This October, the Church will mark the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. In that three-year period from 1962 to 1965, the bishops and their collaborators strove to bring the Church into the modern world so that the message of Christ could be heard more clearly and spread more effectively.

A better understanding of the role of the laity was high on the agenda. “The laity, by their very vocation, seek the Kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God,” declared Lumen Gentium (Light of the Nations), Vatican II’s dogmatic constitution on the Church.

“They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God, that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel, they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. … Since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs, it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs, in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase, according to Christ, to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer.”

Greater engagement in Christian discipleship for the laity does not mean being involved primarily in “church ministries” or preaching on a street corner, worthy as those activities may be. It means, in the words of the Catechism, that the laity need to discover or invent “the means for permeating social, political and economic realities with the demands of Christian doctrine and life” (899).

So, if you are an elected representative in government, for example, you support measures that you believe will foster the common good. If you are in commerce, you embrace business practices that are fair to employees and customers and not based on greed. If you are a worker, you do your job conscientiously because you want to offer God the best work that you can do. If you are a doctor, you approach each patient as an individual human being created in the image and likeness of God, with particular needs that perhaps only you can address at that moment. If you are parents, your main concern is the Christian formation of your children.

The Church in America now faces a challenge that demands the laity exercise their role as Vatican II saw it. What began as an apparently well-intentioned effort to serve justice by helping everyone have “affordable access to health care” (a concern of the Catholic bishops for the longest time, by the way) is turning out to be a grave encroachment on the religious liberty of millions of Americans.

In carrying out their ordinary duties of everyday life — striving to live according to the Gospel while raising families and making a living, contributing to the common good by doing their jobs well — Christians are being asked to carry an extra burden.

It is the burden of knowing that part of what they have earned will be set aside, through the premiums they pay for their health insurance, to pay for products and procedures that they know are morally illicit. Companies and organizations — even those with official ties to the Church or those that are animated by Catholic principles — will be asked to facilitate this transfer of funds, or to stand by quietly as others do it for them, a reality that forces them to cooperate with the sinful practices to which they object.

The Church per se will not be made to participate, it is true, but that is only because the Church falls within a very narrow definition of religion that has been devised by the state: To be considered an exempt religious organization, its primary animus must be conversion of others to its faith; it must employ and serve primarily members of that faith. That itself is part of the reason for the present controversy — that the state may dictate what constitutes religion.

The bishops have taken the lead in the current battle — speaking out and inspiring the faithful — and that’s great. We are blessed to have men like New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Baltimore’s Archbishop William Lori and many others who are putting their talents at the service of the true and the just — and what is in the best interest of the laity’s ultimate goal of salvation.

They are doing their job — protecting the flock they are called on to shepherd. But some supporters of the Obama administration’s efforts to broadly provide contraception, sterilization and abortion-causing drugs are happy to allow the “bishops’ war on women” narrative to stand.

Anyone who looks a little deeper will see that this is an unjust caricature. Fifty years after the opening of the Council that so clearly defined the role of the laity in the Church and the modern world, “The Hour of the Laity” has surely come. The laity must stand up and let it be known that it is their fight, and it is their religious liberty they are defending. They must not let the bishops stand alone.

There are many opportunities for lay Catholics to stop being bystanders and take up the cause. One of them is the Stand Up for Religious Liberty rallies, which will be held June 8. This is the second set of rallies held nationwide to protest the government’s intrusion in the private lives of Catholics and Catholic institutions, and members of the Church should be out in full force. (More information about the rallies can be found on page 2 of this issue.)

Another opportunity is the Fortnight for Freedom, which Register senior writer Tim Drake tells us about on the front page of this issue. This time of prayer, fasting and study begins on June 21, the vigil of the feast of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, two English Catholics who chose fidelity to faith over their very lives.

The two weeks culminate on Independence Day, when Americans reflect on the price that was paid for the liberty we enjoy. Have we lost sight of the sacrifices of our Founding Fathers in recent years? If so, we now have the opportunity to reflect on the true meaning of freedom in a very real way.