In a recent commentary, Eric Sammons argues that dioceses are unnecessarily bloated, and that Catholic activity has been needlessly centralized in diocesan offices. The result, he argues, is that the cost of Catholic action is inflated while its quality is compromised, and bishops are distracted from their direct pastoral responsibilities as they attend to abstract political, economic, and social agendas that are really the concern of the laity.

Sammons’ commentary takes its point of departure from the current scandals facing the Church in this 2018 “Summer of Shame,” but it really isn’t about that issue, except to the extent that the growth of ecclesiastical bureaucracy, with its natural secularizing affect, has contributed to a culture in which the actions and inactions at the heart of the current scandals become both morally and technically possible.

So, let’s look more closely at the idea of entrusting the laity with more, as dioceses do less. It’s not actually a new idea.

I’ve always been amazed that the Second Vatican Council gets so much credit for encouraging lay initiative and moving the laity from the old role of silent, passive, obedient revenue sources to the new role of engaged coworkers in the building up of the kingdom. The problem with this narrative is that it’s completely false.  

In truth, Catholic laity were far more actively engaged in the work of the Church in the way proper to them as lay faithful before the Council than following it. They didn’t just “pay, pray, and obey,” as is so often said of them. They established newspapers, published books, engaged in political and social action, and founded hospitals.

The Knights of Columbus, for example, have been major players both in charitable action and in civil rights, championing racial equality in the United States since the 1920s, generations before Martin Luther King Jr. appeared on the scene. Diocesan priest Father Michael McGivney helped lay men in his New Haven parish focus their energies and consolidate their efforts as they sought to address the concrete needs of widows and orphans in their own community in the 1880s. Yet, the Knights were a lay organization and always have been. And their existence wasn’t exceptional in the time before Vatican II. On the contrary, it was the sort of thing Catholic laity did all the time.

Active laity can be found in the medieval period in the confraternities that contributed to Christian life by promoting pious practices and other works of the Church, and in the form of guilds by which professionals held one another morally accountable in the conduct of life and business.

Later, there came publishing. Book publishers Benziger Bros. and Sheed & Ward were established as Catholic lay enterprises. The Catholic newspaper The Wanderer, founded in 1867, is still published today. In similar vein, we may count the work done by individual Catholic laymen like Hilaire Beloc and G. K. Chesterton, who were more than vocal Catholic apologists but also social agents. G.K. Chesterton even published a weekly periodical dealing with the issues of his day, called G.K.’s Weekly.

The lay people who undertook these enterprises never questioned whether they had any share of ownership over the Church or any rights or obligations to behave as if they did. They knew very well what being a baptized Catholic meant.

In the 1930s, Dorothy Day began working tirelessly in the service of the poor, and to stem the tide of communism within the Catholic labor movement, promoting, instead, an idea that came to be known as “distributivism,” which involved enacting policies that would encourage the distribution of productive property to as many nuclear families as possible.  

Distributivism isn’t communism or socialism. It’s based on the idea that, no matter what we do, government can’t really, and in fact never does, remain completely neutral in economic matters, and that the way it levies taxes and imposes regulation and licensure has the effect of favoring some actors and disfavoring others. So, they held that, given this fact, whenever the government does act with respect to the economy, it should act in such a way as to allow as far as possible family-run, family-centered businesses.

Sadly, Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement and the labor movement in general have, since, largely been co-opted by the very forces these great Catholic heroes of the past had sought to resist. But we shouldn’t let that distract us from appreciating their actual contributions. 

One last example: In 1957, devout Catholic entertainer Danny Thomas helped found American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC) and in 1962, established St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, all to make good on a promise he made to St. Jude when he was a young man with a baby on the way. 

Once again, this all happened before Vatican II, at the hands of lay people, exercising ownership for the work of the Church as by right and obligation baptized Catholics ought to do. How many millions of people have been helped, directly and indirectly, by the work these great men and women did in the name of Jesus Christ and his Church?

It’s odd that, in the wake of Vatican II, much of this sort of activity has dried up in the Catholic world and been replaced by activity centralized within diocesan offices, governed by diocesan employees. The Fathers of the Council had even promulgated Apostolicam actuositatem (Decree on the apostolate of the laity) to officially endorse the very sort of action that had been underway at the hands of the laity for over a century. 

Yet, one wonders what ever became of the active, responsible Catholic laity, being Catholic out in the world and not just around the sanctuary of the parish Church or in a diocesan office?  

History teaches us that, day-to-day, the clergy only really need to administer the sacraments and preach the Gospel from the pulpit. The laity can do the rest.

Richard H. Bulzacchelli, S.T.D., is a lecturer in Theology/Associate at Catholic Studies Academy and a Senior Fellow with the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology.

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