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Revisiting a Classic Description of the Laity's Role in the Church

Yves Congar

The important truth that . . . . must guide us in what remains to be said, is this: Lay people are not only objects in the Church, objects though they are of her goodness and care; they are also religious subjects, and therefore active persons. They are not only made by the Church, in as much as she is an hierarchical institution ; they make the Church, in as much as she is congregatio fidelium, the society of the faithful, as the Church was defined in the middle ages. That the laity are personal subordinate subjects is true; it is also true that they must conform themselves to the Church's unity, a unity that has its own structure, rules and requirements. But this unity is not that of a merely external association (such as a club) : it is the unity of a body living in all its parts, of a fellowship, a communion of persons.

In short, a Christian is not simply a bit of the material on which the Church works, any more than a man is simply a bit of the material of history or of industrial production or of governmental power. Every person exists in himself, he has a destiny of his own, that he cannot relinquish to anybody else. But it must be observed, in passing, that this does not work out in exactly the same way in civil society and in the Church. The proper and specific object of the Church is the supernatural destiny of persons; but this is not the case with civil society.

Lay people, then, are persons in the Church. With truly Roman precision and conciseness, canon law declares: "By baptism a man becomes a person in Christ's Church, with every Christian right and duty" (Canon 87). Being a juridical document it understands "person" in a juridical sense, as the subject of rights and duties; and that is useful for our purpose. The Church says that the Christian has the rights and duties of a person: among them, the rights and duties of freedom are certainly not the least. These are our concern; so let us look at them from two points of view, that of inner freedom, a deep personal quality, and that of external freedom.

For lay people the essential point is the duty, and the corresponding right, to become adult Christians, free men. These two terms are practically equivalent. A free man is one who governs his own actions, who does not submit to other pressure than that of his own choice. " Liber est causa sui," says St Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle : the free man is the self -determined man. But the adult --- I am of course referring to moral and spiritual adulthood, a state to which the grown-up in years does not always attain --- the adult is a man who no longer has to be warned, encouraged, supervised in order that he may act. When we were children we went to Mass because we were told to. Plenty of grown men and women go simply because they fear "what the neighbours might say" or because of the reproofs that will fall on them if they do not. The spiritual adult goes because he knows what he is about and has personal spiritual convictions within himself that move him to go. And so he goes freely.

To be a Christian with an adult faith is a very big commitment. On the negative side, for example, it involves putting away attitudes and behaviour that are childish, mechanical, legalistic, governed more or less by tabus and apprehensions that are more reminiscent of the religions of heathenism than of faith in the living God, the God, "who is, and ever was, and -is still to come" (Apoc. 1:4; Exod. 3:14). And here I believe is the crux of the whole matter--- faith in the living God. This is not the place to set out the reasons; but I am convinced, after much thought about it, that the rea1 key to an adult Christianity --- is to be found in living faith--- not some "religious attitude" or other--- and in faith in the living God --- not in some celestial Leader , Eternal Axiom, Great Architect or Supreme Being.

The Need For Adult Christians

I have two more deep-seated convictions in this matter. One is that the age we are living in has a special need for such Christians. Father E. Mersch has written nicely that "some animals need a shell because they have not got a skeleton". If this be true, we may well think that Catholics need to be given a strong spiritual skeleton, when we look around and see on all hands that the old sociological frameworks of Catholicism are being called in question, shaken loose and damaged by modern conditions and events.

A Christendom that is going to renew itself and live in the present cannot, apart from rare survivals, start from a basis of regulations, social set-ups, the favour of public authority, social pressure, as was the case in the past. It has to start from personal conviction, from the witness and glowing influence of Christians who are such from their very depths. The time has gone by nearly everywhere when civil powers would pay attention to priestly authority expressed in terms of that authority. But Christian witness, arising from the convictions of a conscience dedicated to the living God, is as strong as ever: yes, even against the powers of the world, as we saw, for instance, in Germany when the Protestants of the "Confessing Church" stood out against Hitler in the name of their faith in Christ, who alone is Lord. For that we need really adult Christians, free men who have been set free by Truth (John 8:32).

But I am also convinced that this to a great extent depends on the clergy. Only an adult priesthood can increase the number of adult lay people. There can be no witness from the laity unless the priesthood comes up to the ideal (to the best of its ability--- the finest of us are but poor creatures !) that was expressed recently by the rector of a seminary and quoted with approval by the Archbishop of Chambery : "I do not want to turn my students into clerics who have the spirit of Levites, but into priests who have the spirit of prophets."

As things are, do not ecclesiastics often seem more ready to give orders than to educate, to insist than to uplift ? In my book on laity I have quoted several statements from Catholics on this score ; here I want to quote a critic from outside, whose words are nevertheless worth pondering. This is what Amiel wrote in his Journal: "Catholic thought cannot conceive personality as conscious and master of itself. Its daring and its weakness come from the same cause: lack of responsibility, subjection of conscience, which knows only slavery or an anarchy that proclaims the law but does not obey it because it is outside itself. . . . 'Right-wing' Catholicism never gives its followers freedom: they have to accept, believe and obey, because they never grow up." There is more than one ambiguity in that passage; it is a caricature, and false accordingly: but it is worth thinking about for all that.

It can hardly be denied that, in taking a side or expressing an opinion, Catholics often try to shelter behind some authority, some law or decision or extract from an encyclical letter or papal address: in other words, they try to find a shell. Is it because they have no skeleton, no backbone, no nerves, no muscles? When I saw a fine film about Maxim Gorky's younger days I was struck by a sentence that occurred in it twice: "Be careful never to shelter your conscience behind some body else's conscience." If you want to hear the verdict of an orthodox Catholic, and a cardinal at that, read Newman 's answer to Gladstone about papal infallibility; he explains how the pope's authority, so far from annulling the individual conscience, presupposes the strength and faithfulness of that conscience, and he ends humourously: "Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts (which indeed does not seem quite the thing), I shall drink --- to the Pope, if you please--- still to Conscience first and to the Pope afterwards." That is to say, it is the honouring of the first toast that would give meaning and value to the second.

Among the Church's tasks and pastoral undertakings I would give the formation of Christian men precedence over organizations and systematic groupings. To be sure, such things are wanted; but we ought never to forget what our Lord told the Pharisees, that "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" : we have to appreciate the significance of those words for church matters, as well as their moral truth. In the middle ages they were fond of expressing the same idea in the words "The Church is not the walls but the faithful" ; and I would like here to recall a remark of Bernanos: "It is a fine thing to put social programmes on paper. But it is important to know what sort of people you have to carry them out". For the Church, indeed, that is the main question. In his address of 18 February 1946, Pope Pius XII declared that the Church's influence differs from that of political societies through the fact that "she acts on man in his personal dignity as a free being, at his very heart ; she strives to form men. ... , and she does her work in the depths of each one".

Everybody knows that it is difficult to make men free. Often they are the first not to want to be free ; having to make their own decisions is a heavy burden, and they like other people to do it for them, as Dostoyevsky set out so forcefully in "The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor" in The Brothers Karamazov. Yes, it is difficult to make men free --- and it is risky, too. Many do not know how to use their freedom, and some know too well how to abuse it. But there are risks naturally attaching to the use of freedom even short of real misuse. Freedom calls for open discussion and frank give-and-take: it is therefore a threat to dogmatism (I do not say "to dogma" I). Freedom involves the acceptance sometimes of uncertainties and hazards; these are things that alarm a short-sighted authority, or one that is too self-conscious, an authority that is inclined to "paternalism". And, even when it works within the limits that it must now over-step, the spirit of freedom cannot fail to express itself outwardly in certain dissentient attitudes that insist on asking questions.