Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Laity in the Church: The Call to Social Transformation

Some days ago, a good number of leaders met together to seriously discuss on the plight of the country and on what they as a group could do. It turned into an emotional meeting, triggering up not only bright ideas, but also heated passions of anger and deep frustrations. One of the discussants blurted out with a comment: “If the CBCP is ambivalent, nothing will happen to us… At least be like Cardinal Sin who was at the forefront of the fight that removed the dictator.” Another responded: “The CBCP is refraining from political actions; it’s only making judgment on the moral issue. If we have to hide behind the bishops to take action, we should be ashamed of ourselves.”

From the many insightful expositions and brilliant repartees, I specifically picked out these comments for they are intriguing in their ecclesiological import. They summarily disclosed the faith quality of our lay faithful, their confidence as active lay members of the Church.

To hold on to the belief that the clergy must always decide for the laity even in matters temporal is an inaccurate assessment of what the laity in the Church should be. It subtly suggests that the lay faithful, left to themselves, are not potent enough to undertake the call to social transformation; that they do not have the needed competence to institute reforms for justice and harmonious living to reign in the ecclesial community; that they always need to look up to the official nod of the hierarchy in 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, not sufficiently empowered 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 of the laity for social transformation have long been recognized 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. This was followed up by subsequent decrees and 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 law the lay faithful are not second-rate citizens.

Consequently, the lay are 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.

The Clergy and the Lay Faithful in the Church. The sacrament of baptism is the source of this dignity and power of the faithful. It puts a juridical stamp to the members of the Church, configuring them as members of the body of Christ, bonding them together as the People of God. Because of this, they are constituted as bona-fide constituents with the radical possession of freedom, submission and autonomy of the children of God, assigning to them specific duties and rights. To express this juridical reality of the baptized, Canon 204, avers: “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 God entrusted to the Church to fulfill in the world.”

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. The clerical state is characterized by a number of duties imposed by his ordination to serve the people of God in the person of Christ the head, 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 rights and obligations proper to them. These constitute his juridical status. Along the same vein, the laity must also have a character that is proper to them. This takes 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. It is within this context that the Second Vatican Council made this definition: “The laity are those members of the faithful who, by divine vocation, are destined to seek the kingdom of God by dealing with and ordering temporal things according to God’s will” (LG, 31). To them also belongs the freedom in secular matters within the ecclesiastical society. In other words the Church does not have competence over them in secular affairs. Hence the Code states: “To the lay members of Christ’s faithful belongs the right to have acknowledged as theirs that freedom in secular affairs which is common to all citizens. In using this freedom, however, they are to ensure that their actions are permeated with the spirit of the Gospel, and they are to heed the teaching of the Church proposed by the magisterium….” (Can. 227).

Empowerment of the Laity. In the Church attempts have not been wanting to empower the lay faithful, for them to own their specific powers over the temporal order and specific mission to engage in the social transformation of the world as its leaven. But, sad to say, they have been undertaken in areas that are not properly their own, 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 due emphasis.

To empower something means to understand thoroughly the nature of the thing, its personality, its distinctive trait, its uniqueness. To do otherwise is 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 many of 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 her.

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 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 so as 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 mere lay ministers in the Church, or as mere cooperator in the governance of the ecclesial community, or as secularized versions of religious men and women.

With heads up they will be seen more and more as empowered Christian lay men and women as they really are, that is, Christ in the middle of the world.


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