Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Quintissential Apostolate of the Laity

Pope Benedict XVI spoke on May 21 to members of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, highlighting that "lay Catholics are responsible for political activity that promotes a Christian moral order" ( The complete text does not appear to be available at the Vatican website, but the Vatican Information Service ("VIS") has extended excerpts.

One point made by the Pope could bear repeating: the "technical formation of politicians" is not part of the Church's mission"; rather the Church reserves the right to "pass moral judgment in those matters which regard public order when the fundamental rights of the person or the salvation of souls require it".

To say that the mission of the Church does not include "forming politicians technically", is the same as to say that the Church is "incompetent" in the technical formation of politicians. When dealing with technical matters, the concept of "competence" or "competency" is rather important. In everyday language, the two terms may be used synonomously most of the time, but when a distinction between them must be made we note the following.

We speak of a man or woman being competent when, in light of his professional field, the person possesses the requisite knowledge and experience as determined by the profession itself. On the other hand, in a legal context, the word "competency" may be used almost to mean "jurisdiction": such-and-such a committee of Congress has competency [or, is competent] over that field, while another one does not, so hearings about the matter are conducted by the first committee.

Since the Church's mission does not have competence over "technical formation" of politicians (or other professions), the Church is incompetent in both senses: the Church does not have the requisite knowedge and experience qua Church to engage in the "profession" of politics, nor does She have the authorization from her Founder, in the legal sense, to be competent on the technical level. What the Church does have from her Founder, is the ability to judge regarding the moral suitability of "technical proposals", not qua technical, but qua conformant to Christ's vision for man and society.

The second important point here is to ask ourselves "who is this Church" the Pope is speaking about? When ecclesiastics use the word "the Church" it is often important to pick up from the context which subject they really have in mind, because the word is used in many, and sometimes contradictory ways. In my view, the Pope has two meanings in mind here for his use of "the Church". Primarily, he has in mind the Hierarchy in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium of the Church, since he uses the verb "judge", which in the context of "the Church", would normally be thought of as the judgement of the Hierarchy ("the college of bishops in union with its head, the Roman Pontiff") in their exercise of the church's teaching authority ("magisterium"). But the "teaching authority" implies use of authority in order to teach, and Catholic laypeople and others are the objects of that teaching. Hence, it seems reasonable to me to think that the Pope also has in mind those lay men and women, competent in the various arts and professions, who being Catholics, hold themselves responsible for learning the teaching of the Church, and estimating its requirements in the exercise of their professions, and putting their understandings into the practice of their professions.

Thus, it should be possible, indeed quotidian, to find Catholic laity, along with non-Catholics, holding out what they deem to be both professionally viable as well as morally responsible, technical solutions to all kinds of problems; while the Hierarchy makes judgements regarding the moral adequacy of them in particular circumstances. Thus the whole Church is involved, each doing its proper part, there is cooperation, but not at the activist level (at least in normal times).

The Pope again:  "The spread of a confused cultural relativism, and of a utilitarian and hedonistic individualism weakens democracy and favors the dominance of strong powers. We must recover and reinvigorate authentic political wisdom; be demanding in what concerns our own sphere of competency; make discriminating use of scientific research; face reality in all its aspects, going beyond any kind of ideological reductionism or utopian dream; show we are open to true dialogue and collaboration, bearing in mind that politics is also a complex art of equilibrium between ideals and interests, but never forgetting that the contribution of Christians can be decisive only if knowledge of faith becomes knowledge of reality, the key to judgement and transformation. What is needed is a true 'revolution of love'".

"It is up to the lay faithful to show - in their personal and family life, in social cultural and political life - that the faith enables them to read reality in a new and profound way, and to transform it", he said. "It is also the duty of the laity to participate actively in political life, in a manner coherent with the teaching of the Church, bringing their well- founded reasoning and great ideals into the democratic debate, and into the search for a broad consensus among everyone who cares about the defence of life and freedom, the protection of truth and the good of the family, solidarity with the needy, and the vital search for the common good").

The Catholic Culture website labels all this "lay activism", but surely lay activism is some small subset of what the Pope is teaching. Ordinary Catholic living is the far greater matrix from which this apostolate must stem.

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