The Church would look foolish without them

“What is the province of the laity? To hunt, to shoot, to entertain,” wrote Monsignor George Talbot in protest at the position John Henry Newman had expressed in his article On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, which was published in the Rambler in July, 1859. As John Coulson says of Newman, “his publication of this essay was an act of political suicide from which his career within the Church was never fully to recover; at one stroke he, whose reputation is the one honest broker between the extremes of English Catholic opinion had hitherto stood untarnished, gained the Pope’s personal displeasure, the reputation at Rome of being the most dangerous man in England, and a formal accusation of heresy proffered against him by the Bishop of Newport”.

Talbot’s conception of the laity has since been caricatured in the remark that the laity are in the Church to “pray up, pay up and shut up!” The nub of Talbot’s anxiety was plain: “if a check not be placed on the laity in England they will be the rulers of the Catholic Church instead of the Holy See and the Episcopate”. Even Bishop Ullathorne, Newman’s Ordinary, could ask, “Who are the laity?” As Newman noted, “I answered (not in these words) that the Church would look foolish without them”.