The Principle of Lay Responsibility Within the Church Has Been Solemnly Recognized by the Church Fathers

Father John A. Kiley

For centuries, the vast majority of mankind lived as peasants, as serfs, even as slaves. The landed gentry, which have always been a small percentage of the human race, employed the majority of mankind to till the soil and grow the crops, to tend the flocks and gather the herds. The few landowners increased their store while their many laborers survived on a subsistent living. Their cupboard shelves were rarely sagging with stock. Then, about four hundred years ago, especially in England and in Holland, the plight of the human family began to change dramatically. The standard of living of the average person radically rose, in many instances, from subsistent living to comfortable circumstances.  Jonah Goldberg in his recent publication, “The Suicide of the West,” terms this transformation “The Miracle.” The miracle was the transition of society from a stagnant agrarian society to a creative merchant class. This conversion was made possible by the appreciation of private property as a legitimate possibility for the average citizen.

Philosopher David Hume famously listed private property, along with life and liberty, as a fundamental human right. Thomas Jefferson would later re-style this right to private property under the label “the pursuit of happiness.” Instead of working someone else’s soil, men, and eventually women, could work their own soil, or open their own shop as a tailor, cobbler, chemist, carpenter, book seller, haberdasher, even a banker, making their living through trade. England especially embraced this notion of individual entrepreneurs. Napoleon once referred to Britain as “a nation of shopkeepers.” This new notion of private property opportunely and dramatically fostered the worker’s personal ambition, encouraging a person to use wisely and energetically and beneficially the personal and material resources God had bestowed upon the individual. This appreciation and utilization of private property throughout the Western world matured, of course, into Capitalism — decried by some but happily enjoyed by many more.

Recognizing an individual’s personal endowments and encouraging him or her to employ these talents for personal advancement and the benefit of society is frankly today common sense. The dignity of each man or woman is an inviolate mainstay of Western society. Much more recently, the Roman Catholic Church has recognized the importance of private property, so to speak, in the liturgical rituals and parish organization of the Church. For centuries the bulk of the Catholic laity gazed on piously but quietly as the lord of the manor, the parish priest, performed all the necessary liturgical functions for the proper celebration of Mass. The readings, the offerings, the consecrating, the Communion rites were all the property of the priest. Similarly in parish life, the pastor, the curates and the religious brothers and sisters tended to all parochial needs — Mass and sacraments, business and finance, education and catechizing. The Catholic laity, the vast majority of Church membership, had no claim to any private property, as it were. The laity had their rosaries and their novenas and their personal devotions. But the property of the Church, the rites and business of the Church, was beyond their scope. The Second Vatican Council happily began a revision of this imbalance by insuring the Catholic laity a rightful voice in liturgical ceremonies and in parish organization. Some aspects of Church life were indeed the laity’s personal responsibility, their private property, and it was time the laity took heed.

The alteration of society four hundred years ago from farmers and herders to shopkeepers and merchants did not take place overnight. Nor was the transformation entirely smooth. Nineteenth century millworkers were not always better off than sixteenth century peasants. Still, society has evolved into the fairly comfortable existence that most readers of The Quiet Corner are enjoying today.  The changes mandated by Vatican II have similarly not always been wisely and fully implemented. But the principle of lay responsibility within the Church has been solemnly recognized by the Church Fathers. Much of Church life is just as much the private property of the Catholic laity as it is of the Catholic clergy. Certainly, lay and clerical duties within the Church differ greatly, but the laity especially must recognize their God-given responsibilities, claiming their private property for the benefit of themselves and the Church at large.

Consider the words of St. Paul to be read on Pentecost Sunday: “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.” By resurrecting the notion of lay Christians taking responsibility for certain aspects of Church life, the Council is simply realizing St. Paul’s Biblical insight. Recognizing private property, that is, exercising personal responsibility, benefits the whole Church.