoxy has to be posed. It is not just a question of whether people like professor so and so. The Church has far higher standards of truth and one of its attractions for many people – though this is little noticed – is that it is a truth-telling institution.

At the diocesan level, too: why aren’t dioceses training every single layperson? Maybe lay people should simply organize and get the job done, collect money, hire the teachers and the lecture halls. Let’s get Catholicism to where it is meant to be – which is as the operational knowledge in faith and morals for lay life. Lay people organize much better than many clergy. Get a few converts in the mix as well. Their passion is real because they appreciate what they have received.

Of course, one must not hire partisan propagandists for the Democrats or the Republicans, or people who merely pass on the fantasies of the popular culture about love and marriage and business. They are usually hostile to the culture of life and to promoting the humanity that Christ died for. There has to be some caution, too, about hiring people who teach what they think is in the teachings of the Council. There is a long history of Americans making stuff up, calling it Catholic, and strangely enough finding crowds of people to go along with it. Diocesan clergy do it. Religious do it. Lay people do it.

Fortunately, there are now enough knowledgeable men and women of faith who can teach and who genuinely understand Catholicism in all of its richness. Catholicism is too wonderful to be the possession of a privileged few, those who have done the study and who live the orthodox faith to the full.

A last word from the Council: “Christ loves the Church as His bride, having become the model of a man loving his wife as his body; the Church, indeed, is subject to its Head. ‘Because in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily,’ He fills the Church, which is His body and His fullness, with His divine gifts so that it may expand and reach all the fullness of God.”

Isn’t promoting this fullness worth a very substantial effort?

Fr. Bevil Bramwell, OMI, PhD is the former Undergraduate Dean at Catholic Distance University. His books are: Laity: Beautiful, Good and True, The World of the Sacraments, Catholics Read the Scriptures: Commentary on Benedict XVI’s Verbum Domini, John Paul II's Ex Corde Ecclesiae: The Gift of Catholic Universities to the World, and, most recently, The Catholic Priesthood: A 360 Degree View.