The Second Vatican Council—specifically in its Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem and in the Apostolic Constitution Lumen Gentium—affirmed that the laity are co-responsible for the mission of the Church. One narrative of the post-conciliar years has revolved around the Church’s acceptance of this teaching—embracing it, fearing it, exploiting it, suppressing it. It is the story of a laity that assumed too much responsibility, who believed that co-responsibility meant the authority to chart one’s own path, even if it meant rejecting the institutional Church or Tradition itself. It is also the story of a laity that assumed too little responsibility, who were excluded from critical decision making processes and who knowingly or negligently allowed priests to commit all kinds of evils.
The recent controversy over “Eucharistic coherence” among American bishops—who are using the internet and Catholic media to advance their positions—is an example of co-responsibility gone awry. In recent months, the bishops have expressed a variety of opinions on whether President Biden and other pro-choice political figures should be publicly denied the Eucharist. While many bishops from all over the country have voiced often conflicting and contradictory views on the question, the overwhelming majority have no bearing at all on the president’s pastoral situation. The back-and-forth has been disorienting to the laity—at least those of us who care about what our bishops have to say. All these public letters and statements have likely done little to educate the laity on the nuanced aspects of a very complex moral, theological, doctrinal, and canonical issue while doing much to burden them with a false choice between “sides.” This is certainly not the kind of “co-responsibility” that the Council Fathers envisioned.
As bishops have lost authority and influence over the lives of the faithful, a trend which has only accelerated in the wake of revelations regarding Theodore McCarrick and the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, there has been renewed interest in understanding the co-responsibility of the laity in a fuller way. For example, just prior to the pandemic, the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame hosted a conference entitled, “Called and Co-Responsible” in which this teaching was explored across a variety of dimensions.
What was and still is a call, an invitation, to a deeper and more robust Catholic spiritual life is now an urgent need, a burden placed upon the shoulders of the laity, to take up their specific mission, to evangelize the world and move the Church forward through these troubling times. It is especially important for the life of the Church in the 21st century—its thriving if not its very survival—that the laity become actively involved.
No, the laity could never replace the hierarchy, the Pope and all the pastors who are tasked uniquely with the salvation of souls, those within the Church and without. For canonical and theological reasons vital to the Church’s understanding of herself and her mission, many responsibilities associated with ordained ministry can never be entirely ascribed to the laity. But neither is it true that ordination is the moment this responsibility is first assumed. To say otherwise is precisely the bad fruit of the same clericalism that has infected our Church, sapped the laity of their creative energies, and facilitated the proliferation of ineffective and evil clergy. Rather, we, the people of God, assume this responsibility at Baptism. Lumen Gentium states, “The lay apostolate… is a participation in the salvific mission of the Church itself. Through their baptism and confirmation all are commissioned to that apostolate by the Lord Himself.” Later, the Council Fathers add, “Upon all the laity, therefore, rests the noble duty of working to extend the divine plan of salvation to all men of each epoch and in every land.”
In recent years, the hierarchy has begun to involve the laity in positions of importance with greater regularity. This development is often born of necessity, as the number of priests continues to decline in the West, but many Church officials are also recognizing the unique benefits of having diversity in leadership, including having women in important positions. Francis himself noted that in many places in the world, women have already assumed a leadership role (Querida Amazonia 99-103). Given the failures of the almost-exclusively male Church leadership at the peak of the clerical abuse crisis, is it possible that women in positions of oversight may have prevented much of the pain and suffering that was allowed to happen?
But co-responsibility is much more than a lay person in a position of leadership. Co-responsibility is not just for a privileged few, those with highly specialized training and formation, as if co-responsibility was synonymous with a professional class of lay ministers. Instead, co-responsibility is the calling of the hundreds of millions of Catholics around the world who go to work, take care of their family, and volunteer their time and money to advance the common good. It is, in fact, upon these Catholics that the burden of co-responsibility has been laid, whether they are willing to accept that burden or not. Their ongoing formation and growth in charity is necessary so that they might apply themselves effectively to the mission of the Church.
The Council Fathers explain in Apostolicam Actuositatem, “As sharers in the role of Christ as priest, prophet, and king, the laity have their work cut out for them in the life and activity of the Church” (10). In these three dimensions of the ministry of Christ, the laity are called to advance the salvation of the world, wherever they find themselves.
For too long ordained priests have often been thought of as the “heart and soul” of their parishes, as a parishioner at Father James Altman’s St. James the Lesser recently said of his pastor. This is not a rare phenomenon. The laity’s relationship with the Catholic Church has often been mediated, for better or worse, by a parish priest, making the success of local parishes almost entirely dependent on a priest’s charisma or his personal holiness. While priests do have an important role to play, particularly in the management of the parish and in the celebration of the sacraments, this clericalist attitude obscures the laity’s own call to build up their parish and evangelize the broader community.
As St. John Paul wrote in Christifideles Laici,
In the present circumstances the lay faithful have the ability to do very much and, therefore, ought to do very much towards the growth of an authentic ecclesial communion in their parishes in order to reawaken missionary zeal towards nonbelievers and believers themselves who have abandoned the faith or grown lax in the Christian life. (27)
This is the common priesthood: “In receiving the sacraments, in prayer and thanksgiving, in the witness of a holy life, and by self-denial and active charity,” the laity sanctify the world in God’s mercy (LG 10). As priests and bishops continue to decline in status and influence, it becomes imperative for the health of parish communities and the success of evangelization that clericalism give way to a renewed appreciation for the laity’s contributions and responsibilities. Parishes and the mission of evangelization are too important to make their vitality dependent on whoever is installed as pastor at the time.
The laity are called to adhere to and give voice to the truth, to speak out for the voiceless and to break up systems of oppression. As John Paul II wrote, “Through their participation in the prophetic mission of Christ… the lay faithful are given the ability and responsibility to accept the gospel in faith and to proclaim it in word and deed, without hesitating to courageously identify and denounce evil” (CL 14). Despite this, the laity have grown accustomed to looking for their priests and bishops to respond effectively to each act of injustice, each atrocity, each system of oppression that afflicts our communities. Their frequent failure to do so appears to be an indictment against the Church herself, her ineffectiveness in the face of grave evil.
Pope Francis writes in Fratelli Tutti, seemingly in response, “We should not expect everything from those who govern us, for that would be childish. We have the space we need for co-responsibility in creating and putting into place new processes and changes. Let us take an active part in renewing and supporting our troubled societies” (77). To be agents of truth and reconciliation, the laity must grow accustomed to being the representatives of the Church in their own families and with their friends. Through their patient love within the context of a relationship built on mutual trust, it is here that the laity can truly be a pathway for Christ to move hearts. Additionally, through their commitment to action rooted in prayer, the laity can begin processes of long-term change and transform communities. Because we share in Christ’s prophetic ministry, the laity aren’t simply supporters of the hierarchy. Rather, we can discern what we can do ourselves to help the Church and proclaim the truth in “word and deed.”
As sharers in Christ’s kingship, the laity are called to unite their community in the love of Christ, to bring people together into one Christian family rooted in God’s mercy. However, clericalist attitudes have often led to priests dominating the management of parishes, dictating programs, and putting an end to the laity’s initiatives. The Word of God does not flow through the priests and bishops, but rather lives in the Church, considered as a whole. The priests and bishops serve the Word of God and, by the grace of the Spirit, authoritatively interpret it. What they cannot do, however, is rule others under the pretext of “interpretation.” Priests and bishops open up the Word by virtue of their unique charism, but it is the laity’s role and responsibility to live by it, discerning always what the Spirit is guiding them to do. To share in the kingship of Christ is to live according to the will of the Father, to pray always, and to be vigilant in spiritual combat against the evil spirits that seek to put us off the right path.
A robust understanding of co-responsibility is a prerequisite for any plan of action in the Church, for without the active involvement of the laity, the Church stifles the spiritual gifts that the Spirit has bestowed. Lumen Gentium explains that these spiritual gifts make us “fit and ready to undertake the various tasks and offices which contribute toward the renewal and building up of the Church, according to the words of the Apostle: ‘The manifestation of the Spirit is given to everyone for profit’” (LG 12). But let’s be clear. In no way does an increase in the participation of the laity in the mission of the Church guarantee that the Church will be successful, that more people will self-identify as Catholic, that our communities will increasingly reflect the Truth as revealed by Christ. The co-responsibility of the laity, strictly speaking, is not in itself a program to revive the Church in any measurable way; rather, co-responsibility, when prayerfully discerned in the lives of each, becomes a summons to a more enriched spiritual life, a healthier relationship with the institutional Church, and a solid foundation upon which to evangelize communities.
The institutional Church is suffering from a loss of status and privilege, much of which can be attributed to its failings over the course of the last several decades, but the Spirit burns bright still in the people of God. For the Church to draw the strength it needs to address the unique challenges of evangelization in the 21st century, it must rely on the gifts of God made manifest through the contributions of the laity.