I recently learned that the term “melting pot” has been replaced by the politically correct “salad bowl.”

(In the melting pot, everything loses its proper identity. However, in a salad, the sundry ingredients retain their own differences.)

Generally, I tend to reject the notion of political correctness, but there's something to be said for a healthy respect for difference.

St. Paul said that we all are one in Christ, but he didn't say that we were exactly the same. One great saint explained heaven as a place where each soul was a different type of container. Some were thimbles, others were goblets. But all were completely filled.

Since Vatican II, there has been a consistent effort within the Church to promote a healthy understanding of difference. Every person, whatever their state in life, is called to sanctity. Sanctity doesn't come in spite of our personal vocations, but through them. Despite the clarifications made by the Church, many people are still confused about their role in the Church. In fact, it seems that some would like to blur all distinctions, including those between the laity and the clergy.

In 1997, the Congregation for Clergy with seven other Roman dicasteries, including the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, published the Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priest. In some ways, the Instruction is a list of do's and don'ts, but it also emphasizes a consistent theme in the Church: the call to a new evangelization.

The new evangelization involves all the “People of God,” both the laity and the clergy. As the document points out, this calls for two things — a special clerical activism and a full recovery of the awareness of the secular nature of the mission of the laity. In other words: Let the priests be priests and let the lay people be lay people.

In many instances, the lay vocation has implicitly been ignored, giving way to a clericalization of the laity. The laity has been considered active insofar as it participates in the activities of the clergy. But as discussed in the Instruction and, more recently, the revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal, clericalizing laity works to the detriment of both the laity and the clergy. In the same way, laicizing the clergy undermines the significance of sacramental ordination. It's as if to say that there's no difference between clergy and laity.

Some quickly point out that we are all sinners, that the priest can sin just like the layman. True, but more importantly we are all children of God. And as any parent will vouch, every child is different.

We smother the lay vocation when we try to express it in terms of the clerical. The ‘97 Instruction links the new evangelization with the rediscovery of the lay vocation. The activity of the laity expresses itself in as many ways as there are individual lay people. As the popes of the 20th century repeatedly emphasized, ours is a unique time in history. New opportunities abound, and the laity can and must explore and develop many of them.

The Church distinguishes between two types of priesthood, the royal and the sacramental. In virtue of our baptism, each one of us shares in the royal priesthood. Through this sacrament, we are called to witness our Father in whatever we do, just as all children reflect their parents through their actions. The sacramental priesthood builds on this and it is a particular way for men to witness the Father just as Jesus the man did.

In our own families, we would be unreasonable if we expected all the children to be exactly alike. Although some children achieve greater things than others, they're still equally children. Their achievements do not dictate how much they love their parents. So, too, in our extended family of the Church, we are equally sons and daughters of God; but we live that out in different ways. And as we've seen in the lives of the saints, those who love most are not always those who are the greatest achievers in the eyes of the world.

Recognizing the distinction between the roles of the laity and the clergy also helps to understand the significance of each vocation. The relationship of the Church to Christ is spousal: bride and groom. They are different, but both are essential. You can't have a marriage without a bride and a groom. Two grooms simply gives you two grooms and no marriage. The priest, because of his ordination, is alter Christus, another Christ, another groom.

Rather than leave the groom standing at the altar, the Church encourages its members to fully become the bride. Pope John Paul II, in the 1998 Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles laici, explains, “The exercise of such tasks [those directly related to priestly ministry] does not make pastors of the lay faithful.”

Even if the Church acts like the groom, she'll never become the groom. If anything, she will only lessen her preparedness as a bride. And, as most of us know, brides have a very distinct and active role.

Although the Church exists in the world, she will always stand apart from the world when it preaches falsely. At a time when the world seemingly extols difference but actually shuns it, the Church actually plays the more politically correct role by recognizing the unique character of each vocation and encouraging each to fully develop. In this way, her guidelines do not bind us with limitations.

They provide the guidance we need in order to develop fully, just as a wise parent guides a child — or a master chef tosses a salad.

Pia de Solenni writes from Washington, D.C.