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Reviving the Catholic Lay Vocation

by Frank Morriss


In this article, Frank Morriss attributes the increased immorality of America to the lack of participation by the Catholic laity. Quoting Bedoyere, he states, "…it would be preposterous to suppose that a life could be divided into two lives, a life in the Church and a life in the world. Such a division must kill a living thing." He points out that, often it is more painful to live the faith than to die for it.

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The Wanderer Forum Foundation, Fall, 1999

The lay vocation is solely a Catholic thing — that is, it exists only in reference to a valid sacramental priesthood. I don't mean to speak of the laity negatively, meaning they are simply all of Christ's kingdom who are not ordained priests. Far from it. We laity have a priesthood, but it is in the service of Christ, king and high priest. It takes its royal character from Him, who accepts us into His cause by the Baptism He initiated. Similarly, Christ takes from among us (for first every ordained priest must have passed through that initiation into Christ's life that Baptism supplies) those who are to lead, teach and sanctify us with His sacraments. That is what is meant when we say Christ made His Church hierarchical, and we cannot deny or reject one of His elements without rejecting the other. By making priests, Christ made laity.

Those who assert a generic Christianity, meaning a church broader and more embracing than the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, in effect strike not only at the hierarchical priesthood but at the laity as well. The laity would lose their identity, and become simply a congregation, really a crowd hoping for or claiming individual empowering charisms, without any means of validation or recognizable credentials. They would choose their own teachers and providers, as if Christ Himself had not already provided for their commissioning. That is what indeed is done in large areas of generic Christianity, known more specifically as Protestantism.

The lay writer Michael de la Bedoyere explains this quite significantly in The Layman in the Church (a title chosen before this era of feminist sensitivity). After describing how the laity participate in hierarchical exercises of authority by cooperating in various ways with them, Bedoyere states, "Lay participation in the kingly authority of Christ and the Church is also seen in lay witness to hierarchical authority." He explains that all who are "engaged in the defense and realization of Catholic claims are in effect delegates of the Church's hierarchical authority." And he cites the role we all have not only exercising Christ's kingly authority in civic life, but in applying "the Church's doctrine and moral teaching in temporal matters."

This leads me, as it did Bedoyere, to identify the lay vocation as being "teaching and authoritative witnesses with Christ the Prophet and Christ the King," and binding ourselves closely "to the teaching and authoritative role of the institutional hierarchical Church." By that we show our consent and acceptance of the Church's divine commission, and aid in its being carried out so that Our Father's will may be done on earth as well as in heaven.

That brings us to the scandal of the many chameleon Catholics who go to great lengths to take on the coloration of the secular and to a great deal the pagan society in which God has willed we function in our time. Some of these are most chameleon-like on weekdays, so that we might call them Sunday laity. Mind you carefully, please, I am not applying this to those lay persons who see or are told of a need and respond to meet it with various ministries revived or allowed by the Church in recent times. But I do have in mind the parishioners who have bought into the idea that, unlike all pre-Vatican II experience, the laity now have come into their own, meaning they should now participate in liturgy as its (I mean liturgy's) creators and proprietors, and show their importance as ostentatiously and assertively as possible. They do not so much participate in the liturgy as appropriate it, insisting their piety be the measure of everyone else's. They do not hold up Moses's arms; rather they hold up their own in his place. Thus we have, for example, the situation in one South Dakota parish I was told about by a priest-friend this summer, where there are 150 families, and 84 Eucharistic ministers.

Now, I think it is from the ranks of such Sunday parochial activists, and the various lay professionals in Catholic affairs, that for the most part you will find those who are anxious to omit application of Catholic doctrine to their personal affairs, as they judge them. It is more likely that among laity will be those who see no need to withhold the vote and even open admiration from political candidates who support anti-life measures and who make possible the use of tax money s for various immoralities. It is from such chameleon Catholics we hear the argument that the Church cannot dictate matters of sexual morality or impose outdated discriminations against women being ordained. On the contrary, I doubt if you will find many contemptuous of Catholic doctrine or chameleon-like in living it among those who understand that Catholic worship is not accomplished in aggrandizing self, but in sacrificing self; it is not carried out in asserting self, but in offering self; it is not primarily in externals, but rather in the unseen realities things done and seen should proclaim.

Catholic public worship is in essence the remembering of Christ's Resurrection following His redemptive death on the Cross, renewed in the Sacrifice of the Mass — and that worship gathered about the ordained priest who is commissioned to offer it must flow out from the private chapel of the worshipper's heart. It is not conjured by what we feel moved to do; we are summoned to it by what we believe, by our faith that unites us to the Church to which Christ entrusted His work of salvation.

When the liturgy becomes simply something of periodic "doing," without reference to the totality of Catholic faith — a "happening," as modern idiom would put it, an event of merely or mostly social significance — then, of course, no enthusiasm with which it is celebrated will guarantee permanent, constant fidelity to Catholic truth. And that is the phenomenon I detect in observing highly demonstrative lay liturgical activity joined to a virtual disappearance of so many of the laity into the pagan coloration of modern American culture.

It should lead us to question whether the new liturgy as it has been developed and practiced (distinguishing from as it was intended) is contributing to the virtual apostasy of so many lay Catholics in living their daily lives. Since what we believe is related to how we pray, can it be that a growing disappearance of so many of the laity as identifiably Catholic in their weekday — that is, their secular — lives, may indicate the loyally Catholic lay vocation is not being adequately served by public worship? Either that or the worshippers are disassociating the liturgical "experience" from their whole selves. I do not find the same phenomenon evidenced by those who take advantage of the older liturgy that is allowed us by the Church, acting providentially I am certain.

If Catholics are told that their presence at a liturgy (I use the new term for what from ancient times was called the Mass) is the primary reality; if they are led to believe that their participation in effect brings into existence that liturgy; that their functioning is a matter of right in the doing of certain ministries — then it is understandable they might conclude they have dominion over all that pertains to being Catholic. In any case, at the very time community and togetherness and activity is being stressed in regard to liturgy, an un-Catholic individualism and personalism has arisen in regard to personal and civic life. I, for one, think it is a result of what the moderns call empowerment being taken as an excuse or perhaps a synonym for self-rule, for independence of conscience from all but personal norms of judgment and decision-making. Being liturgically empowered in the new theological understandings, the laity apparently have concluded such empowerment an emancipation of their individual consciences. But there is a far difference from saying the conscience is to be followed and from believing it is freed from the requirements of faith. The Catholic faith recognizes a commitment to authority. That recognition is upheld by the virtue of humility. So much in the old Mass reminded us of that virtue; I do not find reminders of it as potently in the new. If they are there at all, perhaps they are drowned out by liturgical performance. Humility is not conducive to good acting. Unworthiness is alien to performers.

The chameleon's capability to blend in with its environment is for that creature's safety. Perhaps in one sense, that explains the tendency of so many of today's Catholics to make themselves indistinguishable in matters that make up "culture." They want to protect that convenient attitude that religion must not be allowed to set one apart. It is considered both undemocratic and lacking in compassion to recognize moral distinction in life-style; to be moral is to be judgmental of the immoral; to hold to truths that are unpopular is to be uncompassionate to those who do not recognize those truths. Further, to be a disciple of Christ in a way confirmed by two millennia of Catholic experience is to renounce much the City of Man embraces. And that invites some kind of martyrdom at the very least.

Whatever the case may be, it is undeniable that an absence from lay persons of Catholic understanding and commitment contributed, perhaps decisively to, the immoral approval of assisted suicide; the ongoing use of American tax moneys to fund contraception and even abortion; the invasion by pornography of our popular entertainment protected by permissive judges, some of them lay Catholics; the imposed materialism that has become the only ethos of public education. Determined Catholicism could have prevented those things in America; lay American Catholics should ask themselves why it did not.

Pope Leo XIII foresaw these outcomes. Today's liberal scholars call Americanism "the phantom heresy." It is not easy to put one's hands on the full text of that Pope's encyclical to the American Bishops, Testem Benevolentiae. It is more a phantom encyclical than Americanism is a phantom heresy. The liberal line is that the Pope was deceived by a conservative faction into believing something about the faith in America that was not true. Regardless, Leo XIII was prophetic and what he warned against has come about in our time some four generations later. Even before Testem Benevolentiae, he had rejected the Americanist Catholics' insistence that a divorce of Church and State is the preferred and perhaps only acceptable relationship. Perhaps he saw that such a divorce would not remain amicable, but become a hostility in which religion would suffer at the hands of state power, just as the Church had suffered from that power when there was a marriage of Church and State. That has come to happen today, when the Constitutional ban of any established religion has been made by judicial interpretation an instrument to so privatize religion that our country has been totally secularized. Liberal Catholics for the most part have acquiesced in this de-religionizing of our culture.

Leo was not demanding a repudiation of the First Amendment of our Constitution. He saw the proper separation of Church and State in America (even though the first amendment did not use such terms) as special to the United States, just as a different relationship of those entities is recognized elsewhere. But what the Pope did detect in "some among you" (meaning American Catholic leadership) those who "conceive of and desire a church in America different from that which is in the rest of the world." The Pope answered: "One in the unity of doctrine as in the unity of government, such is the Catholic Church, and, since God has established its center and foundation in the Chair of Peter, one which is rightly called Roman, for where Peter is there is the Church."

You cannot have that understanding in its substance and essence and say, "where the community, or the congregation is there is the Church." Yet that is being said and accepted in our country today. It could not be said if the laity who make up those communities and congregations repudiated it — as they well should in fidelity to their vocation as lay Catholics. One major proof of the attempt of many Americans to define their own Catholicity to fit their own subjective understandings is the resistance of most Catholic colleges and universities to Ex Corde Ecclesiae. If the lay alumni of those institutions — including every Jesuit college and university — unanimously repudiated this misadventure into Americanism, the matter would be decided in Rome's favor. Unfortunately, many American Catholics either fail to see the implications of such a struggle or else are indifferent to it, preferring to be Catholic in their own fashion, which in America seems to mean being Catholic only to a point.

Let me bring some voices much more weighty and significant than mine against the attitude that seems to prevail in today's Americanism, no matter how real or significant was the Americanism of Pope Leo's time. Yves Congar says this of the apostle, be he cleric or lay:

"It means becoming a whole human creature for Christ's sake, a human being captured, occupied, possessed, vitalized by faith."

Dorothy Dohen speaks of creating "a humanity for Christ," and adds that one can do so no matter his or her state of life: "Christ can be shown forth by a school-master, a navvy (laborer), a housewife, from an invalid's bed, in every human condition." Msgr. Gerard Philips says, "Their 'hierarchical sense' demands . . . consists in a spontaneous assent to be guided by faith as it is legitimately interpreted by the magisterium. The true believer adapts himself inwardly to the transforming light which dispels all the darkness of self-love and egocentric judgment. And so there is created between him and the object of his act of faith, a mysterious affinity which is none other than the revealing Spirit."

Bedoyere presents what I want to say so well that I ask leave to quote him somewhat at length:

"Once then we understand that the Church is the new life of the members of Christ under the conditions that Christ ordained, we can begin to understand very much better the real role of Christianity and of Christians in the secular world. Understanding this, it would be preposterous to suppose that a life could be divided into two lives, a life in the Church and a life in the world. Such a division must kill a living thing. There can only be differences of functions and varieties within the one life. Christians face up to human life and its problems in exactly the same way as others do, but theirs is the life of spiritual freemen, to adapt St. Paul's words (Galatians 4:31). It is a life guided as to its values and moving force by the Revelation of Christ's life, entrusted to the keeping and rule of His hierarchically organized Church and supernaturally energized by membership together of Christ in the Church which is Christ's Mystical Body. We can measure and calculate the visible difference which Christ's Revelation through the Church has made.

"Because of it, we know that certain definite things are true which otherwise we would not have known to be true. We know, for example of the Trinity or the Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament. We know, too, that certain things are right and certain things are wrong, for example, in the realm of marriage and sex. But beyond such clear and calculable differences, there is in the life and example of Christ a whole world of spiritual and moral enrichment of what natural reason can tell us. From this we know, for example of the prime place which love occupies in our relations with God and in our relations with one another."

And I would add to that author's thoughts that we know what love is and what it is not — and today's American culture badly confuses love with what it is not rather than what it is. Bedoyere's reference to marriage and sex is vitally important for the lay vocation. I appreciate that neither marriage nor celibacy are the essence of either the lay or the clerical vocations — and that chastity is required of both. But lay persons are clearly the main guardians of chastity, called to its practice in great numbers in marriage which embraces a consecrated and sanctified use of sex. If chastity is one of the most neglected virtues of our age, Catholic laity must share a major part of the blame for such negligence.

Make no mistake about it — the revolt against Humanae Vitae was not at heart against Papal authority; it was against chastity. When persons say, "the Church has no authority to tell us what to do in the bedroom," it isn't about who they want kept out of that room, but what they wish to do themselves there, or in any other secret, private place. It is ironic that such persons complain about a bunch of celibate men laying down rules for marital use of sex, but welcome theologians, mostly clerics, who advise them to abandon all such prohibitions against, for example, contraception and simply follow their own consciences, which, were they more honest, would be better phrased as follow their own inclinations.

Many lay Catholics are also rationalizing the truth that homosexuals have rights into meaning that there is a right to be unchaste, and they are encouraged in that deception by clerics and theologians who are, or should be, celibate. The name Dignity is meant to suggest, I suppose, that the human dignity of homosexuals should be recognized. And that is true. But the arguments of Dignity all go to selling the idea that acts against chastity have dignity, which they do not. And clerical or religious or even episcopal sympathizers and supporters cannot change that ultimate fact whatsoever — that unchastity insults and degrades sex, and thereby is an insult to the Catholic family to which most laity are or should be committed.

Bedoyere has some piercingly true words about this subject as well:

". . . Sex . . . in marriage . . . is attached to a whole vocation, to a family, and it is attached to the whole supernatural world centered in Christ. . . . Personal attraction, the beauty of the human body, friendship, love . . . all these are good, save when they are used to promote the detached act of sex and passing union. Marriage demands personal courtship, and consequently a particular interest at a particular time . . . in the other sex. But, again, that interest should be directed by the aim, and should stop short of what would be the destruction of the aim. Sex finds its full function only in marriage, but it is a personal and intimate function for the partners alone and a function which must not be in contradiction with the primary function of marriage which is to produce children, new members at baptism of Christ's Mystical Body."

The failure of indignation at the modern insult to sex and family is also an insult in itself of our Catholic faith, and a gauntlet thrown down against the lay vocation. Timidity in taking up that challenge smacks of apostasy.

We hear constantly about sexual abuse, but hardly ever about the abuse of sex itself. Yet the current cavalier and casual attitude toward sex, the reduction of it to a recreational right and even a necessity for individual fulfillment is exactly such abuse of sex. It separates it from its sacramental consecration, from its service to God's purposes, from its expression of eternal and exclusive love, from its working of intimate union. It is strange that moderns want everything to be healthfully natural — except the one thing that unnaturalness destroys in health and beauty, the use of sex. That they accept in its most unnatural perversions, and anti-natural pollution. What was made for modesty and privacy, the modern world has exposed to mockery and degradation. And unfortunately, not all, perhaps not even many, of the Catholic laity who, as I have said, are the natural guardians of sex, make effective objection.

Why? I think it is the loss in our time of the spirit of faith, something that Msgr. Ronald Knox detected in one of his retreat lectures for the laity. He pointed out that in Catholic times the faithful were convinced that heretics would most likely end up in hell. Today, he said, most of the faithful are inclined to believe heretics most likely will make it to heaven despite their religious treason. That he described as a loss of the spirit of faith —I suppose we could say faith with morale, with vigor and conviction. We needn't discuss the possibility of heretics getting to heaven. One thing is beyond debate — there can't be heroic sanctity without the spirit of faith, not just faith itself. And what a throng of lay saints steeped in that spirit we of the laity have to follow: John the Baptist denouncing moral corruption in the palace; Louis IX of France and Elizabeth of Hungary, living saintly lives in palaces; Pelayo, young martyred hostage of a Muslim caliph; Kateri, Indian virgin maiden; Donald, widower with nine daughters to care for; Cuthman, obedient and loving son, caretaker of his helpless mother; Margaret of Cartona, repentant wanton; Onesimus and Dismas, repentant thieves; Catherine of Siena, rebuker of negligent clerics, a woman who fearlessly admonished even the highest of them; Zita, household servant; Joan of Domremy, patriot in arms; Francis, called simply "Catholic man" in the office; Thomas More, incorruptible politician; Leopold of Austria, who refused the emperorship of Christendom. A list of saintly models for the laity would take hours to read. Today, for example is the feast day of certain slaves of the Vandals, converted to Christianity and martyred for resistance to the Arian heresy (converts often seem to have an overflowing spirit of the faith), and of Gerard Majella, patron of lay brothers.

No lay person in any condition lacks a perfect patron among the great host of laity who the Church has recognized as heroes in living their faith, and often dying for it. Sometimes the living of it is more painful and takes a greater determination and fidelity than the dying. Martyrdom sometimes does not provide the release of being fatal. But lay sanctity has one quality it shares with all other holiness — a final, unswerving and undoubting stubbornness in the cause of Christ, which is the cause of the Catholic Church. No saint fails to end up a triumphalist about his or her faith.

This summer's Forum Focus issue treats the great American convert, Orestes Augustus Brown-son, who though a minister as a Protestant, never, I believe, tried to be other than a layman after conversion, perhaps because he had duties as a husband and father. Though his burial in Notre Dame University’s chapel doesn't amount to canonization, Catholics who consider the lay vocation to be one of apostolate will find in him a patron. Long before Vatican II, of course, and even before the First Vatican Council, he fearlessly defended the role of the lay Catholic as a vocal defender and apologist for the faith. He rejected the comfortable position of defending the faith only against attacks from without. In his article "Rights of the Temporal" in 1860, he said: "The evils which from time to time befall the Church, and often so great and deplorable, are in most cases, if not all, far more attributable to the faults, errors, and the blunders of Catholics themselves, than to the craftiness or wickedness of non-Catholics." Like his contemporary Newman, Brownson would have scorned the present liberal position that to be proudly Catholic is to be triumphal. It was in fact triumph both of those great converts thought should be held out. Newman called for "the high spirit of the warrior, going out conquering and to conquer." Brownson reminded that "the most notable defenses of Catholic history have been made by laymen," and insisted that when issues must be resolved by reason "common to all men," the laity must have the fullest liberty to be apologists, "compatible with the primacy of the spiritual order and the discipline of the Church." He rejected the somewhat feudal notion that clergy and religious should be immune to public criticism: "We deny that everything done by priests or religious, even under the patronage of the Ordinary, is sacred and privileged, and in no case, and in no circumstances, to be made the subject of public criticism."

He rejected the idea that vindication of the rights of the spiritual order means subjugation of the temporal, and insisted the Church in fact not only had not meant that outcome, but actually the opposite: "We must meet (the charge that the Church works a spiritual despotism) not by denouncing who bring it, not by opposing liberty as license, and all progresses insisted on by the modern world as diabolical, but by showing both dogmatically and historically that it is founded in error, that the Church both theoretically and practically, leaves to her members their manhood, and all reasonable freedom of thought and action all that reason itself leaves them, and is in no sense despotic."

In a word Brownson contended, and his career as a confessor of the faith proved, that the spirit of faith fiercely held and proudly proclaimed fits the Catholic in this age as much as any other, and will fit us in every age of history yet to be experienced. With him we reject the timid surrender, the apostasy of collaboration, that the modernists and Call to Actionists among us consider necessary in order to make our faith acceptable and livable today. Catholics who would compromise the faith to be accepted by their age do not understand that faith or the meaning of being Catholic, and they will slip away into the ranks of those who, like the one-time disciples who turned their backs on Christ over a hard saying, are forgotten.

I will end my talk with a public confession — of anger against the idea and those who sell it that the laity before Vatican II were a benighted class of inactivists denied access to the full riches of their religion. I will let an articulate voice of a convert poet reveal the heights pre-Vatican II piety held out to us poor laity.

"I take my leave, with sorrow, of Him I love so well;
I look my last upon His small and radiant prison-cell;
O happy lamp! to serve Him with never ceasing light!
O happy flame! to tremble forever in His sight!
I leave the holy quiet for the loudly human train,
And my heart that He has breathed upon is filled with lonely pain.
O King, O Friend, O Lover. What worse grief can be
In all the reddest depths of Hell than banishment from thee?
But from my window as I speed across the sleeping land
I see the towns and villages wherein His houses stand.
Above the roofs I see a cross outlined against the night,
And I know that there my Lover dwells in His sacramental might.
Dominions kneel before Him, and Powers kiss His feet,
Yet for me He keeps His weary watch in the turmoil of the street;
The King of Kings awaits me, wherever I may go,
O who am I that He should deign to love and serve me so?

Joyce Kilmer dedicated that to a Canadian nun. And though I am not sure, I like to think he wrote it on a train hurrying him to the eventual sacrifice of his life in France. When the pitchmen of the superiority of the new liturgical piety produce someone who can express the sublimity of Eucharistic love that the layman Kilmer put unashamedly in print, then I may be able to resist more strongly the temptation to anger about their hubristic arrogance.

FRANK MORRISS is co-editor of Forum Focus and a contributing editor and columnist for The Wanderer newspaper. He has served as news editor for the Denver Catholic Register and the National Catholic Register and has been an active journalist and author since 1950. A graduate of Regis College and holder of a law degree from Georgetown University, he has also been a college professor and the founder of a private Catholic school. His full-length book, A Little Life Of Our Lord, is available through the Forum Focus Series listing on the inside back cover.

© The Wanderer Forum Foundation, P.O. Box 542, Hudson, WI 54016-0542.

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