The lay apostolate, according to AA7, is progressive, meaning that the aim is no less than a continual improvement in the status quo:
God’s plan for the world is that men should work together to renew and constantly perfect the temporal order.
Does that mean things always will get better? No. It means we should work in the world, as if we expect to move closer to “perfection.” Note also how AA describes what we often refer to as the secular as the temporal. Upon reflection, I like the use of “temporal” better. It does not necessarily exclude the “sacred,” and it opens us to the expectation of finding the “sacred” in unorthodox places.
The “good things of life,” namely, the “prosperity of the family, culture, economic matters, the arts and professions, the laws of the political community, international relations, and other matters of this kind, as well as their development and progress, not only aid in the attainment of man’s ultimate goal but also possess their own intrinsic value.”
Progress is a value, according to Vatican II. We can be realistic about our expectations of making progress outside of the agency of God’s grace, but all the same, we are called to strive for it.
The “temporal order” is described as independent of the realm of the Church. The Church’s role is to “perfect the temporal order in its own intrinsic strength and worth and puts it on a level with (the human) vocation upon earth.”
This sets the table for the role and involvement of the laity in the world. It is our role, not the bishop’s or priest’s to bring the “strength and worth” of God’s grace to bear on the ordinary and extraordinary situations of family, culture, economics, the arts, work, law, and diplomacy. These things are to retain their independence as human activities, but should be infused with the spirit of those Christians who operate within these spheres. I remember much fussing about priests who held political office. I think I would agree with those who suggest it is not seemly for a cleric to serve the public in that way.
AA is not blind to bumps in the road ahead:
In the course of history, the use of temporal things has been marred by serious vices. Affected by original sin, men have frequently fallen into many errors concerning the true God, the nature of man, and the principles of the moral law. This has led to the corruption of morals and human institutions and not rarely to contempt for the human person himself. In our own time, moreover, those who have trusted excessively in the progress of the natural sciences and the technical arts have fallen into an idolatry of temporal things and have become their slaves rather than their masters.
Here also, lay people must take the lead in discerning when we have stepped off into the abyss of “slavery,” rather than mastering science and technology as tools to achieve good ends, not the ends themselves. The next paragraph states the role of the clergy: a supportive and educational one for the laity. But lay people are charged with the “renewal of the temporal order” as a “special obligation.” This last bit of AA7 is good to read as a whole:
Led by the light of the Gospel and the mind of the Church and motivated by Christian charity, they must act directly and in a definite way in the temporal sphere. As citizens they must cooperate with other citizens with their own particular skill and on their own responsibility. Everywhere and in all things they must seek the justice of God’s kingdom. The temporal order must be renewed in such a way that, without detriment to its own proper laws, it may be brought into conformity with the higher principles of the Christian life and adapted to the shifting circumstances of time, place, and peoples. Preeminent among the works of this type of apostolate is that of Christian social action which the sacred synod desires to see extended to the whole temporal sphere, including culture.
Note some key principles above: charity is our motivation, action is necessary, cooperation, justice, adaptation. And the most important: social justice infusing the entire breadth of the “temporal sphere.”