Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Laity: Obligations and Rights

Empowering the Laity Towards Social Transformation


+Leonardo Y. Medroso, JCD, DD
Bishop of Borongan/Chair of ECCL

In strict legal language the title of the topic for this study is inaccurate and therefore misleading. It subtly suggests that the lay faithful are at the moment impotent to undertake the call to social transformation; that they do not have the necessary power to institute reforms for justice and harmonious living to reign in the ecclesial community; that they are incapable of articulating the vision, goals and objectives of lay associations, of setting up programs, systems and structures that would impact Christian values on society and on the world; or, incompetent to carry out the mission to “permeate and perfect the temporal order of things with the spirit of the Gospel” (cf. Canon 225. § 2).

The contrary, however, is true. Powers for social transformation have long been set up not only by the Second Vatican Council’s introduction of the dynamic concept of the People of God in the reality of the Church and of the specific place of the lay faithful in its life and mission, but most especially by subsequent decrees and legislations, eventually made official and definitive by the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law in 1983. Here, the legal status of the lay faithful is declared, his rights and duties defined and recognized. The dignity and mission of the lay has been firmly established, setting them equal with the clergy and the religious men and women. In the eyes of the 1983 Code of Canon Law the lay faithful are not second-rate citizens.

Consequently, the lay have been duly empowered, given the official and authoritative stamp as constituent members of the Church. They are Christian faithful as much as the clerics and the religious men and women are. As baptized, they are authentic subjects of laws, enjoying common and specific rights and obligations. As such they are definitively constituted as bona-fide members of the Church.

Besides, attempts have not been wanting to empower the lay faithful, but, sad to say, they have been undertaken in areas that are not properly their own. As it is, they have been empowered to venture on activities in the Church that are not based on their specific rights as laymen in the Church. To empower them towards a life-style and apostolic activities that are properly and uniquely theirs have not been given rightful emphasis. To empower something means to understand thoroughly the nature of the thing, its personality, its distinctive trait, its uniqueness. To do otherwise is quite not right or improper. To train a Doberman pinscher dog to dance may be good but improper. Doberman dogs are supposed to guard, not to entertain; to protect the master with their fierceness, not to dance with grace. I am afraid that this is what is happening to our laymen and women. They participate actively and zealously in the liturgical and pastoral activities of the Church; others seem to be happy when they look like religious with the way they are dressed and the way they exercise their spirituality. They may be good for the Church, but they sorely miss the life-style and apostolic activities that are their proper signatures as envisioned by the Code of Canon Law.

To empower the laity, therefore, means to know their real status, the expected life-style, and the proper role as lay men in the life of the Church; to accept their uniqueness, their distinctive features; and thereby to form them accordingly. It is only then that our lay men and women could stand up with dignity and pride apart from, yet side-by-side with, the religious; apart from, yet side-by-side with, the clergy. They will be on their own area of responsibility, lay men and lay women in the Church.

The problem then is how to discover and effectively lay claim to this identity of theirs, how for them to demand as rightfully their own the secular status and dignity with the accompanying rights and obligations, so that they can faithfully carry out the mission entrusted to them.

It is then not presumptuous to say that this study is a step towards the right direction. Canon Law is the place where the Christian faithful acquires the definitive, normative and authoritative knowledge of the laity. To the fear that laws might suppress the spirit of freedom, initiative, creativity and resourcefulness of the children of God, suffice to quote the words of John Paul II uttered when he officially promulgated the 1983 Code of Canon Law: “…it is sufficiently clear that the purpose of the Code is not in any way to replace faith, grace, charisms and above all charity in the life of the Church or of Christ’s faithful. On the contrary, the Code rather looks towards the achievement of order in the ecclesial society, such that while attributing a primacy to love, grace and the charisms, it facilitates at the same time an orderly development in the life both of the ecclesial society and of the individual persons who belong to it” (Sacrae disciplinae leges, AAS).

Our study on the empowerment of the laity then revolves around these salient topics:

I. Declaration of the Laity’s Status and Dignity
II. Rights and Obligations of the Laity

The first topic will delve into the dignity and essential status of the lay faithful as constituent members of the Church. The second will go through the canonical list of the rights and obligations of the lay faithful that articulate their juridical status.

I. Declaration of the Constitutional Status and Dignity of the Laity

Canon 204, § 1, makes this constitutional declaration: “The Christ’s faithful are those who, since they are incorporated into Christ through baptism, are constituted the People of God. For this reason, they participate in their own way in the priestly, prophetic and kingly Office of Christ. They are called, each according to his or her particular condition, to exercise the mission which Christ entrusted to the Church to fulfill in the world.”

All those baptized constitute the Christian faithful. They are the constituent members of the Church, the new people of God. Those are fully incorporated into the Church who “possessing the Spirit of Christ, accept all the means of salvation given to the Church together with her entire organization, and who – by the bonds constituted by the profession of faith, the sacraments, ecclesiastical government and communion – are joined in the visible structure of the Church of Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops” (LG, 14). The state of this people is that of the dignity and freedom of the children of God. Their fundamental calling is to the fullness of sanctity (cf. LG 39) and to the apostolate ( LG9). Its law is the new commandment to love as Christ loved us. Its destiny is the kingdom of God (cf. LG).

From this preamble we can draw two important principles, namely, the principle of equality and principle of distinction.
Principle of equality. Those who are baptized are called without distinction to the fullness of sanctity, which is the same for all. Likewise they are called to the common apostolate. In this level there is no distinction between the laity, the clergy and the religious. All of them are baptized, called to sanctity and apostolate, and therefore equal in dignity and mission. Fr. Alvaro del Portillo waxed eloquent when he described this fundamental basis of equality among the baptized. He said: “All persons who belong to the Church have a common fundamental legal status, because they all share one and the same basic theological condition and belong to the same primary common category. All the faithful, from the Pope to the child who has just been baptized, share one and the same vocation, the same faith, the same Spirit, the same grace.” (Faithful and Laity in the Church, Ecclesia Press, 1972, p. 19). Here, the priesthood of Christ is equally shared by all. Hence, the term common priesthood. Canon 208 describes this reality in these words: “Flowing from their rebirth in Christ, there is a genuine equality of dignity and action among all of Christ’s faithful. Because of this equality they all contribute, each according to his or her own condition and office, to the building up of the Body of Christ.”
Principle of Functional, yet, Essential, diversity and distinction. Within the fundamental equality among the members of the Church, there are nevertheless functional distinctions, differences of ministry or office. All the faithful do not perform the same functions in the Church. It is because of this that the 1983 Code of Canon Law in dealing with legal status of the members of the Church established first the juridical status common to all the Christ’s faithful and then, the juridical status specific to the different classes of the faithful, namely, to laity and to the clergy, vis-à-vis their state and function within the Church. The clerical state is characterized by a number of duties imposed by his ordination to serve the people of God in persona Christi capitis, that is, to teach doctrine, maintain the deposit of faith, govern the life of the Church, administer the sacraments (cf. SC 10). For this function to be translated into the external life of the Church, the clerics must have different rights and obligations that constitute his juridical status. Along the same vein, the laity must also have a character that is proper to them. This will take the form of the ministry that is peculiar to them within the Church, that is, to imbue the temporal order and earthly realities with the Gospel values. Hence, Canon 203, § 1 adds to its declaration these words: “They are called, each according to his or her particular condition, to exercise the mission which God entrusted to the Church to fulfill in the world.”

In sum, we put forward the following propositions regarding the different functions of the members according to their state and condition of life: 1. the priests serve the People of God by attending to the teaching of the faith (and morals), the administration of the sacraments, and the government of the ecclesial community; 2. the lay faithful serve the People of God by sanctifying the temporal order, imbuing it with the spirit of the Gospel values; 3. the religious men and women serve the People of God by giving life testimony to the after life exercised through the vows of chastity, obedience and poverty.


II. Rights and obligations of the Lay Faithful

Preliminary Notes.

Rights. A right is a faculty to demand, a power to require something. This faculty is lodged deep in the human person. A person is one who is free and therefore an individual who is a master of his own acts. This mastery implies existence of autonomy and responsibility. An autonomous person means that he can regulate his conduct according to his own conscience which dictates to him the maxim: do good, avoid evil. Here, the person is not subject to anyone, he is a master. This autonomy gives the person that right to demand that he be respected, that he be properly acknowledged, and that in all cases he be given what is his due.

In the Church, obligations and rights are correlative and inseparable. Rights give rise to obligation; obligations give rise to rights. Both are based on the person who is free and autonomous.

In the Church rights and obligations arise from baptism. By baptism the person is incorporated as member of the Church and is endowed by divine law with fundamental rights and obligations which, needless to say, constitute his juridical status.

Participation. Canon 204, § 1 calls Christ’s faithful “to participate in their own way in the priestly, prophetic and kingly Office of Christ.” To participate means to take part; to be actively involved in an activity. Participation in the Church life and activity means to be actively engaged in the decision making and the plan drafting, in the taking part in the implementation of a program and other agenda of actions. The lay faithful, being part of the People of God, are required to participate in Christ’s prophetic, priestly and kingly functions “each according to his or her own particular condition”. This provision of the Canon refers to the distinction and variety of functions of the members of the Church. As observed earlier, the Christian faithful is composed of the laity, the religious men and women, and the clergy. The distinction of their vocations and calling naturally condition the way they follow Christ as Priest, Prophet, and King.
The list of rights and obligations of the faithful has the force of law. It contains the fundamental rights that are directly derived from baptism. The structure is similar to the declaration of human rights promulgated by the United Nation, or to the Bill of Rights found in secular constitutions. The Code came up with three clusters of rights, namely: one, containing the rights and obligations of all Christ’s faithful (ca. 208-223); another,, those specifically pertaining to the lay faithful (224-231); a third which contains those of the clergy (273-289). We will not discuss the last group for obvious reason.


1. Canon 224 defines the extent of the rights and obligations of the lay faithful. It includes not only the rights and duties enumerated in the canons under the title of “obligations and rights of the lay faithful” which we are going to discuss immediately, but also those that are commonly shared by all the Christ’s faithful and those stated in other canons. The common rights and obligations include the following: communion in the Church, personal sanctification, Christian education, apostolate, relations with pastors-lay faithful, association, good name and privacy, vindication and defense of rights. The following are the obligations and rights that specifically belong to the lay faithful.
2. Proclamation of Salvation Message. Deputed to the apostolate by baptism and confirmation, lay people, like all Christian faithful, have the right “to strive so that the divine message of salvation maybe known and accepted by all people throughout the world” (Canon 225, § 1). This provision of the Code formalizes the subjective rights of the lay to undertake on their own initiative the apostolate and to pursue it by constituting associations on their own right. . From this legal declaration follows the doctrine that the lay cannot anymore be considered as a passive member in the Church. As a faithful he is called to perform a primary role in the spread of the Gospel; that to him are due the rights and duties to which the faithful are entitled. It is true that the clerics and the lay are different types of faithful. This difference is based on divine law. But it is also true that they are equal at the root. Hence, between the clerics and the lay, there exists a radical equality, though a functional, yet essential, diversity. It is only at this point when this principle is clarified and well established that the harmonious working together between the hierarchy and laity, or between laity and laity, either individually or in association, is guaranteed. Based on this expressed principle, the hierarchy could better appreciate and respect the subjective rights of the lay, their autonomy, their freedom. The lay on the other hand could well observe the debita relatio – that is the dependence of the lay to the functions of supervision and governance of the hierarchy(cf. C. 223, § 2). It is here that the hierarchy’s obligation to support the lay comes into place, supplying them with guiding principles, directing the development of the apostolate towards the common good of the Church, seeing to it that the doctrine and order are observed (cf. AA 24).
3. Sanctification of the Temporal Order. The sanctification of the temporal order is the specific mission of the lay faithful and the one which is most characteristic of them. “By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will. (cf. Canon 225, § 2). This is their peculiar way to give witness to Christ. As it is, the lay’s situation is described in relation to the secular world. It is in the world that they are called to perform their role. This is their competence in the mission of the Church (cf. Portillo, Alvaro del, Faithful and Laity in the Church, translated from Spanish by Leo Hickey, Ecclesia Press, 1972, pp. 100-106). In sum, the lay is a subject with a secular character. The implications this doctrine bears in the life of the whole church are innovations that should be exploited and given much emphasis. One of the implications will be the establishment of serious formation of the lay in their secularity. As we have seminaries for the proper formation of the clerics in their life as ordained; formation houses and novitiate for the proper formation of the religious in their life in accord with the beatitudes; so the lay should have an institution that should properly form them in their secularity. The Church has been using the lay for the apostolate; so far, sad to say, it has not properly been giving them formation in their secularity. After all this too is their right as implied in Canon 213: “Christ’s faithful have the right to be assisted by their Pastors from the spiritual riches of the Church, especially by the word of God and the sacraments.” Christifidelis Laici” is more explicit on this need for formation of the lay. It says: “ In this dialogue between God who offers His gifts and the persons who is called to exercise responsibility there comes the possibility, indeed the necessity, of a total and ongoing formation of the lay faithful.” After having described Christian formation as ”a continual process in the individual of maturation in faith and a likening to Christ, according to the will of the Father, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit,” the synodal Fathers have clearly affirmed that the formation of the lay faithful must be placed among the priorities of a diocese. It ought to be so placed within the plan of pastoral action that the efforts of the whole community (clergy, lay faithful and religious) converge on the goal” (57).
4. Freedom in Secular Affairs. The lay members of Christ’s faithful are entitled to “that freedom in secular affairs which is common to all citizens” (Canon 227). In using this freedom they are also to safeguard the freedom of others; hence, in questions of opinion, they are not to propose their own view as the teaching of the Church.
5. Personal Formation. “Lay people have the duty and the right to acquire the knowledge of Christian teaching which is appropriate to each one’s capacity and condition, so that they may be able to live according to this teaching, to proclaim it and if necessary defend it, and may be capable of playing their part in the exercise of the apostolate” (Canon 229, § 1). This canon endows on the lay faithful the right to receive doctrinal instruction.
6. Higher Studies. “[Lay people] have the right to acquire that fuller knowledge of the sacred sciences which is taught in ecclesiastical universities or faculties or in institutes of religious sciences, attending lectures there and acquiring academic degrees” (Canon 229, § 2). Here the right of the lay faithful to receive doctrinal instruction is extended to the highest level.
7. Teaching the Sacred Sciences. Likewise, assuming the requisite suitability, “they are capable of receiving from the lawful ecclesiastical authority a mandate to teach the sacred sciences” (Canon 229, § 3). This too is the right of the lay to teach the sacred sciences when they are found suitable to do so.
8. Matrimonial Vocation and Children Education. “Those who are married are bound . . . to strive for the building up of the people of God through their marriage and family” (Canon 226, § 1). “Parents have the most serious obligation and the right to educate their children . . . in accordance with the teaching of the Church” (Canon 226, § 2). Here, the Christian spouses are duty bound to contribute to the building up of the people of God.
9. Experts or Advisor in councils. “Lay people who are found to be suitable are capable of being admitted by the sacred Pastors to those ecclesiastical offices and functions which, in accordance with the provisions of law, they can discharge” (Canon 228, § 1). Furthermore, “those who are outstanding in the requisite knowledge, prudence and integrity, are capable of being experts or advisors, even in councils in accordance with the law, in order to provide assistance to the Pastors of the Church” (Canon 228, § 2). This canon uses the word “suitable” (habiles) to point out that it does not deal with a right per se, but with capabilities.
10. Stable Ministry of Lector and Acolyte. “Lay men whose age and talents meet the requirements prescribed by the decree of the Bishops’ Conference, can be given the stable ministry of lector and acolyte, through the prescribed liturgical rite” (Canon 230). An important sentence, however, is added to the quoted canon, to wit: “ This canon, which uses the term “ministry” referred to the laity, contains also a distinction between laymen and laywomen, for these two stable ministries are given exclusively to lay men. An important phrase, however, is immediately added to the cited canon, to wit: “This conferral of ministry does not, however, give them a right to sustenance or remuneration from the Church” (ibid).
11. Temporal Assignments in Liturgical Actions. “Lay people can receive a temporary assignment to the role of lector in liturgical actions. Likewise, all lay people can exercise the roles of commentator, cantor or other such, in accordance with the law” (Canon 230, § 2).
12. Supplying certain Ministerial Functions. “Where the needs of the Church require and ministers are not available, lay people, even though they are not lectors or acolytes, can supply certain of their functions, that is, exercise the ministry of the word, preside over liturgical prayers, confer baptism and distribute Holy Communion, in accordance with the provisions of the law” (Canon 230, § 3).
13. Service of the Church not Strictly Ministerial. “Lay people are pledge to the special service of the Church, whether permanently or for a time, have a duty to acquire the appropriate formation which their role demands. . .” “They have the right to a worthy remuneration. . . Likewise, they have the right to have their insurance, social security and medical benefits duly safeguarded” (Canon 231, § 2). This canon refers to the laypeople who dedicate themselves exclusively to Church service or apostolic works, either permanently or for a fixed period of time.


From the foregoing, it becomes obvious that the Church wants to empower the lay faithful by helping them recognize the dignity of their status as Christ’s faithful. By doing so they can take pride of the fact that they are on the same level with the priests and the religious men and women, all called to the fullness of sanctity and to the building up of the Church. Second, it empowers them by helping them to readily accept their specific mission to be the leaven in the world, ordering the temporal affairs in accordance to the Gospel values. To build up Christian families, to engage in politics to influence it with Christian principles and values, to enter into the arena of mass media and communication bringing into it their Christian moral formation and well-formed conscience, these are the areas proper to the lay faithful.

Given the adequate doctrinal and spiritual formation and guidance, supported with the intense sacramental life, and granted the autonomy and right independence to responsibly pursue their role in the world, the lay faithful will be effectively empowered.

Then, they will not be contented to act as just mere lay ministers in the Church, or as mere cooperator in the governance of the ecclesial community, or as secularized versions of the religious men and women.

Empowered Christian lay men and women are to be seen as they really are, that is, Christ in the middle of the world.


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