The role and vocation of the laity in Catholicism

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The latest in a series of occasional articles about Cardinal John Henry Newman

By Michael M. Canaris

As we have seen throughout this series on the thought of John Henry Newman, many of the views he espoused were vindicated and built upon during the Second Vatican Council. A key issue which has remained in the forefront of theological conversation for these last four decades is the role and vocation of the laity in Catholicism. Like so many others, this theme traces its roots through the intermediary work of great theologians (in this case, such as Yves Congar and Pope Pius XII), to that of Newman.

Vatican II’s positive appraisal of the indispensability of the laity in documents such as Lumen Gentium (especially nos. 12 and 31) and Apostolicam Actuositatem, are largely corollaries of Newman’s positions in works such as “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine” and “The Idea of a University.” In these writings, Newman points out that he is not the first to endorse the position that the laity has a distinct and active role not only in devotional practices and charitable ministries, but also in theology and doctrinal matters. Early lay thinkers such as Justin Martyr and Lactantius, as well as those closer to Newman’s day, such as Joseph de Maistre, Francois Rene de Chateaubriand, and Charles de Montalembert, made lasting contributions to Christian theology and apologetics.

While Newman did not believe the lay faithful were infallible in pronouncing matters of doctrine individually, he did hold that a corporate and united testimony of the praying faithful served as a reliable testimony to the truth of a particular doctrine held throughout the entire church. In this, the Council Fathers agreed: “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when ‘from the bishops down to the last of the lay faithful’ they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth” (LG, 12).

While the theological faculty at the Catholic University of Ireland, for which Newman served as rector, contained only ordained theological faculty members, Newman endorsed lay candidates for a number of other disciplines and chairs, to the chagrin of many Irish prelates. He sought to form an educated class of mature lay Christian thinkers, whose lives resonated with the faith throughout every dimension of interpersonal engagement and who bore witness to the Gospel in their social, familial, and work environments. To do so properly, Newman maintained that they should obtain a theological training that would provide the necessary tools for defending the faith and evangelizing others. As he says in The Idea of a University, “It will not answer the purpose for a Catholic to say, ‘I leave it to theologians,’ ‘I will ask my priest;’ but it will commonly give him a triumph, as easy as it is complete, if he can then and there lay down the law” (Idea, 378).

His views of and wishes for the laity are summarized in a work he titled “The Present Position of Catholics in England”:

“I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold, and what they do not, who know their creed so well, that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it.”

As becomes continually clear, Newman is an intriguing and somewhat difficult figure to study. His work is not well-suited to the age of sound bytes and one-line snippets. If one seeks to comb his writings to find support for a pre-existing assertion (what scholars and exegetes derisively call “proof-texting”), one would be able to find sentences where he can be termed authoritarian and perhaps even spiritually oligarchical. However, the bulk of his work would refute such a perspective. If a scholar, ordained or lay, immerses oneself in the great thinker’s worldview and theology, he or she would clearly realize the esteem with which he regards the lay men, women, and children who comprise the bulk of the Mystical Body of Christ. This great body of faithful has an intrinsic, infused sense of the truth and relationship with the Risen Christ which serves as a guiding principle in rejecting those beliefs that stray from and corrupt the Christian message. Over periods of time (sometimes lengthy) they eventually right the balance of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, rejecting heresy and endorsing authentic teaching.

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at Fordham University.