What are the Laity For? (Part II)

Several days ago, I (Neil) posted on the question “What is the Laity?” Fred from Deep Furrows generously responded and we carried on a very interesting discussion (I will post more on Nicholas Boyle and Hans Urs von Balthasar in a few weeks, when I can cite Boyle directly). Fred also undertook to answer the original question with a “different perspective” and I would like to repost his answer here for our edification and with gratitude:

I would like to address this question drawing upon two points from Balthasar.

First, Balthasar sees secular institutes as drawing lay and cleric together: “here the two converge into one: the world’s movement toward God and God’s incarnational movement into the heart of the world” (The Laity and the Life of the Counsels, 160). If you don’t grasp the lay character of secular institutes, you will totally miss Balthasar’s discovery of the distinctive role of the laity. The Christian task, the lay task, is to follow the counsels of Christ – members of secular institutes do this directly and married people do this by analogy, following the spirit of the counsels.

Second, Balthasar sees the lay state as being the goal of the ministerial state. The point of Christ’s Incarnation is that everything that exists sacramentally wants to penetrate the world as yeast penetrates dough:

All Christian activity is the incarnation of the invisible grace in the visibility of the world: the activity of parents for their children; of the educators who have to give form to the noblest material; of the doctors, lawyers and judges, thinkers and planners, authors, publishers, and booksellers. The material that all these employ is worldly and, as such, is both Christian and non-Christian. Their Christian working – the sowing of the seed, the kneading of the dough, healing and raising up, judging and evaluating, separating and uniting, clearing the ground and planting anew – is all the working of the Church in the field where she is truly at home: the world.

Truth and life display themselves in this activity in a progressive incarnation: with the new answers there continually arise new questions, and the layman must encounter these in his free responsibility and power of making decisions in his maturity. In this, he will pay heed to, and follow, the directives of the Church’s ministry; but the ministry and its representatives will remain in a genuine dialogue with the truth that is brought forth, developed, experienced, and very often won only at the cost of hard suffering in the sphere of life” (Spouse of the Word, 328-329).

How does one wield power? through obedience.
How does one manage wealth? through poverty.
How does one relate to others? through virginity that is fecund.

What is the lay task? To make Jesus Christ present in the world. This includes the cultural work of forming the world.

This task is not only bearing Christ to the world, but discerning the value that is there even in forms that are not explicitly Christian and offering these forms up to the Father in Christ – because Christ has already conquered the world (see Ephesians, Colossians).

Balthasar finds this lay task demonstrated in Reinhold Schneider’s vision of history:

What most fascinated me in this work was the omnipresent drama of the encounter between two missions that are equally original and yet stand in a deadly mutual conflict: the mission of one who is entrusted with the task of administering the earthly realm and the mission of the saint as the real symbol of the kingdom of God that descends into the world” (Tragedy Under Grace: Reinhold Schneider and the Experience of the West, 11).

Balthasar’s Tragedy Under Grace reflects on the history of Europe, which is the history of the laity.

This post is something of a response to one at Catholic Sensibility: What are the laity for? Now, I don’t disagree with Neil’s post, but wanted to bring a different perspective to a worthy topic.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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13 Responses to What are the Laity For? (Part II)

  1. Jimmy Mac says:

    It would be nice sometime to read what prominent lay theologians have to say about “What Are The Clergy For?”

    Of course, they would be guilty of not realizing what their place in this hierarchial scheme of things is and, therefore, not be taken seriously by the Ontologically Different.

  2. Fred says:

    Thank you for this generous response, Neil.

    When most people think of Balthasar, they tend to think of his massive trilogy on Theological Aesthetics. But Balthasar also co-founded a secular institute and had a strong relationship with Fr. Giussani and Communion and Liberation. His writings on the laity spring, then, from his experiences with the laity and his involvement with Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, both as a retreatant and as a spiritual director.


  3. Tony says:

    It would be nice sometime to read what prominent lay theologians have to say about “What Are The Clergy For?”

    You don’t have to be a theologian to figure that out, Jimmy.

  4. Jimmy Mac says:

    And I don’t have to have a member of the clergy to constantly tell me what my role as a Christian is, either.

    I think that it would be quite helpful … and possibly humbling … for the clergy to seek out and listen to the informed thoughts of lay theologians on what the role of the clergy in the Church is, particularly as just one member of the People of God or, if you prefer, the Mystical Body of Christ.

  5. At the risk of being flippant, in considering the respective roles of laity and clergy, I am reminded of a comment made by a dear friend of mine, who is the wife of a United Methodist minister: “The clergy are paid to be good, and the laity are good for nothing.”

    Seriously, however, I think that the theological and patristic inquiries of the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in his study of Baptism, Of Water and the Spirit, are particularly apt in this context. In his review of the mystery or sacrament of Chrysmation, he showed that the patristic consensus indicated that that sacrament gave the recipient the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and that those gifts in particular included princedom, priesthood and prophesy. The patristic consensus was based on the scriptural citations of all Christians as composing a “royal priesthood”, among many others. I believe that a study of Schmemann’s book would well repay the reader in this regard.

    Be that as it may, it would seem that the clergy, in its three modes of diaconia, prebyteria, and episcopia, and its three respective charisms of service, sanctification, and teaching, should be ultimately for the purpose of assisting, blessing, and instructing the laity in their proper roles as priests, princes (and princesses) and prophets. I think it rather a pity that it does not seem that many laity, and for that matter, deacons, priests, or bishops, are actually fulfilling their respective roles, or exercising their distinctive charisms.

  6. Jimmy Mac says:

    And when was the last time that it was commonly expressed by the Magisterium, and understood by the laity, that the rold of the laity is to be “priests, princes (and princesses) and prophets?”

    Once in awhile there is a bit of mumbling about “the priesthood of all believers” but without much flesh behind the insipid expression.

    The laity will rise to the level of what is expected of them, given the proper encouragement and authority to do so.

  7. I don’t know about the last time that the subject of the universal priesthood has been expressed in the Magisterium, but the most recent time was with the Second Vatican Council Constitution, Lumen Gentium, in Chapter II. A webpage with the text in English may be found here: http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html

    I suggest that you may want to read it.

    As regards the princedom of the laity, I recommend that you read Laborem Exercens by His late Holiness, John Paul the Great. A text in English may be found here:


    I suggest that you may want to read this also.

    In particular, the central concept in His Holiness’ teaching in Laborem Exercens was that all humans were made in the image and likeness of God, that an essential characteristic of God (or as those in the East would say, one of God’s essential energies) is God’s work in creation, and that as we were made in the image and likeness of God, we were meant to be workers and creators, and that the essential dignity of work and of workers is that they confirm the image and likeness of God by and through their work. I do not believe it a stretch of reasoning to think that in work, the laity expresses its essential dignity and confirms its princedom.

    Sorry to be so abrupt, but I entirely agree with you that the problem is that neither priests nor laity actually read these things, let alone act upon them.

  8. Dear Todd:

    On Saturday morning, I put a response to Jimmy Mac, pointing out the Vatican II and post Vatican II documents as regards the priesthood of all believers and the princedom.

    When I posted it, I noted that it was “awaiting moderation”. As of Sunday Evening, it has not been posted. I have also noted that at least one other of my postings has been “awaiting moderation”, and has subsequently never been posted.

    Two possibilities exist here: 1) either you are putting a “moderation” requirement on any postings that I make; or 2) the WordPress system is inadvertently doing so.

    If the latter, I would like to bring this up for your attention. If the former, that is, if you are deliberately blocking my postings, I would be just as happy not to post here.

    Do please let me know what is going on here.

  9. Fred says:

    I saw it right away. Maybe your page didn’t refresh?

  10. Todd says:

    At first I thought it was a WordPress thing, but as I recall, Bernard, it seems as if mostly your posts–but not all of them–are identified as something I need to pass judgment on, or something.

    Once I get a chance to check it out in detail, I’ll see if I’ve inadvertently marked your posts in some way. It certainly wasn’t my intention to put an automatic hold on your posts.

  11. Jimmy Mac says:


    Your citations of VII documents are all well and good … and we all know how much everyone is conversant with them! But my question dealt with “common expression” by which I meant (and probably should have said) regular or instructive or intentional. It does no good to have these things said but kept on shelves of the few who actually take the time to know and understand them. Secret knowledge is power … or, maybe, Gnostic power?

    The folks in the pews are, in the main, depending on what they hear from the altar on Sunday to be their source of church teaching. The local priest or, sometimes, the bishop is, for all intents and purposes, the “common” Magisterium to the average Catholic. Now, doesn’t THAT make you feel good?

    I’ll stick by my statement that the laity will rise to the level of what is expected of them, given the proper encouragement and authority to do so.

  12. Pingback: What are the Laity For? (Part III) « Catholic Sensibility

  13. Part of the reason why I left the Roman branch of the Catholic Church to join the Eastern branch was and is that I needed to be spiritually fed, and neither the education nor the inclination of most Roman priests were likely to lead to the spiritual depths I needed from them. Pity.

    At any rate, I have observed that most RC priests do not have the slightest knowledge of nor interest in the teachings of the conciliar or the papal magisterium, nor Tradition, nor very much about the depths of scripture. Pity, that. They can not give what they do not have.

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