Two recent announcements from the Vatican and the Canadian bishops have underlined the new emphasis on engaging Catholic laity in the global mission of the Church.
On Sept. 23, the Commission for Doctrine of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops released the pastoral letter, The Co-responsibility of the Lay Faithful in the Church and the World. It describes today’s laity as “co-responsible” for the way the Church acts in the world, and not just as collaborators or helpers of the clergy. This is good news. Though the theology on this has been fairly clear and consistent since the Second Vatican Council, it has been less evident on the ground.
Reinforcing this trend was the creation of a new Vatican office for laity, family and life in September, combining the roles of three previous operations.
It remains to be seen how this new relationship will unfold. What seems certain is that global circumstances are forcing the hierarchy to reappraise the past tendency of viewing the laity as merely a flock to be served and led, and not as equal partners.
So this is a welcome trend, though not without its own perils. The Canadian bishops recognize in their pastoral letter the dangers of a form of clericalism in which the laity’s role is defined as taking on various functions in parish or diocesan life currently handled by ordained clergy.
“This kind of confusion can be demeaning to the laity in that it reduces the vast playing field of the lay person, which is the world,” the pastoral letter explains. “This in fact is a form of clericalism, because it is based on the assumption that the roles of the clergy are something to which laity should aspire. Pope Francis has spoken out forcefully against this phenomenon, calling it ‘a double sin’ because both laity and clergy are often complicit in it; the priests tend to clericalize the laity and the laity asked to be clericalized.”
In fact, the true lay vocation lies in evangelizing the entire world. While this can mean taking up part of the responsibility of ministry within a parish setting, it is even more about living life as a true witness to Jesus Christ through our solidarity with those in need and willingness to allow Christ to shine through all we do.
That the laity needs help to really fulfill their co-responsibility is not in doubt. Only a tiny portion of the laity has the religious formation and education needed to fully understand the breadth and richness of their Church’s teachings and convey them authentically.
This is where those of us engaged in Catholic communications have our own role to play. Our skills and expertise in communications need to be married to a solid grounding in faith. And we need to convey that faithfully and accurately, keeping always in mind that the deposit of faith does not belong to us. Rather, we are stewards in the vineyard, laboring with a cheerful heart for the Master, who is God.