Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church

Approaching a New Era

by B. C. Butler

The question is not: What is a layman? but: What is a Christian? A different image of the Church results. As the guiding rule of authority, 'No Advance without security' must give way to 'Quench not the Spirit'.

In his first address to the Council after the death of John XXIII, the present Pope placed first among the aims of the Council the propounding of 'a full notion of the Church herself.... It is not surprising that (this notion) still needs a more accurate expression, since the Church is a mystery and therefore of inexhaustible significance. The constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) is the Council's main effort to achieve this aim of the Church's self-description. But a full statement of its teaching on the Church would require investigation of the contents of nearly all the other conciliar documents, not least of the constitution on the Church in the world of today.

It has been said that the Council was an arena in which two different outlooks were struggling for the mastery: essentialism, or the attempt to present a theology which should be independent in its content of the time-factor; and existentialism, meaning by this not an uncritical assimilation of the views of any particular modern school of philosophy, but an attempt to see the Christian realities in their full historical conditioning. In my view, the Council excluded neither of these theological outlooks; but it did give a scope to the existentialist point of view which, while profoundly traditional, was unusual in modern official Catholic documents.

Thus we are encouraged to consider the Church not just as an earthly realisation of an ideal ecclesial essence - as though there were an a priori Platonic form of the Church laid up in heaven, in which the existing Church participates - but as a reality which has to exist on earth in a passage towards her post-historic consummation in the world to come. It is when she is thus viewed that it becomes necessary to import into our account of her not only the holiness which we affirm in the Creed, but the sins and imperfections which modify so profoundly her actual functioning in history.

Since the Council was, in a practical sense, engaged in an effort to 'decentralise' the Church's administration, it was natural that a good deal of the imperfection of the contemporary Church was laid at the doors of the Curia. The practice continues, and it has even been suggested that the evils of curial, and indeed of hierarchic, government are not only, in the end, irremediable, but that they suffice to make the Church's basic claim incredible; the Church founded by Christ could not be such as the CatholPerhaps we could say that the 'curial' notion of the Church (though we are describing a set of assumptions that is not necessarily to be attributed to any individual curialist, and which exerted its effect on minds far removed from the Curia) is that the Church is essentially a body which acts under the instructions and through the initiative of the Holy See.

The assumption was very widespread. It was taken for granted that what the Holy See did or said, particularly in relation to political governments, ideologies, and social life in general, was what 'the Church' did or said, and there was a tendency to dismiss other initiatives, proceeding either from local hierarchies or from ordinary Christians as individuals or in groups, as irrelevant to what 'the Church' did or said. The rest of the Church could of course seek to make its views known to the Holy See. And sometimes, as when it was proposed to define our Lady's Assumption, the rest of the Church was in some degree consulted, and its opinion taken into account.nd its opBut the characteristic function of the Church as a whole was to accept the teachings emanating from the Curia and to carry out its directives. Thus the form of lay apostolate which was regarded as most authentically Catholic was that Catholic Action whose nature was expounded by Rome and whose mission was to prolong the activity of the hierarchy in fields where direct clerical intervention was either impossible or unwelcome.

What is a Layman?

The notion of the laity and its mission may serve to introduce us to the Council's vision of the Church. Lumen Gentium has a chapter on the laity, and the Council also issued a decree on the lay apostolate. But what is a layman? As soon as you try to define him, you find that you can only do so in negative terms, eventually saying that he is just not a man in Holy Orders. He thus seems to be a Christian who lacks something of the full Christian endowment, and his functions will appear to be those limited ones that are open to someone who is congenitally handicapped.

For this reason, it is most important that there is another chapter in Lumen Gentium on the People of God, and that this subject is treated before the chapter on the ordained ministry. By this arrangement it was possible for the Council to expound first what we as members of the Church all share in common. This foundation having been laid, the ministry can then be considered as what it is, not a 'domination' over the flock but a ministry; over the flock but a ministry, a form of divinely instituted service. The real question can thus be seen to be not: What is a layman? but: What is a Christian? And when this point of view is adopted, the image of the Church becomes profoundly different.

The Church is, in one aspect, the redeemed People of God in its pilgrimage to the 'promised land.' It is the people of the covenant, and the Old Testament (and parts of the New) warn us that the people of the covenant are not always very faithful to the 'law' of the covenant. in another aspect, the Church is the 'Messianic community.' The earliest Church saw in Jesus the promised Christ or Messiah. The idea of a Messiah involves the idea of a Messianic people or community. Jesus' message having been declined by official Jewry, the Church saw herself as the faithful remnant, the inheritor of all the promises which the Jews, because of their unbelief, had lost the right to claim.

The Messianic community of the 'new' covenant in the blood of Jesus was composed of persons who had believed in him and his message. It was, as the later terminology has it, a society of believers. Its whole raison d'être was its adherence to him and its acceptance of him as the law of its life. St Paul sees this law which is Christ as not so much an exterior control but rather an interior principle of grace-aided self-direction. And so we progress to the notion of the Church as the 'body,' or Spirit-motivated exteriorisation of the continued operation ofIt has to be observed that, phenomenally speaking, the Church exists only in the persons of its members and in their activities and works. It has no phenomenal existence outside this sphere. It is above all in persons that the Church lives, and all her inherited treasures, including the sacraments, are propter homines, that is to say, that they are there for men's sake.

But it is in each and all of her members that the Church actually exists. By our common baptism we are all basically on the same level. Our Christian life, moreover, is a life in which the profound motive force is the Spirit of Christ 'poured forth in our hearts.' This life of the Spirit is not just an enrichment of our 'souls' (the body-soul anthropology is far more Hellenic than biblical); it is the life of our total human existence in so far as this existence is being brought under the sway of the interior law of Christ, that law which is perfect law which is perfect charity.

The Christian who, in loyalty to his sense of fundamental responsibility and concern, is carrying out some quite 'secular' activity, as a manual worker or a housewife or a captain of industry, as a poet or an actor or a scientist or what you will, is living by the Spirit precisely in this secular activity. The lay apostolate, in its normal form, will not be what we ordinarily think of as 'Church' activity, although there are many spheres for lay activity in the more narrowly ecclesiastical sense. The Church continues to need altar-servers, the Society of St Vincent de Paul, choristers, the Union of CatholiBut we have now to rid ourselves of the idea that the best laymen will necessarily take part in such activities, or that even those who do take part (to the enormous benefit of the Church) are not also making their Christian contribution in the 'secular' aspects of their life. A banker who is an altar-server is doing his Christian task both as a banker and also as an altar-server. He will be doing a disservice to Christ and the Church if he allows his altar-serving to spoil his service as a banker.

The Creative Activity

In a pregnant passage the Council has drawn attention to the (by our judgment) indiscriminate generosity of the Holy Spirit in the apportionment of his gifts: 'Allotting His gifts 'to everyone according as he will' (1 Cor. xii:11), He distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank,' (L.G.thfu §12). These grace-gifts are the source of the Church's onward-moving dynamism. It is by this operation of the Holy Spirit in the lives of faithful men and women that the Church becomes a creative factor in human history.

We have to learn to see this creative activity not only in a great lay theologian like Von Hügel or a great lay religious founder like St Benedict, but in a Pasteur, a John Kennedy, a Pugin. And we have to recognise that, just as the Holy Spirit is no respecter of persons or status, so he operates not only in the work of great men like those we have mentioned but in the whole believing population and in countless unregarded ways.

But if the mention of Von Hügel and Benedict reminds us that distinctions between clergy and laity have little meaning within the sphere of the Church's dynamic life, that of Pasteur and Kennedy is a warning that the operation of the Holy Spirit is not confined to signed-on members of the visible Church; it would be difficult to deny that this operation is at work also in non-Catholic dedicated scientists, statesmen and social workers.

Where is Christ?

It is relevant at this point to observe that the Council in fact extends the limits of the mystical body of Christ far beyond the boundaries of the visible Church. Christ is present mystically throughout redeemed humanity; Christ and the Spirit of Christ. And 'where the Spirit is, there is the Church.' The visible Church is indeed the covenanted sign and instrument of Christ's presence in humanity, and only invincible ignorance can justify a refusal to adhere visibly to her. But the whole of history is steeped in Christ, and we cannot fully disentangle in the phenomena of man's progress and failures the work of the Spirit of God from that of the devil and his agents.

When the dynamism of the Church is thus, correctly, located in the whole body of the faithful and in every man of good will, we begin to see that structural changes and a change in outlook on the subject of authority are needed. They are in fact urgent. The papacy and the hierarchy have an indispensable function in the Church. But it is less a function of initiation and command than of co-ordination. The motto for church authority should not be: 'No advance without security' but: 'Quench not the Spirit.': 'Quench not the Spirit.'

The Council gave its support to the value of freedom not only in its great declaration on religious liberty, but by acknowledging the autonomy of the sciences, by urging freedom for theologians, by recommending humane consideration for conscientious objectors, and by affirming the inviolable right of parents to decide, conscientiously of course, about the Just because of this new emphasis on freedom, the effective co-ordinating role of the hierarchy is as necessary as it ever was. But in order that it may play its part adequately in the total life of the Church we need not only a change of heart in bishops and their curias (beginning with that of Rome) but a responsible understanding, on the part of the laity, that lack of authority spells chaos and disintegration.

We are all in this thing together. A wonderful prospect of a new age of the Church opens up before us. If it is to be realised, each of us and all of us have to take seriously not only the programme of 'adaptation' but that of biblical and sacramental renewal, that is to say a return to prayer, the sacraments and the quest of an ever-deepening union with Christ who dwells in us by his Spirit.