Msgr. Higgins Hopes Council Stimulates Lay Initiatives

December 4, 1962

The Second Vatican Council may remedy the Church’s “insufficient reliance on lay initiative,” a priest with many years of experience in social action has said.

Msgr. George G. Higgins, head of the National Catholic Welfare Conference’s Social Action Department, told newsmen here: “If the council does not give this stimulus to lay initiative, I see little hope of getting Catholics to help reform society.”

“I have been in the social action field for 20 years,” Msgr. Higgins told the journalists, “and I know that we priests and bishops cannot do it.”

(Msgr. Higgins helped draft the council’s proposal on the lay apostolate.)

Msgr. Higgins said that the council could give new impetus to the Catholic layman’s action on society by “alerting clergy and hierarchy to the layman’s role in the Church.”

A simple statement from the council on the world’s social problems “would bring us no further than the social encyclicals of the past 75 years have” unless laymen are encouraged and stimulated into taking an active Christian part in society, he said.

“Aside from the education problem, there is substantial agreement in the United States on how religious principles can be brought to bear on many of the problems of society,” he added. He cited labor-management problems and race relations as examples of the sort of sphere where interfaith agreement is evident.

Msgr. Higgins said that he agreed with the American integration leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King, that religion has not made its due impact on the race problem.

“What has been lacking in large part,” he added, “is a sufficient degree of interfaith cooperation in the social order to bring religious principles to bear on the social order. But we are moving in the right direction.

“In January,” he noted, “a fully integrated interfaith conference on race problems will meet in Chicago.”

Such cooperation has been made easier, he said, by the impact of the ecumenical spirit of Pope John XXIII and the ecumenical aspects of the council.

The Chicago meeting (Jan. 14 to 17), he said, will “mark a turning point in interfaith cooperation.”

Before the council can explain the layman’s role in Church and in the world, he said, it must first “find out what the Church is,” referring to the current debate on the nature of the Church (De Ecclesia).

“Temperamentally, I would like to see the council make all sorts of pronouncements on social problems,” he remarked. “But in sober second thought, I think it would be better for the council to concentrate on certain basic theological problems. The council’s statements on social problems will draw greater force from clarification of such crucial theological problems.

“One of the best things the council can do,” he added, “would be to say, ‘We have no answers to this problem,’ when confronted with problems like the population problem where facts and principles have still to be elucidated.”

Returning to the question of the layman’s role in the Church, he said: “I rather think that in the future there will be less emphasis on what is called Catholic action. There will be more emphasis on what is called Catholic activity. There will be more emphasis on a less formal, more flexible lay activity not so directly tied to the directives of the hierarchy.”

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