Major documents of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council originated as grass roots movements that were brought to fruition by the Council. The Decree on Ecumenism was rooted in the Ecumenical Movement dating back to the early 20th century; the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy flowed from the Liturgical Movement with origins in the 19th century; the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation was influenced by the developed historical and literary biblical criticism in the 1800s. The Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity reflected the development of the lay apostolic movements of the early 20th century.
Two types of lay movements emerged, official and quasi-official organizations; and those with no official connection to the church. Among the former were groups such as the Knights of Columbus, St. Vincent de Paul Society, Holy Name Society and National Councils of Catholic Men and Catholic Women. The latter included the Catholic Worker, Friendship House, and the Christian Family Movement.
Catholic Action was in a separate category. It was mandated and strongly supported by Pope Pius XII and in many countries was virtually an arm of the Church. Other organizations, like the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine were not lay movements, but involved many lay women and men in apostolic work.
Reference to the laity in the 1917 Code of Canon Law was simply as the faithful and more specifically as: “one who is not a cleric.” When asked what rights the laity had in the Church, the traditional answer was “the right to a Christian burial, if they die in the state of grace.” In half jest and whole earnest it was said that the laity’s role was “to pray, pay and obey,’ in Italy it was changed to “pray, pay and shut-up”
In spite of an assigned passive role in the Church, people like Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker, Pat and Patty Crowley, founders of the Christian Family Movement, and Catherine Doherty (Baroness de Hueck) founder of Friendship House mobilized many lay people in service to the poor, minorities and the family. Their efforts paralleled the work of many others who developed movements to make Christ present in the everyday world.
Taking note of the situation, Bishop (later Cardinal) Wright of Pittsburg told the Council Fathers that “the faithful have been waiting four hundred years for a positive conciliar statement on the place, dignity and vocation of the laity.”
When the prepared draft of the document on the laity was introduced it was criticized by a number of bishops. The fact that no laypeople had been consulted until the eleventh hour led a Canadian bishop to describe the draft as “clergy speaking to clergy.” An Archbishop from India commented that the Church must stop treating the laity as perpetual adolescents, adding it was time to treat them as “grown-ups.” Adding to the critical remarks a bishop from the Netherlands said that the Church did not want to build a “clerical civilization.”
Cardinal Joseph Ritter of St. Louis, one of the most outspoken of the American hierarchy, charged that the draft suffered from clericalism, juridicism and favoritism, the latter referring to the fact that the document ignored all lay movements that preceded the Council except Catholic Action. His remarks surfaced contrary opinions of Catholic Action among the Council Fathers. Bishops from Italy, Spain and South America supported it as an essential arm of the Church, while some northern European bishops saw it as too clerical and controlled, describing lay activity as “participation in the work of the hierarchy.”
Texas Bishop Steven Leven, then Auxiliary Bishop of San Antonio, countered called for a lay senate in every diocese and a spirit of dialogue. His ideas were echoed by Belgian Cardinal Leo Suenens, a Council moderator, who said it was “the duty of pastors to listen carefully and with an open heart to laymen and repeatedly to engage in a living dialogue with them,” adding that that “more often than not that (laity) have greater experience than the clergy in daily life in the world.”
Other voices were not supportive of a greater role for lay men and women. Palermo’s Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini expressed the opinion that the laity had only one task, “to obey the instructions from the clergy.” Irish Dominican Cardinal Browne echoed the opinion that lay people “were obliged to obey their parish priest.” For a bishop from Turkey, “the first and principal task of lay people was the begetting of children,” adding that their failure to do so had contributed to the shortage of priests.
After a lively debate the draft was returned for revision and the final draft which called for a rightfully expanded role for lay men and women was accepted by the Council Fathers by a vat of 2305 for and 2 against.
The concept of an enhanced lay participation in the life of the Church was by no means restricted to the Decree on Lay Apostolate but was incorporated in a number of documents including the four Constitutions on the Church, Divine Revelation, the Sacred Liturgy and particularly on the Church in the Modern World. The fact that it also permeated most of the decrees and declaration heralded a major change in the Church’s internal functions and its engagement with the world.
It is important to note their living union with Christ, maintained by prayer, study and active participation in the liturgy; that they do not separate their union with Christ from their ordinary life, exercising their apostolate in the world as well as in the Church, in the temporal order as well as the spiritual.
Among the fruits of the Council reflecting the full participation of laity in the life of the Church are:
- Establishment of the Pontifical Council for the Laity.
- Recognition that by virtue of their Baptism they share in Christ’s office of priest, prophet and king and have their own rightful role in salvific mission of the Church assigned by the Lord himself.
- Active ministerial participation in the liturgy as readers and extraordinary Eucharistic ministers.
- A particular vocation to make the Church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them that she can become the salt of the earth.
- The right to seek and be given access to higher education in theology, scripture, liturgy and all the theological sciences.
- Entrusted with charges more closely associated with the duties of pastors in teaching, liturgical action, care of souls and administration of Church affairs.
Always in union with the Church the main duty of laymen and women, is to bear witness to Christ by their life and works in the home, in the Church, in their social milieu, in their work and in the world.
Over the centuries the role of laypeople had been steadily downgraded, both spiritually and intellectually, the Council recognized and corrected the situation according them their rightful role in the community of the People of God.
Today lay men and women are indispensible to the mission of the Church to proclaim the Gospel message of the good news of salvation to and in the world .