Politics & Politicians

A priest was visiting homes in his parish. He knocked on one door and it was opened by a little girl. He said: "Hello there! Do you know who I am?" She ran to her mother and said: "Mommy, there's a man at the door and he doesn't know who he is!"

It is important to understand clearly who we are as Church, who we are as laity, and who we are as clergy. The documents of Vatican II have a lot to say about who we are. Vatican II gave us a new way of seeing the lay apostolate. It did this, first and foremost by insisting that the Church is all of us. It follows therefore that the mission of the Church is the mission of all of us. So the lay apostolate is not just helping out the hierarchy. Lay people carry out the apostolate in their own capacity as laity. The Vatican II Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People states: "From the fact of their union with Christ flows the laymen's right and duty to be apostles." One consequence of this "right and duty" of the laity is that members of the laity don't have to wait around to receive orders from the hierarchy before undertaking the work of the apostolate.

Here is what The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World says explicitly: "Secular duties and activities belong properly although not exclusively to laymen . . . laymen should also know that it is generally the function of their well-formed Christian conscience to see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city; from priests they may look for spiritual light and nourishment. Let the layman not imagine that his pastors are always such experts, that to every problem which arises, however complicated, they can readily give him a concrete solution, or even that such is their mission. Rather, enlightened by Christian wisdom and giving close attention to the teaching authority of the Church, let the layman take on his own distinctive role" (43).

Not only is the Church "all of us", it is also "those who have been called." We sometimes speak of someone having a vocation, meaning a call to the priesthood or religious life (from the Latin, "vocare"). In fact all Christians are people who have a call or "vocation". The literal meaning of "Church" is: the people God has called together. There are differences in the "calls" however.

Bishops and priests and, in a sense, deacons, are "called", and this means they are taken out of their place in the world in order to carry out a role of leadership within the Christian community. My vocation or call means that, as a priest, I don't as such have a role within the world. I don't add to the gross domestic product. I don't serve in government. I'm not a health professional. I have been called out of those realms of life so I can carry out a role within the Church-community.

Lay people, however, are not removed from their worldly place. They are called by God there, where they are, to be the Church there in the midst of the world. For example, the Church does not, officially, as an institution work to bring about social reform in the world. However lay people are the Church in the world; they are God's People. As God's People, instructed by the Church's social teaching and inspired by the Holy Spirit, they are to work for needed social change in their capacity as citizens of the State, and as participants in the fields of economics, business, culture, family life, etc.

At this point it is important to look more closely at what we mean by that term "laity". Unfortunately in our society the "lay person" has become largely a negative term. Though the word is religious in its origin it is now also used in non-religious contexts as well. For example, a doctor may tell us that something he or she is going to do can be put more simply "in lay terms" as the following. And here we feel a bit like the uninitiated, the untrained, the ignorant. "Lay person" here is clearly a negative term.

In the Church, where the term originated, "laity" does not mean just "non-cleric"; it is not primarily a negative term at all. Here's where it came from. Several centuries before Christ, the Hebrew Scriptures, or what we call the Old Testament, were translated into Greek; the result is what we call the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Scriptures.

When the translators were looking for a Greek word to represent what the Hebrew writers called "God's People", they didn't settle for the ordinary Greek word, ethnos, that means a nation or people. (We still refer to ethnic groups). Instead they took an archaic Greek word for "people", the word laos, to show they were speaking about a special people, a people chosen, blessed and consecrated by God to be a light to all other nations. That's what the Church means by "laity", our English equivalent of "laos". The laity are God's consecrated, priestly people, called to transform our society, to be salt and light there where they carry out their various social roles. So the word, "laity" has a very positive meaning.

Consider now how the apostolate of the laity and the apostolate of the hierarchy fit together. The Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People speaks of the Church's mission as having two aims: bringing the message and grace of Christ to people; and having the gospel spirit permeate and improve the temporal order. It then goes on to say that the assistance of the laity with the first of those aims is more important today than ever. However it also goes on to say that lay people are especially involved with the second of those aims; it is their "distinctive task" and is carried out especially through Christian social action. This is a field that is in great part open to the laity alone, says the Decree.

Think, for example, of the thousands of food banks we now have in Canada, and that are a necessary part of many people's lives. They are great works of charity. Yet we should never cease to feel indignation that in a rich country like Canada, people still have to rely on food banks. This is a scandal and we need to be part of the effort to change that. People should be able to support themselves; it is a demand of human dignity.

In 1931 Pope Pius XI published Quadragesimo Anno, one of the great documents of Catholic Social Teaching. In it he said: "Charity cannot take the place of justice unfairly withheld" (no. 137). Earlier in the same document, when speaking of the poverty that accompanied the Industrial Revolution, he used words that could appropriately be quoted to our legislators today, when he said: "This state of things was quite satisfactory to the wealthy, who looked upon it as the consequence of inevitable economic laws, and who therefore were content to leave to charity alone the full care of helping the unfortunate, as though it were the task of charity to make amends for the open violation of justice, a violation not merely tolerated, but sometimes ratified by legislators" (no. 4).

It is important to work with others for needed social change, whether it be on local issues or larger matters, in politics or in special coalitions, working through our unions or professional organizations, but doing so boldly. We have a wonderful body of social teaching to guide us, and we need to be bold in applying it. We Catholics have to stop letting others form society while we sit on the sidelines!

The Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People concludes with some wonderful words. It reminds us that, like the disciples in Luke's Gospel (10:1) the Lord is sending us out to every town and place where he himself is to come. There is our great consolation. In a sense all we have to do is be good ushers. Do our part in helping people to receive Christ. Then the Lord himself will do the work that really matters.