Chapter 4 of Lumen Gentium brings us to a presentation of the role of the laity - i.e., “all the faithful except those in holy orders [discussed at length in chapter 3] and those in the state of religious life [to be covered in detail later].” Like in previous posts about Vatican II documents, if you are not a Catholic, I would again encourage you to take a look at paragraph two of my post on Dei Verbum, where I propose an approach that might make reading the following more accessible.
The chapter on the laity starts with, and is run through by, repeated emphases on the unity and singularity of purpose of the whole Church, against the background of which any distinctions are to be read: “Everything that has been said [about] the People of God is intended for the laity, religious and clergy alike. [… The lay] faithful are by baptism made one body with Christ and are constituted among the People of God; they are in their own way made sharers in the priestly, prophetical, and kingly functions of Christ.” The specific aspect of the laity os that they “live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life […] They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven.” The key here to me is that the laity is not some sort of “other” or “miscellaneous” category, but that its members are “called there by God” - being a lay person can be a calling like being a member of the church’s hierarchy or of a religious order.
The equality of the People of God (i.e., laity, clergy and religious all together) is then stated very explicitly:
“[T]he chosen People of God is one: “one Lord, one faith, one baptism”; sharing a common dignity as members from their regeneration in Christ, having the same filial grace and the same vocation to perfection; possessing in common one salvation, one hope and one undivided charity. There is, therefore, in Christ and in the Church no inequality on the basis of race or nationality, social condition or sex, because “there is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all ‘one’ in Christ Jesus”.”Furthermore this equality of dignity extends not only across natural but also across spiritual categories: “And if by the will of Christ some are made teachers, pastors and dispensers of mysteries on behalf of others, yet all share a true equality with regard to the dignity and to the activity common to all the faithful for the building up of the Body of Christ.” A source for this equality can also be found in the mutual interdependence of the clergy and laity: “[P]astors and the other faithful are bound to each other by a mutual need. Pastors of the Church, following the example of the Lord, should minister to one another and to the other faithful. These in their turn should enthusiastically lend their joint assistance to their pastors and teachers.” This is further (and to my mind beautifully!) underlined as follows:
“Therefore, from divine choice the laity have Christ for their [brother] who though He is the Lord of all, came not to be served but to serve. They also have for their brothers those in the sacred ministry who by teaching, by sanctifying and by ruling with the authority of Christ feed the family of God so that the new commandment of charity may be fulfilled by all.”St. Augustine then puts the difference between his being a Christian and a bishop in particularly clear terms: “What I am for you terrifies me; what I am with you consoles me. For you I am a bishop; but with you I am a Christian. The former is a duty; the latter a grace. The former is a danger; the latter, salvation.” Again it is the saints, whose words illuminate and breathe a heightened sense of life into the Church’s formal teaching.
Next, Lumen Gentium elaborates on the apostolic and prophetic roles of the laity and there is a clear sense here even just from the language that this is a blueprint for the future (e.g., by many sentences having the form of “let the laity …”), rather than a re-statement of well-established teaching, as is the case in some of the earlier parts of this document.
The apostolic role of the laity (to which they are commissioned “[t]hrough their baptism and confirmation”) is a call “to [making] the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth.” The apostolate of the laity (i.e., it’s spreading of the Gospel) is not restricted only to such conditions where the hierarchy would be less effective or appropriate. Instead, it “can also be called in various ways to a more direct form of cooperation in the apostolate of the Hierarchy. This was the way certain men and women assisted Paul the Apostle in the Gospel. […] Further, they have the capacity to assume from the Hierarchy certain ecclesiastical functions.” The model here is very much one of co-operation rather than exclusive leadership by the hierarchy. This does not in any way diminish the leadership of the hierarchy, but, to my mind, it expresses a desire to reflect the emphasis on equality in the preceding paragraphs. It shows a desire for spreading of the Gospel in a way where the talents of all are put to good use.
The way the laity spread the Gospel, “by a living testimony as well as by the spoken word, takes on a specific quality and a special force in that it is carried out in the ordinary surroundings of the world. […] For all their works, prayers and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily occupations, their physical and mental relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life, if patiently borne—all these become “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”.” What strikes me as key here is that a lay person is called to follow Jesus 24/7 and that even when they rest, that is an opportunity to bear witness to God’s love for all. This is very explicitly the opposite of the unhealthy compartmentalization that can creep into anyone’s life, where their Christianity is manifest only in some contexts but not in all. Finally, the part on the laity’s apostolic role concludes with the profound statement that “the laity consecrate the world itself to God.”
Turning to the prophetic aspect, Lumen Gentium states that “Christ […] continually fulfills His prophetic office […] not only through the hierarchy who teach in His name and with His authority, but also through the laity whom He made His witnesses and to whom He gave understanding of the faith (sensu fidei).” Here I was immediately struck by the attribution of a rational and reflexive function to the laity, which again does not detract from the authority of the hierarchy, but which places the lay person in a position of intellectual engagement rather than blind obedience. This is again underlined by the exhortation to “let the laity devotedly strive to acquire a more profound grasp of revealed truth, and let them insistently beg of God the gift of wisdom.”
Then comes a bit of a surprise to me:
“In connection with the prophetic function is that state of life which is sanctified by a special sacrament […], namely, married and family life. […] In such a home husbands and wives find their proper vocation in being witnesses of the faith and love of Christ to one another and to their children. The Christian family loudly proclaims both the present virtues of the Kingdom of God and the hope of a blessed life to come. […] They must assist each other to live holier lives even in their daily occupations. In this way the world may be permeated by the spirit of Christ and it may more effectively fulfill its purpose in justice, charity and peace. The laity have the principal role in the overall fulfillment of this duty.”This places the sacrament of marriage in a position not only of a commitment of the spouses to each other and to their children - for their individual good, but also makes it a foretaste of things to come and a source from which Jesus’ love is to be brought to the whole world so that “justice, charity and peace” may be brought about. Such projection into the world has its challenges though and the laity is reminded that:
“[T]he faithful should learn how to distinguish carefully between those rights and duties which are theirs as members of the Church, and those which they have as members of human society. Let them strive to reconcile the two, remembering that in every temporal affair they must be guided by a Christian conscience, since even in secular business there is no human activity which can be withdrawn from God’s dominion.”The relationship of the laity and the hierarchy is then introduced as follows:
“The laity […] should openly reveal to [the hierarchy] their needs and desires with that freedom and confidence which is fitting for children of God and brothers in Christ. They are, by reason of the knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which they may enjoy, permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church.”This again underlines the need for active, rational participation of the laity in the life of the Church and even the obligation to escalate concerns to its leadership, but it also requires that “[t]he laity [… then] accept in Christian obedience decisions of their spiritual shepherds, since they are representatives of Christ as well as teachers and rulers in the Church.”
In summary, “[e]ach individual layman must stand before the world as a witness to the resurrection and life of the Lord Jesus and a symbol of the living God. All the laity as a community and each one according to his ability must nourish the world with spiritual fruits. They must diffuse in the world that spirit which animates the poor, the meek, the peace makers—whom the Lord in the Gospel proclaimed as blessed.”
As a lay person I found this part of Lumen Gentium particularly encouraging as it shows very clearly that in Vatican II the hierarchy of the Church (since all of these documents’ authors were part of it!) calls for greater participation by all members of the Church in its life. The hierarchy does not shirk away from its responsibilities (and I don’t believe it should), but it makes it clear that it desires dialogue among equals. Even though a bishop is placed at the head of his local church, he is the brother of all the faithful he leads and this brotherhood, pioneered by Jesus himself outranks any hierarchical distinctions. I know full well that this is often not what happens even today - 50 years after Vatical II, but I am pleased to see at least that this is the blueprint, even if the boat is still under construction.