First Time Ever: Laity Is Topic at Council

50th General Congregation
October 17, 1963

For the first time in any ecumenical council the topic of the laity has become a major subject of debate by the bishops of the world.

With the 50th general congregation, the third chapter of the schema “De Ecclesia” entered full debate.

The chapter as it now stands treats of “The People of God” and of “The Laity.” It was decided to split these two topics, once debate on the chapter finished, placing “The People of God” as Chapter II after the first and introductory chapter, which treats of the mystery of the Church. The treatment of the office of bishop will then become Chapter III, and the treatment of the laity will be Chapter IV.

The schema section on the laity emphasized the positive content of the concept of “layman”: Without belonging to the hierarchy, he shares, as do all Christians, in the mission of the Church in the world in order to sanctify the world from within.

The schema proclaims the layman’s participation in the priesthood of Christ. It states that he too is sanctified through Baptism and Confirmation. Hence, in his own way, the layman shares in the threefold office of Christ: priestly, by participation in the sacramental life of the Church; prophetic, in his witness to Christ and the preaching of Christ in his milieu, particularly in his family; kingly, in his bond with the victory of Christ over sin through the sanctification of his life and his surroundings.

The charisms — special graces — of the laity are then treated in the chapter. The lay person is presented not as merely one who listens passively to the word of God. He too possesses a sense of the Faith, that gift which opens up to the faithful living under the guidance of ecclesiastical authority an ever-keener insight into the Faith and its applications to the concrete problems of life.

The duties of the layman as deriving from his special place in the Mystical Body are enumerated. He is obliged, the schema declares, to make his contribution to the sanctification and growth of the Body of Christ, for he has his own proper share in the Church’s mission for the salvation of the world.

Part of the mission of the layman, according to the schema, is his coresponsibility in the preaching of the Christian message and the presentation to the world of Christian Revelation. The Christian cannot devote himself exclusively to his own profession in the world. He has clear-cut religious duties as well. He is bound first of all to give to the world the example of a life based on ethical values and actions. Most of all, he must be outstanding in the environment where he lives and exercises his profession. He must be on his guard against two extremes: First, an improper confusion of religious and profane interests; and secondly, a complete secularization of earthly professions, as if morality and religion have nothing to do with everyday life.

Finally, the schema treats of the layman’s relationship with the hierarchy. The layman, it states, has a right to expect all due care and assistance from the pastors of the Church. He must make his needs known frankly and courageously.

Nevertheless, insofar as possible, he must do so through regular ecclesiastical channels, with prudence, love, respect, humility and courage. On the other hand, he is also bound to respectful obedience toward ecclesiastical authority. He must refrain from unjust criticism and he must pray for his ecclesiastical superiors.

The people of God and the hierarchy, the schema declares, constitute one body, engaged in the common mission of Christ and sharing undivided responsibility before the world.

It was against this background that the 17 speakers of this day’s assembly were heard.

The first to speak was Bishop Louis Rastouil of Limoges, France, who said that the priesthood is the key explanation of the nature and activity of the Church. This is so because the Church is a continuation of the active presence of Christ in the world. He therefore called for a fuller treatment of the priesthood as realized in bishops, priests and laymen.

Bishop Stanislaus Lokuang of Tainan, Formosa, urged that emphasis be given to the universal vocation of the apostolate because of the essential missionary character of the Church.

The whole structure of the schema was criticized by Bishop Franz Hengsbach of Essen, Germany. He suggested that it would be better to set the schema in a new division based on differences between the spiritual and temporal orders. Under “spiritual” would come everything pertaining to the immediate share of the laity in the threefold function of the Church to teach, rule and sanctify. Under “temporal” would be everything pertaining to the proper use of temporal things lest they become an obstacle to salvation.

Bishop John J. Wright of Pittsburgh was next to speak. Since he is one of three Americans who are members of the theological commission of the council, he presumably had an active part in composing the schema.

“After the discussion has ended and all necessary amendments have been introduced into the text,” he said, “it is to be hoped that the schema will retain the basic principles here set forth and also the very words of the text, unless even stronger words can be found to express these same truths….

“It will thus lay a solid foundation for authentic Catholic Action and will dissipate the prevailing erroneous impression that the Church is exclusively ‘clerical.’ This will be taken care of by formulating a genuinely adequate definition of the laity.”

Bishop Pietro Fiordelli of Prato, Italy, who has pioneered in the Christian family movement in Italy, said that the schema’s “silence on the Christian family is regrettable. The family is really the Church in miniature, verifying in itself a share in the mystery of the union of Christ and the Church.”

The chapter should explain the different meanings of the “people of God,” according to Archbishop Marcel Dubois of Besancon, France. “People of God” is not a poetic figure, but represents an actual reality, he said.

Auxiliary Bishop Candido Padin of Rio de Janeiro noted that the sense of the text would be clearer if it were stated that the hierarchy is part of the people of God.

Archbishop Joseph M. Gopu of Hyderabad, India, gave the schema a missionary interpretation. The text, he said, should add that the most fundamental form of the lay apostolate in the missions is collaboration with the hierarchy and the clergy in spreading the Gospel.

The charge of the “heresy of individualism” was brought up by Coadjutor Bishop Arthur Eichinger of Strasbourg, France. The text has this tendency, he said, and should be corrected to show forth the Church not only as a juridical society but as a community of believers.

“Too many Christians seek spiritual security and personal satisfaction in their reception of the sacraments without ever experiencing the practical consequences of incorporation into the Mystical Body,” he said. “The danger of the heresy of individualism is besetting the laity, and also the clergy and the hierarchy. It is the task of this council to find a remedy for this pastoral heresy.”

Auxiliary Bishop Philip M. Hannan of Washington rose to observe that the council Fathers’ exhortations to the laity would be more effective if lay people were urged to be genuine witnesses to the Faith in their domestic, business, social and civic organizations.

He continued: “The laity should be urged to join organizations which can influence daily life — associations of parents interested in educational activities, and organizations with professional, charitable and civic aims, not excluding participation in politics. Men cannot be led to Christ unless associations of this kind are marked with the spirit of Christ.

“The bishops should set up special organizations to elicit the opinions of the laity. What Canon 1520 of the Code of Canon Law prescribes for the administration of temporalities should be implemented also in strictly spiritual and mixed fields.

“The laity are often hesitant to come forward as individuals with their suggestions but would gladly offer them if a specially organized unit served as a channel of approach to authority.”

Bishop Luigi Civardi of the Roman curia followed to say that the theological basis of the apostolate of the laity is found in the duties imposed by Baptism and Confirmation and in the obligation to love God and one’s fellow man.

The council should take care that the expectations of the laity be not deluded, said Archbishop Ismaele Castellano, O.P., of Siena, Italy.

French-born Archbishop Louis Mathias, S.D.B., of Madras and Mylapore, India, declared that, despite the shortage of priests in the world, Christ’s mandate to His followers to teach all nations must not be frustrated.

“Our hope is in dedicated members of the laity,” he said, “who will be as totally consecrated to spreading the Kingdom of Christ as the clergy strictly so-called…. The council should decree the organization of a training school under pontifical auspices for catechists.”

Coadjutor Bishop Herbert Bednorz of Katowice, Poland, made the point that one of the most basic forms of the lay apostolate is in the work done by Catholic parents in the training of their children. These parents must be the first heralds of the Faith, he said.

Bishop Enrico Compagnone of Anagni, Italy, suggested that the text show a more direct link with the Old Testament, stressing the supernatural life of the people of God. More emphasis on the obedience due to ecclesiastical superiors was urged by exiled Bishop Frederick Melendro, S.J., of Anking, China, who now resides in his native Spain.

A practical note was sounded by Bishop William Philbin of Down and Connor, Northern Ireland.

He said: “We should take care to forestall the accusation that the Church has no interest in the life of this world. The text should positively commend the activities whereby the faithful earn their livelihood…. We should emphasize the basic goodness of life in the world and avoid giving the fatal impression that the vocation to sanctity can be realized only in religious life.”

While the debate on the third chapter of “De Ecclesia” was in progress, votes were cast on the final two amendments to the liturgy schema. Both passed. Amendment nine, which provides that some sacramentals be administered by laymen in certain circumstances, drew a strong negative vote of 607 but passed nevertheless.

Msgr. James I. Tucek
NCWC Rome bureau chief

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