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Is It Doctrinally Possible for Lay People
to Share in the Work of the Church?

From Laity, Church and World
by Yves Congar
Geoffrey Chapman, London


You know in advance that the answer to this question is Yes. In "Lay People in the Church" I have set out at length the traditional reasons that justify this answer, and I am not going over all that again; but I want briefly to emphasize two points which directly affect practice [of the Church]. They are: the different kinds of "word" the Church uses in her prophetical office; and the fact that in some of them the laity too are the "subject", i.e., the person responsible, a fact ground in the nature of the Church and the unsearchable laws of God's design for us.

i. Forms of "the word"

If "the word" were exclusively "dogma", doctrinal decisions to which we are bound to submit, the faithful would have only to hear and to obey. Dogma is necessary to ensure rightness of belief and that ecclesial oneness in the faith of which St. Paul writes. It falls solely to the bishops, who inherit the ministry of the Apostles, to ensure this ecclesial unity, by means of a properly dogmatic rule of faith; theirs are the corresponding gifts of grace, and they alone have authority to teach and "define" doctrine. Theological development in modern times, which has taken place in a somewhat juridical atmosphere of thought and in face of the denials made by the Protestant Reformation, has given predominant consideration to this very important aspect of the matter.

However, "defining" is but a second duty (though not secondary!) Of the prophetical office, one that is wholly relative to what is needed for the proper conservation of the sacred testimony. The first duty is to "keep the word" that lovely expression, which the Challoner-Douay translation of the Bible uses of our Lady, herself a type of Church: "Mary kept all these words pondering them in her heart." Faithful keeping of the word and bearing witness are the fundamental duty, and other things follow from it, even before the "defining" function; namely, the acts of teaching (didakhe) and of pastoral exhortation (parenesis or paraklesis), which recent writers distinguish one from the other.

ii. The laity also have a responsibility

Now the lay faithful collectively and each one personally to the extent that he is a living member of the whole, are also responsible for this conservation and this witnessing. At baptism, the faith is committed to them, as a "deposit" sealed by the Holy Spirit; they become responsible for it when they are given grace and power to be fideles, faithful. In former times this was expressed ceremonially in the course of preparation for baptism by the traditio symboli, when they were given the baptismal summary of the faith, and the redditio symboli, when each made personal profession of that faith.

Baptism finds its completion in confirmation. One of the essential effects of confirmation is that it makes the baptized person a witness to Jesus Christ in the world of men [and women]. [They] cease to be a child in Christ, living, as little children do, for themselves alone; [They] becomes a man and [woman] in Christ, with their own place in the world of men [and women] and with the mission and the grace to bear witness to the Lord in it, by the profession, or better, confession of the faith.

I am in full agreement with Father Karl Rahner that, in settling the condition proper to the laity, the decisive factor is that their Christian function is determined by their situation in the world: that is, by their natural commitment to the work of the world, which they do not give up in order to serve God's kingdom. They have to give glory to God, not by withholding themselves from that work, but precisely in it, and through it.

But it must not be forgotten . . . that the lay person, without leaving the lay state, is characterized as Christian by the mission and grace conferred at baptism and confirmation, as a member, that is, of the ecclesial community which is called to keep the word and confess it before men. Accordingly, the layperson not only receives a Christian mission in temporal things, but also a mission in the Church as ark, that he may help truly to keep the faith; a sign, that he may profess and confess the faith in the world and before men's [and women's] eyes.