The Lay Faithful in the Roman Catholic Church

A Brief Historical Survey

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

19 Pages

Free online reading


A. Introduction

B. Early Patristic Period

C. High Patristic Period
a. Emperor Constantine and the Church
b. The Emergence of the Term “Ordo”
c. Significant Contributions of Lay Persons to the Church

D. Medieval Period
a. Liturgical Arena
b. Disciplinary Arena
c. Church Leadership Role

E. Reformation and Tridentine Period

F. Modern Period

G. 1917 Code of Canon Law

H. Second Vatican Council

I. 1983 Code of Canon Law

J. Conclusion

A. Introduction

The word “laity “ or “lay” comes from the Greek term laikos which in turn, is derived from the word laos which means “people”. The term “lay” therefore, means “belonging to the people”. However, a long historical development affected the original meaning of the term “lay” especially in its use in the political and secular spheres. The term underwent some changes in meaning and thus acquired a meaning of opposition to religion or the term “sacred”. The term “lay” attracted an expression of attitude of separation and rejection. In general usage “lay”, as a word is applied to all those who are outside a given profession. Those who are not professional in a given profession are regarded as lay persons. Likewise in the Church, the word “laity/lay’ was gradually introduced and it was applied to Christians by some authors:

“The word laikos developed during the 3rd century B.C. to designate the difference between common people of a local community and its administrators. It is not found in the biblical text or in its translations. It is not found in Christian literature until the Letter of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, but even here it is applied to the Old Testament priestly hierarchy and not to the church. One must go to the 3rd century AD to find it applied to Christians by such authors as Clement of Rome, Origen and Tertullian.”[1]

In order to establish the identity of laity or lay faithful in the Church, it is important to examine how the Church defines who a lay person is. The Church simply sees the lay faithful as persons who are baptized into the Church, who have a secular quality and whose functions in the Church differ from those who are ordained.

The Church has a long history with regard to the laity and their activities in the Church. There are several historical factors that undergird the treatment and position of the lay people in the Church. From the very beginning of the Church, lay people participated in ecclesial life and contributed immensely to the mission of the Church. The author intends here not to give extensive historical exposition of the important roles of the laity but to highlight a representation of their active presence and the factors that affected their position in the Church through historical time. The author traces the history of the laity and their involvement as well as their position within ecclesial structures under various historical periods.

B. Early Patristic Period

The people who were in the company of Jesus started to consider themselves as a community only after the resurrection of Christ but in a very gradual manner. Christianity became more noticeable within the Jewish arena after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 AD. The separation of Christians from Judaism was a gradual breakup because the disciples of Jesus were still going to the synagogues after the resurrection of Christ. In other words, Christianity was practised within Judaism for a period of time. Then slowly, Christianity detached itself from the structures of Judaism and began to form its own structures.

During the first four centuries of Christianity, various ministries in the early Church became institutionalized and identification of certain major ministries in the Church gradually became a common thing in the Western and Eastern Church.

From the beginning of the third century and the period that followed, the use of the term kleros emerged. The term referred to an established group of Christian leaders (clergy) while those who did not belong to this group were being referred to as “laity”. Later on, these terms attracted theological import.[2]

It is not easy to say that by the year 325 AD, the ministries in the Church were solely reserved for the clergy or that those who were not involved in any ministry in the Church were referred to as laity. This is because during this period, Christian ministry was more extensive than the leadership offered by the clergy. From the early Patristic Period till the year 325 AD, one could not say that there was a monolithic structure to Christian leadership or to Christian ministry. Moreover, it is important to note that during the first two centuries of Christianity the term “clergy” was not used specifically to refer to any person who involved himself or herself in ministry or any activity in the Church. It was only at the beginning of the third century that the term was used to refer to specific ministry and ministers.

The term “laity” appeared for the first time in the writing of Clement of Rome. It also appeared in the writing of Clement of Alexandria as well as in that of Origen. It was only after the year 220 that the term “laity” is used more frequently. From the beginning of the third century, the two terms “clergy” and “laity” became suddenly significant terms in the Church and their usage became more common.[3]

Incidentally , it is possible to trace the involvement of lay persons in the liturgical functions of the Church (during the early Patristic Period) from the Didache and from the writings of Clement of Rome, Justin, Hippolytus, Tertullian, and Testament of our Lord and also from the Council of Elvira (306). It is evident from the above sources that the baptized lay persons played important liturgical roles in the Church.[4]

The laity, during the period under investigation, could baptize the catechumens when they were in danger of death and no Church leader was present. According to Justin, the baptized Christians (not the leaders) were those who brought the gifts to the table of the Lord.[5] He also stated in his writing that it was the baptized Christians who said “Amen” to the prayers offered by the Christian leader.[6] According to Clement of Alexandria the new people who gathered in worship was also seen as the laos. At liturgical celebrations, the baptized took active part and they were differentiated from the catechumens who were not the same as the baptized. Thus, they (catechumens) were dismissed after the homily and prayers. Later, the liturgical role of the baptized lay persons in the Church became woefully diminished especially during the fourth and the fifth centuries.

C. High Patristic Period

During the Patristic Period in the history of the Church, few lay persons seemed to have been positioned in some significant positions within the ecclesial structures. It should be stated that those few lay persons who became important figures within the Church structures did not assume important positions in the Church because of the fact that they were lay persons. It was not their lay state that influenced in any way their significant involvement within the ecclesial structures of the time. There were certain factors which influenced that. Among the factors which influenced positioning of some lay person during high patristic period were the following:

1. Those few men who had great influence in the Church during this period played extensive roles of power within the Church because of their connection to government.
2. Their social standing remained a factor that underlined their significant position in the Church. Their conspicuous wealth paved a smooth way for them to assume high positions within the ecclesial structures.
3. Those influential lay persons were highly educated in the sciences and thus were highly regarded in the Church of the time.

a. Emperor Constantine and the Church

By the end of the year 324 AD, Constantine was acknowledged as the sole ruler of the entire Greco-Roman empire and was given the title “Chosen One of God” because he had shown a favorable preference for the Christians and their religion. As a result, it created a good relationship between the Christians and the government of the entire empire. However, there was no established agreement regarding Church-government relationship. From 324 to 731 AD, there was a trend toward a strong and mutual relationship between Church and government.

The Church became an imperial Church with privileged status based on toleration. This took place under Theodosius and there emerged as a result a new dimension of competition between the significant persons of the leadership of the empire and the leaders of the Church. The ecclesiastical leaders were making moves to press the temporal leadership to suppress Greco-Roman religious practices whose practices anti-Christian yet were widely observed within the empire.

From the time of Constantine and onwards, there was a fundamental option for positive relationship on the side of the Church and that of the empire, which in no small measure resulted into competition. This period of history of the Church, between 324 AD and 731 AD paved for understanding to the positioning of the lay persons in the Church.

b. The Emergence of the Term “Ordo”

A technical term ordo emerged and was used in the Church during pre-Constantine period. This term referred to the established ecclesiastical order to which the clerics belonged. As a result of that, negative aspect of the laity reared its ugly head. During Constantine period, this idea of clerical order was fully established in the Church and was introduced into the social and political structures of the Greco-Roman empire. With its introduction into the socio-political arena, the idea of clerical order gradually influenced negatively the position of the laity within both ecclesial structures and the socio- economic structures of the empire. Hence, the status of the clerics became elevated while the position of the laity in the Church became de-valued.[7]

In the Frankish Church, the relationship between the Church and government became a matter of regnum et sacerdotium. The relationship of government with the Church became a relationship with the clerics of the Christian community. During the Frankish period, the lay person in the Western Church was not considered as important figure in this regnum et sacerdotium struggle and therefore was further pushed to the background and even de-positioned.[8] The Church-government relationship favored the ranking leaders of the Church, the clerics, who reserved great prestige for themselves. As a consequence, the ordinary non-ordained persons in the Church lost prestige.

c. Significant Contributions of Lay Persons to the Church

From 324 AD to 731 AD, despite the fact that the laity was gradually reduced to a low and insignificant position in the Church, there were few lay persons who gained important positions within the ecclesial structures. Example of some of the lay persons who were in privileged position in the Church at the time was the category of lay persons in the North African Church referred to as seniores laici. [9] The presence of these lay persons in that category in the North African Church was important and was greatly felt at the time. These seniores laici exercised administrative and disciplinary functions in the North African Church. They cooperated with the bishop in the administration of temporal goods of the Church. Some of them also worked (seemingly) as judicial functionaries. Their presence in the Church was an indication of the fact that there was a kind of new distinction between the ordinary lay people in the Church who had no important position and these seniores laici who had privileged position and ecclesiastical offices. This category of lay persons in the North African Church continued to play important ecclesial roles throughout the first part of the high Patristic period.

The seniores laici had privileged position because of their high social status as well as their high educational backgrounds. There is no historical record that can testify that these privileged lay persons made some attempt to claim a permanent position of respect for themselves. It is historically evident that their presence gradually faded away and finally disappeared from the North African Church, probably due to heavy clericalization of the ecclesial structures including the positions held by the seniores laici.

During this period, few privileged lay persons gained powerful positions in government and consequently some of them also assumed significant positions in the Church. There were lay men who were given curial position in the Episcopal offices, especially in the curiae of the bishops of Rome, Alexandria, Constantinople, Milan and Antioch.

There was a presence of an office in the African Church called Defensores ecclesiae which literally means the “Defenders of the Church.” This group made its appearance in the African Church around the year 400 AD and its members were mostly lay lawyers and scholars. They functioned as advocates in the socio-political arena for the needs of the Christians. The presence of the Defensores ecclesiae was initiated by the request of the imperial court to cater for the legal needs of Christians. However, the destruction of the African Churches by the Vandals brought to an end the function of Defensores ecclesiae in the African Church. Nevertheless, they continued to function in the Roman Church but were later replaced with monks and clerics by Gregory the Great.[10]

Some lay persons (men and women) who were affluent contributed to the well-being of the Church in financial and material terms. In most cases, the wealth of these men and women made it possible for them to be in privileged positions within Church communities. For example, Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother made donations to shrines in Palestine.[11] Basil the Great wrote that many lay persons bequeathed several money and assets to the Church.[12]

One can also speak about those lay people who had high educational background and played great roles in the Church, particularly in the area of theology. For example, Didymus the Blind (313-398) became one of the important lay lecturers in the catechetical school at Alexandria. He was a teacher of both Jerome and Rufinus. He was consulted by both Anthony, the Hermit and Palladius. Another lay person who was a sophist called Asterius was granted the opportunity to preach in Syrian Churches between 331 and 335. He was also chosen to attend synods of bishops, even though there was a clear-cut prohibition against that.[13] Synesuis received episcopal ordination when he was lay person in the year 409 AD. Prior to his Episcopal ordination he was a lay theologian. His election as a bishop was influenced by his prominence in the Church.[14]

There are many examples of lay men and women who played varying roles within the Church structures. Most of the instances of such lay involvement were due to the privileged governmental positions those lay persons had, while only a few cases were due to individual reasons.[15]

During this period, the status of the emperor also attracted great importance. This started especially from the time of Constantine. There seemed to be a kind of competition between the emperor and the hierarchy of the Church. In addition, there was a group of lay people who distinguished themselves from other lay persons in the Church because of their high educational status, their involvement in government as well as the wealth of their families. These “special” lay persons were important in their various Christian communities.

In the attempt to establish legitimacy to various Sees in the Church, Church leaders placed much emphasis on apostolic succession which was an idea that developed strongly in the late second century AD and onwards. The major bishops’ office or patriarchs’ office was described as “apostolic”. Moreover, other theological positions were also created during the period. At a later date, apostolic succession was gradually connected to a ‘divine institution” theory.[16] This, however, widened the gap between the lay and the clerics in the Church.

D. Medieval Period

The beginning of the Medieval Period marks the end of the Patristic Period though it is not easy to determine exactly the point in time Patristic period ended. During the later part of Medieval period, lay people had a great and active control over many crucial Church-related affairs.

There was a gradual move during this period to position the emperor/king to a sacramental status in the Church. This led to finding a theological and sacramental basis or justification of this positioning of the king and later the emperor. This move triggered a contrary process which intended to remove the theological and sacramental justification of the positioning of the king (or the emperor) and to reduce his position to lay state.

Another move against the positioning of the king/emperor came from the bishops who asserted the clerical dominance over all the sectors of society. This also sparked off the controversy of “lay investiture” and resulted into over-clericalism in the Church. The same effects of over-clericalism made in-road into the monastic communities to the extent that monastic life became dominantly a clerical preserve. As a result, more and more monks were ordained so that the non-ordained monks became less important in the monasteries.

It is noteworthy to mention here that the ordinary lay persons in the Church were very much deprived of educational opportunities. Education, especially in the Western Church, was reserved for certain clerics or monks and nuns and to few well-positioned imperial aristocratic individuals. Thus illiteracy was created among the lay majority. In the west, for example Latin became the sole medium of teaching and the lay people who were ignorant of it (Latin) were equally deprived of Christian literacy.

Gradually, the laity became people without education and therefore became powerless. Such a group lacked leaders and they could not engage in any debate that could favor their positioning in the Church. As a result, the uneducated lay persons became passive hearers and spectators in the Church.

It was during high Medieval period as well as Reformative period that the laity began to acquire education and they revolted with the help of their educated leaders. In that regard, it can be said that education of the lay people was the main reason for the positioning of the lay persons in the Church.

The above mentioned factors in a great measure rendered the ordinary lay member of the Church less important in the Church as well as in socio-political world. The Church became hierarchically structured in such a way that the lay faithful had no place of importance in it. The center of this hierarchical society was regnum and sacerdotium [17] However, the sacerdotium began to question the divine source or divine institution of the kingship i.e. regnum. Eventually, sacerdotium also began to regard itself as properly speaking the only institution which has its source in the divine. Therefore, sacerdotium began to see itself over and above the regnum and even as the source of regnum. This gradually developed into a struggle between the kingship and the papacy. This struggle also affected the position of the laity in the Church negatively.[18]

a. Liturgical Arena

In the liturgical arena, the lay persons who were distinct from the monks and the clerics were in a gradual manner removed or excluded from participating actively in the liturgical celebrations of the Church. Even teaching of catechism before baptism, which was an activity for the ordinary lay person in the Church, was taken over by the clerics. The anointing of the sick and marriage also became mandatorily ministry of the clergy. Furthermore, the antiphonal parts of the celebration of the Eucharist became parts taken over by the monks and the clerics. The liturgy became a sole clerical and monastic function and the lay persons became the observers and listeners during liturgical celebrations.

In addition, the liturgy became less understandable for the ordinary lay person since Latin became the common language of the liturgy. Another factor that hindered the ordinary lay persons to intelligibly grasp the meaning of the liturgy during this period was the lack of devotional literature in vernacular languages. This lack consequently contributed to the spiritual impoverishment of the lay people in Church at the time.

b. Disciplinary Arena

As far as the discipline of the Church was concerned, the role of the laity in this arena was non-existent. The lay persons could not exert any influence in the discipline of the Church, rather the clerics took over the entire role in the disciplinary aspect of ecclesiastical life. Decision-making became the sole responsibility of the clerics. Only an insignificant number of royal personalities continued to share in some measure in ecclesiastical decision. The laity was reduced to subordinate position; the lay persons became passive listeners and followers.

c. Church Leadership Role

Only the wealthy and noble lay persons of the time were allowed to have a share in ecclesiastical leadership. They had a share in Church leadership not because of their lay state but because of the political powers they wielded within the socio- ecclesial structure.

The deprivation of the laity of ecclesiastical leadership role provoked a reaction from the side of the laity. The laity revolted in order to regain a rightful and deliberate voice within the Church. However, the efforts made by the laity to regain a rightful and deliberate voice were overthrown and the channels that could aid these efforts of the laity were removed and thus non-existent. All doors were closed to lay involvement in the Church leadership. Even the non-ordained regal influence was questioned by the clergy and was gradually kicked away from Church leadership in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Moreover, lack of education on the part of the laity also deprived them of the opportunities to participate actively in both political and ecclesiastical life. In this case, the status of the laity in the West, by the year 1000 AD was not a promising one. The laity was excluded in taking part in decision-making within socio-political and ecclesiastical affairs.

By the year 1000 AD, there were favorable moves to position the lay persons in the Western Church. Between 1000 AD and 1900 AD, intellectual, political and economic factors among others influenced and played a great role in empowering the ordinary lay persons in the Church. During this period, various reforms were initiated in which all levels of society were involved and it was an indication of the fact that people of all levels of society were dissatisfied with the way Christian life and discipleship was presented. The society was yearning for gospel discipleship.

However, the reform of Pope Gregory VII affected in a major manner the repositioning of the ordinary lay persons. The Gregorian reform marginalized the laity with regard to conferment of ecclesiastical offices. The reform produced a counter-movement to the assertion of the role of the laity in ecclesiastical structures. This reform sought to emphasize importance of the papacy and clerical position in ecclesiastical offices and in so doing excluded the laity.

E. Reformation and Tridentine Period

During the sixteenth century, there were several reformations with different characteristics. The Church became fractured. The issue regarding the lay person in the Church was one of the factors that fomented these reformations. The Protestant reformers questioned and criticized the leadership of the Church mostly on the basis of discipleship, absolute gratuity of God’s grace, justification and complete adequacy of the work of Christ among others.[19]

The Council of Trent (1545-1563) was particularly concerned about any issue regarding the presence of the laity and their activities or role in the Church. However, the Council, apart from specific doctrinal issues it dealt with, tackled also issues bordering on finding ways to strengthen the members of the Roman Catholic Church, whose majority was the lay members. The aim of the Council was for the good of the entire Church. The pastoral concern of the Council of Trent indirectly concerned the non-ordained persons since good pastors could give better pastoral attention to the laity in order to make them good disciples of Christ. In this sense, the Tridentine interest was to bring about reform of the clergy and the laity.

Some of the non-clerical members of the Church were present at the council and it was regarded as the total participation of the members of the Church at an ecumenical council, though there were some initial moves to exclude lay persons from taking part.

One significant influence that the Council of Trent left in the life of the Church was its emphasis on the study and the use of the Bible. Trent considered clearly the Bible more central to the Christian life and eventually, this Tridentine emphasis influenced the repositioning of the laity in the Church. However, the emphasis on centrality of the Bible/Scriptures in the Roman Catholic Church life received deadly blows from clerical quarters. The lay persons were seen as disqualified to make good use of Scriptures since they lacked adequate education. Some of the Council Fathers at Trent argued that the lay persons should have nothing to do with Biblical matters because they could not understand the true meaning of the Scriptures with their little education. Nonetheless, vernacular versions of the Bible were already being written at the time of Trent and a good number of lay faithful were reading the Scriptures.[20] This Biblical renewal led some systematic theologians to investigate Christology and the meaning of the Church. As a consequence, the role of the laity became central to the understanding of the Church.

With regard to decrees on the sacraments, Trent succeeded to enhance clerical control over the celebration of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. In other words, the laity became passive recipients of the sacraments from the ordained. Christian spirituality became centralized in the proper clerical celebration of each sacrament and the proper lay reception of each sacrament.[21]

F. Modern Period

There were many radical reforms and cultural changes during this period. These changes were partially influenced by the way the Roman Catholic Church viewed the clergy-laity issue. Many lay men and women were instrumental in the vast cultural and educational changes. The hierarchical and theological leadership could not understand these changes. The lack of understanding on the part of the Church hierarchy was deepened with the onset of the American Revolution (1776) and French Revolution (1789).

During this period of revolutions, radical changes began to be felt in the Western Church. Issues bordering on social justice and personal freedom were raised. The Church leadership found itself reacting vigorously against strong and bitter anti- clericalism which accompanied the European forms of these revolutions.[22] The Church leadership responded with anti- laicism.

New elements of the meaning of “laity” were found in these revolutions. In the late twentieth century, the new elements of the meaning of “laity” had a strong impart on the role of the lay persons in the Western Church. There was much emphasis on the inalienable rights of the individual and the issue of discipleship received renewed attention.

The Church leadership became very defensive and it made attempts to kick against any anti- clerical move in the Church. There was also a rise of lay movements during this period and as such, the struggle between the lay leadership and the clerical dominance heightened. Catholic lay movements were strongly formed. Such movements were both local and international and they were regarded as an essential part of the Church. The members of these groups which were lay people focused their attention on gospel discipleship. Hence, there was some anti-hierarchical feeling. Moreover, there was a development of a lay group “Catholic Action” whose goal was sharing in the apostolate of the hierarchy by lay people. As a result the Church hierarchy took measures to submit these movements to hierarchical control as well, to supervise their activities in the Church.

G. 1917 Code of Canon Law

There is no explicit definition of a lay person in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, though the Code has its understanding of a lay person. However, the activities of the lay persons in the Church are understood in contrast to the clerical functions and roles in the Church. The identity of the roles and functions of the lay persons is given only in reference to that of the clergy.

Canon 87[23] of the 1917 Code defines a person in the Church by stating that

“by baptism a human person becomes a person in the Church of Christ, with all the rights and duties of a Christian, unless as far as rights are concerned there is some obstacle impeding the bond of communion with the Church, or a censure inflicted by the Church”

In this canon (c. 87 of 1917 Code), the predominant ecclesiology and theology of the time is reflected. The canon gives an ontological definition of a ‘person’ in the Church. Through baptism one becomes a person in the Church and this fundamental personality in the Church has an indelible character. This character received through baptism is the ontological incorporation of a person into the Church. Once acquired a ‘personhood’ in the Church, he or she also, in a juridical sense, is a subject of rights and duties which are proper to baptized Christians.[24] However, despite the fact that canon 83 gives a definition of a person in the Church, the canon does not make any mention of the lay state or of the difference between laity and clerics.

Canon 107[25] of the 1917 Code also provides to some extent an explicit understanding of a person in the Church. By divine institution, there are in the Church clergy distinct from laity, although not all degrees of clerics are of divine institution. Both clerics and laity may be religious.

Canon 107 canon stands out as a canon in the 1917 Code that clearly deals with clerics. It concerns the clergy and the ordering of the hierarchy, not significantly with what concerns the lay person. It can be mentioned here that canon 107 with regard to its context, makes a distinction between laity and clerics but this distinction is rather a matter of internal ecclesial ordering. Further examination of canon 107 reveals that the Church comprises of unequal members. It is regarded as an unequal society and it is divinely instituted as such. Secondly, it is clear from the canon (c. 107) that as regards distinction of power in the Church, the Church determines it between the two distinct groups of members- clerics and laity.

It is not difficult to tell on the basis of the distinction between the two groups (clerics and laity) that the lay people lack participation or rather, are deprived of participation in the jurisdiction and they are subjects to jurisdiction and orders. The clerics on the other hand, having received jurisdiction and orders, looked on the laity as passive subjects.[26]

Canons 682[27] and 683[28] of the 1917 Code strengthen the distinction that is pointed out in Canon 107, between the clergy and the laity and thus present more profoundly the passivity of the lay persons. Furthermore, canon 958[29] of the 1917 Code provides another aspect of distinction between the clergy and the laity by pointing out the place and the role that the sacrament of orders allot to the clerics, making them members who are set apart by divine institution.

H. Second Vatican Council

The period between the Modern Age and Vatican Council II was marked with wars in many parts of the globe as well as economic instability, social unrest, hunger, and technological advancements among others. The Church leadership at the time was somehow divided on the re-establishing the past ecclesial structure and ethos and making the Church viable and meaningful in a post-modern world.

Vatican Council II’s ecclesiology depicts all members of the Church as People of God. It focuses on the common matrix, the fundamental equality and dignity of each baptized person in the Church. When the Council uses the term “People of God” in its document, especially in Lumen Gentium,[30] it did not introduce a distinction between the non-ordained and the ordained, but referred to all as Body of Christ.

The term Christifideles or Christ’s faithful is also used to indicate the commonality that exists among all disciples of Christ. This term became a preferred term in the 1983 Code of Canon Law to refer to the common discipleship of all the followers of Jesus Christ, whether lay or cleric.[31] All the baptized-confirmed-Eucharistic persons are called to share in the three-fold office of Christ and they exercise these offices in and through the specific gifts/graces God grants to each person. Another designation of the members of the Church which focuses on fundamental equality and dignity of all baptized is the priesthood of all believers (baptismal priesthood) in which all the baptized share. By the virtue of their baptism, all baptized-confirmed- Eucharistic persons participate in the three-fold mission of Christ.

Vatican Council II used other terms to refer to the members of the Church. It refers to the members of the Church as “the baptized”, “mystical body of Christ” and “members of the kingdom of God”. Apart from the terms mentioned above, there are some more preferable ones which indicate the fundamental equality of all the members of the Church, such as the “People of God” and the notion of the priesthood of all Christ’s faithful. These terms aided the favorable repositioning of the laity in the Church and their presence and role in the Church have been promoted positively so that they can assume their proper place and carry out their proper roles within the Church structures.

Vatican Council II and post-Vatican Council II era is marked with emphasis on the role of the baptized-Eucharistic Catholics. There is a stronger interest in the lay faithful and the role they play in the Church. The official Church leadership at Vatican II deliberately and officially initiated a renewed interest in the laity and their ministry.

Furthermore, the Vatican Council II’s definition of the laity is based on its ecclesiology. Among the images of the Church used by Vatican Council II that favors the positive definition of the laity is the image of the Church as the People of God. The Church is reflected upon as the people of God, as a priestly and sacramental community. The lay persons are part of those who belong to the people of God and who do not have functions and ministries related to the sacrament of orders and for that matter do not belong to the clergy.[32]

Vatican Council II gives a new understanding of who a lay person is in the Church. The newness of this understanding is shown in its contribution which concerns the development of the functional distribution which does not conflict with the 1917 Code of Canon Law. Secondly, the development of the concept of Christifideles in a great measure provides a positive image of the meaning of baptismal person. The concept of Christifideles includes all members of the Church, be they lay or clerics.

It is important to understand that no one is baptized into the Church as a cleric or as a lay person. The fourth chapter of the document Lumen Gentium [33] emphasizes the importance of the baptismal character of the lay person in the Church. The dignity of the lay Christian lies in his or her baptism. All baptized persons became members of the Christ’s faithful. No one who is baptized is baptized into a lay state and then some later became cleric or religious. There is nothing like that. To be a lay, cleric or religious is an expression of different states and conditions of life that the individual members assume in their response to the baptismal call to grow in holiness.

When one talks about the ‘baptized’, one talks about all the Christ’s faithful or all the members of the Church, because it is by virtue of baptism or reception into the Church that one becomes a member of the Church. Vatican Council II acknowledges the equality of dignity and of action which is directed to the building up of the Body of Christ and doing of the mission of Christ in the world. Distinction between the laity and the clerics does not in any way disrupt the unity of the Body of Christ.[34] Baptism is the common denominator of all disciples of Christ and for that matter all the members of the Church, lay and clerics or religious are one in vocation and equal in dignity[35]

Lumen Gentium gives us a typological description of who lay person is in the Church. It defines the laity as follows:

Laity is here understood to mean all the faithful except those in holy orders and those in the state of religious life specially approved by the Church. These 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; and they carry out for their own part the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world.[36]

One cannot say that he finds a definition but rather a typological description of the laity. It is evident from the description one finds in Lumen Gentium no. 31 that the description offered, though favors the laity is rather a negative one, because the definition is given in opposition of the clergy and religious. The laity being regarded are those who are not ordained and not members of the religious institutes.

I. 1983 Code of Canon Law

The 1983 Code’s understanding of the Church is connected to the understanding of Christifideles and also the understanding of the term “laity” in the Vatican Council II document Lumen Gentium.[37] The Code made use of the ecclesiology of Vatican Council II. With regard to dealing with the laity, the Code draws from two sources; it draws upon the 1917 Code because there are references in the Code which are parallel to the 1917 Code. For example, canon 87 of the 1917 Code reflects in canon 96 of the 1983 Code. In these two parallel canons, we have the concept of personhood in the Church: reception of personhood through baptism and acquisition of juridical rights and duties.[38]

The 1983 Code of Canon Law deals with the members of the Church in Book II under the title “People of God”. It gives a common matrix of all the members of the Church when it describes them in canon 204 that Christ’s faithful are those who are incorporated in Christ through the sacrament of baptism and they are constituted the people of God.

Canon 207§1 of the 1983 Code gives a definition or rather a typological description of the laity. “By divine institution, among Christ’s faithful there are in the Church sacred ministers, who in law are also called clerics, the others are called lay people”.[39] This calls to mind the fact that though all the Christ’s faithful or the people of God are equal as far as membership in the Church is concerned (and have the same dignity), there are some distinctions among them based on functionality. Apart from the laity, there are the clerics and the religious who are drawn from both groups- clerics and laity.

The 1983 Code spells out the obligations and rights of all Christ’s faithful in Book II, Title I and separately deals with the obligations and rights of the laity in Title II of the same Book II. Therefore, apart from the duties and rights of all Christ’s faithful, the lay faithful have their particular duties and rights that correspond to their lay state. Canons 224 - 231 deal specifically with the obligations and rights of the laity.

The enumeration of duties and the rights of the lay faithful is a pointer to the fact that the lay people in the Church are not passive members but are all called to share actively in the mission of the Church according to their respective condition.

J. Conclusion

The history of the lay faithful and their activities in the Church over the years shows that the lay person’s status and role underwent negative treatment. However, the shift in the understanding of lay people in the Church has favored lay participation in the life and mission of the Church, the Vatican Council II, as legally expressed in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, has opened the avenue for the lay faithful in the Church to share in the ministry of the Church. Lay persons who are suitable can now be admitted to exercise certain ecclesiastical offices and functions.

[1] E.D. Lavender, “Origins of lay/Clerical Terminology”, Theology Digest 36: 2 (Summer, 1989), p 120; L. Longobardo, “II laicato nella chiesa antica”, Asprenas: Rivista di Science Teologiche 34:2 (June, 1987) pp. 132-143.

[2] Cfr. K.B. Osborne, “Lay Ministry in the Roman Catholic Church: Its History and Theology”, Paulist Press, New York 1993, p 120.

[3] Cfr. E.D. Lavender, op. cit.; L. Longobardo, “II laicato nella chiesa antica”, Asprenas: Rivista di science Teologiche 34:2 (June, 1987) pp. 132-143.

[4] Cfr. K. Osborne,, op. cit. p.157.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Cfr. K. Osborne, op. cit., p. 171


[9] Cfr. K. Osborne, op. cit. p. 184; W.H.C. Frend, “The seniors Laici and the Origins of the Church in North Africa”, in Journnal of Theological Studies, 12 (1961), pp. 280-284. ; P. Canon, “Les ‘seniores laici’ de l’Eglise africain , in Revue international des Droits de l’Antiquite, 6 (1951), pp 7-22.

[10] Cfr. K. Osborne, op.cit, p. 187

[11] Ibid. p.192.

[12] Ibid.; Basil the Great, In divites, 7.39. PG. 35,880.

[13] Cfr. K. Osborne, Ibid, p.193.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, p.190.

[16] Cfr. K. Osborne, op.cit., p. 197

[17] The king and his entourage form the “regnum” and the Pope or the bishops and his entourage formed the “sacerdotium”. Those outside these circles were relegated to the background in all sectors of Church life as well as socio-political arena. The kingship and the papacy/episcopacy were seen as divinely instituted.

[18] Cfr. K. Osborne, op.cit., p.. 231

[19] Cfr. K. Osborne, op.cit., p. 394.

[20] Cfr. K. Osborne, op.cit. p. 440.

[21] Ibid, p.441.

[22] Ibid. p.463.

[23] Baptismate homo constituitur in Ecelesia Christi persona cum omnibus christianorum iuribus et officiis, nisi, ad iura quod attinet, obstet obex, ecclesiasticae communionis vinculum impediens, vel lata ab Ecclesia censura.

[24] Cfr. A. Prew-Winter, “Who is a Lay Person?” in The Jurist, Vol. XLVII, 1987. p 52.

[25] Ex divina institutione sunt in Ecclesia clerici a laicis distincti, licet non omnes clerici sint divinae institutionis; utrique autem possunt esse religiosi.

[26] Cfr. A. Prew-Winter, op.cit, p 53.

[27] Canon 682. Laici ius habent recipiendi a clero, ad normam ecclesiasticae disciplinae, spiritualia bona et potissimum adiumenta ad salutem necessaria.

[28] Canon 683. Non licet laicis habitum clericalem deferre, nisi agatur vel de Seminariorum alumnis aliisque adspirantibus ad ordines de quibus in can. 972, §2, vel de laicis, servitio ecclesiae legitime addictis, dum intra eandem ecclesiam sunt aut extra ipsam in aliquo ministerio ecclesiastico partem habent.

[29] Canon 658 §1. Ad monitionem faciendam necesse est ut aut delictum sit notorium aut de eodem constet ex rei confessione extraiudiciali vel ex aliis sufficientibus probationibus quas praevia inquisitio suppeditaverit.

§2. In inquisitione peragenda serventur, congrua congruis referendo, praescripta can. 1939 seqq.

[29] Cfr. Lumen Gentium 11

[30] Cfr. Lumen Gentium 11

[31] c. 204.

[32] Cfr. W. Zauner, “Laity and priest- One Church” in TD 36: 2 Summer, 1989, p. 129

[33] Dogmatic Constitution, Lumen Gentium, 21-XI-1964, AAS 57 (1965) 5-75

[34] Cfr. S. Holland, “Equality, Dignity and Rights of the laity” in The Jurist 47, 1987, 103-128, p. 115.

[35] Cfr. K. B. Osborne, “The Meaning of Lay, Laity and Lay Ministry” in TD 36:2 Summer, 1989, p. 113.

[36] Cfr. Lumen Gentium, 31.

[37] Ibid

[38] Cfr.. A. Prew-Winter, op.cit., p 62

[39] Lumen Gentium, .9

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The Lay Faithful in the Roman Catholic Church
A Brief Historical Survey
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Ignatius Ayivor (Author), 2010, The Lay Faithful in the Roman Catholic Church, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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