Vatican II on the Laity: A Groundbreaking Moment

COMMENTARY: The Council was a historical occasion in which the Church solemnly recognized the profound significance of the laity in its mission.

Council bishops in Saint Peter's Square in 1961.
Council bishops in Saint Peter's Square in 1961. (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

On Oct. 16, 1963, during the Second Vatican Council’s debate regarding the Church, the Council Fathers began discussing a draft text dedicated to the laity. The Spanish Cardinal José María Bueno y Monreal delivered one of the opening speeches. He expressed his pleasure that, for the first time in a solemn declaration, the Church was giving attention to the movement to elevate the presence of laity in the Church. 

The Archbishop of Seville recognized that the increased activity of the lay members of the People of God, present particularly in the early part of the 20th century, had already been a source of renewal for the Church. The draft text which had been elaborated during the Council’s preparation was very much a fruit of this renewal. 

The description of the laity was drawn from a previous text, from 1956, which had been prepared for the Second World Congress for the Lay Apostolate. A key influence behind this document was the Belgian theologian Gerard Philips, a leading authority on the theology of the laity. Philips had come to know the vital role of the laity firsthand in his own pastoral work, as a chaplain in Catholic Action, but he also drew from his theological awareness of the Church’s identity as the Mystical Body of Christ. The draft text on the laity, for the future constitution Lumen Gentium, stressed the way in which all of the members of the Church, through baptism and confirmation, are conformed to the priesthood of Christ. 

The text was careful to distinguish this common priesthood, possessed by all the faithful, from the ministerial priesthood. While ordained priests alone have the capacity to make Christ present in the Eucharistic sacrifice, the laity — as the text further indicates — have their own way of making Christ present in the world. Through their vocation, they are called to carry out the “consecration of the world,” by which all earthly activities might be imbued with the spirit of Christ. In this way, as the text affirms, the Church can truly stand out “as the supernaturally life-giving principle of the entire society.”

Despite these significant affirmations, many Council Fathers felt that the draft text did not do enough to properly articulate and emphasize the mission of the laity. Bishop Marcos Gregorio McGrath, a Panamanian bishop with American roots, speaking in the name of more than forty Latin American bishops, felt that the draft paid too much attention to the laity as instruments at the service of the apostolate, under the guidance of the hierarchy and religious, and not enough attention to the life of the laity in itself. McGrath, a member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, called on the Council to overcome such a vision of an “unreal Church” in which the life of the faithful would be summarized in submission to the hierarchy. He also desired to avoid a pyramidal vision, in which the laity would be in the lowest place. 

In contrast to such clerically-centered perspectives, the Panamanian Bishop asserted the need for the laity to embrace the authentic values present in the world, and in this way work to perfect creation according to the logic of Christ’s Incarnation. McGrath would have the opportunity to incorporate these ideas in the final text of Lumen Gentium, through his work on the subcommission which revised the chapter. 

Many Council Fathers likewise emphasized the need for the Council to better express a defining characteristic of the laity: their secularity, that is, their presence in the ordinary realities of the world. Cardinal Bueno y Monreal, in his aforementioned speech, expressed appreciation for the preparatory draft but also expressed dissatisfaction that the definition of the lay person was stated in a doubly negative way: as a person not called to the hierarchy and not called to the religious life. 

Echoing this sentiment, another Spanish archbishop, Casimiro Morcillo of Zaragoza, proposed a positive theological definition of the lay person, comprising one lengthy sentence: “A layperson is a human being who by means of baptism has been incorporated into Christ and joined to the People of God, not belonging to the hierarchy, who lives the ordinary life of persons in the world and is at the same time dedicated to God, so that he might offer and consecrate himself, the actions and works of men, the human race, and the universe itself to God.” The Archbishop’s reflection on the laity manifests the clear influence of St. Josemaria Escrivá, a forerunner of the Council’s thinking on the subject, and who was a longtime personal friend to Morcillo as well as Cardinal Bueno y Monreal. 

The reflection during Vatican II would lead to a much more extensive and detailed explanation of the laity and their pivotal role in the Church. In particular, the Council would come to focus less on what the laity are not, and more on what they are: men and women who are specifically characterized by their secular nature. While not having the call to the priesthood or to the religious life, the laity do nonetheless have a specific vocation to live “in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life”; in these circumstances God calls them to “work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven” (Lumen Gentium 31). 

The final text of the Constitution, at the request of many Council Fathers, would also describe much more deeply the sacramental foundation of the laity’s identity. Through baptism, the laity “are in their own way made sharers in the priestly, prophetical, and kingly functions of Christ” (Lumen Gentium 31). Significant passages were added to describe how the laity share in these functions, without in any way confusing their role with that of ordained ministers (Lumen Gentium 34-36). 

In their own particular manner, as the Constitution affirms, laypersons share in Christ’s priestly role by carrying out all of their daily occupations in the Spirit, so that these actions might become “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). They further partake of Christ’s prophetic role by which “the power of the Gospel might shine forth” in their daily lives, and in a particular way through the witness of the Christian family. Such evangelization, through both “living testimony as well as by the spoken word, takes on a specific quality and a special force in that it is carried out in the ordinary surroundings of the world.” Laypersons also share in Christ’s kingly role through their conquest of sin and their activity in the world, by which they perfect God’s plan of creation. The Council expresses its firm hope that through their presence, Christ will “progressively illumine the whole of human society with His saving light.” 

This description of the laity’s precise way of participating in Christ’s mission, as the relevant subcommission would point out, made it easier to explain the specific mission of the laity and to avoid every kind of “clericalism.” The laity’s task in the Church, as the Council came to understand with clarity, is never simply a question of obedience to the Church’s hierarchy. Rather, the laity have themselves been sharers in Christ’s own mission through their very baptism. In consequence, the Council desired to make it clear that laypersons should not wait to receive orders from above, but rather that they should freely assume their responsibility within the People of God. As Lumen Gentium asserts, upon them “rests the noble duty of working to extend the divine plan of salvation to all men of each epoch and in every land.”

This teaching on the protagonism of the laity does not imply a lessening of the importance of union with the Church’s hierarchy. One of the final passages of the chapter on laity speaks of the need for laypersons to live a prompt obedience in accepting the decisions of their spiritual shepherds, since such persons “are representatives of Christ as well as teachers and rulers in the Church.” At the same time, the constitution situates this obedience in a broader picture of mutual cooperation. The Church’s shepherds are also called to “recognize and promote” the laity, giving them freedom for their own initiative and action. 

The chapter draws to a close with an expression of hope in the “great many wonderful things” to be expected from a close dialogue between the laity and their spiritual leaders. Both groups, the Council states, will be more effective in carrying out their own specific task.

“In this way, the whole Church, strengthened by each one of its members, may more effectively fulfill its mission for the life of the world.”

The fourth chapter of Lumen Gentium remains for us today a testament to Vatican II’s keen awareness of the essential role of the laity in the Church. Without confusing this role with the specific witness to Christ given by ordained ministers and by the religious, the Council Fathers realized that the laity are the ones specially called to bring Christ’s presence into the world. By their words and deeds, in their prayer and in all the realities of their life, they fulfill the divine plan to raise all of creation to God.