Speaking Up

The Catholic Standard

"Why doesn't the Church do more?" "Why isn't the Church more involved?" This past week, a pastor called to share with me these questions that were directed to him. He said a number of parishioners, in the context of the Maryland legislature's debate on the definition of marriage, asked these questions. In the course of our conversation it was clear that what they meant was, "Why aren't priests and bishops speaking up more?"

The question "Why isn't the Church doing more?" is a legitimate one, but to answer it correctly we have to recognize that when we enter the political arena, the voice of the Church must include our lay people - not just the ordained.

The task of ordained ministry in the Church is to proclaim the Gospel and to help the Catholic faithful understand the meaning of the Church's teachings so that it can be joyfully and fully embraced. The translation of that Gospel into the temporal order is the task of the laity.

Once, in a discussion with a young Catholic politician, I made this distinction between the role of the clergy and the role of the laity, and he replied, "You have the easier part." Easier or harder I'm not sure, but they are different roles.

All the way back in 1965, the Second Vatican Council published a decree on the apostolate of the laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem). At the end of 1988, Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic exhortation on the vocation and mission of the lay faithful in the Church in the world (Christifideles Laici).

In issuing a reminder to the lay faithful of their important role in spreading the Gospel, Pope John Paul underscores the particularly pressing need in the world today for such work. Again, echoing the words of Jesus, the pope asks, "Why do you stand here idle all day?" (Matthew 20:6). He adds, "A new state of affairs today, both in the Church and in social, economic, political and cultural life, calls with a particular urgency for the action of the lay faithful" (3.2).

It is not enough to rely on the hierarchy alone to address serious social and moral problems in our society. Everyone has to be involved and take an active role. Politicians tell us that they hear often from bishops and priests but rarely from the Catholic laity. If that is true, we must change it.

The voice and engagement of the laity will ultimately determine the direction of our society. The voice of Catholic physicians needs to be heard in the area of health care. Catholic lawyers need to speak out on the administration of justice and our constitutionally protected liberties. Catholic parents and teachers should be involved in educational issues. Numerous other examples are available to all of us. This is what the apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici addresses. "It is necessary, then, to keep a watchful eye on this our world, with its problems and values, its unrest and hopes, its defeats and triumphs: a world whose economic, social, political, and cultural affairs pose problems and grave difficulties" (3.6).

Pope John Paul describes the participation of the lay faithful in the life of the Church as communion. He begins with the scriptural image of the branches and the vine: "I am the true vine and my Father is the vine grower. Remain in me, as I remain in you" (John 15:1, 4). Here we learn that precisely because he or she is an important part of the Church, each individual layperson is called to carry out the mission and work of the whole Church.

The Holy Father completes the image of the Church by reminding us that we make our journey as a family and that God's family has shepherds to lead it. Out of the vast body of those baptized into new life in Christ, Jesus chooses some and configures them to himself through the Sacrament of Holy Orders so that there is leadership for the whole body. Every baptized person is configured to Christ as a member of his body, and every ordained priest and bishop is configured to Christ as head of that body. Together they bring the new body of Christ to fullness as it makes its way through time and history.

From time to time, some Catholics do speak out in disagreement with this or that moral teaching of the Church, usually in the area of sexual morality, but sometimes when dealing with care for the poor, protection of human life, or the treatment of immigrants. Whatever the issue, the media tend to portray these views as proof that the leadership of the Church is out of touch with contemporary thinking. When confronted with the fact that there are some Catholics who do not fully understand or accept Church teaching, I respond that I need to do a better job of teaching. Faith and morals don't change according to polls. Sometimes all of us just need to do a better job of teaching and listening. This includes the lay faithful, who must be part of the voice of the Church, and who have an important role to play in spreading the Gospel.