[Laypeople] should not be regarded as “collaborators” of the clergy, but, rather, as people who are really “co-responsible” for the Church’s being and acting. It is therefore important that a mature and committed laity be consolidated, which can make its own specific contribution to the ecclesial mission...
Pope Benedict spoke these words last August--but any Pope speaks so very many words that some of them invariably get lost in the shuffle. Happily, Al Kresta recalled this passage to us at a recent conference called “Catholic Witness in a Nation Divided.”
I have seldom heard so many meaty, substantial, satisfying talks in one place, or been part of a more deeply engaged audience. More than 600 people gathered for an all-day conference, all pulled together between the day after Election Day
and last weekend.
The conference focused on four areas—religious freedom, immigration, marriage, and life issues—but through a particular lens: not a political, or a structural-reform, or a culture-war lens, but (though Al didn’t use the word), a personalist one. He dubbed the conference a “Declaration of Responsibility.”
There was no political strategizing, no finger-pointing
—unless you count the one pointed back at yourself and your own “household of faith.”
How to confront this new phase in American history? We’ve already tried (and tried, and tried) throwing up our hands and demanding “Why doesn’t Bishop A do B?” or lamenting “If only Candidate X would do Y!”
The results have been underwhelming. The individual, Al noted, is left feeling as if “my life is in somebody else’s hands.” Forty percent of weekly-Mass-going Catholics still voted for a candidate who championed (not tolerated, championed) the intrinsic evils of abortion and “gay marriage.” Something seems deeply wrong within our own household of faith, and within our own hearts.
Countless Catholics are suffering from the kind of clerical mindset that leaves more passive laypeople feeling like helpless casualties of unwise decisions by higher-ups
and more zealous ones like irate but ineffectual backseat drivers to their own priests and bishops.
Benedict’s point could be broadened to encourage people of all faiths to look less to politicians, mega-institutions, and laws, and more to mediating institutions and--ultimately--to themselves.
“When you have a sense of personal mission,” Al pointed out, “you can overcome tremendous obstacles.” When you don’t, you’re easy prey to discouragement-induced paralysis.
Let’s make sure we understand what this approach does and doesn’t mean.
- It doesn’t mean abandoning public life: it’s just clear that we need to get our own house in order (“build the Church, bless the nation,” was the conference’s subtitle).
- Nor is it a species of defeatism. It’s true, Al reminded us, that there’s no promise that our country will endure until the end of time. We do, however, have it on good authority that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. And it’s not the gates of hell, he pointed out, that are on the offensive.
We’re a battering ram,
not an inert target. We’ve seen, with the fall of the Soviet Union, how the right battering ram can knock down the gates of a seemingly indestructible and permanent structure of evil.
- Nothing against national politics and large institutions. They’re very relevant to our mission as persons. (There was some lively discussion, though, on alternatives to the large, well-funded, deeply compromised Catholic institutions that certainly don’t look to be the wave of the future). But excessive attention to politics and institutions can very easily eclipse the persons for whose sake they exist.
So if this new approach is neither despair nor isolationism nor anti-institutionalism, just what is it? What is this curious new methodology?
In fact, it’s nothing strange, and it’s certainly nothing new. You can find it in the Second Vatican Council, and, long before that, you can find it in the prescient writings of St. Josemaria Escriva. And long before that, you can find it in the lives of the first Christians.
In fact, the old idea that the laity’s job is to “pay, pray, and obey” is the aberration. Here’s how Al puts the crux of the issue:
The fundamental problem, it seems to me, is that most Catholics still don’t see their lives as one of intentional discipleship. This is why so many operate without a sense of divine purpose in their lives....I think...most Catholics have never been encouraged to take responsibility for their mission according to the Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People, especially par. 7. They have never considered what spiritual gifts they’ve received as a result of baptism and confirmation nor how they can use those gifts for the building up of the body...
So there you have it: my hopes of distilling the conference into a blogpost, dashed. I have every intention of addressing the actual talks next time, though, especially the ones on marriage and immigration.