Lay Collaboration in the Mission of the Church

Fr. Michael Sweeney, OP

Father Michael Sweeney, OP, served as President of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology (DSPT) at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley from June, 2004 to July 2015. Ordained in 1979, Fr. Michael has served as both a university chaplain and as a pastor in a parish setting. 

Gilbert Keith Chesterton once remarked that every modern discussion begins one step too late. To prove his point, let us begin our discussion concerning the role of the laity in the Church where normally we begin it.

If we ask, “What is a lay Catholic?” how do we answer the question? We begin by regarding the Church as a hierarchical society in which there are lay men and women, clerics, and religious. We define the laity as those Catholics who are neither ordained nor consecrated religious. To be a lay person is, if you wish, the “default” position in the Catholic Church: if you are baptized and are neither ordained nor consecrated, you are a lay person; you really cannot help it. There seems to be nothing remarkable or notable about being a lay person.

We notice that all authority is vested in the ordained. We are all well aware of the paradigm: there is the shepherd pastor and there are his sheep. Or, possibly truer to life as it is actually lived in the Church: there is the shepherd pastor and there are his critics. The purpose of the pastor is to offer the spiritual goods of the Church to the flock. The purpose of the flock is to receive the spiritual goods of the Church from the pastor, albeit with greater and lesser degrees of docility. The laity are regarded as passive recipients of the Church’s ministry.

If we doubt for a moment that this is, indeed, the paradigm that we presume then we need only notice two things. First is the fact that the most debated issue in the Church in the United States since the Second Vatican Council has been the question as to who should be ordained. We have presumed, in other words, that in order to have a role of any consequence in the Church one must be ordained. (This is problematic: we will not solve the question of lay participation in the Church through ordination –that is, through abolishing the lay state.) The second fact that we should not overlook is that Catholics tend to speak of the Church as something other than themselves: when a lay Catholic –or even an ordained Catholic– says, “the Church teaches” he or she really means “the hierarchy teaches.” Lay and ordained Catholics differ in this practice in one respect only: the lay Catholic would tend to include both priests and bishops in “the Church”, whereas the ordained Catholic tends to reference only the bishops. Full membership in the Church, at least according to our habits of speech, belongs to someone else.

Given this state of affairs, a genuine collaboration in the work of the Church is impossible.

Collaboration implies –indeed requires– some sort of equality: one collaborates with one”s peers; one delegates to one”s subordinates. If the lay role in the Church is entirely subordinate to that of the clergy, then the best we can hope for is the delegation of certain clerical responsibilities to the laity. So, for example: a lay person can be an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. This does not, of course, imply a real collaboration in the ministry of the Church, whereby the laity and the clergy are peers for, as we well know, only the ordained can be ordinary ministers of the Eucharist. Instead, those who have ordinary authority delegate a measure of their responsibility to lay persons who exercise their ministry in exceptional (or extraordinary) circumstances, as when the ordained are not present, or when there are too many communicants for one person reasonably to handle.

What sort of equality does true collaboration require? We should likely insist upon three prerequisites for a true collaboration: first, the collaborators must have equal responsibility for the end result. If, for example, I am teaching at the workshop and you are putting away the participants” coats, then we really do not have equal responsibility for the workshop objective and our work is not, in the truest sense, collaborative. Notice that the distinction does not turn upon the fact that one job would seem to be more “noble” than the other, but strictly upon the end result. If, for example, our objective was picking pockets –I distract them while you take home the loot– the whole picture would be quite different, and we could, then, speak of a true collaboration.

Second, the contribution of each of the collaborators should have comparable dignity. The test of this is that there are real grounds for taking counsel together with respect to the task at hand. So, to return to our examples: if our objective is to offer a seminar and I am to teach, whereas you are to collect the coats, there is little purpose in our taking counsel together. On the other hand, if picking pockets is our objective, then timing will be everything, and we will likely not only take counsel together, but busy ourselves with some rehearsal of the event.

Third, there must be a real difference in competence or office and in gifts and talents on the part of the collaborators: one does not collaborate with oneself. Teaching requires different gifts than does hospitality, and therefore, to the degree that the reception of coats is an act of hospitality, we might assert the possibility for a collaboration at a workshop, both other conditions for collaboration being present. If, again, our objective is picking pockets, then we can see immediately how differing talents would be essential to the outcome: a certain verbal dexterity to keep folks distracted is quite different from the manual dexterity required to deliver those present of their goods.

Now if we apply these criteria for collaboration to the community of the Church as we have presumed it, the result is unsettling. By virtue of Holy Orders, the bishops of the Church and their coworkers, the priests, have personal responsibility for all that the faithful hold in common: the worship, teaching and discipline of the Church. (By “common” we refer to the things that are true of all of us and therefore and necessarily of each of us.) It would seem that there can be no collaboration between ordained and lay, in that the ordained hold a responsibility that the laity do not. With respect to initiatives that we hold in common within the community –for example, the celebration of the Eucharist– the contribution of the laity does not have the same weight or dignity as that of the ordained. And, while there will always be a difference in competence and in gifts and talents between the laity and the ordained, that difference is not essential to the common initiatives of the community. It would seem that the laity have very little importance in the life of the Church.

Yet collaboration is explicitly called for in the Church”s magisterium. We read, for example, inApostolicam Actuositatem, “As far as possible the laity ought to provide helpful collaboration for every apostolic and missionary undertaking sponsored by their local parish” (10). How can we reconcile the call for collaboration with the fact of life in the Church as we encounter it? The call of the Council for collaboration offers us a suggestion as to where we might begin to look: collaboration is invited in “every apostolic and missionary undertaking….”

St. Thomas Aquinas warns us that a small mistake in the beginning is likely to lead to an error of great proportions in the end. Our “small mistake” consists, as I have already suggested, in encountering our discussion one step too late. We began by considering the manner in which the community of the Church is structured. (To defend ourselves we ought to point out that practically everybody does this –including theologians who ought to know better.) Where we should have begun was with a discussion of the Church herself: what is the Church?

We cannot think of the Church apart from Our Lord himself: the Church is the Body of Christ. (I wonder whether anyone has yet noticed that this is the first time that Christ has been mentioned in this presentation: when we begin by considering the manner in which the Church is structured, it is frequently the case that Our Lord escapes notice altogether!) The work of the Church is the work of Christ himself: the redemption of the world! Just as Christ was anointed priest and prophet and king, so we share in his anointing by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and, as a people, we inherit his three-fold office.

Our small mistake in the beginning is to overlook completely the mission of the Church which dwells in the world for the sake of the world: “The Church, in fact, lives in the world, even if she is not of the world (cf. Jn 17:16). She is sent to continue the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, which ‘by its very nature concerns the salvation of humanity, and also involves the renewal of the whole temporal order” (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 5).

Commenting on the work of the Vatican Council, Pope John Paul II wrote in his first encyclical letter, Redemptor Hominis,
The Church wishes to serve this single end: that each person may be able to find Christ, in order that Christ may walk with each person the path of life, with the power of the truth about man and the world that is contained in the mystery of the Incarnation and the Redemption and with the power of the love that is radiated by that truth (13).

If it is the case that the Church”s purpose, its “single end” is that each person be able to find Christ, then surely this is the consideration that belongs in the first place. When we place the mission of the Church first, we discover that collaboration is not only possible, but essential:
Collaboration is possible in that our mission is common: no one among us–lay, ordained or religious– has greater responsibility for the mission than any other, and no one among us –lay, ordained or religious– has greater dignity in that work than another, unless by virtue, not of vocation, but of holiness. We are peers in the Church”s mission. The mission of the Lord, which is to redeem mankind, is that of the whole Church: the triple vocation of the Christian, the call to holiness, to ecclesial communion and to apostolic mission, is common; it pertains to all of us as the Body of Christ, and therefore to each of us as members of that Body, “You are the Body of Christ and, individually, members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27).

Collaboration is essential in that the mission requires all of the gifts that the Holy Spirit confers for the sake of building up the Church, and in that the whole Church is invoked in the mission. Let us dwell upon this for a moment:

If we ask who is the subject of Christ”s redemptive mission, we would necessarily answer: Christ himself, now risen, through his body, the Church. Thus, the Church is the subject or agent of Christ”s mission and, when we take up his mission we act as members of his Body, acting for the whole body. Through the sacramental character that we have received in Baptism, our acting for others is united to the redemptive mission of Christ for, when we were baptized, we were baptized into his life and mission. We were also, therefore, baptized into a common work with every member of Christ”s body –collaboration in the truest sense of the word– acting in the place of our Lord for the sake of the world which he loved, and for which he gave himself.

Therefore, we hold that the fundamental priesthood is not the ministerial or ordained priesthood, but the royal priesthood –the priesthood that is conferred in Baptism and sealed in confirmation. It is the office of every priest to offer sacrifice. The means of the world”s redemption was the sacrifice that Our Lord offered to the Father, the sacrifice of himself; and, just as Christ offered himself for the sake of the world, so we are to do the same. When we offer our own life to the Father –our relationships, our work, our successes and failures, our health and our illness, in short: all that is human– Christ joins our sacrifice with his own, so that his priesthood is incarnate through our offering, and the world is redeemed by means of our cooperation. The royal priesthood is a real priesthood; it is the fundamental priesthood, which the ordained ministers of the Church are called to serve.

When we consider the Church”s mission to continue the redemptive work of Christ and the means of that mission –the priesthood that Our Lord confers in Baptism– then it is simply not true that anyone can be a layperson by default. To belong to the People of God, to be a member of the Body of Christ, is itself a vocation, in fact the fundamental vocation, and the vocation that the other ecclesial vocations are to serve. We recall the apostolic commission that concludes the Gospel of Matthew:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:18-20).

In his apostolic exhortation, Christifideles Laici, Pope John Paul II insisted that the commission is addressed to the whole Church, and that each of us should receive the commission personally:
Certainly the command of Jesus: “Go and preach the Gospel” always maintains its vital value and its ever-pressing obligation. Nevertheless, the present situation, not only of the world but also of many parts of the Church, absolutely demands that the word of Christ receive a more ready and generous obedience. Every disciple is personally called by name; no disciple can withhold making a response: “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (Christifideles Laici, 33).
The Conciliar document Apostolicam Actuositatem, the decree on the laity, puts this even more strongly:

The Church was founded for the purpose of spreading the kingdom of Christ throughout the earth for the glory of God the Father, to enable all men to share in His saving redemption, and that through them the whole world might enter into a relationship with Christ. All activity of the Mystical Body directed to the attainment of this goal is called the apostolate, which the Church carries on in various ways through all her members. For the Christian vocation by its very nature is also a vocation to the apostolate. No part of the structure of a living body is merely passive but has a share in the functions as well as life of the body: so, too, in the body of Christ, which is the Church, “the whole body . . . in keeping with the proper activity of each part, derives its increase from its own internal development” (Eph. 4.16).

Indeed, the organic union in this body and the structure of the members are so compact that the member who fails to make his proper contribution to the development of the Church must be said to be useful neither to the Church nor to himself (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 2).

If, then, each member of the Church bears the same responsibility for the apostolate, is there a task that is proper to the laity?

Not only must we answer this question in the affirmative, but we must say in the same breath that the task assigned to the layperson is the fundamental work of the Church, which is the work of Christ himself to redeem the world. What, practically, does this look like?

We have already seen that the care of the Church is entrusted to the bishops, who are the successors to the apostles, and to their coworkers the priests and deacons. But to whom has our Lord entrusted his care for the world itself? Not merely to bishops or to the ordained, but to the whole Church, which is his Body. This is the work that cannot be undertaken without the participation of each member of the people of God, and, most particularly, of the lay members of the Church.

What is it to care for the world? Or, to put the question another way, what is the world that has been entrusted into our care? It comes as an enormous surprise to Catholics – and to everyone else – that the Church first conceived the idea of the “secular”. The world entrusted to the care of the Church is precisely the realm of the secular. In contemporary society we are used to opposing what is secular to what is religious; when most people think of “secular” things they assume that they are dealing with institutions or enterprises that are, if not irreligious, at least a-religious, the realm in which faith does not belong: where it may be tolerated, but only as a personal or private conviction.

We are all familiar with this “secular” understanding: each person, it is argued, has a unique “world view” that is based upon his or her “belief system”; a different “belief system” would produce a different “world view”. Because each person”s experience and worldview is in some ways unique, society is pluralistic and in order to get along each person”s worldview must be tolerated; no one view of the world is to be preferred to any other. The role of government is to build consensus toward common ideals which will either absorb or marginalize (in practice, usually both absorb and marginalize) the convictions or values that are represented in society.

Christianity is one such belief system; Christians are welcome to practice their faith and to interpret the world in the light of that faith so long as they hold it privately; they are not to impose their worldview on others. There is no truth about the person that can be universally asserted; there are only subjective values and convictions and public life requires the surrender of personal convictions for the sake of the good of society as a whole.

What this amounts to is the complete separation of faith and public life—a separation that John Paul II called one of the greatest evils of our age. This is, however, the dominant view of society in contemporary Western culture and I believe that it exactly frames the work that lay men and women are called to undertake: it is necessary to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ—to proclaim the good news—to a world in which any claims to truth are regarded as hostile to public life. This is a work for which the laity have particular responsibility, and which the clergy cannot accomplish without them.

The modern view has arisen from a completely false notion of what is secular. The very idea of what is secular is a product of the Catholic Church. How is it that we first proposed the idea? It was to distinguish the things that belong directly to God from the things that are directly for the sake of men and women.

Some things are ordered to God directly, and belong to him alone. The first among these is the human person who is “created in the image and likeness of God”. This truth is the foundation of all human freedom: because we belong to God alone we can never be defined by our relationship to the state or by our success or failure in human endeavors. The human person can never belong to Caesar, but only to God; human life can never be “secular”. This truth is also the foundation of democracy: because we belong to God alone it is necessary that we be consulted concerning the way that we are governed. There is really no other justification for the democratic process than this. Our deepest aspirations are centered more in God than they are in ourselves: we are destined for immortality and we have an appetite for divine things. We are bigger than the world is, and therefore our worship belongs to God alone. This is the foundation of the equality that pertains between persons: every human person has aspirations that the world cannot contain.

There are also things that are not ordered to God directly, but to the human person—to man and woman. These are the things that are “secular”: political and economic life, health, education, the arts, the sciences are not for the sake of God, but for the good of the human person. Such things are not profane; indeed, they have divine significance because of the divine dignity of the human person whom they serve. These secular pursuits have their own proper independence and competence. When I require heart surgery I am not so much concerned that the surgeon is a Catholic as I am that he or she is competent at surgery. Similarly, if I have a flat tire on the way to the airport, I do not conclude that God does not want me on the flight; I conclude, instead, that I ought to have checked my tires.

What is fundamental to the idea of the secular is that human work has a purpose—the flourishing of the human person—and a real competence that is capable of being measured. Our Catholic faith demands of us that we take such human pursuits very seriously indeed. And, part of the competence that we bring to our secular endeavors is the deeper understanding of human work and human purpose that the revelation of Christ offers us.

What is this deeper understanding? We are not “fundamentalists”: we know that secular pursuits have their proper independence and competence. So, for example, there is no such thing as Christian golf (golf, after all, is a religion in its own right) or Christian mathematics or, with apologies to Mary Baker Eddy, Christian science. Golf, mathematics or the sciences are truly secular: they are for the sake of man and woman and not of God directly, and they are therefore not changed essentially when they are practiced by a Christian. On the other hand, the revelation affords us a much deeper insight into human endeavor and reverence for secular things that we can find totally absent in our secular neighbors.

So, for example, the competence required for excellence in business or the sciences or the arts is itself an argument against a merely subjective view of reality. A skilled surgeon has a genuine competence that is not the product of a “belief system” but of application to the medical arts. There is a reality that is the measure of secular competence, and that reality is common to all persons. It is a reality that the Christian revelation illumines, and the test of the revelation is that those to whom it is given are able to see the same phenomena as everyone else, but more deeply.
The work of the laity involves faithfulness to Christ and faithfulness in all of the secular endeavors of modern society. To be faithful is to stay, to remain with another regardless of what might occur, to look and not look away. Those who have been given the divine gift of faith are able to look upon human realities and to see them with Christ. Such a one is able to judge wisely the things of earth—the secular things—precisely because he or she loves them in Christ.

We recall our Lord”s explanation to Nicodemus: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” The mission of the Church is the mission of Christ, for the Church is the body of Christ. We might, therefore, paraphrase: “For God so loved the world that he gave his sons and daughters, so that everyone who believes in his Son might not perish, but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Church into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through her.”

How does Christ redeem the world? First, by assuming the world – taking the world to himself – in the mystery of the Incarnation, and then by making an offering of the world to the Father in his own person. By teaching that the Church has an authentic secular dimension, Pope John Paul implies that the Church is not merely sent into the world, as into a foreign land, but that, like Christ, the Church must take the world to herself, and make an offering of the world to the Father, through herself in her members, as does Christ.

G.K. Chesterton points out that ordinary things are always of greater dignity and significance than are extraordinary things. So, to use his example, it is a wonderful thing that the sun rises once. It is a far more wonderful thing that the sun continues to rise, day after day. Or, it is a wonderful thing that a man and woman meet and quickly fall in love. It is a much more wonderful thing that they would meet every day for the rest of their lives, and continue to love each other. The Christian faith is a celebration of the ordinary!

But this is what the love of Christ, embodied in the mission of the laity, brings to the world: the celebration, the love, and the sanctification of ordinary things such as: the ordinary love of a young couple; the ordinary events of birth and death that mark the cycle of human life; the ordinary responsibility to discern one”s vocation and work; the ordinary manifestation of human creativity in the arts and sciences; the ordinary pursuits of the political community; the ordinary responsibilities of family life and of friendship. These ordinary things are the most wonderful and significant achievements of creation, and if the Gospel is not addressed to humanity in the midst of its ordinary endeavors, then the Gospel is not pronounced at all. The Gospel is nothing other than the good news of Jesus Christ addressed to the world he loves.

One who loves the world in the manner of Christ is one who is wedded to the truth –not merely the truth of propositions, but the truth about the human person. As Yves Congar, the great Dominican theologian of the laity, once remarked: “there are persons in whose presence it is not possible to lie.” To the degree that we commit ourselves to life in the world; to the degree that we look upon the world with Christ, and begin to see with him; to the degree that the laity develop a competence, or even more an excellence, in secular affairs; to the degree that we see the dignity of secular pursuits and how they are ordered to the human person; to the degree that we are faithful to men and to women –that we remain with them, that we look and do not look away; exactly to that degree we become those in whose presence the truth about the person is made known, those in whose presence it is not possible to lie. This is the task that has been committed to the laity of the Church, not for the sake of the Church, but for the sake of the mission of Christ, for the sake of the world he loves.