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That nothing may be lost: An engraced path of renewal for the laity

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 12, 2017

If you’ve been following my recent essays on the difficulties faced by the laity in renewing the Church, you will recall that the chief obstacle is that the laity do not have the sort of ecclesiastical authority necessary to eliminate the influence of those within the Church who reject her teachings. I explored this theme in both “How can the laity renew the Church?” and “Church renewal: Yes, we do have a plan”.

But this does not mean I want to change the Church to put the laity in charge. It is a dangerous temptation to model Church authority along secular political lines, or in accordance with contemporary social prejudices, whether right or wrong. Authority in the Church is Divinely rooted in the full priesthood of Jesus Christ, which is inextricably both male and ordained. But within this Divine dispensation we should certainly consider the apostolates open to the laity which can have and have had a significant impact on the Church’s renewal.

It is painfully obvious today that authentic renewal cannot be entrusted only to the “the professionals”. Our contemporary Catholic malaise is still far too deeply rooted in the body of those who are ordained, and especially in the episcopate. But we can be thankful that the improvement in the “clerical culture” over the past generation has at least made it possible in most places for dedicated lay persons, if they are willing to make some sacrifices, to find excellent spiritual direction, sound preaching, and reverent worship. The disregard of the clergy for the laity’s rights to the Church’s liturgy and the Church’s teaching is not nearly so widespread as it was a generation ago.

The importance of this development, which thirty years ago had not progressed far at all, cannot be overestimated. The first rule of the lay apostolate is to accept spiritual guidance from the clergy if at all possible. Bad experiences have created the temptation to reject priestly counsel altogether. But this course is extraordinarily risky. If any lay person sees total self-guidance as his only option, all I can say is that he had better be right in God’s eyes. Otherwise he will do more harm than good. In addition, of course, all fruitful apostolic work must be engraced through prayer.

Priestly spiritual direction roots an apostolate in the mission of the Church; fervent prayer roots the apostle in God Himself. We must always bear in mind this vital axiom: “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain” (Ps 127:1).

The most important lay apostolate?

Still, the question remains: What apostolic work can the laity undertake if they wish to make a maximum impact on the renewal of the Church. Though the range of possibilities is very wide, I intend to focus here on the work that is most important in our own situation. In this context, it is very clear that the most powerful and relevant apostolates are those involved in education.

To understand this, it may be necessary to make some historical connections. If we think back just two generations, the first thing we will notice is how small a role, if any, the laity played in Catholic education. This was still true as late as about 1960. Consider the following key questions and their answers:

  1. Did you know that Blessed John Henry Newman (1801-1890)—who wrote that very famous book, The Idea of a University—was regarded by many high-ranking clergy as a purveyor of dangerous ideas concerning Catholic education? Briefly, Newman saw very clearly—but somewhat ahead of his time—that there was no intrinsic reason for priests and religious to control education or to serve as the teachers. This view was considered quite revolutionary in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, but it would not be long before changing circumstances led to its widespread adoption throughout the Church.
  2. In considering renewal, have you noticed the most important benefit of the vocations crisis after about 1960? It is simply this: There are no longer enough clergy and religious to be in total control of Catholic education. Through clerical default, the laity have had to grow up very rapidly to grasp what it means to think and learn like a Catholic, and to master the disciplines which lie closest to the heart of this vital project. The newest educational initiatives today have been spearheaded by lay persons, and in almost every school at any level, nearly all the teachers are lay persons.
  3. And do you know what is still the most significant obstacle to the renewal of Catholic higher education in our time? It is the unreformed Jesuits, along with some other unreformed orders, which are still largely in possession at the university level. Even where the boards of trustees are not primarily clerical, they are populated by lay persons who have been formed in the secular-modernist spirit of the Jesuits and their like. This remains the biggest obstacle to the renewal of Catholic education today.

As the vocations crisis continues, there will be increasing opportunities for sharp lay people to exercise even greater influence. The most important question in Catholic education today is not whether Catholic schools must be controlled and staffed by priests and religious. That question has already been settled. The most important question today is which laity will be in charge. This is a game-changer in the quest for renewal—whether we are teaching in the home, creating and producing educational resources for the Church, teaching CCD classes, disseminating Catholic truth through every kind of media, serving as administrators and classroom teachers, establishing new schools from scratch, or even—as some exemplary lay persons now do—teaching future priests in seminaries.

A new outlook

Let me conclude with a broader observation which suggests the heightened value of all lay apostolates (and even lay fidelity in ordinary work). It is true that both the secular authorities and, still too often, the Catholic authorities are hostile to renewal. Therefore, it is not clear exactly how and when the larger victories—the sea change—will come. But we must never forget why it is that the clerical intelligentsia in the Church went so horribly wrong in the first place, probably beginning around the time of Newman’s death, and certainly accelerating in the second third of the twentieth century.

The primary impetus was the desire to be relevant in the larger secular world. Far, far too many priests and religious could not stand the thought of becoming irrelevant to the dominant intellectual currents of an increasingly secular world. In droves, they offered their talents in the service of that worldly sort of relevance which demands approval by our cultural elites. They could no longer claim relevance through their fidelity, for the world had not only drifted from Catholicism but from all serious concern about religion, and therefore from all serious concern about truth. In other words, Catholic intellectuals (who were almost universally clerical at that time) despised their birthright (cf. Gen 25:34). They became “immoral or irreligious like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal” (Heb 12:16).

No matter how dark the way forward appears to us now, we do well to consider what this means. It means that insofar as Catholic laity succeed at whatever tasks God sets for them in the world, increasing numbers of priests and bishops will begin to experience cultural pressure to reconstruct rather than deconstruct their wavering faith. There is far more to be said about other apostolic work that can further the renewal of the Church. But there can be no question that, in our time, the laity have been charged with the task of gathering together the fragments of Catholicism—as Our Lord commanded His disciples—“so that nothing may be lost” (Jn 6:12).

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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